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Natron

Ancient Alkali Source Called Natron

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Lake Natron in Tanzania

Lake Natron in Tanzania

Marc Veraart

Natron, chemically known as sodium carbonate 10-hydrate (Na2CO3), is an alkali substance that was used for several purposes in ancient and modern times. Natron deposits are created by the evaporation and desiccation of soils containing natural sodas, and such deposits are found in isolated lake beds throughout the Mediterranean region.

Natron uses in the past include mummification in Egypt, the production of soap and medicines, and as a flux additive for producing glass. Plato called it Chalastraion, from a Greek source of the alkali called Lake Chalastra in Macedonia, known today as Lake Pikrolimni.

The earliest use of sodium carbonate is documented in the predynastic Egypt, 5500-4000 BC, as a flux for creating pretty glazes on steatite beads.

Natron Sources in Antiquity

The primary and best known source for natron in the Mediterranean region was Wadi Natrun, located in the western desert of Egypt some 100 kilometers northwest of Cairo. Wadi Natrun is known to have been the source used by Bronze Age Egypt to make glass and mummify people; it continued as the major source for natron up until the 9th century AD, when political boundaries shifted and cut off access to the deposits. Other minor sources include:

  • al-Barnuj (Western Delta region of Egypt, documented use between Roman period and the 18th century AD)
  • at-Tarabiya (Eastern Delta of Egypt, documented use during the 4th century AD)
  • al-Kab (Egypt)
  • Bi'r Natrun (Egypt)
  • Wadi Tumilar (Egypt)
  • al-Jabbah (Syria, 6th century AD)
  • Lake Van (Armenia,1st-12th centuries AD
  • Lake Pikrolimni (Greece, 5th century BC-7th century AD)
  • Lake Natron (Tanzania)

Sources

This glossary entry is a part of the About.com guide to Raw Materials, and the Dictionary of Archaeology.

Dotsika E, Poutoukis D, Tzavidopoulos I, Maniatis Y, Ignatiadou D, and Raco B. 2009 A natron source at Pikrolimni Lake in Greece? Geochemical evidence. Journal of Geochemical Exploration 103(2-3):133-143.

Kato N, Nakai I, and Shindo Y. 2010. Transitions in Islamic plant-ash glass vessels: on-site chemical analyses conducted at the Raya/al-Tur area on the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt. Journal of Archaeological Science 37(7):1381-1395.

Shortland A, Schachner L, Freestone I, and Tite M. 2006. Natron as a flux in the early vitreous materials industry: sources, beginnings and reasons for decline. Journal of Archaeological Science 33(4):521-530.

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