6 Exports from the Ancient World

From drainage systems to martial arts, explore exports from the ancient world.

By Google Arts & Culture

Written by Ryan Birol

The Grand Canal near the Rialto Bridge, Venice (c. 1730) by CanalettoThe Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

As history has trucked along to present day, commerce and trading have evolved to become somewhat unpredictable. The major players of the global economy have shifted away from their traditional roots. Roots that date back to ancient times where what a country exported really spoke to that civilization’s identity and culture. Let’s take it back and dive into six fascinating exports from the ancient world. Some are so ingrained in the country’s culture they’ve managed to even stick around today.

1. Venice, Italy
Spice Trade

Venice’s complicated network of water channels paired with its wide array of traded diverse goods, perfectly mirrors the complicated web of ancient trading routes and exotic commodities being shipped around the antiquated world.

The Grand Canal near the Rialto Bridge, Venice, Canaletto. 1730 (From the collection of The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston)

Venice acted as a bridge between the spice producing regions of China and Southeast Asia and the Medieval European hubs. Royal families spicing life up in London likely had a financially motivated Venetian trader to thank. And the Venetian trader definitely had the Royalty to thank because a pound of pepper sold for a sum equal to a week’s work of unskilled labor.

Rimbàs Black Pepper (2014) by Slow FoodSlow Food Foundation for Biodiversity - Ark of Taste

Rimbàs Black Pepper, Slow Food, 2014 (From the collection of Slow Food Foundation for Biodiversity - Ark of Taste)

2. Constantinople
Rugs, Rugs & More Rugs

All the pretty rugs. All the pretty rugs. Since before Ottoman times the Turks have been responsible for the production of gorgeous handwoven rugs. The rugs have been wheeled and dealed for hundreds of years in one of the oldest and largest markets in the world: The Grand Bazaar.

The Port from the Galata Tower (Mid-19th Century) by Abdullah BrothersPera Museum

The Port from the Galata Tower Abdullah Brothers Mid-19th Century (From the collection of Pera Museum)

But it’s really thanks to the Byzantines for pulling off a silky smooth heist. In the 6th century, Emperor Justinian I sent monks on diplomatic matters to China, who managed to successfully acquire silkworms, hide them in bamboo stalks, and bring them back to Constantinople. This took domestic rug trade to a whole new level.

"Turkey" or "Turkish" Carpet (c. 1755 - 1835) by Axminster Carpet CompanyThe Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

"Turkey" or "Turkish" Carpet, Axminster Carpet Company. 1755 - 1835 (From the collection of The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston)

Carpet (16th-17th century) by UnknownLos Angeles County Museum of Art

Carpet Unknown 16th-17th century (From the collection of Los Angeles County Museum of Art)

3 Piraeus, Athens
Wine & Wine Jugs

Piraeus not only played home to the Athenian warship fleet, it also acted as one of the most important trading centers in the antiquated world. Sure figs, cheese, olives, dates, pottery were popular movers, but it was wine that was Greece’s largest export. That’s right. Greek wine was the official sponsor of ancient parties. The sentiment that wine was a gift from the Gods was packaged and transported in high volume.

The Harbor of Piraeus (1891) by Themistocles von EckenbrecherNational Gallery of Art, Washington DC

The Harbor of Piraeus Themistocles von Eckenbrecher, 1891 (From the collection of National Gallery of Art, Washington DC)

The Wedding of Peleus and Thetis (1592/1593) by Cornelis Cornelisz van HaarlemFrans Hals Museum

The Wedding of Peleus and Thetis, Cornelis Cornelisz van Haarlem, 1592/1593 (From the collection of Frans Hals Museum)

The Greeks were not only experts in cultivation and exporting wine, but also on how to consume it. They developed a shallow stemmed kylix which could easily be lifted from the floor by a drinker reclining on a couch. Also, large pottery vessels known as kraters were made which made it easier for wine to be mixed with water, which is something the Greeks did to tone it down a bit.

Pitcher ("circa 730 BC" - "") by UnknownMuseum of Cycladic Art

Pitcher, Unknown, circa 730 BC (From the collection of Museum Cycladic Art)

4. Alexandria
Grain, Cotton &... Ideas

Yes. Alexandria was one of the major ports of the ancient world responsible for a high volume of exports—namely grain and cotton. But due to Alexandria playing host to some of the world’s true intellectual ballers Euclid, Plotinus and Archimedes to name a few, Egypt’s most important export were innovative ideas. For example, one of Archimedes most impressive inventions was a large mechanical screw that helped King Hiero efficiently pump water from the hull of a large ship, which was then applied to different irrigation systems around the world. In comparison, the grain and cotton were small potatoes, well actually they were grain and cotton, which were no small matter to the ancient world.

Pharos (The Lighthouse at Alexandria) (1572) by Philip Galle, after Maerten van HeemskerckNational Gallery of Art, Washington DC

Pharos (The Lighthouse at Alexandria) Philip Galle, after Maerten van Heemskerck 1572 (From the collection of National Gallery of Art, Washington DC)

Archimedes (1901)LIFE Photo Collection

Archimedes (From the collection of LIFE Photo Collection)

5. The Roman Empire
Plumbing, Sewage Systems & Running Water

The Roman Empire held its epicenter in the Roman Forum, which still stands today. It is typically celebrated as one of, if not the most dynamic meeting places for all human affairs during ancient times. Not only was commerce a major daily event there, trials, elections, and even executions occurred regularly. It was this very kind of venue that enabled the cross-pollination of ideas that lent to the development of global civilization changing systems such as the Roman aqueducts.

Via dei Fori ImperialiYouth Committee of the Italian National Commission for UNESCO

Via dei Fori Imperiali (From the collection of Youth Committee of the Italian National Commission for UNESCO)

To collect and transport water, Roman engineers combined a network of subtle sloping above ground structures that guided rain water into lengthy underground channels extending across the city. This led to modern day inventions such as plumbing, advanced sewage systems and even running water in ancient homes. Water was considered a sign of progress and civilization. The magnificent feat of civil engineering was exported to other cities such as Segovia in Spain, where a Roman aqueduct still stands.

Aqueduct, Segovia, Spain (2010-08-22) by JumperGetty Images

Aqueduct, Segovia, Spain, Jumper, 2010-08-22 (From the collection of Getty Images)

6. Silk Route
Zen and Martial Arts

We commonly think of the Silk Road as a single route that was legendary for bringing silk to the West and material goods such as precious metals and wool to the East. While it did in fact do all of this, it was much more than a single road simply used for transporting goods.

Silk roadGianfranco Ferré Research Center, Politecnico di Milano

Silk road (From the collection of Fondazione Gianfranco Ferré)

The Silk Road, through land and sea, extended into the Middle East, deep into parts of Europe, and even India. Cultures and languages travelled well.

It was in India where the Bodhidharma learned the teachings of the Buddha, decided to hop on a path within the Silk Road network, and headed north to China effectively becoming the first patriarch of Chan Buddhism, which later turned into Zen Buddhism. And by imitating animal movements to stay limber, while meditating in a cave for nine years in China, he sort of kind of invented martial arts. No big deal.

Bruce Lee and Chuck Norris fight in the Coliseum from the film "Way of The Dragon" (1972) by Bruce Lee and Golden HarvestBruce Lee Foundation

Bruce Lee and Chuck Norris fight in the Coliseum from the film "Way of The Dragon", Bruce Lee and Golden Harvest, 1972 (From the collection of Bruce Lee Foundation)

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