Wine and Fish Sauce: Romans’ 2000-Year Old culinary preferences revealed in Ashkelon

December 17, 2019 by TPS
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Recent archaeological excavations conducted by the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) south of the coastal city of Ashkelon uncovered an ancient industrial area revealing that the Roman menu made its way to the tables of ancient Israel.

Aerial view of the site. (Asaf Peretz/IAA)

The excavations, which were conducted prior to the establishment of the Eco-Sport Park, revealed winepresses and rarely-discovered installations for producing a fish sauce that was very popular and the preparation of which involved strong odours.

The vats used to produce the sauce, known as garum, are among the few known to be found in the Eastern Mediterranean.

Dr Tali Erickson-Gini from the IAA explained that “long before pasta and pizza, the ancient Roman diet was based largely on fish sauce. Historical sources refer to the production of special fish sauce, that was used as a basic condiment for food in the Roman and Byzantine eras throughout the Mediterranean basin.”

“They report that the accompanying strong odours during its production required it’s being distanced from urban areas and this was found to be the case since the installations were discovered approximately two kilometres from ancient Ashkelon,” she added,

Erickson-Gini further noted that “this is a rare find in our region and very few installations of this kind have been found in the Eastern Mediterranean. Ancient sources even refer to the production of Jewish garum. The discovery of this kind of installation in Ashkelon evinces that the Roman tastes that spread throughout the empire were not confined to dress but also included dietary habits.”

The Roman site was eventually abandoned but the conditions that favoured viticulture remained and in the Byzantine period in the 5th century CE a monastic community began to thrive there, making a living from wine production. Three winepresses were built next to an elaborately decorated church.

Little of the church has survived but architectural fragments found at the site show that it was decorated with impressive marble and mosaics.

A large kiln complex was located nearby that produced wine jars. These appear to have been used for exporting wine, which was the primary income for the monastery.

The site, which served as an industrial area over several periods, was again abandoned sometime after the Islamic conquest of the region in 7th century CE, and later, nomadic families, probably residing in tents, dismantled the structures and sold the different parts for building material elsewhere.

Evidence of this activity was found in the vats of the winepresses, which were turned into refuse pits containing the bones of large pack animals, such as donkeys and camels.

Youths of the Kibbutz Movement from Kibbutz Yad Mordecai and pupils from the Makif Vav middle school located next to the project participated in the excavation.


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