Fish in the desert: Identifying fish trade routes and the role of Red Sea parrotfish (Scaridae) during the Byzantine and Early Islamic periods

Rachel Blevis, Guy Bar-Oz, Yotam Tepper, Irit Zohar

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Recent archaeological excavations in the Negev desert of the southern Levant have yielded a surprising and unprecedented amount of fish remains, found in the landfills at Byzantine (4th–7th century CE) and Early Islamic (7th–9th century CE) sites. The significant economic and dietary role of Red Sea fish, especially parrotfish (Scaridae), in addition to fish originating from freshwater habitats, including the Nile, as well as from the Mediterranean Sea, attest to the importance of fish in sophisticated trade networks, which facilitated the transport of fish from different aquatic habitats to the distant provinces. The discovery of Red Sea parrotfish at all three studied sites is of particular interest. Analysis of the Scaridae remains revealed their role as a flagship species of the Red Sea coral-reef fishery and as an essential commodity in the Byzantine and Early Islamic economic systems; as well as the presence of more than one Scaridae species. The study of skeletal element representation indicated that complete fish, larger than 23 cm in length (SL), were transported to the sites. The bone fragmentation patterns reflected typical traditional butchering during the desiccation processes. The fish remains recovered from the desert provide new insights into the infrastructure of commercial networks that enabled the transport of fish over long distances during periods of high demand for fish products.

Original languageEnglish
Article number102808
JournalJournal of Archaeological Science: Reports
StatePublished - Apr 2021

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
This study was conducted under license from the Israel Antiquities Authority (G-87/2015; G-4/2016). The project received funding from the European Research Council under the EU’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation program (648427), and from the Israel Science Foundation (340–14). The ethnographical study on the Bedouin fishermen (Sinai, Egypt) and the establishment of the reference collection were supported by the Irene Levi Sala CARE Archaeological Foundation (IZ grant). Sheila Hamilton-Dyer generously provided us with her photographs of Scaridae remains from Myos Hormos – Quseir al-Qadim.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2021 Elsevier Ltd


  • Fish trade
  • Mediterranean fish
  • Negev desert
  • Nilotic fish
  • Red Sea fish

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Archaeology
  • Archaeology


Dive into the research topics of 'Fish in the desert: Identifying fish trade routes and the role of Red Sea parrotfish (Scaridae) during the Byzantine and Early Islamic periods'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this