Quantification of fish-salting infrastructure capacity in the Roman World

I think I am meant to be responding to a reading post, but there is not another one to respond to, so here is my response to Quantification of fish-salting infrastructure capacity in the Roman World, by Andrew Wilson

In the beginning of this article Wilson writes that the growth and development of the vast salt fishing industry in the Roman Empire can serve as an ‘empire-wide indicator of economic fortunes’ in the Roman world. Wilson acknowledges that the distribution of the fishing industry is uneven, possibly due to a lack of fieldwork in certain areas, such as in the Eastern Mediterranean and Adriatic, where one might expect a larger fishing industry. I found it interesting that around the estuaries of the Tiber there was less evidence of salt fishing because nearer to Rome numerous fishponds were used instead for breeding, in order to get fresh fish to market in Rome. Wilson comments a lot on the need for more information and evidence of factories and vats and points out how ‘crude’ the graph of the capacities of salting factories is, although a basic pattern does emerge. But the vat capacities do not necessarily reflect the output of salted fish. In addition, in many vats evidence of other animal bones were also found, as the process for salting meat was similar whether fish, cow or horse. Another graph for vat capacity over time portrays a rise in construction in the early 1st century AD in all regions, and especially in the Straits of Gibraltar and in Brittany. Therefore, Wilson argues that overall the graphs of capacity by construction period illustrate when investment was most popular for building the commercial meat salting plants, used for production and export, which can give us an insight into the rise and fall of trade in the Roman world. In addition, this gives us a sense of the general levels of salt fish consumption, fish was an important source of protein and only salted meat would last long enough to be imported inland. I think it would be interesting therefore to compare the levels of salt fish production to agricultural productions. Fishing is an industry that relies less on the weather and it would not have been affected by drought. So perhaps when farmers had a bad year for their crops, salt fish trade would have risen. Also if you want to analyse economic trade in the Roman Empire as a whole, surely you would need to assess agricultural trade as well as the meat and fish markets.

One thought on “Quantification of fish-salting infrastructure capacity in the Roman World

  1. I guess I’ll respond to this post, since as Martha mentioned, there aren’t any other initial posts to respond to.

    It seems that most of the conclusions that Wilson makes are hurt by a lack of data. He notes that due to a lack of field research “the concentrations of sites along the Tunisian coastline stop abruptly at the frontiers with Libya and Algeria” and that the near nonexistence of “salting establishments in the Eastern Mediterranean and also in the Adriatic” is probably also due to a lack of research. He also mentions that it is not even clear what many of these vats were used for – although garum was the most popular salted product, beef, horse and mutton were all produced in a similar manner.

    Despite these problems, I think he does a good job of explaining how changes in fish-salting infrastructure was related to the economy as a whole. If archaeologists and historians were unwilling to make uncertain assumptions based on incomplete data, very little could be said about the ancient world. That being said, his statement that “the industry may serve as an empire-wide indicator of economic fortunes” is a bit of a strech when considering that a large part of the knowledge of this industry is based on no more than 6 factories in Brittany, likely only a small part of what actually existed in the region. He also acknowledges that the information known about these sites is likely flawed and incomplete.

    As such, I agree with Martha: I think that the fish-salting industry could be a component of a well-rounded analysis of the Roman economy, but is not sufficient on its own. The information presented by Wilson is useful, but is too prone to inaccuracies to be a completely useful indicator on its own.

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