salt crystalsAs I’m writing a book that I’ve titled “The Salt Man”, and the importance of salt as a commodity is a key part of the story, I thought I should brush up on my knowledge of salt. So I got a book called “Salt“! And it’s a fascinating read.

All of us who did chemistry in school will no doubt remember it being drilled into us that “acid + base = salt + water”. There are many salts, particularly of reactive metals like sodium and potassium. But, of course, it’s the sodium salts that we generally think of when we use the term. Particularly sodium chloride. This salt preserves, dries, lowers the freezing point of water, kills bacteria and keeps away evil spirits. The devil and demons apparently hate salt; I guess the myth has developed because salt is an anti-corrupting agent. And since we began to farm animals and crops around 6-7 thousand years ago, we’ve needed to supplement our diet with salt, and the diet of farmed animals. We simply can’t live without it.

To the Romans it was vital. They taxed it, controlled the price of it from time to time and even sometimes paid their soldiers a part of their salary (hence the term) with it. And they used it to preserve food, especially fish. They also made the smelly but highly-prized fish sauce called “garum” with it too. They developed salt works throughout their empire, including both mining and brine evaporation methods. But the thing that has interested me the most is the mythology that has grown up around salt. How many of us still throw salt over our left shoulder if we spill any? Left, because that is the “sinister” side and is the shoulder the devil is meant to look over, if you’re of a Christian persuasion. Sorry to any left-handed folk reading this 🙂

There are many legends about why the sea is salty, too. In some Norse tales a whirlpool to the north of the Orkney Islands, known as the Swelki (from the old Norse meaning “mill”), is caused by the sea water being drawn into an enormous mill which is being constantly turned by two female giants. The mill originally turned out good things, but the giants cursed it to  turn out only salt after they had been enslaved there.

All human cultures and societies have legends about salt, from Native Americans to Chinese. But I think my favourite thing about salt is that it facilitated the making of ice cream!

The “elevator pitch”

Butser round houses and villa

Butser Ancient Farm

So, what is the book I’m just starting to write, actually about? I should be able to answer that quickly and succinctly – the “elevator pitch”. In other words, I have as much time to explain my idea as I would have in a medium-length elevator ride. Well, OK, maybe an elevator ride to the top of the Shard 🙂 I should also be able to answer this as it’s the question I constantly ask my research students. What is your research about? How would you explain it to the person who casually asks you in the pub, taking into account their likely attention span? Tough. But here goes.

I’m fascinated by information. Particularly how it travels. Today we’re used to being able to find out pretty much anything we want to, wherever we are, as long as we have a mobile device and a comms link of some sort. But how did information travel in other times? At times of significant social upheaval when many people lived in fairly isolated communities – the Roman invasion of Britain, for example? Information can be a commodity; it’s often traded like other commodities. Like, say, salt. Salt is vital to life and has always been an important way of preserving and treating food. So Romano/British people needed salt. It was produced in various different locations in Britain at the time, as it had been for thousands of years previously, and salt trading networks were already established by the time the Romans arrived in 43 CE. Suppose the salt man on a particular trading round was a native Briton, and a bit of a gossip, who liked to put his feet up and share a drink with a friendly guy who is part of the Roman establishment at the fort and bathing complex at Aquae Sulis (Bath). But this guy is from a distant land and is a subject of conquest too. They might have quite a bit in common, one way or another. And suppose one day the salt man tells his drinking companion about a strange thing that has happened at one of the settlements he visits on his round. How a young girl who works for one of the Romano/British elite in their fancy new villa, has mysteriously disappeared. Suppose the Roman establishment guy becomes enthralled by this story and tries to find out was has happened to her. But he needs information, and the salt man is his main source.

Then suppose an account of this is found in the present day. Would our modern information systems shine any more light on the case, around 2,000 years later?

That’s what the book is about. OK, maybe the elevator would have to break down on the way up, and it isn’t the whole story by any means, but hopefully it paints a picture. Can’t say too much, or I’d be telling you the plot!