Salty Matters

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Salt Dissolution (2 of 5); Salt caves

John Warren - Saturday, September 30, 2017


Properties of evaporite karst

At first sight, medium-scale evaporite karst surface landforms, such as dolines, polje-like depressions, subsidence bowls and collapse dolines, appear near-identical to those found in and on carbonate karst (Part 1). Likewise, all the smaller-scale intracavern features, both dissolutional (pipes and cavities) and constructive calcite speleothems), can be preserved as karst zones in and above an evaporite host, even when the formative hydrology becomes inactive and the system is buried (palaeokarst). But, the much higher rates of dissolution of halite and gypsum compared to limestone or dolomite means there are significant differences in rates of formation and cave geometries compared to carbonate caves in nonevaporitic hosts. One cannot simply take models of caves developed by studies of carbonate karst and use them to unreservedly interpret evaporite caves.

Differences reflect the inherently higher solubility and flowability of the host salts at earth surface conditions and mean most evaporite-hosted caves show peculiarities related to higher dissolution rates compared to carbonate karst. For example, one most significant in a vadose halite cave is that evaporation of a near-saturated brine is aided by airflow and means many halite stalactites tend to curve into the direction of air flow (anemolites) rather than the subvertical dripstone mechanism that controls the shape of most calcite stalactites and stalagmites. Forti (2017) is an excellent summary of evaporite speleothems and formative mechanisms in both gypsum and halite caves.

The high solubility of subsurface evaporite beds atop deeply-circulating pressurised and jointed aquifers (confined hydrologies) means deep-phreatic chimneying (vertical shafts) and deep dissolution with upward-stoping are a common deep cavity-forming mechanism in and atop buried salt beds. This, in turn, means high volumes of overburden sediment can be swallowed quickly, especially in suprasalt regions with strong roof spans covered by loose sediment (Figure 1). In such settings, large at-surface natural sinkholes and circular structures (breccia chimneys) can daylight in days or even hours and so constitute significant geohazards (see Parts 4 and 5). This type of rapid point-sourced vertical stoping atop evaporites doesn’t just happen in continental settings. Similar circular structures atop breccia-filled vertical shafts or fault-bound chimneys form beneath deep waters of the Eastern Mediterranean via substratal breaching of the Messinian evaporite, followed by upward stoping through the overlying sediments (Bertoni and Cartwright, 2005).

Worldwide, much of the dissolution action in uplifting salt beds and masses begins well below the watertable. It takes place hundreds of metres or more below the surface at bathyphreatic depths where; 1) halite is leaching, 2) anhydrite is reconverting to gypsum and 3) where caprocks and other dissolution residues are forming atop diapiric salt features. Early dissolution is greatest at contacts between the salt edges and joints or fractures in adjacent aquifers. Thus patterns of jointing or fracturing control the extent and style of caves in a salt host and typically creates high-density maze caves. With halite, the only setting where a NaCl mass makes it to the surface is as an active or recently active diapir crest or namakier. Before its dissolution, the salt matrix hosting a cave-hosting diapiric halite is largely impervious, flowing and re-annealing. Hence, most of the karst action accessible for study in halite caves is vadose and tied to perched water tables; this is most obvious near the margins of namakier salt sheets and located well away from locations of active salt fountains.

If phreatic caves ever do form near to rising salt fountain domes, these early cavities are quickly closed by the pressurised salt flow needed to bring salt to surface. Rather than being telogenetic features, many of the metre-scale blebs of finely-layered gravitationally-aligned laminar halite seen within diapirs intersected in deep salt mines, and floating in a matrix of flow foliated coarse-crystalline halite, are the result of mesogenetic salt precipitating in gas-filled open cavities within the diapir mass (see Salty Matters October 31, 2016). These laminar cavity filling growth-aligned halite textures are not telogenetic, neither are the entrained salt clasts preserving primary (relict) depositional texture of the mother salt. Instead, they indicate the existence of former or present-day gas-filled cavities (N2, CH4 or CO2), which are a hazard occasionally encountered during salt and potash mining, for example in the diapirs of NE Germany (Hedlund, 2012). Their presence and their ability to blow out mine walls show that pressurised gas pockets and associated cavern fill textures are not unusual mesogenetic features in a flowing salt mass. Away from deep mine intersections of mesogenetic gas-filled cavities, most of the shallow cavities and fill textures of a flowing salt body and studied by speleologists are telogenetic and mostly vadose.

Cave-forming processes in a telogenetic salt cave in bedded salt bodies are either vadose or phreatic (both shallow and deep), with many gypsum/anhydrite caves showing textural evidence indicating transit from one realm to the other. At any one time, the transition from phreatic to vadose landforms is tied to depth to watertable. This is seen in the gypsiferous cap karst to diapirs and allochthons of Triassic salt in the Betic Cordillera of Spain (Calaforra and Pulido-Bosch, 1999). The crests of the salt structures are dominated by collapse dolines (vadose), this passes radially out into the belt of solution dolines occupied by seasonal saline lagoons and further out into rim of saline springs that form wherever the watertable intersects the landsurface (phreatic). Some caves pass from phreatic to vadose a number of times in their histories in response to watertable fluctuations tied to varying climate and tectonics (Columbu et al., 2015.

Vadose processes characterise the uppermost part of a karst aquifer and have air in pores above a water surface or perched watertable. Water drainage is free-flowing under gravity; cave passages drain downslope and show strong gravitational orientations (numerous sub-vertical features). Because they form above the watertable, vadose cave walls are subject to surface seepage, evaporation and drying. Speleothems decorating vadose cave walls indicate varying combinations of gravity and airflow and include; stalactites, stalagmites, cave popcorn, helicites and flowstones.

Caves can form in a salt bed on its way down (eogenesis; syndepositional to early burial phreatic), on its way up (evaporite telogenesis, generally begins at bathyphreatic depths) and at the bottom of the bed’s burial history (mesogenetic; e.g., gas-driven bathykarst).

Gypsum caves

Active caves beneath gypsum karst landforms first formed as deep phreatic maze caves and are characterised by dense passage networks with numerous contemporaneously closed loops, typically in bedded evaporites. Vadose cross sections of the same system can be quite large due to the high solubility and relative homogeneity of the host, especially if formed in a thick capstone. Heimkehle cave in the Zechstein anhydrites in the Harz Mountains of Germany has an overall passage length of more than 2 km, with large rooms up to 22 metres high and 65 metres wide. It was large enough to be used in World War II to house a factory manufacturing parts for JU88 aeroplanes (Knolle et al., 2013).

Other gypsum caves, some more than 150-200 km long, are well documented in Miocene gypsum hosts in west Ukraine (Table 1; Figure 2; Klimchouk, 2000; Klimchouk and Andrejchuk, 2003; Andrejchuk and Klimchouk, 2004; Klimchouk, 2007) and the Gypsum Plain of West Texas and New Mexico (Stafford et al., 2008, 2009, 2017) and much of our current understanding of the gypsum karst process comes from these regions.

Gypsum cave walls in the vadose realm are relatively undecorated compared to carbonate caves. But calcitic speleothems can form in a gypsum cave and are well documented, as are alabastrine flowstones and selenite rinds on cave walls, for example; in northwest Texas (McGregor et al., 1963), in Alabaster Cave and others in the Blaine Gypsum in western Oklahoma (Johnson, 1996; Bozeman and Bozeman 2002), and in quarries intersecting the gypsum karst system in the Kirschberg Evaporite member near Fredericksburg, Texas (Warren et al., 1990).

Phreatic gypsum caves

Phreatic caves in bedded evaporites atop artesian aquifers typically grow as upward stoping and branching blind flow loop caverns (phreatic cupolas) and chimneys, which can begin to grow deep below the watertable as bathyphreatic or hypogenic karst. For example, deep artesian systems drive cupola karst, and blind chimney stopes in the Black Hills of Dakota, the Elk Point Basin of Canada and the Optymistychna Cave, western Ukraine (Figures 2, 4a). Deeper in a basin, where bathyphreatic caves are bathed by centripetal mesogenetic crossflows, water flow is slow and phreatic karst is influenced by the escape of H2S- and CO2-rich basinal waters, not necessarily by the confined meteoric head. Fluid flow at these greater depths is driven by pore water gradients that reflect potentiometric variations in temperature, organic maturation, pressure and salinity of basinal waters.


Passages in mesogenetic and telogenetic evaporite-hosted caves tend to first develop near fractures and joints in adjacent aquifers and then expand into maze cave networks. Once growing in the main evaporite mass, some phreatic maze passages can show internal upward-directed switchback gradients independent of jointing in adjacent aquifers. Cave orientations within the evaporite bed and away from the aquifer inflow level are tied to internal inhomogeneities in the host bed such as less soluble or more soluble intrasalt beds and changes in mineral proportions.

Phreatic tubes are the most common passage shape in smooth-walled blind-dissolution pockets and cupolas in bathyphreatic gypsum caves. Tube or channelway shapes range in cross section from near-circular (isotopic dissolution of a soluble host) to elliptical tubes to canyon-shaped keyholes (Figures 3, 4a, b; Klimchouk, 1992, 1996). Ornamentation is minimal where undersaturated crossflow drives the rapid dissolutional breakdown of the cave wall and the resulting passages are smooth, with local scalloped dissolution irregularities. Dense intersecting maze cave networks first form in the early stages of exhumation at the contact between a tight but soluble gypsum/anhydrite unit and a less soluble carbonate or siliciclastic aquifer (Figure 2, 3). This less soluble bed is the supply conduit for groundwater crossflows that dissolve the edges of the initially impervious anhydrite/gypsum bed. The greatest rate of water supply to the dissolving gypsum contact is along joints and fractures in the adjacent aquifer bed (especially with limestone aquifers). Accordingly, the meshwork of caves penetrates the gypsum bed and tends to follow joint and fracture patterns of the adjacent aquifer.

More stagnant phreatic portions of telogenetic CaSO4 cave systems can be saturated and so precipitate isopachous crusts and crystal rinds. Gypsum is the commonplace isopachous precipitate in voids in this setting, while anhydrite tends to dominate in cavities in the deeper mesogenetic realm (Garcia-Guinea et al., 2002). By the time phreatic maze caves are exhumed and enter a vadose (epigene) setting, where they are accessible for speleological study, much of the earlier phreatic ornamentation has already been dissolved by the increasing undersaturated throughflow and cavern interconnection. This is associated with uplift into the more hydrologically-active phreatic realm, which always precedes entry into the vadose realm. (Warren et al., 1990).

