A diver works another ancient shipwreck off the coast of Italy, in 2012

Divers locate 2,000-year-old Roman wreck with cargo of fermented, salted fish intestines

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Underwater Italian archaeologists have located a first or second century AD shipwreck that was carrying 3,000 clay jars filled with Roman fish sauce made by fermentation of salted fish intestines.

Fish sauce or garum may not sound appetizing to modern people, but the ancients found it delicious and ate it at banquets. It was also sold in street food stands around the Roman Empire. It was highly nutritious and was a source of what we now call monosodium glutamate, a flavor enhancer.

The archaeologists, led by Simonluca Trigona, found the ship 200 meters (656 feet) deep after fisherman dragged up fragments of amphorae in their nets in 2012 about five miles (8 kilometers) off of Alassio on Italy’s Ligurian coast.

Archaeologists knew what the amphorae had contained because the jars were of a type used only for fish sauce. But the wreck also had some jars that they believe were manufactured around the Tiber River in Rome and that may have been meant to transport wine to the Iberian Peninsula.

The ship was 25 meters long (86 feet). "She most likely sailed out of Rome along the Tiber and sank a couple of weeks later while making the return journey, weighed down by all that fish sauce," Dr. Trigona told . “It's one of just five 'deep sea' Roman vessels ever to be found in the Mediterranean and the first one to be found off the coast of Liguria.”

The archaeologists did a painstaking search for the shipwreck even though the general area it went down was known. It took two years to find it.

In recent years, scientists have had considerable success in recovering well-preserved artifacts from shipwrecks by using sophisticated technologies like remote operating vehicles, sonar mapping equipment and genetic analysis. One finding was of an ancient salad dressing (olive oil flavored with oregano) found in a 2,400-year-old shipwreck off the Greek island of Chios.

In 2012, another 2,000-year-old shipwreck, this one off the coast of Varazze, Italy, was found with sealed clay jars that scientists had hoped would contain preserved food. Police divers identified the shipwreck 50 meters (164 feet) underwater after fishermen reported finding numerous pieces of old pottery in their nets.  The wreck was buried in mud, which kept it hidden for centuries but also helped preserve it and its cargo, including a number of amphorae. The amphorae still have intact caps of pine and pitch (a kind of tar), giving archaeologists hope that the contents were still preserved.

Then, in 2013, a team of Italian scientists conducted a chemical analysis of some ancient Roman medicinal pills discovered in the Relitto del Pozzino, a 2000-year-old submerged shipping vessel that sank off the coast of Tuscany.

On a shipwreck with the pills were lamps that originated in Asia Minor

On a shipwreck with the pills were lamps that originated in Asia Minor

The results of the chemical analysis, which were published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences , revealed that the pills contain a number of zinc compounds, as well as iron oxide, starch, beeswax, pine resin and other plant-derived materials. Based on their shape and composition, scientists have suggested that the tablets were used as a type of eye medicine.

The Roman shipwreck lay near the remains of the Etruscan city of Populonia, which at the time the ship foundered was a key port along sea trade routes between the west and east across the Mediterranean Sea.

The Relitto del Pozzino was excavated by the Archaeological Superintendency of Tuscany throughout the 1980s and 90s, revealing a variety of fascinating cargo including lamps originating in Asia minor, Syrian-Palestinian glass bowls, bronze jugs, ceramic vessels for carrying wine and, of particular interest, the remains of a medicine chest containing a surgery hook, a mortar, 136 wooden drug vials and several cylindrical tin vessels, one of which contained five circular medicinal tablets.

The tin vessels (called pyxides) had remained completely sealed, which kept the pills dry, providing an opportunity to find out what substances they contained.

Featured image: A diver works another ancient shipwreck off the coast of Italy, in 2012

By David Millar

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