Biblical Archaeology Review 45:2, March/April 2019

Strata: Israel to Egypt: Go Fish!

With button-shaped teeth that can gnash through the shells of crabs and mussels, a fish known as the gilthead sea bream (Sparus aurata) was extensively traded between Egypt and Canaan 3,500 years ago. Scientists from Germany and Israel analyzed 100 sea bream teeth from 12 archaeological sites in Israel.1 The oxygen isotopes of the teeth indicated that about 75 percent of the fish in the study came from a hypersaline body of water, while the rest came from the southeastern Mediterranean Sea. The Bardawil Lagoon on the north coast of the Sinai is the only body of water in the area that contains such a high concentration of salt.

It appears that the ancient fish trade between Egypt and Canaan lasted from the Late Bronze Age through the Byzantine period. The study dispels the previously held assumption that remains of the sea bream at coastal Levantine sites were entirely the result of a local fishing industry and not long-distance trade. The researchers also note that the famed fourth-century C.E. Rabbi Abbahu, who lived in Caesarea Maritima, stated that “any fish [brought to the city] must come either from Apamea [in Syria] or from Pelusium [Bardawil’s harbor town from the sixth century B.C.E. until the drying up of the eastern arm of the Nile].”

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