Some of the longest and most complex phreatic maze cave systems in the world are found in Miocene gypsum in west Ukraine. Optymistychna Cave, with more than 214 km of surveyed passages, is the world’s longest gypsum cave and the second or third longest cave of any type (Table 1; Figure 2; Klimchouk, 2007). The world’s longest cave, at 550 km, is the carbonate-hosted Mammoth Cave of Kentucky. The West Ukraine region contains the five longest known gypsum caves in the world, accounting for well over half of the total known length of known gypsum caves on Earth. By area and volume, the world’s largest gypsum caves are: Ozernaja (330,000 m2 and 665,000 m3; with 122 km of documented passages it is also the world’s 10th longest), Zoloushka (305,000 m2 and 712,000 m3), followed by Optimisticheskaja Cave (260,000 m2 and 520,000 m3). They are all complex joint-controlled maze caves, formed under confined aquifer conditions that existed from the Pliocene to the Early Pleistocene (that is karstification on the way up - telogenesis or gypsum exhumation, initially focused on the underside of the bed). Their growth patterns indicate upward-transverse phreatic groundwater circulation, with ultimate cavern fusion across the gypsum bed. All these west Ukrainian caves were fed by artesian crossflow in sub-gypsum and supra-gypsum aquifers that were sourced in the Carpathian Mountains.

High rates of dissolution in phreatic gypsum caves, relative to rates of water crossflow, are indicated by bevelled, faceted and “keyhole” cross sections in the Ukrainian caves along with a lack of vadose wall ornamentation (Figures 3a 4; Klimchouk, 1996; Pfeiffer and Hahn, 1976). Keyholes indicate density stratification and convectional circulation in cave-forming waters, with shapes sometimes complicated by lithological discontinuities in the gypsum bed (Figure 3b; Kempe, 1972). Convection in caves is most pronounced where sluggish artesian flow and low flow velocities dominate.

This was the case in the Pliocene to early Pleistocene history of the maze caves of the western Ukraine (Klimchouk and Andrejchuk, 2003). At that time the deeply buried gypsum dissolved via upward growing but blind, phreatic cavities, with a reflux of somewhat denser “spent” waters sinking toward the base of the cave. Spent water was replaced by less dense inflow waters supplied from the lower aquifer (Figure 3a). This set up a natural density-stratified convection, which maintained fresher (less dense) waters near the phreatic cave roof. Upward growing blind caves tend to expand more at their tops driving the transition from subcircular to keyhole caverns along the cave conduit (Figure 4b). After dissolving gypsum and increasing in density, a portion of the “spent” cave water sank all the way back into the underlying aquifer where it once again joined the regional throughflow in the lower aquifer. Once a stoping cave breached the top aquifer water flow direction in the cave was controlled by temperature, pressure and density contrasts between aquifers on either side of the gypsum bed. It seems that post-breach most of the cave water continued to rise through the cave system into the overlying aquifer (Figures 3a, 4) Similar keyhole and cupola morphologies are developed in low flow rate bathyphreatic sulphuric acid caves in carbonate hosts (e.g., early stages in the formation of the Carlsbad and Lechuguilla caverns).

Formation of keyhole passages is not an exclusively phreatic phenomenon in density-stratified gypsum caves. Keyholes in the vadose portions of many telogenetic carbonate caves indicate the transition of the cave passage from phreatic, with circular cross sections, to vadose with deepening drainage slots at the base of the passages (e.g. Calaforra and Pulido-Bosch, 2003). Phreatic stoping, followed by vadose cavern enlargement, probably explains the close correlation between caprock sinkhole distribution and position of underlying vadose passages in Permian gypsum subcrop in the Kungur Cave region in the Russian Urals, where the caprock thickness is a little as 25 m (Figure 5).

Vadose gypsum caves

A lowering of the watertable, either by uplift or climatic change tied to increasing local aridity, converts a former hypogene to meteoric phreatic cave into a vadose cave. In the latter, the walls become ornamented with gypsum and calcite speleothems. This is the recent history of the accessible portions of the gypsum maze caves worldwide, including documented examples in New Mexico, the western Ukraine and Saudi Arabia where the passage into the middle-upper Pleistocene marks the transition from phreatic to vadose in most of the accessible caves (Stafford et al., 2008). It is characteristic also of the very recent history of some natural phreatic caves where water tables were artificially lowered to allow quarrying of gypsum (Warren et al., 1990; Klimchouk, 2012).

Climate shifts or watertable fluctuations at the early end of the burial cycle (salt on the way down) can create alternating vadose-phreatic conditions in evaporite beds in the early stages of burial and so create an early watertable-associated karst level in the accumulating evaporites. That is, a gypsum bed hosting a vadose hydrology on its way down into burial, may pass through the watertable a number of times before its final burial and passage into the mesogenetic realm. This is the case today in the captured recharge playas in central Australia and about the edges of some halite-filled salars in the Andes and many Canadian salt lakes (Last, 1993; Warren, 2016), where fluctuating hydrologic conditions alternate between vadose and phreatic. Similarly, Quaternary climate shifts have variably karstified the gypsiferous sediments of many Sinic playas. For example, Yaoru and Cooper (1997) document Pleistocene lake basins in north-west China, such as in the Chaidamu Basin, where exposed gypsum beds evidence karst overprints that include: corroded flutes, fissures, small caves and associated collapse breccias and roof falls, followed by phreatic evaporite cement overprints. Watertable fluctuation is a hydrological overprint that is preserved as alternating ornamented surfaces in gypsum caves, disconformities and cave fills in many ancient lacustrine gypsum units.

Halite Caves

Because of its high solubility, halite does not make it into outcrop or shallow subcrop as easily as gypsum/anhydrite. Where halite is at the surface, it tends to be in regions of Pleistocene halite deposition (salt on its way down) or in zones of active diapirism (salt coming up very quickly). Chabert and Courbon (1997) noted caves in ancient rock salt in several regions: Algeria (in diapirs, mostly as vertical to sub-vertical shafts and short caves up to 28shafts0 m long), Chile (diapirs, with caves 250-500 m long), Israel (in Mt Sedom diapir as vadose caves and tube caves several hundred metres in length and subvertical vadose shafts that are metres across), Romania (in diapirs, with caves up to several hundred metres long), Spain (in diapirs, with caves up to 650 m long), Tajikistan (several caves 300 to 2,500 m long and up to 120 m deep), and in the namakiers of Iran and the offshore island relicts where cavern lengths range from several hundred metres to kilometres. The maintenance of landscape elevation, which can be hundreds of metres above the surrounding plains, facilitates the creation of vadose caves in the diapir crest (Table 2).

Halite in an active namakier rises and spreads rapidly, so any karst in an active salt diapir tends to be a feature associated with the immediate underside of a caprock. Karst processes cannot deeply penetrate while salt is flowing, even when the plug rises more than 300 metres above the surrounds. So, more extensive halite hosted caves are best developed about the margins of a namakier where halite’s susceptibility to rapid dissolution means the length of a cave developed below the caprock can be substantial. There is a report of a single salt halite cave (Cave 3N) on Qeshm Island, Iran, with a passage length of more than 9 km (Bruthans et al., 2002). Once the rate of diapir rise has slowed or ceased, the positive topography of the now inactive diapir controls the depth of development of doline collapse inn the diapir itself. That is, deeper collapse dolines can now form in the more central topographically higher portions of a salt structure, once the rate of rise has slowed (e.g. Calaforra and Pulido-Bosch, 1999).

The high solubility of halite means a halite cave system can form in a few hundred years rather than the thousands to tens of thousands of years needed to form carbonate karst (Bruthans et al., 2010). Not only is rate of cavern formation swift (dissolution/downcutting of 20 mm/year), these rapidly forming karst features are hosted in and atop a flowing rock mass. This means some of our notions of karst process and cave stability, related to the rate and density of cavern expansion, need to be modified when dealing with halite karst. For example, unlike gypsum and carbonate karst, jointing is not significant in controlling cavern orientation in namakier karst.


Dead Sea karst

Halite caves occur in the Mt. Sedom diapir, where halokinetic Miocene salt is sporadically exposed beneath a weathering and fractured gypsiferous caprock (Figure 6a,b; Frumkin, 1996; Frumkin and Ford, 1995; Frumkin 2009). Water enters the various caves in Sedom diapir through breaches in the caprock (Figure 7b). Most of the caves in the higher parts of Mt. Sedom salt are vadose inlet caves; these are meandering steeply inclined tubes and canyon slots located within or immediately below the caprock. They form where salt solution quickly carves out near vertical slots and shafts (typically < 2m broad and much deeper) that lead down from the surface, sometimes along pre-existing fractures and shears in the salt. Inlet caves in the central portions of the mountain can only be accessed through their sinks and appear to have no distinct outlet (Figure 6c). All terminate several tens of metres above the regional watertable (e.g. Karbolot Cave; Figure 6c, d; Frumkin, 1994a, b, 1996).

The lower parts of inlet caves often contain steep silt and clay banks with surge marks that indicate occurrence of low energy water ponding, with variable residence times. Silt and clay sediments settling at the bottoms of inlet caves impede infiltration, extending the residence time of pond water (Frumkin, 1994a, 1996). Three of the studied caves in northern Mount Sedom had perennial ponds throughout the period 1984-1995. The ponds are perched, without any lithologic control, tens of metres above the nearest potential outlet at the foot of the mountain (Figure 6c). The water level in each pond differs from the others by tens of metres. All pond waters are highly concentrated, up to 324 g/l, with solutes consisting mainly of sodium and chlorine. Fresh inflow waters reach halite saturation within a few hours of reaching the pond. Both dissolution and precipitation features form the pond edges, and their equivalents can be seen on cave walls wherever ponds have dried out. Dissolution is indicated by horizontal notches, which connote density stratification in the ponds when aggressive fresh flood waters are temporarily diluting the upper parts of the pond. Subsequent saturation of holomictic pond waters is indicated by the growth of cm-scale halite crystals on the bottom and sides of the ponds.

