Thursday, July 2, 2015


Emmanuel Botte, Victoria Leitch (ed.), Fish & Ships: Production and Commerce of "salsamenta" during Antiquity / production et commerce des "salsamenta" durant l'Antiquité. Actes de l'atelier doctoral, Rome 18-22 juin 2012. Bibliothèque d'archéologie méditerranéenne et africaine, 17. Arles; Aix-en-Provence: Éditions Errance; Centre Camille Jullian, 2014. Pp. 239. ISBN 9782877725798. €39.00 (pb).

Reviewed by Ephraim Lytle, University of Toronto (

Version at BMCR home site

Table of Contents

This volume collects sixteen papers, seven written in French, one in Italian and the rest in English. Most are revised versions of papers originally presented at an atelier doctoral—a conference of doctoral candidates and relatively new PhDs—held at l'École française de Rome and the British School at Rome in June of 2012. The volume is divided into three sections—the first collects papers that feature 'historiographic and technological' approaches, the following two gather together archaeological studies, with these divided regionally into Africa (section 2) and the rest of the Mediterranean, the Atlantic coast and the Black Sea (section 3).

This volume will not be of much interest to a general audience. As the editors admit, given the uneven archaeological attention that has been paid to various regions of the Mediterranean and the considerable uncertainty that exists concerning correlations between amphora types and the products they carried, as well as the typologies of installations and the products they were dedicated to producing, "a broad overview of the state of the question is not yet possible" (p. 239). However, nowhere in this volume will the reader find a proper introduction (the editors dedicate the volume's too brief introduction (pp. 8-9) primarily to a description of the conference and its rationale), an attempted synthesis of what is known, or any real sense of what is at stake for social and economic historians. This volume will be consulted for individual chapters that will be of use primarily to archaeologists interested in particular sites, regions, installations, and ceramic types, to specialists working on questions concerning chemical and faunal analysis, or to the handful of historians who are interested in specific problems related to the production and trade of salted fish and fish sauces.

As is often the case with such volumes, quality, originality and significance vary widely between contributions, but most offer something of value and a handful present important, new research of very high quality. Although not particularly novel, a number of contributions usefully summarize recent (or not so recent) archaeological research primarily published in languages other than English or French. Antonio M. Sáez Romero, for example, makes more accessible two decades of Spanish scholarship by offering a concise and sane account of our evidence for Punic production of and trade in salted fish and fish sauces, primarily in the region of Cadiz. Martina Čechová accomplishes much the same for Chersonesus, where the archaeological evidence, much of it published only in Russian, suggests that the production of salted fish was important at this Crimean site during the Roman period and continued uninterrupted into the early Middle Ages.

A handful of papers pay attention to particular sites or regions. Four treat North Africa during the Roman period. Victoria Leitch discusses the decidedly scant evidence for the trade of fish products into the Libyan Sahara. Mohamed Hesein offers an initial survey of potential production at six sites on the coast of Cyrenaica. Ali Drine and Elyssa Jerray collect and synthesize the somewhat richer evidence for salted fish and fish sauce production along the Gulf of Gabes in Tunisia, while also identifying a number of sites likely involved in amphora production, although the amphora types found are not usually associated with the transport of salted fish and fish sauces. Finally, Touatia Amraoui offers a detailed reexamination of archaeological evidence suggesting urban production of salted fish or fish sauces at the site of Tipasa in Algeria.

Outside of North Africa, Cyril Driard offers a reconstruction of the process of salted fish and fish sauce production in Brittany. He begins by summarizing the archaeological evidence for coastal installations equipped with characteristic vats. He offers an important new contribution by collecting and analyzing from two sites samples of organic deposits that seem to have accumulated in various spots in the vats. He then reports the results of experiments that succeeded both in reproducing the characteristic deposits and in producing viable fish sauces, albeit with a recipe and procedure that differs from that attested in ancient literary sources. Driard plausibly argues that the literary sources reflect different environmental conditions in the Mediterranean. Cristina Nervi reviews the evidence for Sardinia, where finds of imported amphora types associated with the transport of salsamenta attest consumption and trade of these products during the Roman period. Archaeological evidence for local production is still lacking, although the ancient textual and modern comparative evidence agree in suggesting it played an important role. Finally, Inês Vaz Pinto, Ana Patrícia Magalhães, and Patrícia Brum offer an overview of production at sites on Portugal's Tróia Peninsula, using the results of recent excavations to help clarify the chronology of production.

