Finding evidence for fish-breeding and fish-salting sites in the Roman Near East

When people think about fish in the Roman world, they often think about garum: a sauce made from salted and fermented fish that is similar to Thai fish-sauce (‘nam pla’). As well as this, we do also know of recipes for fresh fish from Apicius, for example baked bream and mackerel stuffed with mint, honey and hazelnuts. We also know that Romans ate salsamenta: salted fish. How much do we know, then, about where fish were bred and salted? In this blog post, I am going to focus on this question for a few sites in the Roman Near East (broadly the modern Middle East).

Painting of fish in the market building at Pompeii, where fish bones were also found in the drain.

Painting of fish in the market building at Pompeii, where fish bones were also found in the drain.

Identifying fishponds and fish-breeding sites archaeologically is not very easy as most vats and ponds could have other uses as well. We do, though, have a useful written source, Columella, who tells us that jars (‘cells) set into the walls were essential in a fish-breeding pond (De Re Rustica 8.1.3, 17.1-6). Identifying this special feature is much easier and has actually been done for some sites in the Roman Near East.

Such jars, set horizontally into the walls, were found at Khirbet Sabiya (300 jars: Ayalon 1979:175-177, 179), Caesarea (6th century: 60 jars (Gibson 1991:41) and Tel Tanninim: 16 Gaza amphorae (Stieglitz 1998:63-5)) and Sataf (Mango 2002:325). A similar arrangement was found in the south-eastern reservoir at Andarin in Syria. Instead of jars or amphorae rectangular recesses were found at the base of the reservoir walls, possibly numbering 200 (Mango 2002). The example from Andarin was very large measuring 61 m long x 61 m wide x 3 m deep because it also acted as a reservoir for irrigation supplies. The freshwater n this pond makes it possible that catfish were bred there. Catfish were the only freshwater fish bred in fishponds cited in ancient sources, such as Apicius and Pliny (André 1981:109-113); in addition, catfish bones have been identified in the assemblage retrieved from the cistern Andarin bathhouse, though not from the reservoir itself (Mango 2009:75).

Columella also recommends that the water for the fish should circulate (De Re Rustica 8.1.3, 17.1-6), which is what we find at most of these sites. The examples from Dor seem to have been fed by seawater (Raban 1995:343). A pipeline branch (Channel E) from the Caesarea High Level aqueduct channel A fed the reservoir at Tel Tanninim (Stieglitz 1998:57-8). Spring water from a spring flow tunnel at Ein Bikura, Sataf fed a pool with two rows of ceramic jars in its sides with mouths towards the pool (Gibson 1991:41). In all of these cases the nature of the water supply means that a constant supply of circulating water was ensured (see Columella De Re Rustica 8.1.3, 17.1-6).

There are also examples from the Near East where we don’t have jars, but think that fish might have been bred in these installations. These are some paired rock-cut tanks from Dor (Raban 1995:343) and Beirut (Thorpe 1998-9: 36-38), which had no recesses or jars. It has been suggested that the Beirut tanks, which were lined with opus signinum (waterproof concrete), might have been holding tanks for holding the catch after the return of the fishing vessels. This is because the vats were in close proximity to a cove to which they were linked by a flight of steps. A similar function is also possible for the Dor installations as they were also situated very close to the coastline.

Alternatively, it is possible that these were vats for the production of salsamenta where the flesh of the fish was cut up and salted. While there is evidence that fish were salted in the eastern Mediterranean, archaeological evidence has been lacking so far, prompting the idea that maybe the process was done in large ceramic jars, such as pithoi or dolia (Wilson 2006; Curtis 1991:112-8, 129-147). Salting vats in the western Mediterranean (in particular Spain, Portugal and Morocco) were remarkably similar and almost universal in construction, though they varied in size and depth (Trakadas 2005:69-72). While the rectangular or square tanks in the western Mediterranean were usually built of brick or rubble, rock-cut examples are known from Portugal at Punta de l’Arenal and Praia de Angeiras. These Portuguese examples were not joined together as was usual elsewhere, which is similar to the possible salting vats from the East. The western examples were faced with opus signinum, as at Beirut. So, the pairs of vats at Beirut and Dor illustrate some, but not all, of the common traits found at the sites in the western empire. It is possible, but not definite, that these installations may be, then, the first fish-salting sites identified from the eastern Mediterranean.

For more detail about these sites, see my book: Archaeologies of Water in the Roman Near East by Zena Kamash (2010; Gorgias Press)



André, J. L’Alimentation et La Cuisine à Rome (Paris: Belles Lettres, 1981).

Ayalon, E. “The jar installation of Khirbet Sabiya,” Israel Exploration Journal 29 (1979), 175-181.

Gibson, S. “The Sataf project of landscape archaeology and the Judean hills: a preliminary report on four seasons of survey and excavation (1987-1989),” Levant 23 (1991), 23-54.

Mango, M. “Fishing in the desert,” Palaeoslavica 10/1 (2002), 323-330. Mango, M. “Baths, reservoirs and water use at Androna in late antiquity and the early Islamic period,” in Bartl, K. and al-Razzaq Moaz, A. (eds) Residences, Castles, Settlements. Transformation Processes from Late Antiquity to Early Islam in Bilad al-Sham (Rahden: Deutsches Archäologisches Institut, 2009), 73-88.

Raban, A. “Dor-Yam: maritime and coastal installations at Dor in their geomorphological and stratigraphic context,” in Stern, E. and Berg, J. Excavations at Dor: Final Report (Jerusalem: IES, 1995), 285-354.

Stieglitz, R. R. “A late Byzantine reservoir and piscina at Tel Tanninim,” Israel Exploration Journal 48/1-2 (1998), 54-65.

Thorpe, R. “Bey 007: the souks area: preliminary report of the AUB/ACRE project,” Bulletin d’Archéologie et d’Architecture Libanaises 3 (1998-1999), 31-55.

Trakadas, A. “The archaeological evidence for fish processing in the western Mediterranean,” in Bekker-Nielsen, T. (ed.) Ancient Fishing and Fish Processing in the Black Sea Region (Aarhus: Aarhus University Press, 2005), 47-82.

Wilson, A. “Fishy business: Roman exploitation of marine resources,” Journal of Roman Archaeology 19 (2006), 525-537.



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