Monday, February 3, 2020


D. Mylona, R. Nicholson (ed.), The Bountiful Sea: Fish Processing and Consumption in Mediterranean Antiquity. Proceedings of the International Conference Held at Oxford, 6-8 September 2017. Journal of Maritime Archaeology Special Issue, 13.3. New York: Springer, 2018. Pp. 290. ISBN 1557-2293.

Reviewed by Christy Constantakopoulou, Birkbeck College, London (

Version at BMCR home site

[Authors and titles of contributions are listed at the end of the review.]

Recent years have shown that fish and fishing in the ancient Mediterranean are an exciting new research field,1 to which the present volume is a splendid contribution. Originating from a conference in Oxford in September 2017, the volume brings together a diverse range of scholars, ancient historians and archaeologists, including ichthyoarchaeologists, but also marine biologists and historians of food, to address a number of important questions. It is impossible in a short review to discuss each contribution individually, so I shall focus on themes and approaches.

The editors identify three themes in their introduction (p. 210): fish and fish products in their cultural context; archaeological evidence in the western and eastern Mediterranean; and the logistical and social organization of production of processed fish and associated materials, particularly salt. Most contributions address one or more of these themes, although other threads also run throughout the volume.

First among these is a clear concern about the relationship of social class to the consumption of fish and fish products. Influential works by Gallant and Davidson have argued that, at least in the Greek world, fish consumption was either not widespread (Gallant), or was associated with concerns about elite status (Davidson).2 A number of contributions show that, as always, things were more complicated. It seems that fish consumption was widespread, beyond elite circles in ancient Athens (Wilkins). What mattered was texture, taste, and smell (Mylona and Grainger). Weingarten shows brilliantly how the Talmudic literature of the 4th-7th centuries CE reveals widespread consumption of specific types of fish and fish products by poor people. Indeed, recent archaeological research reveals that processed fish was available to large sections of the population in Greco-Roman antiquity. The contributions discussing the evidence from a sewer in Herculaneum (Nicholson, Robinson, Robinson, and Rowan), from vats found along the Atlantic coast (Garnier, Bernal- Casasola, Driad, and Pinto), from fish-salting factories in Baelo Claudia in Spain (Bernal-Casasola, Exposito, and Diaz), from the Maghreb (Trakadas), and from vats and amphoras from Sicily (Botte) all emphasize the great variety of species found: beyond the more famous tuna, an impressive range of fish of all sizes and species, as well as sea mammals and a great range of mollusks were exploited. Small fish were extremely important in the production of garum and liquamen. The small size of the fish, however, means that unless proper investigation is undertaken during the initial excavation, the evidence may remain invisible to archaeologists. All in all, the volume's focus on this diversity of species consumed and used in production highlights the fact that while written literary sources (whether Greek or Roman) discuss the preferences of the elite, the ichthyoarchaeological evidence so persuasively presented here seems to indicate the widespread consumption of fish amongst all population strata of the ancient Mediterranean.

Second, most contributors address the issue of the scale of fishing and fish processing activities, and herein lies perhaps the most important contribution of the volume. Scale is important not just for the discussion about ancient fishing, diet, and elite versus non-elite dietary preferences, but for our understanding of the ancient economy, as well as networks and systems of production, re-distribution, and consumption in the ancient Mediterranean in its long durée. Fishing activities varied widely, from recreational and subsistence levels to large-scale industrial fishing, aimed at industrial production of fish products (fish sauces, salted fish etc.). Fishing to provide the large-scale salting industries found in the Maghreb, for example, was substantially different from fishing for recreational or subsistence purposes. Of course, the evidence for fishing and processing for large-scale industrial purposes is far more visible than the evidence for smaller-scale activity. The presence of vats along the sea-shore indicates that fish processing took place. The number and size of vats may indicate the scale of production achieved. Even the shape of vats may tell us something about production; Botte makes the extremely interesting observation that in Sicily, the Roman vats on the western side of island were square, while the vats on the south-east side (and therefore Greek) were circular. The circular vats in Sicily are indeed the only confirmed Greek vats used for fish processing found in the ancient Mediterranean. Large-scale industrial production can also be linked with processes of Romanization (Trakadas on the western Maghreb); Marzano observes (p. 442) that the increased consumption of salted fish may have been linked to the Roman army. Mylona shows persuasively (p. 426) that fish processing on a large scale was not just the result of fish abundance but also depended on demand, accessibility, technology, and economic viability, such as access to markets and networks of redistribution.

