Ancient Roman Garum Factory Discovered at Ashkelon

A rare find of a first century fermented fish sauce factory holds clues to the ancient Jewish diet.

Aerial view of Garum factory site

Credit: Asaf Peretz, IAA

From the first century B.C.E. to the seventh century C.E., the ancient Romans were a dominant force in the Middle East. As Anthony J. Saldarini points out in Babatha’s Story (Biblical Archaeology Review, March/April 1998), “Independent, self-contained ethnic groups unrelated to their surroundings are a scholar’s fantasy. The social and political world these [first-century Jewish] people lived in was Greco-Roman.” Archaeological evidence has shown that ancient Jews of Jesus’ time wore Roman clothing. A find announced by the Israel Antiquities Authority further confirms that this cultural influence extended to the predominant local cuisine.

Excavations have revealed a small factory for the production of Garum, an odorous fermented fish sauce, some 2 kilometers from the ancient city of Ashkelon. Historical sources mention this special fish sauce as the dominant condiment of the ancient Roman diet. Further, they report that its production was sufficiently malodorous that it could not be undertaken too close to urban areas. This is one of very few such finds in the eastern Mediterranean. It serves to confirm that the ancient Jewish diet was strongly influenced by the diet of the Romans who conquered them.

The Byzantine wine-producing kilns

Credit: Asaf Peretz, IAA

The site was revived as an industrial area over several time periods, including the 5th century C.E., when a Byzantine-era monastery ran a bustling wine business. The monastery left behind fragments of mosaics and the remains of large kilns, used to fire wine jars.

The excavation was led by Dr. Tali Erickson-Gini from the Israel Antiquities Authority. It was underwitten by the Ashkelon Economic Co. Children from Kibbutz Yad Mordecai and students of the Makif Vav middle school volunteered on the project.

Related reading in Bible History Daily:

The Garum Debate Scholars question whether “pure” garum (a popular Roman sauce that was made from various types of fish and marine life) was intended for Jews or for the followers of other Greco-Roman mystery religions that observed dietary restrictions or purity laws. Classics professor Robert I. Curtis of the University of Georgia clarifies and expands on his own interpretation of garum jars found at Pompeii and what they might suggest about the Jewish population that lived there.

The Philistine Marketplace at Ashkelon Daniel Master and Lawrence Stager examine what was traded and by whom in Philistine Ashkelon.

Canaan and Egypt: Ancient Fish TradeScientists determined through an analysis of fish teeth that there was an extensive fish trade between Canaan and Egypt 3,500 years ago.

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