Most of the remaining papers involve faunal or chemical analysis. Among these are four papers of the very highest quality. Nicolas Garnier reviews the question of using chemical analysis of residues left in transport amphoras to identify salted fish and fish sauces. Unfortunately, although there exist numerous potential chemical markers for fish, these are rarely preserved, either because they are destroyed in the processes of salting or fermentation—proteins, for example, are hydrolyzed in the fermentation process—or because they are rarely preserved in typical archaeological contexts. Beyond offering a clear and concise overview of the problems, Garnier's research is especially valuable in identifying sterols as the best candidates for preservation, and it is possible that reliable standards for identifying containers used to transport salsamenta can be developed in the future. David Djaoui, Gaël Piquès and Emmanuel Botte offer a detailed account of the pots of particular Italian types recovered from the Rhône at Arles. The authors usefully survey the wider evidence for these ceramic containers from Latium, which are much smaller than transport amphoras and thought often to have been used to hold fish sauces. Of 18 pots from Arles recovered whole, or nearly so, some 16 were found to contain fish remains. The authors present a careful analysis of the contents of one pot, and discuss in detail a number of new painted inscriptions, at least two of which suggest that some of these pots carried conserves of onions or olives in fish sauce. Anne Bardot-Cambot collects and analyzes the evidence for commerce in shellfish in Roman Gaul. Most of the results have already been published in greater detail in her 2013 monograph.1 One might quibble too that Bardot-Cambot's best evidence concerns trade in fresh rather than preserved shellfish and as a result this research falls largely outside the subjects of the volume. But most will be happy to find the results of her very interesting and highly original research usefully summarized here. Erica Rowan's analysis of the fish remains from the Cardo V sewer at Herculaneum is likewise perhaps only tangentially related to the production and commerce of salsamenta, but her research is no less original or important. The Cardo V sewer was partially blocked, allowing waste to accumulate beneath a row of apartments rented by families whose socio-economic status was decidedly non-elite. While a number of marine species identified in our literary sources as luxury items are, not surprisingly, scarce or altogether absent, nevertheless it is clear that these families regularly consumed a range of seasonally available fish species (and probably salted fish and fish sauces as well). For me, as a social and economic historian, this chapter was a highlight and stands out as the contribution likely to be of interest to the widest audience.

The book is attractively produced and richly illustrated, frequently in color. The editors have written a very brief introduction (in French) and an only slightly more expansive conclusion (in English), but apart from ensuring standard formatting of notes, section headings and bibliographies, editorial intervention appears nonexistent. Some contributions are well written and carefully proofread, in others infelicities abound. The latter is understandable in cases where the authors are writing in a non-native language, but some instances are harder to explain—one particular contribution includes misspellings, logical confusions and solecisms in every other sentence, reaching a kind of absurd crescendo with "hapax legominon" (38, n.10).

Lack of editorial intervention is most clearly felt, however, in the citation of ancient literary and documentary sources, where the practices employed are hardly acceptable (again excepting a handful of meticulously documented chapters such as that of Djaoui, Piquès and Botte). The reader will reckon herself lucky to find citation of a specific section in Pseudo-Skylax (p. 135, n.8), even if she is left wondering why that author is named in the Latin genitive (Scylacis Caryandensis). So too a discussion of Synesius (p. 135) helpfully cites the appropriate letter (Ep. 148), but the bishop is also quoted in translation and no acknowledgment is given to the translator.2 The reader will be grateful too for references that include specific fragment numbers, even if the editions cited are long out-of-date, or if different fragments of the same author are cited from different editions even within a single chapter (e.g., n. 36 on p. 219 cites Antiphanes, fr. 191 Kock, while nn. 62-63 on p. 222 cite frs. 77 and 181 Edmonds). In cases where no edition is specified for a given fragment number, one can only hazard a guess (p. 222, n.40), but at least the options are limited. Discussion of evidence allegedly found in Ennius and Hecesius, on the other hand, cites only a page number in a French monograph on salted fish and fish sauces (p. 118, n. 31). The reader can only hope that following that trail will turn up a proper citation, but that task is made more difficult when the work cited is missing from the bibliography (p. 123, n. 69), or when, as in the case of an interesting letter of Pope Martin written in exile from Chersonesus, the only citation is to Russian conference proceedings that few research libraries are likely to hold (the letters of Pope Martin are collected in the Patrologia Latina—the letter in question is Ep. 16, PL 87: 201-204).

The treatment of documentary texts is sometimes no less haphazard: a citation (p. 118, n. 26) for the customs tariff from Zarai (CIL VIII 4508) sends the reader not to any edition of the text itself but to Trousset's discussion,3 where at least one can be confident that a proper reference could be found. Discussion of an inscription from the Argolid, on the other hand, cites the appropriate IG volume (p. 222, n.72), but without an accompanying inscription number the reader is not likely to have an easy time finding the text in question, especially given that it consists of what IG IV2.1 prints as two distinct texts (76 and 77) that were only discovered to join at a later date.

In summary, the reader might be left wondering what purpose it serves to publish such volumes when they fail to make a meaningful whole. The best contributions could easily survive even the most rigorous peer review and find at least as wide an audience. But it must also be conceded that this particular volume includes an unusually high percentage of high quality, original research and most of it is well worth publishing. If the volume as a whole helps to stimulate additional such research it will have been more than worthwhile.


1.   Les coquillages marins en Gaule romaine. Approche socio-économique et socio-culturelle [BAR Int. Series 2481], Oxford 2013.
2.   The translation in question is that of Augustine Fitzgerald, The Letters of Synesius of Cyrene, New York 1926.
3.   Trousset, P. "Le tarif de Zaraï: essai sur les circuits commerciaux dans la zone présaharienne," Antiquités africaines 38-39 (2002-2003) 355-373 (the page range is cited incorrectly in the bibliography on p. 127).

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