Ancient city of Beit She'an in Israel Ancient city of Beit She'an in Israel Beit She'an, a 1st-century Roman city in northern Israel, had a hippodrome and a theater. (Photo: Alexey Stiop/Shutterstock)

Recent discoveries bring ancient cities to life

From stinky food to Ikea-like furniture, an archaeologist reveals what life was like thousands of years ago.

A lot of the time, we'll talk about individual archaeological discoveries – someone found a broken pottery shard, a mosaic or a collapsed Roman gateway. But what if you could take a step back from these details and look at archaeology as a whole? How have all these relatively small findings added up to give us a new picture of ancient life?

We sat down with Michael Eisenberg, an Israeli archaeologist from Israel's University of Haifa who explores Hippos, a Roman city from the first century B.C.E. located in northern Israel. He told us what he's learning overall about the ancient city he studies, such as ...

Luxurious stinky fish sauce was a big deal in Roman cuisine

fishWhen in Rome, eat stinky fish sauce. (Photo: BaLL LunLa/Shutterstock)

Something to dig your teeth into: if you were a Roman living in Hippos, you probably had a taste for a certain condiment: a really stinky, really expensive fish sauce. "Garum" was a popular sauce invented by the Greeks and beloved by the Romans. To make it, cooks would crush fish parts from eel, tuna and mackerel, then ferment them in brine.

The stuff smelled so terrible while it was being fermented that cooks would carry out the fermentation process in small pools outside of the city. Not that citizens of Hippos had to worry about the smell. They mostly imported the sauce, indicating that those who used it tended to be wealthy.

"Many liked this bloody mass of decayed fish parts," Eisenberg told us, explaining that some people even added it to their wine.


Ancient pottery was a local thing

Israel Antiquities AuthorityPieces of decorated pottery vessels from Cyprus and Greece found in Israel. (Photo: Israel Antiquities Authority)

If you think of archaeology as a bunch of scientists digging up old pottery, you're right. Pottery is a big deal in archaeology because it gives a lot of insight into the lives of regular people. Everyone, after all, needs a vessel to carry water (or beer).

"The most simple pottery really gives us the best data on the people," Eisenberg explained.

Researchers found plenty of pottery in Hippos, and they used to assume it was shipped in from somewhere else. But they're now learning that a lot of pottery in the ancient world was probably made locally, and the scientists have begun searching for a nearby pottery workshop.

"We know we have a pottery workshop in Hippos," Eisenberg said. "We just don’t know where it is."


Some ancient buildings were put together like Ikea furniture

All 40 rooms have balconies with cocoon chairs and sea or city views.No word yet on if 1st-century Rome was into hypnotic carpeting. (Photo: Brown Beach House)

Even in a world without touchscreen couches, giant elevators and Swedish meatballs, people liked to buy furniture that was easy to put together. Scientists are learning that ancient builders marked their building pieces to help assemble them.

When ancient architects built big structures, they wanted to make sure column heights and such would be uniform. So they'd cut simple symbols – an X, a gamma – into stones to label them. Just recently, archaeologists discovered that stones making up a Roman basilica in Israel, a public building used to conduct business, were marked with simple lines to indicate their heights and positions, making the buildings easier to put together.

"It's like Ikea," Eisenberg said.


Forget Rome: the edges of the Roman Empire is where it's at

amphitheatersThe Romans built amphitheaters throughout the Mediterranean, like this one in Beit She'an, Israel. (Photo: jedamus/Shutterstock)

Historically, archaeologists have tended to focus on major capitals and hubs. But they're now starting to study what happened on the fringes of empires rather than in the centers. That's part of the reason Eisenberg is studying Hippos, an ancient Roman city located in Israel, rather than Rome.

According to Eisenberg, the scientists have learned that fringes can be totally unaffected by wars and other changes in the empire. One king might overthrow another king and cause complete chaos for years in the capital city, but a thousand miles away on the empire's edge, people just go on with their lives.

"King change-ups won’t influence provinces," Eisenberg explained.


Ancient cities weren’t shaped the way you'd expect

Tel Aviv CityscapeAncient Israel probably didn't look like this modern scene in Tel Aviv. (Photo: Dmitry Pistrov/Shutterstock)

People tend to think of a city as a big, metropolitan center, with arms reaching out. But Eisenberg said scientists are learning that many ancient cities didn't fit that model.

“It doesn’t really work like this," he said.

Borders between neighborhoods and kingdom sections weren't always very distinct. "Many times, it's just an obscure line between provinces," or even kingdoms, Eisenberg explained. “Everybody's looking for the fingerprints.”

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