Archaeologists Discover an Entire City Swept Away by Tsunami 1,700 Years Ago

Nearly 1,700 years ago, a massive tsunami washed away the city of Neapolis. Archaeologists recently discovered what remains of the once-great city and are starting to piece together information about the people who lived there.

Archaeologists Discover an Entire City Swept Away by Tsunami 1,700 Years Ago
University researchers getting data underwater AFP Via YouTube

The city of Neapolis thrived under the Roman empire roughly 1,700 years ago. However, a giant tsunami swept most of the city away, completely submerging it. Archaeologists recently stumbled upon a vast collection of ruins, including an unexpected detail that could tell us more about the city than any historical record prior.

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Amidst the sunken monuments, street stones and building pieces were hundreds of tanks to make garum. Garum was a popular fish sauce used by both the ancient Greeks and Romans. Given the vast quantity of artifacts found that were used to create garum, archaeologists now believe the smelly sauce played a major role in the Neapolis economy. 

A team from the University of Sassari in Italy partnered with researchers from the Tunisian National Heritage Institute on the project. They're celebrating the success from this massive undertaking. 

"It's a major discovery," the head of the team, Mounir Fantar, said in an interview with AFP.

"This discovery has allowed us to establish with certainty that Neapolis was a major centre for the manufacture of garum and salt fish, probably the largest centre in the Roman world."

In total, the team found over 100 tanks used to produce garum. Fantar and his crew started work in 2010, and their site stretched to over 50 acres (20 hectares) of space. However, it wasn't until favorable weather conditions appeared that the team had a chance to find the sunken city. 

Historians don't know much of the city itself due to political strife during the era of early recorded history. The citizens of Neapolis sided with Carthage during the Third Punic War. Thus, when Rome took control at the end of the war, little was done to document the lives of the perceived traitors. What we did know of the city came from the records of Roman soldier Ammein Marcellin, and even then, his records detailed the tsunami rather than pre-devastation details. 

"We were looking for the port and underwater prospecting allowed us to recognize other traces, and especially to have the certainty that Neapolis suffered this earthquake in 365 AD," Fantar told AFP.

But what of the actual substance that clued in researchers that they'd indeed found Neapolis? Garum is made in a very particular process. Ancient records indicate that it was made of salted fish intestines. That combination created a liquor -- or the garum -- and a sediment called allex. Cooks would then concentrate the garum into a very thick paste. Garum has the same amino acids that give umami its flavor. Garum even made its way into early Arab cuisine to add flavor to savory dishes. Some culinary historians even suggest that murri might come from garum.

Archaeologists Discover an Entire City Swept Away by Tsunami 1,700 Years Ago
This ancient garum facility found in Spain could be what the one in Neapolis looked like.
Source: Wikipedia

Unlike other modern cooking techniques, garum was consumed by all social classes. However, the best of the sauces were bought for extremely high prices. (For those reading this in the U.S., think of garum as a fish-centered barbeque sauce. Everyone has their favorite versions, but a good barbeque sauce can be found at a variety of different price points.)

And the popularity of garum is what would've given Neapolis a surprising level of popularity, despite the city's betrayal of Rome. 

You can watch a video of the team exploring the underwater ruins below.

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