A Taste of the Ancient World:
Fishy Matters

Fish were 'fishy' in the ancient world. While fish and fish-products provided a necessary relish (and source of protein) to the heavily grain-based ancient diet, they were also perceived as having dangerous habits - a willingness to eat people, for example...

This wide-ranging collection of fish representations underlines the ubiquity of fish in the ancient imagination. Fish also carried many symbolic meanings, the most familiar of which is probably the use of fish imagery in Early Christianity.


 Red-figure fish plate
KM 1084
Late 4th c. BC
Campania, Italy

Represented on this plate are two perch and a 'torpedo fish', prized not only for its flesh, liver, and medicinal uses, but also for its ability to emit electric shocks. Although it depicts fish, the plate could have been used for nuts, fruit, cakes, and even funerary offerings. Like a modern day 'dip' bowl, this plate has a center depression which could hold sauce, such as the pungent fish sauce called garum.



Bronze head of fish 
KM 87129
Gaza, Israel

 Bronze fish
KM 81.4.30
Late Saite period, ca. 600 BC

Without a secure archaeological context, it is often difficult to determine whether an object is truly ancient. The web exhibit, The Art of the Fake: Egyptian Forgeries from the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology, explores these issues in depth.


 Water filter
KM 71.1.20
10th-12th c AD

This filter, once part of a large sturdy household jar, was designed to keep unwanted elements out of water intended for drinking or cooking. As in this example, such filters could be quite decorative, as we see with the large fish 'straining' the water poured through it. A much earlier water filtering jug gives an idea of how the entire pot might have looked.



 Bread stamp with fish decoration
KM 88674
Coptic (c. 500 AD)
Askren, Egypt

 Bread stamp with fish decoration
KM 88675
Coptic (c. 500 AD)
Askren, Egypt

Decorative stamps, such as these showing fish, were used to mark bread loaves before baking in a communal oven. They raise complicated questions about identifying people's beliefs through archaeological remains. Fish carried many symbolic meanings for both pagans and Christians, and the people using these stamps may have been either. The hook depicted at the top of the stamp to the right suggests that line fishing was a common method in the area. Compare the shape of the hook on the stamp with the fishhook excavated at Karanis.


 Head of fish, glass inlay fragment
KM 65.3.135
Late Ptolemaic/Early Roman period (1st c.BC - 1st c. AD)

This fragment of glass inlay shows a colorful, if ferocious-looking fish. It probably decorated a piece of furniture in a rich house. The Kelsey Museum web exhibit "Wondrous Glass" explores both the technique used here and the many other uses to which glass was put in the ancient world.



 Pottery fragment with painted fish decoration
KM 69.2.76
Coptic or Early Islamic, 5th-9th c AD

 Pottery fragment with impressed fish decoration
KM 2849
2nd- early 3rd c AD
Probably from the Bay of Naples, Italy

These two pottery fragments show the major techniques for decorating pottery: painting and stamping. Note the lack of detail in the fish on the right.



Dolphin painted on wall plaster 
KM 2725
2nd-early 3rd c AD
Probably from the Bay of Naples, Italy

Dolphins painted on wall plaster
 KM 2802
2nd-early 3rd c AD
Probably from the Bay of Naples, Italy

Dolphin painted on wall plaster
KM 93735 
2nd-early 3rd c AD
Probably from the Bay of Naples, Italy

In antiquity, dophins were considered to be friends of fishermen, and there are several stories about people rescued from drowning by dolphins. These whimsically painted dolphins probably decorated the walls of a house.

Go on to The Roman Food Industry.

Exhibit Index

 Feeding Karanis

Exhibit Acknowledgements


 Kelsey Museum Homepage