Towards the periphery of Mt Sedom, the inlet caves lead down to laterally expanding vadose cave levels that drain onto the Dead Sea plain (Figure 6c,d, 7c). Sedom Cave, is the longest laterally expanding diapir cave, with an aggregate length between two subparallel conduits of 1.8 km. Malham Cave, another large perched and laterally expanding cave, lies a few hundred metres south of Sedom Cave (Figure 6a, c, d; Frumkin, 1996). It has an aggregate passage length of more than 5.5 km and reaches to some 194 m below the landsurface. There is an upper tier of mostly inactive passages and a lower active channel level. 14C dates on fossil wood in the upper cave level shows meteoric waters began to sculpt the upper cave more than 5,500 years ago. Ongoing uplift of Mt Sedom salt means the active channel level in Malham Cave is now downcut some 10-12 metres lower than when it began. Malham Cave passages quickly developed an open outlet through which floodwater escaped directly to the Dead Sea floor, proving that during this period some 4000 years ago rock salt had already risen above region hydrological base level at the Malham outlet point within the eastern escarpment (Figure 6c). Lashelshet Cave, an inlet cave on the highest point on the diapir cross section, has an even older age of more than 7,000 years since cave initiation. Caves in the northern part of Mt Sedom did not begin to form until some 3,000 years later (Frumkin, 1996).

Based on their study of the caves of Mt Sedom, Frumkin and Ford (1995) concluded cave passages develop in two main stages: (1) an early stage characterized by inlet caves with high downcutting rates into the rock salt bed, and steep passage gradients; (2) a mature laterally expanding stage characterized by lower downcutting rates and the establishment of a wider subhorizontal perched stream bed armoured with alluvial detritus. This style of cave tends to develop toward the periphery of the diapir mound. In the mature expanding stage downcutting rates are controlled by the uplift rate of the diapir and changes of the level of the Dead Sea.

Passages may aggrade to create wide flat bevelled passages and slots with thick sediment armoured bases (Figure 7c; Frumkin, 1998). A lack of a consistent phreatic level in the blind bottoms of perched water levels and the presence of the horizontal slots in the lower levels of Sedom Cave means dissolution in both types of caves is largely restricted to times of flooding and perched or backed up freshwater in the vadose zone. This explains the tapering passages of inlet caves and the widespread alternation of armouring and bevelling as well as formation of narrow horizontal meandering slots toward parts of the top of the meandering channel that is now Sedom Cave.

Mass balance calculations in the halite caves of Mt Sedom yield downcutting rates of 0.2 mm s-1 during peak flood conditions, this is about eight orders of magnitude higher than reported rates in any limestone cave stream (Frumkin and Ford, 1995). However, floods have a low recurrence interval in the arid climate of Mount Sedom so that long-term mean downcutting rates are lower: an average rate of 8.8 mm/ year was measured for the period 1986-1991, while Frumkin (2000) estimate the average regional vadose downcutting rate in the Mt Sedom karst region to be 20 mm/year. This is still at least three orders of magnitude higher than rates established for limestone caves and more than able to cope with the rate of supply of the diapiric salt.

The highly impervious nature of halite and its resupply in actively growing diapirs means that, unlike carbonate and gypsum caves, there is no real watertable level to define maximum cave development in a rising salt stem. Rather, the inlet caves are simple dissolution tubes where rainwater has accessed halite and sank until it was saturated and then dissolution stopped until the next flood. Toward the edge of the rising stem, these inlet caves breached the edge of the salt mound and vented their perched groundwaters to the surrounding plain (Figure 6; Sedom and Malham caves). This creates a downcutting and laterally expanding cave system, which is still some metres to tens of metres above the base level of the regional watertable in the surrounding plain. The expanding cave level is dominated by mostly horizontal growth, often with a sediment-armoured floor. It has numerous benches in the walls that probably reflect changes in the hydrological base level.

Dense anastomose cave networks that characterise gypsum caves are not found in the halite caves of Mt Sedom. This reflects the ability of diapiric halite to re-anneal and the fact that all exhumed halite that makes it to the surface is diapiric, not bedded. At-surface halite is not sandwiched between jointed aquifers above and below the dissolving layer. Rather it is a growing mound subject to dissolution at its top and sides.

Away from Mt Sedom, there are active collapse sinkholes and caverns forming in the alluvial fans and clastic aprons that overlie the bedded Quaternary lacustrine halite of the Dead Sea (Figure 8a, b; salt on its way down in the burial cycle). In the sediments around the lakeshore, the pace of karst collapse has accelerated in the last 60 years due to a drastic lowering of the circum-lake watertable and the associated lakeward migration of the saline-fresh water interface (Figure 9). For example, a series of collapse dolines 2-15 m diameter and up to 7 m deep, appeared in 1990 in the New Zohar area. In January 2001 a large sinkhole, some 20 m deep and 30 m wide, cut through the asphalt surface of the main road along the western shore of the Dead Sea. It was opened by the passage of a busload of tourists on their way from Ein Gedi to the Mineral Beach solarium. Existing tourist facilities, such as the Ein Gedi beachside parking, were shut down after the road was damaged and several buildings have since collapsed into sinkholes. Sinkholes have since developed in other areas about the Dead Sea Margin including Qalia, Ein Samar and Ein Gedi. The process began in the southern part of the Dead Sea coast and slowly spread northward along the Israeli coast. Collapse is more localised in the northern and southern regions on the Jordanian side, and across the region, continues to increase in frequency as the sea level falls (Ezersky and Frumkin, 2013).

Three main types of sinkhole or doline fill have been recognized atop the dissolving Holocene salt beds of Mt Sedom; 1) Gravel holes in alluvial fans, 2) mud holes in the intervening bays of laminated clay deposits between fans, and 3) a combination of both types at the front of young alluvial fans where they overlap mud flats. Fossil, relict sinkholes have been observed in the wadi channels cutting into some old alluvial fans, showing this is a natural and ongoing process. While lake levels continue to fall (Figure 9b,c), the potential for subsidence hazards related to karst collapse is ongoing.

Sinkholes and related subsidence have been the focus of much geological study of the halite caves, but Closson et al. (2010) pointed out that an even more significant and ultimately damaging environmental effect of the ongoing water level lowering is the hectometre and larger scale landslides along the retreating shorezone. In the 1990s, international builders created major tourist resorts and industrial plants along the Jordanian and Israeli shore while, during the same period, geological hazards triggered by the level lowering spread out. From the beginning of the year 2000, sinkholes, subsidence, landslides, and river erosion damaged infrastructures more and more frequently: dykes, bridges, roads, houses, factories, pipes, crops, etc. all suffered as a result.

There is evidence of an older set of widespread ground collapses, sinkholes and caves that are tied to an earlier substantial fall in the Dead Sea water level some 4 ka. It may even be that the events described in Genesis 14 in the Christian Bible took place at the time of a substantially lowered sea level. The described battle, which occurred prior to the fall of Sodom and Gomorrah, perhaps took place on the subaerially exposed flats of the Southern Basin of the Dead Sea. The “pits of slime” described in the fall perhaps were solution collapse sinkholes activated by the 4000 ka fall in the Dead Sea water level (Frumkin and Elitzur, 2002).

Halite karst in diapiric Hormuz salt, Middle East

Namakier outcrops in and about the Arabian Gulf range from structures actively extruding salt to those in ruins where salt has not flowed for tens of thousands of years (Figure 9). Likewise the halite caves developed in the namakiers of Iran, or their offshore island counterparts, show a broad range of ages and styles of salt cave development tied to the time since cessation of salt flow (Filippi et al., 2011; Bruthans et al., 2010; Talbot et al., 2009).

Surfaces of actively flowing namakiers on the Iranian mainland are characterised by karren flutes and pinnacles, with numerous small-medium dolines, collapse structures, swallow holes and small caves at their base. As at Mt Sedom, caves tend to be sediment-armoured meandering tube caves or subvertical canyon slots that are centred on joints in the salt beneath a thin suffusion mantle. In contrast, the halite caves in the diapiric cores of the many islands in the Arabian Gulf have a more mature bevelled meandering style with thicker sediment armouring on the cavern floor. Many of these caves breach the retreating edges of former namakiers and salt fountains.

Salt movement in the various diapiric cores of these islands is inactive, or is greatly reduced, compared to the Miocene when these structures were active namakiers. For example, Dragon Breath Cave on Hormuz Island is a linear meander tube cave fed by an ephemeral stream in a shallow valley filling with alluvium (Figure 11; Bosak et al., 1999; Filippi et al., 2011). The surrounding landscape is classic salt karst with numerous depressions, blind valleys, ponors and subrosion sinks. Together they form a highly pockmarked centripetally-ringed topography, which outlines those central parts of the island underlain by shallow subcropping Hormuz salt. The cave itself is one of a number of tube caves exiting about the edge of the zone of diapiric salt. Hosted in steeply dipping diapiric salt, it is around 100 m long with its main passage created by a minor ephemeral stream. Its near flat roof, with an average inclination of 5.4%, is a notable feature and reflects either joint-related dissolutional spalling of the roof or an earlier watertable slot related to backup of a freshened water body.

The current cave passage has cut down a metre or more into earlier cave floor sediments (sediment armour), which contain clasts up to 50 cm in diameter. The cave formed by initial ingress along a linear joint, which was then widened by salt dissolution, so allowing meandering of the stream trace within the salt. It is a cave system very similar to the mature stages of laterally expanding caves in Mt Sedom. The base level of the cave correlates with the surface of a widespread marine terrace, which is now uplifted some 20 metres above sealevel and defines much of the periphery of Hormuz Island. The raising of the marine terrace is related to the ongoing raising of the island via salt flow.

Bruthans et al. (2000, 2010) show that the style of karst landform developed in dissolving diapiric salt in the Arabian Gulf Islands reflects the thickness of the carapace that caps the dissolving salt core (Figure 10). They distinguished four classes of diapir cap, each with a particular association of superficial and underground karst forms, namely: 1) outcropping salt, 2) thin capping (0.5-2 m), 3) capping with moderate thickness (5-30 m), 4) capping with greater thickness (more than 30 m). Cap thickness controls or reflects: 1) the density of recharge points, with high densities of recharge points in the thinner caps; 2) the amount of concentrated recharge which occurs at each recharge point, with suffusion karst characterising thinner caps; 3) the rate of lowering the ground surface atop the salt, with the faster rates of lowering occurring beneath thinner caps, and 4) the amount of load transported by underground flood-streams into cave systems. The volume of sediment load tends to be locally higher and focused beneath the thicker caps, particularly when inflow streams abut the edges of a dissolving salt dome. The thickness of caps atop expanding halite caves does not appear to influence the shape or style of the cave developed within the salt mass; more important seems to be the thickness of cap in the recharge area of the cave and the type of recharge into the salt environment. That is, how much water is passing into the salt and is its flow ongoing or ephemeral?