On the whole, evidence for large-scale industrial production of salted fish and fish products is found in the western Mediterranean in the Roman period and is generally absent in the eastern Mediterranean throughout antiquity. How do we explain these differences? As Mylona argues in a very fine contribution, the answer should not be linked with ecological constraints and abundance of fish. Specific ecological conditions, such as the migration of tuna through the straits of Gibraltar allowed for the economic exploitation of fish on a large scale in locations such as the Maghreb or the Atlantic coast (Trakadas, and Bernal-Casasola, Exposito and Diaz respectively). But similar abundance and seasonality of fish are known to have existed in the eastern Mediterranean, where no evidence for large scale production exists. Meanwhile, references to salted fish and related fish products are abundant in our Greek literary sources. How do we explain this paradox? The answer may lie again in the issue of scale and evidence. Theodoropoulou argues (another highlight of the volume) that the absence of fish heads from archaeological contexts implies a certain degree of fish processing; literary references, such as the evidence about Chaerephilos of Athens and his sons, who gained wealth through a fish processing industry and were rewarded with citizenship in classical Athens, also seem to imply that some fish processing was taking place. Preference for fresh fish, however, and the lack of large-scale industrial units make fish production all but invisible in the archaeological remains. The same question is picked up by Lytle in his contribution. The emphasis here is again one of scale. Lytle argues that the lack of large-scale industrial units from the Greek world and the eastern Mediterranean does not imply a complete absence of fish processing. Rather, he emphasizes the importance of small-scale household fish processing and production, which would leave little evidence in the archaeological record. The existence of markets for fish and fish products implies an advanced degree of consumption needs; but these, in the classical Greek world, could be satisfied by fresh fish rather than processed. His suggestion that baskets, sargane in our sources, were used to transport dried saltfish explains why we do not find ceramic containers used in the fish trade (p. 410). Mylona completes the discussion with an insightful analysis of how the dearth of archaeological evidence in the eastern Mediterranean linked with fish processing may be in fact the result of misinterpretation of existing installations. Archaeological bias, therefore, has contributed to this stark division between east and west.

Fish processing required salt, whose importance a number of contributions mention and Lowe and Carusi address specifically. Carusi offers an excellent and succinct summary of how the demands of large-scale fish processing may have contributed to the development of interregional salt trade in the Mediterranean. While classical Greek states may have been able to meet the demand for salt with local maritime resources, later development of the fish processing industry created additional needs, which could not be met locally.

While each contribution addresses evidence from a specific location, or a particular source or historical problem, the whole is more than the sum of its parts. The volume reveals divisions between east and west, Greek and Roman, small- and large-scale fishing. The volume addresses archaeological or literary invisibility of one sort or another head on: who were the elusive fishermen (Ragia for Byzantium, Lowe for the Roman world)? Why do we not see evidence for fish processing in the eastern Mediterranean (Theodoropoulou, Lytle, Mylona)? While some contributions focus on the literary evidence (Wilkins, Lytle, and Lowe) and others on the archaeological evidence, the volume showcases how both types of evidence are needed to understand the role of fishing and fish production for the ancient Mediterranean. Literary evidence comes with its own viewpoint, such as an emphasis on elite customs and also on consumption rather than production. Archaeological evidence may focus on large-scale production; only very careful ichthyoarchaeological examination can bridge the gap and provide insights about small-scale household consumption and production. The long chronological span is similarly impressive, with discussions covering the prehistoric Aegean (Theodoropoulou) to 10th century Byzantium (Ragia), and even a contribution about the ecological crisis related to fishing in the 21st century (Koutrakis). Overall, the level of production is laudable, as is the speed with which the editors produced such a coherent and stimulating volume.

