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Constructing Cetariae: The Role of Knowledge Networks in Building the Roman Fish Salting Industry

Christopher F. Motz

University of Cincinnati

Previous scholarship on Roman craft production has centered on the socio-cultural and economic implications of these industries’ activities and output, shining light on the lives of ancient tradespeople and expanding exponentially our understanding of craft processes. The layout and construction of workshops, however, has seen limited study outside scattered examinations of chaînes opératoires. This focus has obscured not only the physicality and novelty of their production contexts, but also the knowledge required to set up these facilities. Due to either the nature of the activities or their increasing scale, many industries employed specialized equipment, such as the tubs or stalls in which fullers trampled detergent-soaked clothes or the batteries of vats found at major fish-salting factories. Yet unlike other goods that were transported easily around the Roman world, many of the most important industrial fixtures, such as vats and cisterns, were fixed and normally subterranean; I thus argue that it was the technology of knowledge that moved, enabling the creation of these sub-elite workshop spaces.

    In this paper, I use fish salting workshops as a case study to demonstrate how knowledge networks shaped the construction of Roman industrial buildings. I explore mechanisms for transmitting construction knowledge in antiquity, such as apprenticeships and written manuals, and the networks and social structures in which these mechanisms were embedded, such as the organization of the building trade, the training of craftsmen, and the geographically informed operational context of fish processing. I argue that much of the knowledge required to build effective, specialized workshops was located with the fish salting industry itself, rather than with construction professionals. In many cases, the knowledge networks of professional builders and workshop operators were isolated from one another. Thus, these workshops sat at the confluence of multiple related, but independent knowledge networks that combined to produce their characteristic environments. By focusing on the transmission of knowledge as embedded within a range of social, trade, and other networks, I offer a new way of understanding how ideas and technologies moved throughout sub-elite populations of the Roman Empire.

Session/Panel Title

Systems of Knowledge and Strategic Planning in Ancient Industries

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