Halite caves in the relatively mature salt stems of the various islands of the Arabian Gulf, unlike carbonate systems, can swallow and store huge volumes of clastic sediment, volumes that would clog the entrance to a carbonate system. The extreme solubility of halite enables the pace of dissolution/corrosion enlargement in a salt cave to keep pace with large amounts of sediment carried into the cave by external inflows (Figure 11b). Stream sediments arriving at the cave entrance, including boulders, move inside and are trapped within the salt itself. Sediment is not dumped outside the cave entrance, which is the typical situation in blind valley river mouths at carbonate caves (Bruthans et al., 2003). For example, coarse-grained sediment fractions are carried hundreds of metres into the cave by two large intermittent streams entering the upper part of the Ponor Cave (Hormuz Island). The clasts in the resulting intra-cave alluvial fan conglomerates range from cobble of several centimetres up to 1 m diameter boulders; only sand-sized particles make it to the lower part of the same cave.

Caves capable of storing such coarse alluvium within the cavern itself are halite-specific with no equivalent in a carbonate karst terrain. There the boulder-size fraction in the cave itself is the result of roof fall, and almost all stream-borne coarse alluvium is deposited outside the cave.


Evaporite Speleothems

Cave walls in zones of less intense dissolution and stream crossflow are decorated with halite, gypsum and anhydrite speleothems (Figure 12). Halite has a much higher potential to form macro- or mono-crystalline speleothems than calcite and gypsum (Forti 2017). Therefore, in most of the studied halite caves around the world, relatively large euhedral or hopper halite crystals have been observed as in the Iranian and Atacama caves (Forti, 2017; De Waele et al., 2009). The preferred location for these crystals are the pools in the cave entrances, where evaporation is sufficiently low to allow the development of euhedral crystals up to 10 cm in size (Figure 12, 13; Fillipi et al., 2011).

In the Iranian caves halite macrocrystals normally form also along streams, whereas in the Atacama Desert they are completely lacking. This is because they need time to develop and therefore the stream must remain active for at least a few days (Figure 12a; Filippi et al., 2011).

Monocrystalline stalactites are widespread in the Iranian caves; the most common of which are the skeletal forms (Figure 12a; Filippi et al., 2011). An idealised skeletal stalactite normally consists of a central rounded “stalactite” from which, at different heights, three smaller and shorter rounded branches develops, being equally spaced at an angle of 120° (Figure 12b). Moreover, each branch and the central stalactite form an angle of ~70°. These values show that the directions of the central columns and the side twigs correspond to that of the four cube diagonals. Finally, at the end of each twig, there is a small halite crystal with one of its diagonals perfectly coincident with the twig (Figure 12b).

It is therefore evident that the entire structure of these peculiar stalactites consists of a single crystal lattice, albeit with a fractal appearance, and this fact is also confirmed by the presence along the rounded column of evident crystal facets oriented in the same direction (Figure 12b). Air currents and other local perturbing factors may cause a deflection from the theoretical direction of both the main column and of the side twigs (anemolites; Figure 12a). Finally, the rounded structure of the central column and of the external twigs is normally covered by glazy halite suggesting that cycles of deposition and dissolution alternate, while no inner feeding tube is present within the central column.

By these observations, the genesis of these skeletal monocrystalline stalactites is induced as driven by solutions mainly coming from brines and sprays, that then flow via gravity and capillarity only on the external surface of the stalactites. The amount and the composition of these solutions must change in time, becoming sometimes slightly undersaturated, probably during rain falls. The location of these speleothems close to waterfalls, where sprays are easily formed support that interpretation (Figure 13; Filippi et al., 2011; Forti 2017).

Compared to the growth rates of calcite speleothems in carbonate caves the growth rates of evaporite speleothems are phenomenal. Halite stalactites, several metres long and curving into the direction of airflow, formed in the mouth of Dragon Breath cave in a few years rather than millennia needed for carbonate counterparts (Bokacs et al., 1999). In August 1997, a network of numerous halite stalagmites and stalactites blocked the entrance to Dragon Breath Cave. In March 1998 there were no remains of the speleothem meshwork, while in February 1999, the stalagmites had reappeared (Bosak et al., 1999). Similar halite structures occur in the caverns of Mt Sedom and on the wet roofs of some salt mines.

Telogenetic halite deposits forming in namakiers encompass a range of mechanisms and speleothem textures (Figure 13; Filippi et al., 2011): i) via crystallization in/on streams and pools, ii) from dripping, splashing and aerosol water, iii) from evaporation of seepage and capillary water, and iv) other types of evaporative deposits. The following examples of halite textures are distinguished in each of the above-mentioned groups: i) euhedral crystals, floating rafts (raft cones), thin brine surface crusts and films; ii) straw stalactites, macrocrystalline skeletal and hyaline deposits, aerosol deposits; iii) microcrystalline forms (crusts, stalactites and stalagmites, helictites); iv) macrocrystalline helictites, halite bottom fibres and spiders, crystals in fluvial sediments, euhedral halite crystals in rock salt, combined or transient forms and biologically induced deposits. The occurrence of particular forms depends strongly on the environment, in particular on the type of brine occurrence (pool, drip, splashing brine, microscopic capillary brine, etc.), flow rate and its variation, atmospheric humidity, evaporation rate and, in some cases, on the air flow direction. Combined or transitional secondary deposits can be observed if the conditions changed during the deposition. Euhedral halite crystals originate solely below the brine surface of supersaturated streams and lakes.

Macrocrystalline skeletal deposits occur at places with abundant irregular dripping and splashing (i.e., waterfalls, or places with strong dripping from the cave ceilings, etc.). Microcrystalline (fine-grained) deposits are generated by evaporation of capillary brine at places where brine is not present in a macroscopically visible form. Straw stalactites form at places where dripping is concentrated in small spots and is frequently sufficient to assure that the tip of the stalactite will not be overgrown by halite precipitates. If the tip is blocked by halite precipitates, the brine remaining in the straw will seep through the walls and helictites start to grow in some places.

Macrocrystalline skeletal halite deposits and straw stalactites usually grow after a major rain event when dripping is strong, while microcrystalline speleothems are formed continuously during much longer periods and ultimately (usually) overgrow the other types of speleothems during dry periods. The rate of secondary halite deposition is much faster compared to the carbonate karst. Some forms increase more than 0.5 m during the first year after a strong rain event; however, the age of speleothems is difficult to estimate, as they are often combinations of segments of various ages and growth periods alternate with long intervals of inactivity.

Anhydrite forms speleothems in preference to gypsum in those rare parts of a cave with very high salinity waters, But overall gypsum speleothems dominate Some of these gypsum speleothems can be quite large, up to a few metres long.

Unlike halite and gypsum caves, which are rich in halite and gypsum formations respectively, anhydrite caves do not host anhydrite speleothems at all. This is a direct consequence of the CaSO4 – CaSO4.2H2O solubility disequilibrium, which makes the hydrated mineral (gypsum) less soluble than the anhydrous one (anhydrite) at normal cave temperatures, thus totally hindering the development of secondary anhydrite formations. Most of the gypsum produced by hydration replaces anhydrite within the rock structure, and therefore anhydrite does not form any speleothems. Nonetheless, a minor part of this secondary gypsum may develop some small deposits. In the caves of the Upper Secchia Valley, small gypsum crusts and flowstones were observed where condensation water, after dissolving anhydrite, flows over the gallery roof or walls where air currents induce evaporation (Chiesi & Forti, 1988). In the same caves, when per ascensum capillary flow and evaporation are possible, euhedral aggregates of small gypsum crystals may develop on top of rock. The interested reader is referred to a comprehensive paper by Forti, 2017 dealing the great variety of halite and gypsum speleothems.

Anhydrite karst is known from several countries of the world, but in almost all cases it is located at depths that make direct exploration almost impossible (Ford & Williams, 2007). This is the reason why until present, only caves from two locations (South Harz in Germany and Upper Secchia Valley in Italy) were explored and their speleothems studied.

The Upper Secchia Valley anhydrite caves and their chemical deposits were already known when the first monograph on speleothems in gypsum caves was published (Forti, 1996). However, at that time these caves were incorrectly considered as formed in gypsum and therefore their deposits were described along with those hosted in classical gypsum karst.

The genesis and evolution of the German and Italian anhydrite caves are completely different; in fact, the first are hypogenic caves (Kempe, 2014) and lack any natural entrance, whereas the second ones are epigenic and often develop very close to the surface (Malavolti, 1949). Therefore, chemical deposits are different in the two locations and restricted to the peculiar environment that controlled the evolution of the caves.

Leaving aside the widespread secondary gypsum produced by the hydration of the host rock, anhydrite caves are extremely poor in chemical deposits. The lack of minerals in the hypogenic caves is because they were filled with near-stagnant water for most of the time during their development. In the epigenic caves, instead, the absence of cave minerals is mainly attributed to the strong increase in volume caused by hydration of anhydrite (that turns into gypsum), which makes the wall and the ceiling of these cavities extremely fractured. In this latter setting, the rather continuous breakdown normally inhibits the development of even small chemical deposits, which, in any case, are easily washed away by the frequent floods that characterise the Upper Secchia Valley. Despite all these restrictions, the anhydrite caves proved to be interesting not only from a mineralogical point of view, as they host one cave mineral (clinochlore, Chiesi & Forti, 1985) restricted to this environment, but also for the presence of a unique gypsum/anhydrite speleothem, i.e., the huge “leather like sheets” of Barbarossa Cave (Figure 14).



