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Fishy Goings on in Roman Bishop’s Stortford

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Archaeology can be a funny business; most of the time you look at the physical evidence that people have left, such as coins, jewellery, pottery and building remains and try to work out from this how they lived. However, some aspects of ancient daily life leave little or no physical evidence behind and their possible presence (or not) has to be inferred on the basis of other less direct evidence. An example of this is ink; you are very unlikely to find ink archaeologically but its original presence may be strongly indicated by the discovery of a pen and ink well.
Another generally “invisible” commodity is garum, the famous Roman fish sauce so frequently mentioned by the ancient culinary author Apicius. Unless you are lucky enough to find the remains of an ancient garum container such as an amphora, the chances are it will be totally absent from your archaeological finds tray.
With that in mind, why am I so sure that garum was present and being used in “Roman” Bishop’s Stortford? The discovery of samian ware (glossy red pottery produced in Gaul), imported quernstones for milling wheat, oyster shells, and coins all clearly demonstrate that Bishop’s Stortford was on, or at least at the end of, national and international trade routes. Much of the garum that ended up in Roman Britain was produced in southern France and Spain and would have been brought in alongside other tradable goods.

Semian ware from B.Stortford
Semian ware from B.Stortford

We can demonstrate that garum could, at least in theory, have been brought here but what of its actual use? The samian ware, and other classical pottery vessel forms such as mortarium are not only indicative of Romanisation of the local population (this is also evidenced through their adoption of Roman burial practices, building technology and personal adornment) but more specifically, the local adoption of Roman culinary practices. Garum was an essential basic ingredient of many standard Roman dishes, if you are preparing and serving food on Romanised pottery in a Romanised house for Romanised people the chances are that you were serving Romanised food and that means that you must have been using…. Garum.

Jug for garum from Pompeii
Jug for garum from Pompeii



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