Donnerstag, 12. Oktober 2017

Report on the 19th Fish Remains Working Group meeting in Alghero-Stintino, Italy

A blog entry by Mari Yamasaki.

The beautiful cities of Alghero (Fig. 1) and Stintino (Fig. 2) in Sardinia served as the backdrop for the 19th Fish Remains Working Group (also FRWG) meeting from the 1st to the 7th of October. In the course of three intense days of conference, 16 posters and 47 papers – including my own – were presented, with topics spanning from isotopic analysis and DNA sequencing, to ethnographical accounts and archaeological excavation, all sharing one common denominator: the importance of fish remains for understanding the past ways of life.

Figure 1. View of Alghero, Torre Sulis (Photo by Mari Yamasaki)

Figure 2. View of Stintino, Porto Minore (Photo by Mari Yamasaki)

With few exceptions, the study of fish remains is regarded as a minor component when building the larger historical narratives of a site, city or region. The aim of this group of international scholars is precisely to give the right weight to this often neglected piece of evidence. The majority of the participants came from archaeozoological background, but ethnologists, historians and more traditional archaeologists also attended and presented their perspectives on the subject, which often instigated lively and interdisciplinary discussions (Fig.3).

Figure 3.  (Photos by Mari Yamasaki)
a. Opening remarks. From the left: Prof. Piero Bartoloni, Prof. Arturo Morales-Muñiz, Prof. Barbara Wilkens, Dr. Ornella Piras, Dr. Gabriele Carenti
b. Prof. Morales-Muñiz. "The European hake (Merluccius merluccius L.): a deepwater fishery in the Neolithic?"
c. Prof. Richard C. Hoffman. "Who dined extensively on fish in Medieval Europe? A critical consumer reads stable isotope analysis"

Among many brilliant contributions, I believe it is worth highlighting some of them for the originality of their approach. From session 1, Ambra Zambernardi's ethnological account on the relationship between the tonnarotti and their prey, the bluefin tuna, was particularly interesting. With the term tonnarotti, in fact, one does not refer to fishermen just as much as the term Tonno (tuna) does not refer to fish, or the tonnara to fishing. The connection between the tuna, the tonnarotti, and the tonnara is a unique one, something that resembles more the hunt of big game, or even war, than fishing. Traces of parallels between the capture of the Bluefin tuna and battle scenes can be dated back to classical Greece: in Aeschylus' tragedy "The Persians", the slaughtering of the enemies is described as the mattanza, the killing phase of the capture of this giant fish. In Zambernardi's account on the tonnarotti, the deep sense of respect that these men had for their catch was evident. This is also attested by the prayers of atonement recited for the dead tunas after the mattanza. Another aspect that emerged is that, sadly, this traditional practice and the cultural world related to it are rapidly getting lost with the introduction of industrialized fishing strategies.

Taking a leap in the deep past, Ying Zhang's paper in session 2 focused on the Neolithic on the Yangtze River ecosystem and on the state of archaeozoological research in the area with particular reference to the ichthyofaunae. Despite a traditional image of populations dedicated mostly to terrestrial sources, from her studies emerged a picture of communities which consistently relied on fresh water resources. Interestingly, even where marine and brackish fish was available in the estuarine areas, the preference was still leaning towards the riverine sources, with a minimal incidence of marine fauna. As for the latter, the species represented consisted prevalently of large pelagic species such as tuna, shark and whale. Her hypothesis is that these few remains did not indicate the existence of a deep-water fishing strategy, but resulted from the opportunistic exploitation of specimens that were washed ashore by the tide.

