Wreck Full of Ancient Roman 'Ketchup' Found

The second-century ship contained thousands of jars containing the ketchup of the ancient Romans -- a fish-based seasoning known as garum.

Italian archaeologists have discovered the wreck of a Roman ship laden with thousands of jars containing the ketchup of the ancient Romans - a pungent, fish-based seasoning known as garum.

Considered a delicacy, the smelly liquid was mass produced in factories, especially in Spain and Portugal.

Resting at a depth of more than 650 feet in the waters off the Ligurian coast near Alassio, the vessel is estimated to be 98 feet long and dates between the first and the second century A.D.

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The jars are now piled up on the seafloor. Ironically, they are a shelter to fish.

"From the size of the jar-made mound we estimate the ship was carrying between 2,000 and 3,000 amphoras, or clay jars," team leader Simon Luca Trigona, coordinator of the technical services of underwater archaeology at the archaeological superintendency of Liguria, told Discovery News.

Trigona's team worked with the Carabinieri scuba diver police force to localize the wreck, whose existence was signaled two years ago by a local fisherman.

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Once the wreck site was identified, the team used a remote operated vehicle (ROV) with a claw to retrieve one of the jars.

"It has not been possible yet to recover a jar with residues that can be analyzed. However, the one we brought to light, which is identical to all the others, is of a shape that was used exclusively for garum," Vincenzo Tiné, Superintendent of Archaeology of Liguria, told Discovery News.

Made from fermenting fish in saltwater, garum was basically the ketchup of the ancient Romans. It featured a much appreciated sweet and sour taste, and was used in almost on every dish, often substituting expensive salt.

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The vessel had probably left the port of Cadiz in Spain, which at the time was an important center for the fish sauce industry, and was sailing along the coast headed to Rome.

Indeed, a couple of wine jars likely used by the crew and produced in the area around the river Tiber, point to Rome as the vessel's port of provenance.

According to Trigona, the cargo ship shows for the first time that the Romans did not only follow the traditional direct route from southern Spain, off the Balearic islands and Corsica to Rome.

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"They also sailed along the coast, possibly during difficult weather," Trigona said.

The nearly 2,000 year old wreck is one of just five deep sea Roman ships found in the Mediterranean.

"Locating and investigating it at such depth has been a very important achievement," Tiné said.

Now a shelter to fish, the jars originally contained garum, a popular fish sauce.

June 3, 2011 --

Found in 1986 six miles off the coast of Grado in northeastern Italy, this Roman shipwreck was recovered in pieces in 1999. Dating from the second century, the 55-foot-long, 19-foot-wide trade vessel was packed with some 600 vases called amphoras.They were filled with sardines, salted mackerel and garum, a fish sauce much loved by the Romans. Recently, archaeologists found signs that the Roman sailors maintained an oxygenated water fish tank on board the ship.

This 51-inch-long lead pipe was located in the stern area and fed into a hole bored in the ship's hull.

The unique lead pipe was located in a sort of small bilge well (visible around the tube) and would have been connected to a hand operated piston pump (which was not found within the wreck). Sucking the sea water in a fish tank on the deck, the apparatus could have turned a simple small cargo vessel into a ship able to carry live fish.

The researchers were particularly intrigued by this hole in the keel, made to host the lead tube, which was 2.7 inches in diameter. "No seaman would have drilled a hole in the keel, creating a potential way for water to enter the hull, unless there was a very powerful reason to do so," researchers noted in the International Journal of Nautical Archaeology.

This diagram shows how the hydraulic system might have worked. The researchers calculated that the small trade vessel could have carried a tank containing around 4 cubic meters (141 cubic feet) of water, which could have housed 440 pounds of live fish. Connected to the lead pipe, the hand-operated piston pump would have easily allowed the necessary exchange of the water mass. According to the researchers, the water would have needed to be replaced once every half an hour in order to provide a constant oxygen supply. With a flow of 66 gallons per minute, the piston pump would have filled the tank in 16 minutes.

A 3D model of the ship with the fish tank is shown. The fish tank was likely placed on the deck in the aft area, behind the mast. The water mass of the large tank would not have posed any stability problems and could have housed live fish, such as sea bass or sea bream.