Amphorae with fish found on a sunken medieval ship off the coast of the Levant

(ORDO NEWS) — Paleozoologists examined the contents of three amphoras found during the examination of the ship “Maagan Michael B”, which sank off the coast of modern Israel at the end of the 7th – beginning of the 8th centuries.

Inside the vessels, they found numerous remains of small fish. According to scientists, freshwater fish was caught in Lake Tiberias, after which they were salted and delivered to the Mediterranean coast.

From where she, mixed with the sea, went on a ship for sale or as provisions for his team.

People have been eating fish since ancient times. Moreover, today it is the oldest known product that a person cooked on fire, evidence of which was found in Israel about 780 thousand years old.

In relation to later eras, examples of how fish were harvested for future use are also known.

And in the Novosibirsk region, pits-storages of the 7th millennium BC are known, intended for the fermentation of fish.

In different regions of the ancient world, fish was also an important food item. It is known from written sources and archaeological data that the Egyptians, Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans and other peoples of the Mediterranean salted or fermented it in order to keep it in a form suitable for consumption.

Apparently, the most famous product obtained in this way was garum. Salted and fermented fish were not only cooked for themselves, but also sold. This, in particular, is evidenced by the findings made during the study of sunken ships.

Amphorae with fish found on a sunken medieval ship off the coast of the Levant 1
The wreck of the Maagan Michael B and likely fishing grounds

In 2005, about 70 meters off the coast of Israel (35 kilometers from Haifa), a sunken ship was discovered, called the Maagan Michael B.

At a depth of three meters, the researchers found a well-preserved hull of a merchant ship, the original length of which was 23 meters.

Radiocarbon analysis and typology of ceramics made it possible to date the find to the end of the 7th – beginning of the 8th century AD, that is, the early Islamic period.

Among the artifacts found during the survey of the ship, underwater archaeologists discovered a rich collection of ceramic vessels, including amphoras.

Sierra Harding from the University of Haifa, together with colleagues from Belgium and Israel, became interested in the contents of three amphoras (MMB 3159.1-3, MMB 3199 and MMB 3319) found in the bow of this ship and containing the remains of small fish.

All three vessels were LR5 (LR – Late Roman) amphoras of red-brown color, the height of which reached 35 centimeters.

According to researchers, such amphoras were produced in the Nile region in the middle of the 7th – early 9th centuries, which was confirmed by petrographic analysis.

Amphorae with fish found on a sunken medieval ship off the coast of the Levant 2
Plan of the sunken ship “Maagan Michael B”

In amphorae MMV 3199 and 3159.1–3, paleozoologists found the remains of five families of fish: cichlids (Cichlidae), cyprinids (Cyprinidae), mullets (Mugilidae), stone perches (Serranidae), and horse mackerels (Carangidae).

Judging by the minimal number of specimens, these amphoras were dominated by cichlids (71.8 percent in MMM 3199 and 53.5 percent in MMB 3159.1–3), followed by mullets.

Due to the tiny size of the remains, identifying specific fish species has proven to be a difficult task and has only been possible in a few cases.

Thus, it was possible to identify blue tilapia (Oreochromis aureus), Galilean tilapia (Sarotherodun galilaeus), Carasobarbus canis and some others, and all the fish were of small length.

Among the few remains of fish from the third amphora (MMB 3319), scientists found bones of cyprinids from the genus Labeo, which are not found in the southern Levant,

Scientists noted that in all vessels, most of the identified species were freshwater.

It appears that amphoras MMB 3199 and 3159.1–3 originally contained a canned fish product that consisted of both freshwater and marine species.

At the same time, the contents of the amphora MMB 3319 are less clear – it may have dispersed into the water after the shipwreck.

Amphorae with fish found on a sunken medieval ship off the coast of the Levant 2
Fish remains found in amphorae

According to researchers, it is most likely that freshwater fish were caught in Lake Tiberias (Sea of ​​Galilee), while marine fish were caught in the Mediterranean Sea.

However, it was salted or fermented in different places. Scientists have proposed the following hypothesis, which may explain why there are freshwater and sea fish in the same amphoras.

Perhaps the fish caught in Lake Tiberias was salted and delivered in large vats or amphoras to a shopping center located on the Mediterranean coast.

It was then transferred to smaller amphoras (LR5) that still contained remnants of, for example, garum.

The latter could be deliberately not removed from the amphoras in order to speed up fermentation during further transportation.

At the same time, it is difficult to establish whether the fish from the Maagan Michael B ship was intended for sale or for feeding the crew.


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