Part 1 and Part 2 of this set of articles dealing with evaporite dissolution emphasise the importance of rapid rates of volume loss in creating a unique set of karst landforms and speleothems. This rapidity creates cavities in a hydrological milieu of contrasting brine salinity and temperature interfaces and permeability contrasts.This inherent association of voids in a setting with abrupt chemical interfaces facilitates the enrichment levels of economic commodities (part 6) and drives rapid bed stoping and foundering that forms zones of significant natural and anthropogenically enhanced geohazards in the landscape (parts 4 and 5).


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Salt's uses across human history

John Warren - Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Salt's uses across human history

Until the 19th Century and the advent of refrigeration, salt's main uses was as a preservative and as a much sought after flavouring for foodstuffs. Even today, most people think of salt in terms of sprinkling it on their food, or in colder climates they may also think in terms of road de-icing. These are in fact lesser modern usages of halite; its main use is as a feedstock in the chemical industry, a topic we shall discuss in a later blog. This essay focuses on salt's importance to humanity prior to the chemical age.

Sodium chloride (halite), the most common industrial evaporite salt and is used in some form by virtually every person in the world. The human body contains about 110 gm of salt. Salt is essential to all living creatures and even many plants. Since the body cannot manufacture it, salt is an "essential" nutrients, and as an electrolyte, we lose it every time we sweat. Without enough salt, muscles won't contract, blood doesn’t circulate, food goes undigested, and ultimately the heart ceases to beat.

Halite, along with other salts, has long played a very important role in human affairs. Early hominids lived on the edge of the saline Lake Olduvai (Hay and Kyser, 2001) and salt was part of their diet. In ancient Greece it was so valuable that the slave trade involved an exchange of salt for a slave and gave rise to the expression, “not worth his salt.” Some 4,700 years ago the Peng-Tzao-Kan-Mu was published in China. It is probably the earliest known treatise on pharmacology, with detailed discussions of the palliative and curative powers of more than 40 kinds of salts, including descriptions of two methods of recovering usable salts from brine. There are more than 14,000 reported usages of halite and more than 30 references to salt in the Bible. Some 3,200 years ago, near Hallstatt in Austria, Bronze-Age miners were extracting salt, from a network of several kilometres of galleries up to 300 metres below the surface. Two thousand seven hundred years later some ten pages deal with salt in the “De Re Metallica” by Georgius Agricola (Georg Bauer), both mining it and producing it from seawater or brine springs. Published in 1556, Agricola’s was the first book on mining to be based on field research and observation.


Salt as a preservative

Historically, whether food was hunted, gathered, or grown and harvested, food supply was rarely available year-round to all members of a society. Yet, effective, year-round, reliable food storage was vital, especially for non-nomadic agricultural societies. Today, to maintain reliable food supplies to our ever-expanding urban populations, we refrigerate, freeze-dry or can our food. Food preservation problems seem trivial to most consumers in the developed world, outside of the world’s war zones. But, prior to the 19th century, effective food storage often made the difference between life and death to large segments of the world's human population.

In arid climates, food can effectively be stored by drying. But in more humid temperate climates, fungus and bacteria rapidly destroy stored and cellared food. Even where food can be stored in winter ice, it quickly rots when spring thaws set in. Documents from northern Europe, give some clues about the severity of the problem, and its solution. In medieval societies, with relatively poor transportation systems, villages and counties had to be close to self-sufficient in food. If a bad harvest occurred, to mitigate a potential disaster there had to be enough food stored to tide over until the next harvest. Medieval Europe offers an example of the way in which agricultural societies dealt with food security. Good-quality arable land was scarce, and had to be used for crops. That meant that grazing and foraging animals, mainly cattle and pigs, were turned out into the local woodlands for the summer to forage for grass, roots, and nuts. Any relative shortage of winter fodder in turn meant that surplus animals would best be butchered before cold weather drove them indoors. In medieval England the annual slaughter was traditionally around Martinmas, St Martin's Day (10 November), but it was earlier in the colder climes of Sweden. In turn, that meant that fresh meat was readily available only at that time, and that fresh protein in the form of milk and butter was only available in winter from cows kept in shelter. In addition, taxes were often paid in kind rather than money, and that meant that the landlord had to be given foodstuffs that could be stored.

The response of the Swedes and most northern Europeans, was to preserve almost all their food, and they used salt to do so. Beef and pork were salted and dried as joints, hams, and sausages. Butter was salted. Typically it took a pound of salt to preserve 10 pounds of butter (salt was sufficiently costly that housewives removed salt before they used stored butter). Fish, whether freshwater or from the sea, were salted and dried, and bread was salted and hung to dry. Surviving records from 1573 show the servants of King Gustavus Vasa of Sweden ate some 102 kg (224 pounds) of beef and pork, but 99 kg of it (218 pounds) was salted and dried. They almost never had fresh meat. The King issued an order to release 3-year-old butter from the tax stores for some men hired to work at the castle, and ordered the sale of 4-year-old (barley) malt because it was starting to get weevils in it. He ordered the peasants to store their butter and meat in the fall, after the annual slaughter, but he also ordered them not to eat any of it for 12 months (as they should be eating the previous year's food during that time).


Outside of salted food storage, the ancient Egyptians are famous for their perfection of the art of mummification. A key ingredient in the process was natrun, which is a natural mixture of halite, trona and sodium sulphate (Edwards et al., 2007). The ancients knew its preservative properties as it readily absorbs water, making it an excellent desiccant/preservative of organic material. Natrun is found in large quantities in the beds of several Egyptian playa lakes (e.g. Wadi Natrun and El Kab, as well as Behiera in the nearby Libyan desert and in Lake Natron in the African Rift valley; Figure 2). It has been mined and traded from such localities for thousands of years. Writings as old as the reign of Rameses III (1198-1166 B.C.) refer to natrun deposits. Its preservative qualities must have been immediately apparent to the ancient Egyptians from its effects on any wild life, which had died in these lakes (Figure 2). There is some evidence that the ancient Egyptians artificially precipitated natrun by isolating shallow basins of salt lake waters for faster evaporation, as is still done in parts of the Faiyum depression today. For purification and preservation, natrun was preferred over pure halite as it chemically attacks and destroys grease and fat, and so is a superior drying agent (as is sodium borate). Its residues are found not only in tombs and in pits, along with other discarded embalming materials, but also forms nodules and residues in the mummies themselves.

There is some popular debate over the method in which the natrun was used for mummification by the ancient Egyptians. Some argue it was used in a way similar to the contemporary method for “salting” fish. Dry natrun would be sprinkled over the body, perhaps with sawdust, or spread with linen cloth wraps. Others with a more starry-eyed bent, believe the body was immersed in vats containing a natrun solution. Such a wet method would have been odiferous and accelerated putrefaction, thus counterproductive to the preservation of the body, although it makes for good Hollywood images. A dry body is also more readily bandaged as well as being more amenable to the attachment of amulets and other jewellery. Although mummification has supernatural trappings in popular culture and ancient religions, its basis is rooted in simple chemistry and processes as mundane as salting fish.


The mummies of some Buddhist monks (Sokushinbutsu sect) in Japan resulted from the practise of nyūjō, which ultimately aimed to cause their own death and mummification by encasement in salt. This ritual took years to complete and involved starvation and dehydration. During the first three years, an ascetic monk significantly decreased his body fat by eating only nuts, seeds, and berries, while he increased his physical activity. Towards the end of the ritual the monk reduced his food intake even further by only consuming bark, roots, and sometimes stones. Post-mortem preservation was further aided by consumption of toxic herbs and tea that eliminated bodily fluids and killed bacteria that aid in decomposition. Japanese Sokushinbutsu monks were known to drink a tea made from the urushi tree, also known as the Chinese lacquer tree because it’s sap is used to lacquer tableware, instruments, and jewellery.

After years of starvation and dehydration, when the monk felt like he was close to death, his fellow monks arranged his body in the lotus position inside a coffin or a tomb. Then they surrounded the dying man with salt, wood, paper, or lime to pull more moisture away from the body and further prevent post-mortem decay. Only a small opening for air was allowed when the tomb was closed. The monk then chanted, meditated and occasionally rang a bell until he died.

Once his fellow monks heard silence they completely sealed the tomb. After several years, the monks exhumed the body to see if the self-mummification ritual was successful. Like some Eastern Orthodox religions, these Buddhists believed that an incorrupt body, a body having delayed decomposition, indicated a monk’s holiness. If the body was incorrupt after exhumation then the corpse was placed in a temple, adorned, and tended to by followers. However, if a tomb was opened and the body had decayed, then the corpse was left behind and the tomb was resealed. That monk’s efforts were respected, but his body was not given the deference of a religious relic. Japan banned unburying in 1879 and assisted suicide, including religious suicide is now illegal. In a similar vein, in 1933, the Dalai Lama was buried sitting up in a bed of salt.

Mummification can occur naturally if a body is encased in halite, and natrun is not necessary, although it improves preservation. In 1593 AD, and again in 1616 AD, several tombs encased in salt were exposed by natural salt weathering and collapse in the Hazel Mountains. When the coffins were opened by the local people of Hallein and Hallstatt, there was astonishment that the bodies inside had very well preserved soft tissues. It was the result of the hyperarid encasement in a Neolithic salt mine, but frightened religious locals, encouraged by the local clergy, insisted on prompt reburial, along with additional religious efforts to lessen ambient sin levels (in part in the form of alms to mother church) and hence more prayer to create more effective seals. There was a similar popular response in 1734 AD when the salt preserved body of a man wearing mountain clothing (likely a salt miner) was discovered. Fearful locals, once again encouraged by the local clergy, insisted on immediate reburial with no further scientific study or observations on the remains (Aufderheide, 2011). 

In Iran, first in the winter of 1993 and later in 2004, in the modern Chehr Abad Salt Mine, near Hamzehloo, Zanjan Province, a total five salt-preserved male bodies were found in a collapsed tunnel of a former salt mine, which was active around 400 BC. The first discovery in the winter of 1993 was a salt encased bearded head and some artefacts, the later discovery, beginning in November 2004, was of the remaining bodies. It is likely all five men died in earthquake induced collapses in the salt mine (Pollard et al., 2008). Encasement in the hyperarid atmosphere of the collapsed salt mine tunnel led to natural mummification of the bodies.

