2,000-year-old Roman ‘ketchup factory’ uncovered in Askhelon

“This is a rare find in our region and very few installations of this kind have been found in the Eastern Mediterranean. Ancient sources even refer to the production of Jewish garum."

The Byzantine kilns producing wine jars (photo credit: ASAF PERETZ/ISRAEL ANTIQUITIES AUTHORITY)
The Byzantine kilns producing wine jars
Almost two millennia before tomato ketchup made its appearance on tables, ancient Romans had their own mouth-watering condiment that turned every dish into a delicacy: garum, a fermented fish sauce that bears some resemblance to the modern Asian one. A recent discovery revealed that the popular dressing was not only consumed but also produced in ancient Israel: fermenting vats employed for its preparation were discovered in Ashkelon, the Antiquities Authority (IAA) announced on Monday.
“This is a rare find in our region, and very few installations of this kind have been found in the Eastern Mediterranean,” the IAA’s Tali Erickson-Gini explained in a statement. “Ancient sources even refer to the production of Jewish garum. The discovery of this kind of installation in Ashkelon is evidence that the Roman tastes that spread throughout the empire were not confined to dress but also included dietary habits.”
The archaeologist suggested forgetting about more modern staples of Italian cuisine that have made it one of the most beloved across the world.
“Long before pasta and pizza, the ancient Roman diet was based largely on fish sauce. Historical sources refer to the production of special fish sauce, that was used as a basic condiment for food in the Roman and Byzantine eras throughout the Mediterranean basin. They report that the accompanying strong odors during its production required its being distanced from urban areas, and this was found to be the case since the installations were discovered approximately 2 km. from ancient Ashkelon,” he explained.
According to a National Geographic report, garum was prepared using the guts of fermented fish and salt, sometimes adding other ingredients such as wine, pepper, oil or vinegar; amphorae with garum traces have been uncovered dating as far back as fifth century BCE. The report added that a vast network of commercial routes developed for its trade, with prices that could reach stellar levels for the most exquisite qualities.
Garum installations (Credit: Asaf Peretz/Israel Antiquities Authority)Garum installations (Credit: Asaf Peretz/Israel Antiquities Authority)
In the fifth century CE, a monastery stood on the very same site of the garum production plant. Once again, the area proved to be very beneficial for the ancient culinary world, this time because of its favorable condition for viticulture and wine-making. Three wine presses and a kiln complex were uncovered next to the remains of a richly decorated 5th-century church.
According to the IAA researchers, wine exporting was likely the primary income for the monastery.
“The site, which served as an industrial area over several periods, was again abandoned sometime after the Islamic conquest of the region in the 7th century CE – and later nomadic families, probably residing in tents, dismantled the structures and sold the different parts for building material elsewhere,” Erickson-Gini said.
The excavation was underwritten by the Municipality of Ashkelon and the Ashkelon Economic Co. in preparation for the establishment of the Eco-Sport Park. Students from the nearby Makif Vav Middle School, as well as young members of the Kibbutz Movement from Yad Mordechai located 10 km. south of Ashkelon, have participated in it.
“Ashkelon is one of the most ancient cities in the world, and from time to time we find additional proof of that. The recent excavation in one of its beautiful new neighborhoods produces a combination of the city’s rich past, its present development and its future progress,” Tomer Glam, the city’s mayor, said in the IAA statement.