In Practice, Production on April 1, 2012 at 1:51 pm

The place is unfinished and long since ruined, the smell of fish has faded away and the archaeologists have arrived. It’s blustery and I turn my collar up against the wind that blows down where the land slopes gently to the water. On this hazy day the Rif mountains can only just be made out to the south; even the big Bolonia dune – close by – is a little shrouded.

Long since ruined – this old city saw its heyday under Claudius and was already a pile of rubble fifteen centuries ago. I walk along the wooden walkway, reluctant to linger in the cold. The emperor occupies his pedestal amidst the columns of the Basilica. Down onto the slabs of the decumanus maximus and past the Macellum and the baths – then up to the half moon of the amphitheatre and its tiered stalls; half a bull ring on the hillside.

After that the three temples – to Juno, to Jupiter and to Minerva and after those another, to Isis. The gods overlook the forum, the tabernae, the curia and Tabularium and further down – right where the sand starts – is the rather prosaic reason for all this Roman fuss; the factory that churned out the product that produced the wealth that produced the temples. Fish sauce.

If you’ve ever used a crushed anchovy fillet to flavour your food then you will get garum. The factory is largely an array of salting cones – the condiment was made by salting the intestines of small fish and leaving them to rot in the sun. For months.


It was by all accounts a luxury to the Romans and pricier than the salt used in its manufacture. And if it was more expensive than salt – the great preservative – in those days, it wasn’t cheap.

Unfinished – as I trudge back uphill on a newly laid gravel path the forum and its row of shops provide an opportunity for me to mutter the word “portico” to myself. We visitors are outnumbered today by workers. There are two kinds – the men and women who are labouring on a new circuit; the gravel path and wooden walkways, chrome handrails, benches and well chosen viewpoints. Clean lines and contemporary styling to guide the curious.

Then there are the archaeology crews. They aren’t digging; they are working within some of the half-height structures, distributing gravel and identifying the limits of the intrinsically valuable. Consolidating, the notices say. Archaeologists always manage to make archaeology look urgent – like they are an emergency crew at the scene of an accident. They’re the last people one would expect to be in a hurry, I would have thought.

Maybe it is urgent. The past is a place that is slipping away from us, just as the galaxies are diverging, just as our own fugitive memories are constantly disappearing over the horizon of our cognitive reach. And we don’t want to let it go. There we are now – scurrying around the barest traces of it to secure them for the future. We work hard to preserve the past and archaeology is our salt.

My niece and nephew are just behind me as we make our way to the ultra-modern visitor centre (my favourite structure on the site if truth be known). They are grown and I haven’t spent time with them for so long, but the weather is inhibiting conversation as we huddle in our coats. I don’t know what they think of all of this; if it fascinates them or if mine are the preoccupations of the no-longer-young. I’m pretty sure we would agree that it’s cold though.

It’s good to get inside and divert ourselves with the exhibits. Every window in the building is designed to frame the exhibit outside – not just the Roman town but the land and sea; the world. We spend a little time there and then we leave.

A few days later we find ourselves sitting at long tables along with another twenty-five or so of our extended family. It is a birthday gathering and we are in a restaurant in Marbella. People have come from around the world to honour E, who will be thirty-plus tomorrow. Even if I didn’t now live in Tarifa I wouldn’t see these people in the same room very often. This kind of gathering is rare; we are scattered.

It is especially good that R and R are here.

That’s a little confusing, isn’t it? To clarify – R is my nephew, whereas R is my niece.

Theirs is the youngest generation represented and it is good to see them amongst their gene providers. Evidence of their belonging here is written all over their faces. I wonder if it means more to me than it does to them – if I am maybe over-egging it a bit. The older I get, the more distance I put between myself and my origins, the more interesting they become. The more they pull at me, like the cheese strings that pull harder the further the slice gets from the pizza.

And on the subject of Italian food, there is no garum on offer this evening, thankfully. We have to make do with salt. Plenty of fish though; the owner seems very keen that we try the fish. He must have a lot of it, and of course it doesn’t keep. On at least three separate occasions, he recommends the fish.

Once bellies are full and belts loosened, there are speeches. There is a need to mark the occasion with words. Cameras flash with the promise of visual reminder. We document the evening because it is special, intrinsically valuable. Later we will perform our personal archaeologies via kodak galleries or facebook or whatever it might be.

E is presented with a photograph of Dublin’s Custom House, an historical image that we all sign to inscribe our presence here. Our signatures and the photographs we take are an attempt at preservation, of course, but I wonder if what is truly valuable in all of this can be kept. I hope no one spends too much time behind the cameras, or reminiscing about the past; it is enough to be here amongst real flesh-and-bone people for a short time before we disperse again and return to other places.

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  1. Yes, family means more to me as I get older. The sticky cheese, the cast of characters who I once viewed with mild disdain, now become funny, bright, and truly unique. Like all of us.

  2. We have a lot of salted fish in Canada, although it was used primarily to store it for winter and isn’t something we eat much now unless some restaurant has decided it’s chic again.

  3. Family gathering use to be kind of boring for me when I was little, but the older I got, the more interesting the conversation seems to be. (I love asking older generations about World War II and where they were)

  4. I just found your blog and I really like your well-written and informative articles, particularly the one on garum. Back on Jan 12 of this year I posted a story about garum at Chubby Chatterbox that you might find interesting. I hope you’ll visit me. If you do, press the join button and I’ll return the favor.

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