In session 3, Arturo Morales Muñiz – one of the top experts in the field of archaeological fish remains for the European Atlantic coast and the western Mediterranean – also addressed the question of the existence of Neolithic deep-water fisheries. Analysis of modern hake from the Mediterranean and from the Atlantic reveal different trophic levels, which in turn allows to differentiate the origin of the fish on the basis of their isotopic signature. The isotopic analysis of archaeological fish remains from the Iberian Peninsula were then compared to the modern ones to confirm that populations in Galician coast would indeed procure their hake from the Atlantic. From this data, it almost appeared that pelagic fishing was commonly practiced already in the Neolithic. However, studying the reproductive behaviour of the hake, it resulted that this species comes close to the shore in relatively shallow waters in spring and autumn. In light of this, it becomes clear how this activity was connoted by a seasonal character, rather than advanced oceanic seafaring technology. 

Another famous name in the study of archaeological fish remains participated in the conference: Omri Lernau – arguably the authority in the field for the Eastern Mediterranean – offered a paper within the forth session. In his talk, he presented the archaeological evidence relative to the consumption of non-kosher fish (simply put, the prohibition to eat any fish without scales) in Israel, for a period spanning between the Bronze Age and the Late Roman times. In his overview of the evidence, he showed how this dietary taboo underwent variable degrees of implementation throughout Jewish history, and only consolidated, together with Israelite identity, in times of crisis – namely under the Babylonian and the Roman domination. Among the non-kosher fish, particularly numerous all over the country were the remains of the African catfish (Clarias gariepinus), a riverine fish that may have lived in the much wetter Bronze and Iron Age Israel. Recent investigation, however, point towards the likelihood that this species was actually imported from Egypt together with another Nilotic fish, the Lates niloticus. As it is a matter of special interest for my dissertation project, I addressed the issue of the imports of the Lates in my own paper in relation to the exploitation of maritime resources and the development of seaborne trade networks in the Eastern Mediterranean Bronze Age, The import of determined fish species from great distances is also accounted for in Medieval Serbia. In her paper, Ivana Živaljević presented the case study of the monastery of Studenica, where large sturgeons were carried via land for well over 200 km. 

On the last day, the conference moved to the fishing village of Stintino, some 40 km north of Alghero, where we were hosted by the Museo della Tonnara (the Museum of the traditional Bluefin tuna fishing). After welcome talks by Antonio Diana, major of Stintino, and Salvatore Rubino, scientific director of the museum and professor of microbiology atthe University of Sassari, we were given some time to visit this small but charming museum displaying the archaeology, technology and personal histories of the all but lost art of the tonnara (Fig. 4), the traditional fishing of the Bluefin tuna (Thunnus thynnus). 

Figure 4. A model representing the net arrangements for the tonnara. on display at the Museo della Tonnara, Stintino. (Photo by Mari Yamasaki)

Following the visit, the last session of the 19th FRWG was held in the conference hall of the museum itself. Here, Richard Hoffmann's paper addressed a very relevant matter concerning the appropriate use of scientific data to answer historical questions. In particular, he made use of stable isotope analysis performed on individuals from a mass grave dated to 15th century Rome, and compared it with the written sources from the same period referring to the fish sold in the city markets. Taken alone, the two studies depicted two rather different scenarios: on the one hand, the isotopic analysis appeared to be consistent with a diet based on Atlantic fish, and thus implied that the Roman marked imported it; on the other, the sources made no mention of such type of fish being sold in Rome at the time. However, after combining these two types of evidence with population and economic data, there emerged a much more intricate picture, where consumption habits intertwine with an increase of trade between Rome and different areas of Europe and, consequently, a more intense movement of people along with their goods and foods (including Atlantic stockfish, for example) into the Italian peninsula. Far from suggesting the import of exotic fish, the most likely explanation was that the analysed individual was probably a foreigner, possibly a trader, who died in Rome during the plague.

In conclusion, the 19th FRWG meeting was a great occasion to highlight the importance of fish remains to understand more than just economic practices, but also gain precious information on the expression of identities and ethnicity through consumption habits. Finally yet importantly, it offered the chance to compare some radically different methods and approaches from a variety of disciplines in two of the most beautiful corners of Italy.

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