The assemblage of fish bones excavated from the Jerusalem landfill has a few peculiarities. The total number of fish bones was 591, of which 294, about 50 percent, could be taxonomically identified. This low percentage was mainly due to the poor conservation of the delicate bones.
Twelve different families of fish were identified, eight marine and four freshwater fish. The most common identified fish (43 percent) were mullets from the Mediterranean. Mullets are medium-sized fish commonly found in excavated sites throughout Israel. Porgies are the most commonly identified fish at these sites, but porgies made up less than 4 percent of the landfill assemblage.
We also discovered Nile perch (2.7 percent), which do not inhabit rivers in the Levant but which were imported from the Nile Valley. Egypt was known to export large quantities of perch over thousands of years, beginning in the Middle Bronze Age. This fish is a common find in almost every eastern Mediterranean site.
Thirty-six percent of the identified fish bones belongs to the freshwater family of carp, which is unusual. Several species of this family inhabit the Jordan River system, including the Sea of Galilee. The town of Magdala, situated on the western coast of the lake, was known during the Early Roman period for its production of salted fish, which is attested by its Greek name: Magdala Taricheae (“Magdala of the fish salters”). It is tempting to suggest that the carp, cichlids (2.7 percent), and catfish (1.4 percent)—all of which inhabit the Sea of Galilee—in the Jerusalem landfill came from Magdala.
Different kinds of fish were part of the diet of the Jewish population of Jerusalem during the Early Roman period. Marine Mediterranean fish and imported Nile perch were probably purchased in fish markets along the coast. The main bulk of freshwater fish was likely imported from the northern fish-salting plants in Magdala on the Sea of Galilee. These fish, caught and prepared by the Jewish inhabitants of Magdala, might have had a special appeal for the Jewish population of Jerusalem.—Omri Lernau, University of Haifa