Spanish police conducting a routine inspection of a frozen seafood vendor in the coastal town of Alicante recently spotted something fishy—and it wasn’t just the merchandise.
“Officers observed several ceramic amphorae at various points in the facility, a metal anchor and a limestone plaque with an inscription that, at first glance, could be of considerable age,” the Spanish Civil Guard writes in a statement, as translated by CNN’s Rob Picheta.
More than a dozen of the suspiciously ancient-looking clay jars decorated the premises, prompting a seizure that netted 13 nearly 2,000-year-old Roman amphorae and an 18th-century metal anchor, reports Sam Jones for the Guardian.
The shop owner’s son allegedly found the artifacts on fishing trips and brought them back to spruce up the storefront. Both men are now under investigation, according to BBC News.
After taking a closer look at the amphorae, archaeologists at the nearby Sea Museum in Santa Pola determined that all 13 were Roman. The vessels may date to as early as the first century A.D., reports CNN. One amphora was singled out following the inspection “due to its exclusivity.”
Per the statement, the limestone plaque discovered at the scene is engraved with the word “este”—Spanish for east.
Incautadas 13 ánforas romanas en un establecimiento de productos pesqueros congelados en #SantaPola— GuardiaCivilAlicante (@GC_Alicante) July 23, 2020
La Patrulla de Comandancia del #SEPRONA de Alicante las descubrió durante una inspección
Han instruido diligencias por un delito contra el patrimonio histórico y receptación pic.twitter.com/QtDD6DhEXy
The museum’s assessment suggests that most of the amphorae were used to transport oil produced in Andalucia across the Mediterranean Sea to Rome via Portus Ilicitanus (located in the modern-day port of Santa Pola). Others might have once contained wine or garum, a sauce made from fish guts, herbs and salt.
Garum was extremely popular in the Roman and Byzantine period, reported María José Noain Maura for National Geographic in 2018. Factories dedicated to producing the pungent condiment sprang up along the north African and Spanish coastlines; last year, archaeologists even discovered a rare garum factory in the southern Israeli city of Ashkelon.
To prepare garum, workers would pack giant vats with alternating layers of salt; herbs; and whitebait, anchovy, mackerel or tuna innards. Once the vats’ contents had spent a few months fermenting in the hot sun, the sauce was ready to be siphoned into clay amphorae (like those festooned around the fishmonger’s shop) for storage and transport.
The Civil Guard posits that the ceramics might have “come from the looting of shipwrecks,” according to the statement. If the artifacts did, in fact, originate in wrecks found off of the Mediterranean coast, the men could be charged with “crimes against historical heritage,” as well as possession of objects known to be of dubious or illegal origin.