Salt and war

Salt’s historical use as a food preservative, along with its medicinal use, made it a valuable commodity with political and military significance. The earliest recorded war over access to a supply of salt was over a salt lake in China in 3000 BC. In 2200 BC the Chinese emperor Hsia Yua declared that Shandong Province must supply the Imperial Court with salt. An ancient Chinese philosopher once called salt “the sweetest thing on earth.” The words, “war” and “peace” originate from the words for salt and bread in ancient Hebrew and Arabic, while from the Latin "sal," came words such as "sauce" and “sausage."

As an example of salt’s military import let’s look at the significance of a reliable salt supply to the army of the Old South in the 1860s during the American Civil War. Each Confederate soldier was provided with starch (26 pounds of coarse meal, 7 pounds of flour or biscuit, 3 pounds of rice), protein (10 pounds of bacon), and salt (one and a half pounds). Bacon was the meat of the South, and every pound of it required salt. As well as military personnel, horses also need salt in their diet. The Confederacy also needed this precious mineral to treat wounds, tan leather and dye cloth for uniforms. Last century, the historian Ella Lonn (1933) devoted an entire book to the problem of reliable salt supply for the Confederacy during the Civil War. We know that the Confederate soldiers were hungrier than the Northerners throughout the war. We shall never know whether the hogs that were not slaughtered because there was no salt to preserve them took the edge off the Confederate troops, or whether the salt that was not available for the horses took the edge off the cavalry. "What hogs we have to make our meat, we can't get salt to salt it," wrote Mrs Sarah Brown to Governor Pettus of Mississippi in December 1861. In 1862, Governor Brown of Georgia wrote that only half of the meat of the State could be saved for the 1862-1863 season.


That most intelligent and brutally efficient of the Northern Generals, Sherman, had no doubt about salt’s importance to any army and its morale, he considered it as important as gunpowder, he declared. "Without salt they cannot make bacon and salt beef," and, "Salt is eminently contraband, because [of] its use in curing meats, without which armies cannot be subsisted." Sherman sent a captain for trial on a charge of aiding the enemy, because he had allowed salt through the lines to the Confederates. The Union forces were sent orders to destroy salt stores and salt works wherever they were found (Figure 4). Throughout the American Civil War the South’s salt production facilities in Saltville, Va., Virginia's Kanawha Valley and Avery Island, Louisiana, were targets of the Union Army. The North fought for 36 hours to capture Saltville, Va., where the salt works were considered so crucial that Confederate President Jefferson Davis offered to waive military service to anyone willing to tend coastal salt kettles and so supply the South's war effort.

In November 1863, General Burnside noted in a despatch to Grant that Lee had placed a strong defensive force in front of Saltville [Virginia]. Grant understood the significance of the deployment. In December 1863 he wrote to General Foster, "If your troops can get as far as Saltville and destroy the works there, it will be an immense loss to the enemy." In the event, the Confederates guarded the works so well that the Union Army did not take (and destroy) the salt works until December 1864. General Burbridge boasted that the loss of Saltville would be "more felt by the enemy than the loss of Richmond." Meanwhile the North, even with salt sources of its own, imported 86,208 tons of salt from England in 1864 alone.

Likewise, thousands of Napoleon’s troops died during his retreat from Moscow, because for lack of salt their wounds would not heal.

Ancient salt production and its taxable value

Around 6,000 BC on the margins of Lake Yun Cheng in Northern China’s we see the first evidence of an industry designed to harvest and produce salt, via the evaporation of lake brines in purpose-built salt pans. In Europe, the first recorded industrial production of pan salt took place in Italy some 2500 years ago when Ancus Martius, one of the early Roman kings, began letting sea water into an enclosed basin, then allowing the sun to evaporate the water to create a salt residue. The importance that Rome attached to the salt works and port at Ostia was such that the main highway along which the salt was carried to Rome was called the Via Salaria. Like Venice after it, the city of Rome based much of its early commerce on trading salt. Special salt rations paid to early Roman soldiers were known as “salarium argentum”, the forerunner of the English word “salary.” With a near monopoly on supply to Rome, the traders in the port of Ostia raised the salt price so high that the state was forced to take over the industry in 506 BC.

When Julius Caesar landed in Britain in 55 BC, he brought his salinators with him, but found that even the backward Britons were extracting salt by pouring brine on to hot stones. The Romans, however, used iron pans in which they boiled the brine, and Caesar established a brine-based salt works in Cheshire and subsequently in other localities where ancient salt occurred at shallow depths. The towns in Britain where salt was made from brines extracted from shallow buried ancient salt beds can be distinguished to this day by the termination “wich”, an Anglo-Saxon descriptor for a place where salt was made and includes towns like Greenwich, Ipswich, Droitwich, Northwich and Middlewich. Likewise, within regions of shallow salt and brines in Austria and Germany, names containing "salz" and "halle," such as Salzburg ("salt city"), Salzkammergut, Reichenhall, Halle, Hallein, and Hallstatt, as well as the old Austrian/Polish province of Galicia, identify some of the salt-bearing areas.

Merchants in 12th-Century Timbuktu in Africa, the gateway to the Sahara Desert was the seat of renowned scholars, who valued salt extracted from salt lakes to north in the vicinity of Taoudenni, Mali, as highly as books or gold. The Taoudenni mines are located on the bed of an ancient erg-edge salt lake and have been actively quarried for more than a 1,000 years. Today, the miners use crude axes to dig pits that usually measure 5 m by 5 m with a depth down to around 4 m. The miners first remove up to 1.5 m of red clay overburden, in contrast to the salt miners in the Danakil who work at the active pan surface (see Salty Matters, 19 April, 2015). Then several layers of poor quality salt are removed before reaching three layers of high quality salt. The salt is cut into slabs that are 110 cm x 45 cm by 5 cm in thickness and weigh around 30 kg. Two of the high quality layers are of sufficient thickness to be split in half, so that 5 slabs can be produced from the three layers. Having removed the salt from the base area of the pit, the miners excavate horizontally to create galleries from which additional slabs can be obtained.  As each pit is exhausted, another is dug so there are now thousands of pits spread over a wide area on the lake. Over the centuries salt has been extracted from three distinct areas of the lake depression, with each successive area located further to the southwest. The  areas can be clearly seen on satellite photographs (22.606519°E, 4.030660°S). Until recently salt was transported south by huge camel trains, now more and more salt is carried out by 4-wheel drive trucks, south to Timbucktu and on to the river port of Mopti (Figure 5).  Among the some of the nomadic tribes of the Sahara and Ethiopia's Danakil Plains, salt carried by camel trains and is still used occasionally as money or bartered for a cash equivalent. When the camel trains of Mali carried the salt, each animal typically carried 4 blocks of salt. On reaching the salt market, three blocks sold off the back of each animal went to the camel train owners, and the profit of the sale of the remaining block to the salt miner. 


In Tibet, Marco Polo noted that tiny cakes of salt, manufactured from salt lakes in the high plains of Tibet were pressed with images of the Grand Khan and used as coins.The ancient Maya made salt at Salinas de los Nueve Cerros, Guatemala, an area where natural salt springs flowed into a river gully, giving easy trading access to downstream customers (Figure 6). This site was the only large-scale source of salt for the interior Lowland Maya. Maya technology included solar evaporation and firing of brine from salt springs in special large ceramic bowls that are the largest receptacles ever found in any Maya sites.

The highly organized salt trade of China was observed by Marco Polo, who recorded that the major item of trade on the Yangtze River was salt, shipped upstream from the coast (especially from the city of Hangchou) to the interior cities. The Chinese produced salt by many methods: they evaporated it, boiled seawater, and pumped brine from wells drilled into salt beds. Modern oil-drilling traces its roots back to Chinese methods of bamboo-based drilling technology that originally evolved for salt production from ancient subsurface brine sources (this will be the subject of a later blog).


Salt production, politics and taxes

Salt's economic value has meant it has been taxed by governments from the ancient Chinese and Romans to governments of late medieval Europe to those of France, even up to the late 1940s. In 2200 BC the Chinese Emperor Hsia Yu levied a salt tax, which was one of the world's first documented state taxes.

The Mediterranean and the rise of Venice

The great trading ports of the Mediterranean dealt in salt as well as spices and textiles. Not surprisingly, the greater of them, Genoa and Venice not only traded in salt, but fought for supremacy over the trade. Because of the hot dry summers and mild wet winters, salt can be made in a saltern or pan in almost any suitable seashore flat or plain in the Mediterranean. So although it is possible to envisage a trader's cartel from a specific geological region of shallow buried salt in Austria or England, it is much more difficult to control the production of salt in coastal saltpans. So, in hindsight, it is surprising how effectively Genoa and especially Venice, managed to take control of Mediterranean salt production, as well as trading, across the 13th to 16th centuries. Genoa was positioned in the Western Mediterranean and Venice at the head of the Adriatic. Each used all its political and military strength to consolidate its local salt trade, and to encroach as far as possible on that of its rival. However, Venice was more organised politically, which translated into more ruthless and effective use of state power. And Venice made a conscious decision to concentrate on the salt trade, whereas to the Genoese it was just one of a set of potentially profitable cargoes. Where the two came into conflict over salt, the Venetians tended to win.

Venice managed to make a business out of control of the Adriatic salt trade. Venice owed some of its early wealth to the salt trade from salt works in its lagoon, and had a number of contracts with inland Italian cities in the 13th century to supply them with salt. The more that Venice came to control the salt trade in the Adriatic, the more the resulting profits were used by the city to subsidise other trading activities. Venetian traders delivering salt to the city were given bank credits, for example, allowing them to buy goods quickly. As the historian S. A. Adshead has written, "For the Venetians, salt was not a commodity among commodities... it greased the wheels of all the working parts and fuelled its motor". The salt trade allowed Venetian traders to compete very effectively with their rivals across the board. Salt was "il vero fondamento del nostro stato” (The true foundation of our state).

Always, from their beginnings in the 5th Century, the Venetians were willing to exercise raw power to foster their control of salt. Prior to the rise of the Venetian State, the Roman salt-making center in the Adriatic was at Comacchio, a little north of Ravenna. After the fall of Rome, records of the 8th-century Lombard King Luitpold show that Comacchian salt was being shipped to all the major inland cities of Lombardy, through Ferrara, at least as far inland as Parma, Lodi, and Brescia. By 523 AD Venice was producing salt and in 932 AD the Venetians destroyed Camacchio. They burned the citadel, massacred the inhabitants, and carried off the survivors to Venice, where they had to swear an oath of loyalty to the Doge before they were released. The Venetians began to construct salt works on their own lagoon, and around 1028, we find the Doge of Venice giving permission for Chioggia to build more salines on the Venetian lagoon. However, it turned out that it was not as easy to build salt works in the relatively exposed, storm-prone lagoon of Venice as it had been at Comacchio, and it took a long time before salt production became really successful at Chioggia. Meanwhile, the city of Cervia, south of Ravenna, filled the salt production vacuum left by the destruction of Comacchio and Cervia was in full production at least by 965- ­975 AD.

