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Hot on the Incense Trail

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Science  28 May 2010:
Vol. 328, Issue 5982, pp. 1099
DOI: 10.1126/science.328.5982.1099

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Frankincense was the ancient world's most lucrative product, essential in temple rituals throughout the Mediterranean and Southwest Asia, prescribed by doctors for digestive problems, and turned to ash for eyeliner among Egyptian gentry. Yet the origin of its trade remains only dimly understood, in part because the mostly nomadic inhabitants here closely guarded their secret and left few artifacts and no texts behind. Researchers long assumed that the frankincense trade did not flourish until 1000 B.C.E. or later. But a country now welcoming archaeologists is providing an unusual combination of textual evidence, remote-sensing data, and careful excavations (see main text). The data suggest that the trade sprang up far earlier, archaeologists say.