According to historical records, August 24, 79 A.D. is the date that Mount Vesuvius erupted, destroying Pompeii as well as other locations in the Bay of Naples. However, that date has been under much debate because of the heavy clothing that people were wearing, as well as their fruits and wine that only came from late autumn. Additionally, a charcoal inscription was discovered last year that suggested the eruption occurred on October 17th.
New analysis of fish skeletons from Pompeii adds new insight to this debate. Ancient Romans didn’t rely on fishing and mostly ate fish during specific seasons. A fermented fish sauce called garum was more common as it was made from small fish that were macerated for numerous months.
Archaeologists uncovered thousands of jars containing garum from shipwrecks as well as at Pompeii – specifically on the west side of the amphitheatre where there was a “garum shop” where they manufactured the condiment. They discovered 23 amphorae of garum during different stages of the manufacturing process. Around 17 of them were created with anchovies and picarels, while the remaining jars contained mackerels, tuna, herrings, and other types of fish.
Alfredo Carannante, who is the director of the Mediterranean archaeology department at the International Research Institute for Archaeology and Ethnology in Naples, wrote in the International Journal of Osteoarchaeology that he analyzed the garum from inside one amphora in order to determine the species of fish, as well as how big they were and how old they were in hopes of determining which season of the year they were caught.
Carannante found that the female picarels were about one year old when they were caught and thrown into the amphora. He wrote that “the latter layer of bone growth appears to be well-developed and of a lighter density, revealing that the picarels died when the waters were warmest during the summer season or at the beginning of autumn,” adding, “The comparison of data suggests that the most probable period for fishing of the Pompeian picarels took place in the second half of summer (August – September) or at the beginning of autumn.”
On the other hand, it’s also possible that the date could have been later than August 24th and possibly even into October if the fish were caught at the end of summer and left to soak for a month.
Carannante said that additional research should be done on the garum, such as which spices and herbs were used in it. And since there was a garum shop, it would be interesting to find out whether it was just a cheap ingredient used in everyday food or if it was considered to be an elite and highly sought-after condiment.
While Carannante’s analysis provided great results, the controversy over the exact month and day of when Pompeii was destroyed remains highly debatable. At least they agree on the year.