Around 1180, it was clear that Cervia and Chioggia were rivals for salt production, under the protection of Ravenna and Venice respectively. The Archbishop of Ravenna and the Doge of Venice now began exerting political pressure on the Adriatic salt market. Venice declared it illegal for Chioggia salt to be sold or shipped without a Venetian certificate, and Ravenna did the same for Cervia. The salt market was now out of the hands of merchants and in the hands of the politicians and the Catholic church. By 1234, war between Venice and Ravenna ended with a ban on any Ravenna (Cervia) salt being shipped northward, and Venetian galleys enforced the treaty.

Then, the Venetians went one logical step further: for all practical purposes they gave up trying to be salt producers, and instead concentrated on being (monopoly) salt traders. Between 1250 and 1280, they came more and more to be the dominant buyers of salt, which they then warehoused, shipped and sold (Figure 7). By the 1350s, no salt could move on a ship in the Adriatic unless it was a Venetian ship bound to or from Venice.

A golden rule of Venetian policy was that all trade goods under their control must pass through Venice. As late as 1590 they were making an 81% mark-up on salt sold inland. But that was not always the case, sometimes, if it would foster trade in higher-value goods that would yield more profit, Venice sold salt at less than normal rates. All this activity was planned and supervised by a special State body, the Collegio del Sal. The rewards were staggering, and help to justify the tenacity and ruthlessness with which the Venetians operated the salt business. Typically, Venetian merchants bought salt for 1 ducat a ton, and it cost them about 3 ducats a ton to ship it to Venice. There they received a State subsidy of 8 ducats a ton. The State collected a tax as the salt left Venice, and after shipping to the customer, the selling price was roughly 33 ducats a ton. That was a profit worth fighting for! And it was not only the merchants who profited. Some of the State profits went to the architecture, sculpture, and paintings that remain today and make Venice so magnificent (Figure 7).

The Venetians had different methods for maintaining their trading monopoly. On the island of Pag, they would buy up all the salt that was not needed locally. It would then be shipped to Venice, warehoused and sold (at very high prices) to customers. At Muggia and Capodistria, the Venetians were given a fraction (about 10%) of the salt produced (presumably as protection money), but the locals were allowed to sell the other 90% only as long as it was carried overland, effectively limiting its value and the sales area.

As late as 1578, the Venetians destroyed the salt works at Trieste, and in the following twenty years were making an 80% profit on salt sold inland on the Lombardy plain. But around 1600, paradoxically with the defeat of the Turks at sea, shipping intensity in the Adriatic became too great for the Venetians to be able to maintain their monopoly by force. Their source of riches in the spice trade had also been cut off as the trade routes to India now passed around Africa, and so their shipping power and wealth declined.

Salt and wealth in inland Europe and the UK

Much of the salt supply of inland central and northern Europe came from the mining of shallowly buried ancient salt (Permian) or associated brines. The great salt extraction centre at Reichenhall, in southern Bavaria, was first operated in Roman times, but was destroyed later, possibly by Attila the Hun, but more likely by the German Odoacer. It was rebuilt in the early 7th Century by Saint Rupert of Salzburg (Figure 8) and became the concession of the Bishop of Salzburg, who derived a great deal of power and money from the salt trade. So mother Church promoted the “salt bishops” to Archbishops. About 1190, however, a competing salt works had opened at nearby Berchtesgaden, without the Archbishop's approval, and a major quarrel between Church and State erupted, with the Archbishop and the Emperor in conflict. The Church lost, and in 1198 the Bavarian saltworks passed into the control of the Duke of Bavaria. Reichenhall's production peaked at about this time, and it later lost out in competition with a new salt works opened to the south by the persistent Archbishops of Salzburg. During that time it remained an important salt centre for several hundred more years and, even today, derives income from geotourism and from the therapeutic salt baths of Heilbaden.


Thwarted in Bavaria, the Archbishop of Salzburg turned to salt springs closer by, and so a new salt industry sprang up at Hallein, first mentioned in documents in 1232. By 1300 its production had outstripped that of Reichenhall, and as it was situated closer to the Danube, it was able to ship salt as far as Bohemia, as well as into Austria and Bavaria. The Archbishop gradually bought up shares in Hallein, and by the early 16th century he held them all. However, the crown of Bohemia passed into the Habsburg family, and from the early 1600s, the great market of Bohemia was closed to the Archbishop. The other Austrian salt works were small at first. In the Salzkammergut, salt springs emerged from horizontal tunnels in the valley sides, which, although the locals did not know it, were the ancient galleries into the old flooded salt mines that had been worked in prehistoric times. The salt works at Hall, in the Tyrol, provided a power base for its owners, who were the local Hapsburg Dukes from 1363. The Dukes would sell salt to the Swiss, then use the profits to pay for the Hapsburg campaigns against the Swiss!

Salt production was always limited in Austria by shortages of fuel needed to extract salt by boiling brines. As the boiling houses consumed the local timber, they had to be moved, and fuel was a problem in salt manufacture in this region until modern times and the advent of highly mechanised mining operations. In 1770 there were purpose-built flumes running down the mountain sides, used not for water supply but to float down billets of timber for the boiling houses. Since fuel ran out at Hallstatt very early, the Emperor built a wooden pipeline to take the brine from the ancient mines down the valley to Ischland, on the way it crossed the Gosau Valley via a purpose-built bridge. Salt continued to play a significant role in the politics of the region after 1600,     when it was produced by three major players, Austria, Bavaria, and the Archbishop of Salzburg. The Austrian Empire grew to include Bohemia and Moravia, and this salt-less region became a captive market for the Austrian salt producers, with substantial tax revenue accruing to the Habsburg Emperor. Salt production was considered a state monopoly and Salzmonopol was considered "the brightest jewel in the possession of the Hofkammer.” By1700 it provided some 10% of the total revenue of the state.

In times of military emergency the Habsburgs would regularly use the salt income as collateral for raising money quickly. They did it first when Bohemia revolted in 1618 in the Defenestration of Prague, and Protestant forces besieged Vienna. Emperor Ferdinand II mortgaged his salt revenues to pay for the Catholic army that saved Vienna and won the decisive battle of the White Mountain in 1620. Salt revenue from the Wieliczka salt mine paid the Polish army under King John Sobieski when it rescued Vienna from the Turkish siege of 1683. Interestingly, the Wieliczka salt revenue had earlier passed to the Habsburgs in return for their assistance to the Poles in the Swedish invasion of 1657. Salt was also a state monopoly in Bavaria. Both Austria and Bavaria sought to promote their own salt exports and protect their domestic markets from salt imports, hence there was a flourishing trade in contraband salt.

In 1611 the Archbishop of Salzburg was forced to market his salt through Bavaria, so the rivalry now had only two players. Given that Austria and Bavaria between them controlled all the major salt sources in Central Europe, it is difficult to understand why they did not cooperate to form a cartel. A brief agreement, the Rosenheimer Salt Trade Agreement, was set up in 1649, but lasted for only 40 years. The centrepiece of Bavarian foreign policy became a campaign to sell salt effectively to her western neighbours, given that Austria could sell hers throughout the growing Austro-Hungarian Empire. It is not a coincidence that Bavaria consistently fought on the French side against the Austrians in the War of the Spanish Succession in the early 1700s and during the Napoleonic Wars in the early 1800s.

On the British mainland, Mary Queen of Scots was perhaps the first head of state to have the idea of making salt a taxable source of governmental revenue. She granted a patent to an Italian to make salt in Scotland and then placed a heavy tax on it, which she appropriated to herself. Elizabeth, Queen of England, and Mary's lifelong “dear sister” and eventual executioner, thought this an excellent idea and likewise taxed English salt making. Salt tax was a source of great resentment to everyone, English and Scots alike, and smuggling grew to alarming proportions. In 1785, the Earl of Dundonald wrote that every year in England, 10,000 people were arrested for salt smuggling. During Queen Anne’s reign, the salt tax rose to £30 a ton, an enormous amount of money in those days. The whole of England arose in rioting protest, with the result that the salt tax was finally abolished.

In Burgundy in the 1700s, salt was taxed at more than 100% as it came from the salt-works. This tax was extended to the whole of France when Burgundy was absorbed and the notorious salt tax “la gabelle” became a necessary input to the government's finances. Cardinal Richelieu said that salt was as vital to France as American silver was to Spain. The repeal of the salt tax was a major goal of the revolutionaries of 1789. A few years later, as soon as he became Emperor, Napoleon restored the salt tax to pay for his foreign wars. The salt tax continued until 1945 to feed French government coffers.

It is said that income from a salt pan in southern Spain largely financed Columbus’ voyages. The Erie Canal, an engineering marvel that connected the Great Lakes to New York's Hudson River in 1825, was called “the ditch that salt built” as salt taxes paid for half of the cost of construction. The “Great Hedge of India,” the mid-18th century colonial equivalent of the Great Wall of China, stretched 3,700 km from the western border of Punjab down to the Bay of Bengal. It was manned by 12,000 men and planted by the British to minimise salt smuggling into Bengal and so enforce the collection of the Indian salt tax. As late as the 1940s the people of India under the leadership of Mahatma Gandhi protested British taxes on salt supply. In 1930 Gandhi led a 200-mile march to the Arabian Ocean to symbolically collect untaxed salt for India's poor.

