Archaeology News

 





LIFE AND DEATH IN THE

 

`Uttermost Part of the Earth'

 

by Doug Ward



OXFORD, OHIO-According to the New Testament book of Acts, Jesus left his disciples with a challenging assignment shortly before his ascent to heaven:

 

"But ye shall receive power, after that the Holy Ghost is come upon you: and ye shall be witnesses unto me both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea, and in Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth" (Acts 1:8, KJV).

 

Hoping and anticipating that their Master would soon return, the disciples set out to complete the assignment as quickly as possible. In those days the "uttermost part of the earth" included the territories at the western edge of the Roman Empire, places like the Iberian Peninsula and Britain. The apostle Paul, who journeyed extensively through the Mediterranean region, mentioned in his epistle to the Christians in Rome his plans to eventually travel to Spain (Rom. 15:24-28).

 

It is not known whether Paul was ever able to make his trip to Spain. If he did, then he may have passed through the Roman province of Lusitania, which included parts of modern-day Portugal and Spain. During Paul's time, Lusitania was enjoying a time of peace and relative prosperity under Roman rule. In particular, its thriving fishing industry helped feed the Empire.

 

Today, archaeologists in Portugal are trying to learn more about life in Roman Lusitania. On February 7, 2006, one of those archaeologists, Dr. Alvaro Figueiredo, presented a lecture at the Miami University Art Museum about the investigation he has begun at an interesting Lusitanian site. The ancient name of the site is unknown, but it acquired the name Tróia (Troy) during the time of the Renaissance and has been known as Tróia ever since.

 

Tróia is located on a peninsula, a sandy stretch of ground between the Atlantic Ocean and the estuary of the Sado River, about thirty kilometers south of Lisbon near the modern city of Setúbal. It was occupied from the late first century B.C. through about 600 A.D.

 

The most prominent feature of Tróia was a very large fish processing plant that stretched for about 3 kilometers (almost two miles) along the beach. It was a perfect location for such a facility, situated near trade routes and an ample supply of fish. At this plant, tuna fish were cut and the fillets salted and packed in amphorae, which were then shipped around the Empire. Today when we pick up a container of tuna at the market, we apparently have something in common with the ancient Romans. (Did the apostle Paul ever sample Lusitanian tuna during his travels, I wonder?)

 

After the tuna fillets were sliced, the rest of the tuna was mixed with smaller fish in the production of fish sauces that were popular as condiments and preservatives. These sauces included ingredients like blood, bone, and unclean fish, so they were definitely not a regular part of Paul's diet.

 

The fish processing plant would have provided plenty of jobs for Lusitanians. The related occupations of fishing, ship building, salt production, and the making of ceramics were other sources of employment that would have been available nearby. There is also evidence that dyes were produced there-specifically, the purple dye that is extracted from murex snails.

 

Roman baths were located next to the fish processing plant. This is not surprising, since workers would have been thankful for a bath after a long day of slicing and gutting fish. Bathers could soak in hot water in the caldarium, then "chill out" in cold water in the frigidarium.

 

Dr. Figueiredo is a bioarchaeologist, and the examination of the remains found in the ancient cemetery at Tróia is a special focus of his work there. He noted that many young children were buried there; some 36 per cent of the people whose bones have been examined were under five years old. Figueiredo explained that dysentery probably took the lives of many children. On the other hand, about 20 per cent had lived to be at least 50 years of age. Adults tended to be muscular, with well developed arms, as one would expect of people who made their livings doing things like rowing boats and dealing with large quantities of fish.

 

Figueiredo found evidence in foot bones of people whose toes were often held in a flexed position. He speculated that these people may have spent a lot of time squatting, or perhaps they braced their feet against the sides of a boat while rowing.

 

The Tróia site is well known in Portugal and it has been frequently visited-and often looted-over the past five centuries. There were previous digs there in the 1930s and 1970s, but unfortunately, little was published from either venture. As a result, many questions about Tróia remain to be answered. What was the original name of the place? Was the fish processing plant set up in an existing town, or did a settlement grow up around the plant? Was the site inhabited throughout the year, or did workers simply stay there during the seasons of their employment?

 

There is also still much to be learned about the beliefs of the ancient inhabitants. A relief from about 200-250 A.D. depicting a banquet of Mithras and the sun god indicates that the cult of Mithras must have been extant in Tróia at some point. Later, in the fourth or fifth century A.D., a structure that seems to have been a religious meeting place was built. No human beings-and no animals other than a bird-are pictured in the frescoes on the walls of this building, implying that the worshippers there were probably Jews and/or Christians. One previous researcher at the site claimed to have seen the Christian “chi-rho symbol” somewhere in the building, but Figueiredo has been unable to verify this claim.

 

One hindrance to the research at Tróia is the fact that the exposed portion of the site has been heavily looted over the centuries. However, much of the site lies buried under the sand, and there are plans to uncover the rest of ancient Tróia in the years ahead and set up a museum there by 2012. As the sand is moved away, the answers to some of Tróia's mysteries may well be revealed. There is still much to be discovered about the details of life and death in the "uttermost part of the earth."

 

ISSUE 20

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On 11 Feb 2006, 19:11.