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Flax seed production: evidence from the early Iron Age site of Tel Beth-Shean, Israel and from written sources

  • Mordechai E. KislevEmail author
  • Orit Simchoni
  • Yoel Melamed
  • Lior Maroz
Review

Abstract

For thousands of years, flax was a winter crop of major importance in the ancient Levant, second only to wheat and barley. It was cultivated from the beginning of the early Neolithic period through to Roman times and it is still grown there today. Flax seeds (linseed) contain high concentrations of two essential polyunsaturated fatty acids—linoleic acid (ω-6) and α-linolenic acid (ω-3), which cannot be produced by the human body. Their oxidation occurs rapidly in the air. So, long term storage of linseed needed airtight containers, and tightly stoppered bottles could be used to keep its oil as a remedy. However, were flax seeds consumed as a food, oil or medicament in ancient periods? How commonly were flax seeds eaten? From archaeobotanical finds of flax seed, it is difficult to determine whether the flax was cultivated for fibres alone or for its seeds that can be cold-pressed to release the valuable oil. We have therefore studied ancient written documents describing various uses of flax seeds, including their consumption as a food supplement and uses in medical applications. We conclude that until recently flax was grown primarily for textile fibres, and only smaller quantities of flax seeds were consumed. So, the flax seed finds from the early Iron Age site of Tel Beth-Shean also represent seed consumption or oil extraction.

Keywords

Linseed oil DHA EPA ω-3 Israel Iron Age 

Notes

Acknowledgment

We would like to thank Amihai Mazar, Institute of Archaeology, Hebrew University, Jerusalem, for enabling us to study and publish the archaeobotanical material from Tel Beth-Shean discussed in this article.

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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag 2011

Authors and Affiliations

  • Mordechai E. Kislev
    • 1
    Email author
  • Orit Simchoni
    • 1
  • Yoel Melamed
    • 1
  • Lior Maroz
    • 1
  1. 1.Faculty of Life SciencesBar-Ilan UniversityRamat-GanIsrael

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