Artisanal salt and culinary expectation

Today, halite is a cheaply-produced commodity extracted from the subsurface in mines, or salt solution plants, or produced at the surface in saltpans. In the production of table salt, processing, packaging and marketing are the major costs for most salt manufacturers. An interesting exception to the low sale price of modern table salt is the artisinal “Fleur de Sel de Geurande” a delicate gourmet form of white seasalt that is still hand-produced on fens along the coast of Brittany (Figure 9). It costs ≈US$40/kg and is produced by “paludiers” only on suitable summer days when halite rafts can be raked from the brine surface of specially maintained coastal salt pans, which are floored with grey clay. According to the local legend, salt flowers only form on hot days when the wind blows from the east (from the sea). It and the cheaper grey salt (sel gris), which is scraped from the pan floors and also prized by gourmands, has been produced this way in French coastal fens since Pre-Roman times. The flowers of salt is marketed as a “natural” product that contains all 84 trace elements and micronutrients found in the sea, and as being a natural source of potassium, calcium, copper, zinc and magnesium.


This halite product has an intense white color, with rigid crunchy crystalline structure and high moisture content giving it a distinct “feel on the tongue.” This is because “Fleur de Sel“ is composed of clusters of halite rafts. These rafts formed on the brine surface, as a thin layer of floating salt crystals, which are harvested daily via raking and then placed on plastic sheets to dry in the sun, making it a highly labor intensive product (Figure 9). The flower of salt product is packed with no other processing, unlike what happens to industrially-produced sea salt that undergoes a process that typically consists of varying combinations of washing, centrifugation and drying by the heat of combustion, grinding and sieving. While large saltwork companies need several square kilometres for salt pan installations, a flower of salt product can be obtained in ponds with total areas smaller than 0.1 hectare. There is a definite economic upside to the artisanal production of “flowers of salt.” Since it is a handmade product, small salterns can be constructed/operated by family groups, so offering a new or supplemental income source for low-income populations living in or near hypersaline strand line areas.

Impurities like clay are called grey spot or black spot in highly efficient mechanised salt production plants across the world and are considered undesirable in the processed end-product. To the cynical it says something about French marketing skills, and perhaps the gullibility of middle-class gourmands with too much money and time on their hands, that each year the gourmet industry successfully markets un-processed dirt-polluted salt (sel-gris) scraped from pan floors for top prices. We shall look deeper into the geological characterisitics of various gourmet salt styles in a later essay.

The various untreated salt products from France, the Himalayas and elsewhere are typically marketed as a "natural organic" product, "completed untreated" so it retains all its "essential nutrients." Such blanket claims from marketers targeting a moneyed, health-conscious and "new-age" mostly middle-class demographic, should at times be taken with a grain of salt. For example, some types of Himalayan "natural" salt produced from high altitude continental lakes in Tibet is iodine deficient. Its local use has led to high levels of cretinism and other thyroid problems in the local peasant population. Introduction of a "processed" iodised salt by the Chinese authorities is still met with resistance, yet such use of iodised salt in China has reduced goiter to 10% of previous levels in the Chinese population. For the similar reasons, "back to nature" and "organic" foods are increasingly popular in middle-class consumers of Australia. The associated resistance to the use of "iodised" salt and other processed products with iodine additives by urban new-age parents has lead to unhealthy levels of iodine depletion in preschool-age urban children, when tested in Melbourne and Sydney (Li et al., 2001; McDonnell et al., 2003). Likewise the use of natural "untreated" salt from Lake Magadi and Natron as a food additive has led to significant health problems (fluorosis) in the local population due to "naturally" high levels of fluorine in the harvested salt (Vuhahula et al., 2009).

Salt, social standing, and religious superstition

Salt, because of its high value in the ancient world, has maintained both cultural and religious significance over more than three millennia. For example, in Medieval and Renaissance European kingdoms, easy access to salt during meals assigned social status. Intricately carved salt cellars would be placed on select tables within easy reach of those deemed worthy. Accordingly at any noble table, to be seated “below the salt” was to be seen as unworthy of access to such luxury (Figure 10).


From its value in its use as a preservative and food additive in the ancient pre-rationalist world, salt became a religious symbol, representing immutability and incorruptible purity. In many religions, salt is still included on the altar to represent purity, and it is mixed into holy water of various sects for the same reason. Ancient Greek worshippers consecrated salt in their rituals, for example the Vestal Virgins sprinkled all sacrificial animals with salt and flour. Salt was a token of permanence to both Jews of the Old Testament and Christians of the New Testament. To the Jews it came to signify the eternal covenant between Jews and Israel. Jewish temple offerings still include salt on the Sabbath and orthodox Jews still dip their bread in salt as a remembrance of those sacrifices. Covenants in both the Old and New Testaments were often sealed with salt, explaining the origin of the word “salvation.” In the Catholic Church, salt is used in a variety of purifying rituals. Jesus called his disciples “the Salt of the Earth”, a statement that was commemorated by the Catholic church until Vatican II, by placing a small taste of salt on a baby's lip at his or her baptism. 

So to the religious, salt is supernatural symbol of the permanent sanctity of Jesus and offers supposed protection to the superstitious. For example, salt is still used to make holy water and also the more powerful exorcised water of the Roman Catholic Church. Salt is also used to make protective circles during exorcisms of demons. In the middle of the last millennia in Europe, salt was believed to provide defence against witches, witchcraft, demons, sprites, and the evil eye. It was a common belief that witches, and the animals they bewitched, could not eat anything salted. Inquisitors were advised by demonologists to protect themselves by wearing an amulet of salt, consecrated on Palm Sunday, along with other blessed herbs, pressed into a disk of blessed wax. Carrying a concealed packet of salt was said to ward off the evil eye as well. Another known talisman to ward off evil spirits was a jar of salt and a knife. Some people put salt and pepper in their left boot for good fortune. To ward off an evil witch, a peasant might throw salt outside the front door and lean a broom next to it. A passing witch would have to count the grains of salt and the blades of straw on the broom before she could do any harm.

Similarly, any waste of salt can be a portent of evil. In Leonardo Da Vinci's famous painting, “The Last Supper,” Judas Escariot has just spilled a bowl of salt - a portent of evil and bad luck. In Buddhist tradition, salt repels evil spirits. It is also why in many Asian cultures it's customary to throw salt over your shoulder before entering your house after a funeral: it scares off any evil spirits that may be clinging to your back. In the Christian tradition you should throw spilt salt over you left shoulder as, according to the Medieval Church, the devil or his demons reside behind or on your left shoulder, with your guardian angels on the right. In Hawaii and Samoa sea salt is used for protection, both by placing salt in each of the four corners of the house and by poring salt on the door threshold to prevent any spirits from crossing into one’s home. Shinto religion also uses salt to purify an area. Before sumo wrestlers enter the ring for a match - which is actually an elaborate Shinto rite - a handful of salt is thrown into the centre to drive off malevolent spirits (Figure 11). In the American Southwest, the Pueblo worship the Salt Mother. Other native American tribes had significant restrictions on who was permitted to eat salt. Hopi legend holds that the angry Warrior Twins punished mankind by placing valuable salt deposits far from civilization, requiring hard work and bravery to harvest the precious mineral.


Chinese folklore credits the Phoenix with the discovery of salt. In Norse mythology the gods first came from a salty ice-block over the course of four days as the sacred cow, Auðumbla brought Búri the first god in Norse mythology, and grandfather of Odin, out of the salty ice block. In another creation myth, Tiamat is the symbol of the chaos of primordial creation in Mesopotamian religion (Sumerian, Assyrian, Akkadian and Babylonian). She is a primordial salty goddess of the ocean, mating with Apsu (the god of fresh water) to produce the younger gods. Her husband, Apsu, later makes war upon their children and is killed. When she, too, wars upon her husband's murderers, she is then slain by Enki's son, the storm-god Marduk. and the arch of the heavens and the earth were formed from her divided body. Records from the Middle Euphrates Hittite kingdom of Mari attest to the veneration of Hatta, the god of salt, through the erection of a statue to him by the city’s ruler, Zimri-Lim (Stackert, 2010). Among Hittite rituals, perhaps the best-known use of salt is one that parallels its use in various Mesopotamian curses: the First Hittite Soldier’s Oath employs salt within an analogical curse ritual against that soldier who would commit sedition. Ancient Greek worshippers also consecrated salt in their rituals.


Outcrops of diapiric salt masses can also have superstitious significance (Genesis 19:26); Lot’s wife was noted in the journals of Fulcher of Chartres (Chaplain to King Baldwin) who accompanied the crusader Baldwin I across the Dead Sea valley in December 1100 AD. In reality, the apophenic feature described as Lot’s wife is a 12m-high column of diapiric salt lying at the foot of the much larger Mt Sedom (Usdum) on the edge of the Dead Sea (Figure 12). It is one of a number of dissolutional remnants along the gypsum-capped cavernous edge of an outcropping diapir composed of Miocene salt, which makes up to core of Mount Sedom.


Aufderheide, A. C., 2011, The Scientific Study of Mummies, Cambridge University Press, 634 p.

Hay, R. L., and T. K. Kyser, 2001, Chemical sedimentology and paleoenvironmental history of Lake Olduvai, a Pliocene lake in northern Tanzania: Geological Society of America Bulletin, v. 113, p. 1510-1521.

Li, M., G. Ma, K. Guttikonda, S. Boyages, and C. Eastman, 2001, The re-emergence of iodine deficiency in Sydney, Australia: Asia Pacific J of Clin. Nutr., v. 10, p. 200-203.

Lonn, E., 1933, Salt as a Factor in the Confederacy: New York, Walter Neale, 324 p.

McDonnell, C., M. Harris, and M. Zacharin, 2003, Iodine Deficiency and goitre in schoolchildren in Melbourne, 2001: Med. J. Aust., v. 178, p. 159-162.

Pollard, A. M., D. R. Brothwell, A. Aali, S. Buckley, H. Fazeli, M. H. Dehkordi, T. Holden, A. K. G. Jones, J. J. Shokouhi, R. Vatandoust, and A. S. Wilson, 2008, Below the salt: A Preliminary study of the dating and biology of five salt-preserved bodies from Zanjun Province, Iran: Iran, v. 46, p. 135-150.

Stackert, J., 2010, The variety of ritual application for salt and the Maqlu salt incantation, in T. Abusch, and D. Schwemer, eds., Corpus of Mesopotamian Anti-witchcraft Rituals: Volume One, Brill, p. 235-252.

Vuhahula, E. A. M., J. R. P. Masalu, L. Mabelya, and W. B. C. Wandwi, 2009, Dental fluorosis in Tanzania Great Rift Valley in relation to fluoride levels in water and in "Magadi" (Trona): Desalination, v. 248, p. 610-615.

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