The volume will be of interest to anyone working on the ecology of the ancient Mediterranean, ancient fishing, dietary preferences, and the ancient economy. The questions it asks and the themes it addresses are thought-provoking and will substantially shape the agenda for future research for years to come.

Table of Contents

1. Angela Trentacoste, Rebecca Nicholson, Dimitra Mylona, 'Introduction. The Bountiful Sea: Fish Processing and Consumption in Mediterranean Antiquity', p. 207-217
2. Dimitra Mylona, Dally Grainger, 'Fish Products in the Ancient Mediterranean: Smell, Taste and Texture of Flesh in a Conference Hall', p. 219-224
3. John Wilkins, 'Cooking and Processing Fish in Antiquity: Questions of Taste and Texture', p. 225-34
4. Susan Weingarten, 'Fish and Fish Products in Late Antique Palestine and Babylonia in Their Social and Geographical Contexts: Archaeology and the Talmudic Literature', p. 235-45
5. Sally Grainger, 'Garum and Liquamen, What's in a Name?', p. 247-61
6. Rebecca Nicholson, Jennifer Robinson, Mark Robinson, Erica Rowan, 'From the Waters to the Place to the Latrine: Fish and Seafood from the Cardo V Sewer, Herculaneum', p. 263-84
7. Nicolas Garnier, Dario Bernal-Casasola, Cyril Driard, Ines Vaz Pinto, 'Looking for Ancient Fish Products Through Invisible Biomolecular Residues in the Roman Production Vats from the Atlantic Coast', p. 285-328
8. Dario Bernal-Casasola, J.A. Exposito, J.J. Diaz, 'The Baelo Claudia Paradigm: The Exploitation of Marine Resources in Roman Cetariae', p. 329-51
9. Athena Trakadas, 'Methods of Enquiry: Reconstructing Ancient Marine Resource Exploitation in the Western Maghreb', p. 353-76
10. Emmanuel Botte, 'Fish Processing in Italy and Sicily During Antiquity', p. 377-87
11. Tatiana Theodoropoulou, 'To Salt or Not to Salt: A Review of Evidence for Processed Marine Products and Local Traditions in the Aegean Through Time', p. 389-406
12. Ephraim Lytle, 'The Economies of Saltfish Production in the Aegean During the Classical and Hellenistic Periods', p. 407-18
13. Dimitra Mylona, 'Fish Processing in the Mediterranean: Varying Traditions, Technologies and Scales of Production with Particular Reference to the Eastern Mediterranean', p. 419-36
14. Annalisa Marzano, 'Fish and Fishing in the Roman World', p. 437-47
15. Efi Ragia, 'The Circulation, Distribution and Consumption of Marine Products in Byzantium: Some Considerations', p. 449-66
16. Benedict Lowe, 'Manilius and the Logistics of Salting in the Roman World', p. 467-80
17. Cristina Carusi, 'Salt and Fish Processing in the Ancient Mediterranean: A Brief Survey', p. 481-90
18. E.T. Koutrakis, 'Post-script: Through the Eyes of a Biologist or How the Past Can Guide Us to the Future. Thoughts on the Management of Fisheries in the Mediterranean', p. 491-97


1.   For example, T. Bekker-Nielsen (ed.) Ancient Fishing and Fish Processing in the Black Sea Region, Aarhus 2006; D. Mylona, Fish-eating in Greece from the Fifth Century BC to the Seventh Century AD, Oxford 2008; T. Bekker-Nielsen and D. Bernal-Casasola (eds), Ancient Nets and Fishing Gear in Classical Antiquity. A First Approach, Cadiz 2010; A. Marzano, Harvesting the Sea: The Exploitation of Marine Resources in the Roman Mediterranean, Oxford 2013; T. Bekker-Nielsen and R. Gertwagen (eds) The Inland Seas: Towards an Ecohistory of the Mediterranean and the Black Sea, Stuttgart 2016.
2.   T. Gallant, A Fisherman's Tale, Gent 1985; J. Davidson, Courtesans and Fishcakes, London 1997.

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