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Monday, July 5, 2010

Ancient Romans Like Fish Sauce

A shipwrecked first-century vessel carrying delicacies to the richest palates of the Roman Empire has proved a dazzling find, with nearly 2,000-year-old fish bones still nestling inside clay jars. Boaters found its cargo of hundreds of amphorae in 2000 when their anchor got tangled with one of the two-handled jars.

The ship, estimated to be 100 feet long with a capacity for around 400 tons of cargo, is twice the size of most other Roman shipwrecks found in the Mediterranean. Its cargo of an estimated 1,500 well-preserved clay amphorae was used in this case to hold fish sauce — a prized condiment for wealthy Romans.

For nearly 2,000 years, the 3-foot-tall amphorae lay undisturbed except for the occasional octopus that would pry one open, breaking the ceramic-and-mortar seal in search of food or shelter. Besides the size of the ship and good condition of its cargo, the site is also important because it is so easily accessible — in just 80 feet of water about a mile from the coast. Other wrecks are so deep they cannot be examined by scuba divers.

For archaeologists, a sunken ship is a historic document that tells us about ancient history and how its economy worked. This ship will contribute a lot. This ship probably sank in a storm while sailing back to Rome from Cadiz in the south of what is now Spain. The storm must have been ferocious because it is odd for such a vessel to have been so close to shore. The crew did not care about the cargo or money or anything. They headed for land to save their lives.
When word of the find first spread in 2000, pirate scuba divers raided the site and stole some of the amphorae. This forced the Valencia government to build a thick metal grating to cover the remains and protect the jars. What remains of the wooden structure of the ship itself — about 60 percent — is buried under mud in the seabed. The cargo probably also includes lead, which the Romans used for plumbing, and copper, which they mixed with tin to make bronze for everything from plates to jewelry.

The fish sauce is no longer in the amphorae because the seals were not hermetic and could not withstand 20 centuries under water. But traces of fish bone remain inside and these will help researchers determine how the sauces were made.


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