Discovery Guides Areas


European Fisheries History:
Pre-industrial Origins of Overfishing

(Released August 2009)

podcast link 
  by Carolyn Scearce  


Key Citations




Ancient Fisheries in the Mediterranean and Black Sea Regions


In August, 2002, researchers discovered an ancient shipwrecked vessel off the coast of Bulgaria in the Black Sea (Markey, 2003; Lund & Gabrielsen, 2005). Twenty to thirty jars were visible in the wreck site, but only one amphora was recovered. The contents of the amphora, or ancient pottery jar, included catfish bones, olive pits, and resin. The bones were radiocarbon dated to between the 5th and 3rd century BC. Could this container have been part of a larger cargo of preserved fishery products being transported to a Greek outpost? Or might it have only been the sunken lunch of some hapless sailor?

Reconstructing meaningful information regarding the scale of ancient fisheries poses a number of complex problems. Researchers must rely on archaeological evidence and ancient literary sources. However, ancient writers frequently fail to comment on the particular issues historians are researching. Even when ancient writers address the subject of fishing, as in the case of the Greek poem Halieatika, it can be unclear if the poet was describing fishing practices of his own time or from an earlier era (Bekker-Nielsen, 2005). Archaeological evidence can be spotty. Because archeologists must rely on what artifacts and fishery remains can be found, there is always the risk of underestimating the importance of fishing to ancient economies. As Lund and Gabrielsen (2005) point out, "'absence of evidence is no evidence of absence.'"

The archeological evidence relating to fishing in Greek and Roman times includes fishing equipment, fish remains, fish processing facilities, transportation equipment, descriptive sources such as coins, and pictorial representations (Hojte, 2005). Fresh fish had to be consumed within 1-3 days of being caught. It is assumed that most fresh fish were eaten locally, and only appeared as a luxury item beyond the fishing community (Jacobsen, 2005).
fishing mosaic
Fishermen and sea creatures, mosaic, 1st century AD
Copyright 2004 Bridgeman
Alternatively, fish could be preserved by salting, smoking, drying, or being made into fish sauce. Fish processing facilities dating back as far as the 5th century BC have been found along the Atlantic and Mediterranean coasts of Spain, Morocco, and Portugal (Trakadas, 2005) and in the Northern Black Sea region (Hojte, 2005). The fish sauce known as garum played an important role in the Roman economy. This product, made of fermented fish scraps in brine, was considered the taste of Rome and was exported throughout the Empire (Ejstrud, 2005). Production seems to have peaked at fishing processing facilities around the 1st and 2nd centuries AD with some facilities remaining operational as late as the 6th century (Trakadas, 2005; Curtis, 2005).

Go To Medieval Fishing Methods

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