The Discovery and Prehistory of Soap

A historical perspective and banausic interpretation

R W Hedge C.Eng., M.I.Chem.E., B.Sc.(Eng)., A.C.G.I.


This study explores the historic, ethnographic and purely technical aspects of the background to the discovery of soap. The historic record is clouded by the difficulty of differentiating between any particular "cleansing" material and soap in particular.

The ethnographic record makes it clear that cleansing of cloth and garments is commonplace, using a variety of techniques including most commonly clays, wood ash, "dusts" and soapy plants. It is obscure as to when and whether soap, per se, was brought into being for this purpose alone.

The historic record suggests that "manufactured" soap was almost certainly first used for cloth and garments and not for personal hygiene, which must be regarded as a "modern" practice.

The preparation and hence discovery of soap requires the coincidence of three materials, combined together in relatively exact proportions, while coexisting for a "long" time. It is argued this is of low probability, even though various circumstances are identified where such chance coincidence could exist.

Some simple experiments are outlined, exploring the sort of observations that might have been available to earlier non-technological peoples but with a lot of practical, artisanal (banausic) skills in everyday survival. These skills should not be underestimated and examples are given showing their "superiority" compared with even quite recent "scientific technology". Socio-economic considerations make it likely, in view of the avowed technical barriers to the discovery of soap, that the time and "specialisation" needed to realise the preparation of soap could only exist in larger, more specialised, wealthier communities. It is no wonder therefore that there is no real evidence that the Iron Age British tribes had recourse to such a product, though there are claims that Celts, presumably their European counterparts, had recourse to such a product.

It is postulated that the discovery of lye, a fairly likely matter, was the true route to the first evolution of soap.


This treatise is intended to review the historic information pointing to the origin of the many and several cleansing materials which ultimately led to the production of the refined bar of soap used by modern people for personal hygiene. It will be shown that the use of soap or soap-like substances for personal hygiene is relatively recent, so that other activities must have provided the fount from which the key concepts arose. A limited number of experiments have been undertaken, seeking to explore what might have been observed by people without any of the modern comprehension of chemical procedures. These experiments will hopefully provide a platform for future students of the topic.

While some background to the origins of soap can be found, it is not a substance which has seemingly excited much scholarship. A recent secondary source (Maine 1995) gives the earliest claims for known historic use of soap.

"The first known written mention of soap was on Sumerian clay tablets dating about 2500 BC. They were found in the area of the Tigris and Euphrates river. The tablets spoke of the use of soap in the washing of wool. Another Sumerian tablet, dating 2200 BC, describes a `soap' [this author's `..'] formulation of water, alkali and cassia oil. The Ebers Papyrus, a medical document from about 1500 BC, shows evidence that Egyptians bathed regularly and that they combined animal and vegetable oils with alkaline salts to create a soap-like (sic) substance for washing. (Maine 1995)"

Pliny the Elder reports the Phoenicians as preparing it from goat's tallow and wood ash in 600 BC. A bible reference of the same age, to soap, may be misleading and reflect the translator's expectation at the time of King James, as the Hebrew word in question, Borith, properly means any substance which cleanses; although Tooley (1971) speculates that it was a lathering paste of Fuller's Earth and impure soda mixed with wine, a paste of a kind used by Romans to cleanse clothes and pots and found in the ruins of Pompeii.

Pliny and Martial described a dye invented in Gaul and used in Germany, called "Mainz soap". This was a mixture of goat fat and beech wood ash which probably worked like a tinting shampoo [Tony Hamlin has suggested this is not so much a dye as an alkali reacting with the hair, much as the hair of a buried Roman woman was turned auburn by the quicklime in which she was buried: York Museum U.K.]. Pliny also refers to "Beethoven foam" and "Wiesbaden soap tablets" [Tony Hamlin suggests that in this context `Beethoven' relates to the Dutch for a beet field, an interesting reflection on a possible use of beet]. Diodorus Siculus commented that the Celts washed their hair in lime water (Allason-Jones 1989). On the other hand, she also says "Bathing to the Romans was not just a matter of hygiene; it was a relaxation, a social activity...The bather...moved from room to room, getting progressively hotter, until reaching a steamy room...., where dirt was sweated out and scraped away with a metal blade ...Scented bath oils were used but not soap". This is not to say that the Romans did not have soap but rather that they did not use it for personal hygiene. As I argue later, it seems inherently probable that soap was "created" for use in cloth processing, in the first instance.

Maine (1995), already quoted above, states

"The excavation of Pompeii, a city that was buried under the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 AD, revealed the existence of an entire soap factory."

This statement is echoed in Mohr (1979), and is returned to later in this text. It appears to reflect a common source in North America, not identified by this author. The nature of the finds on which the claims were based cannot therefore be readily tested but should be seen in the light of Tooley's more specific descriptions, above, of a product which is not, in the context of this study, soap.

It is intriguing to note that woven cloth from Southern Palestine may contain a design called "soap" (sabon), and which is a variation on the design "tents of the Pasha" (Weir 1970). This might reflect on some early importance of an ancient cleansing process for cloth, in that region, since it is an otherwise unusual concept for a design motif.

Oil and soap are given as coming from Nablus in the period 1200 - 1380 (Lister 1972).

The first English soap makers on any scale appeared in Bristol in the 12th century (Britannica 1986 - a) and were still important in the time of Elizabeth I (Hibbert 1987), although the Celts were recorded much earlier by the Romans to produce soap in Britain from animal fats and plant ashes (Britannica 1986 - a) [but note the same material is called a pomade when discussing the same claim, under Mohr, later]. That the industry thrived at Bristol for many centuries is attested by the fact that .. " a most profitable export for the early colonists (of the U.S.A.), as did sassafras (oil) which was imported into Bristol in large quantities for making cheap soap (Hedrick 1950)". Tooley (1971 b) suggests the Bristol trade died as a result of Charles I issuing a proclamation in 1634 giving London soapmakers an almost complete monopoly. There are echoes here of the impacts of tax changes referred to later.

From an archaeological standpoint, as soap is organic and water soluble, true remains are unlikely to survive but Tony Hamlin notes that oils left in calcite vessels in Tutankamun's tomb turned to calcium soaps when left for centuries. Equally, vessels and equipment used in its preparation would not be distinctive and distinguishable from those used for other purposes, a point recognised also in "modern" Industrial Archaeology (Raistrick 1973 - a). One possible exception might be the equivalent of the pioneer farmsteader's ash or leach barrel (Mohr 1979) in its primitive form, such as a hollowed out trunk with a hole at the base. A bronze vat,suitable for soap making,available from laboratory use in China, dating to 1300 BC is known (Needham - f). Also if one supposes modern knowledge, a clamped lid "pressure cooker" from China, dated to 113 BC is known (Needham - g). However it is inherently improbable that they were ever used for making soap! Soap itself, once used, can no longer form part of a permanent record reducing the probability of any finds to an infinitesimally low level.

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Created 01 August 2001 - Updated 21 January 2002