Thursday, February 18, 2010
Núcleo Arqueológico moment
In one of those happy accidents of traveling, we arrived at just the right time at the Banco Comercial Português, located near the Tagus River in downtown Lisbon. There an archeologist took us beneath the bank building for a personal tour of an archaeological dig /museum. “Lisbon,” she said, “has been continuously inhabited since the Bronze Age, so any time you dig the foundation for a new building, you are likely to find something." But this sprawling dig was remarkable in exposing evidence from various stages over a 2500 year long history, including archaeological structures and artifacts "from the Romans to the Moors, from the Visigoths to the Medieval and the Pombaline periods, down to the phreatic layer.”
The site was used as a pottery workshop, and there is a lovely 3rd century mosaic floor. She showed us an oven dating from the Moorish period and the base of the Pombaline 'gaiola' (birdcage) structure invented by the 18th-century engineers to resist earthquakes such as the one that destroyed the city in 1755.
I was particularly fascinated by the large square vats that were used for the production of fish sauce. This was an important flavoring ingredient used for hundreds or thousands of years and was traded all around Europe. It was a big industry in Lisbon. They would bring in the catch and cut the fish up into these vats with water, salt, and herbs. After it was fermented for an appropriate time, it was filtered and put into amphorae with their bases pointed to facilitate stacking them in ships’ holds.
“Fish sauce was everywhere,” she told us, “almost like Coca Cola or McDonald’s today. The aroma and flavor of fish sauce were familiar to virtually everyone, all across Europe.”
But at some point, the fish sauce industry died out. There was evidence of its passing, as one of the vats had a new wall constructed within it to divide it into smaller cells, and a skeleton was interred on one side. Having lost its use for making fish sauce, the vat had been subdivided and used for a burial.
“Now,” the archaeologist continued, “the flavor of fish sauce has been lost. Nobody knows exactly how it was made. This flavor that once was so common in Europe has completely disappeared.” Of course, there are other fish sauces in other places, like Asia, but they may not be the same.
It is a thought that stayed with me long after we left the Núcleo, that a once ubiquitous flavor has been lost. Surely many other flavors, too. What endures and what does not? It is a question that applies not only to archaeology and to the past, but also to the present. Sometimes the answers are surprising.