The Roman province of Mauretania Tingitana only occupied the very northern tip of what is now Morocco, from, roughly, Rabat in the south-west up to the northern coast and as far east as the Moulouya river, near the modern border with Algeria. The wealth of Roman Morocco was based on the production of commodities that the empire needed. Grain, olive oil, garum (fish sauce), all brought enormous wealth to the Phoenicians, the Romans and, later, the Byzantines.
Of the sites that I visited on my short sojourn to northern Morocco, two sites in particular provided evidence of the large-scale production of commodities for export; Volubilis and Lixus.
Volubilis is probably the best known Roman site in Morocco, visited by coachloads of tourists and schoolchildren. It has all the requisite Roman attractions for a major tourist site: Triumphal arch: tick; mosaics: tick; nicely paved roads: tick; temples and public buildings: tick. There is also a museum, but there’s nothing in it (a common occurrence in Morocco, apparently).
I was interested in all of those things, but also in these:
In one quadrant of the city, everywhere you look are the remains of olive presses, for the production of olive oil. I’ve seen these at other sites of course, SEE HERE, but not so many in one area.
If you’re looking out for these on your travels, look for the pressing bed, with the channels along which the oil runs:
And the tanks that the oil runs into.
Here it’s left to settle so the pith and skin and bits sinks to the bottom and the pure oil can be skimmed off and put into storage containers, like this dolium in the Musee Archeologique de Tetouan .
And all around there are the remains of olive mills, used for pre-crushing the olives prior to pressing, and quern-stones for grinding wheat.
In a small building at around the centre of the excavated site, there is a reconstruction of an olive press.
We don’t get to see elements like the beam and tethering ropes, organic elements that rarely survive in the archaeological record. We only see the stone elements.
North-west of Volubilis, out on the Atlantic coast is the town of Larache. Just up the road from the modern town, and on the bank of the Loukkos River is the ancient city of Lixus. The city was settled by the Phoenicians in the 7th centurey BCE, but had been founded centuries earlier, in 1180 BCE, by a Berber king.
Ancient Greek writers cited Lixus as the site of the Garden of the Hesperides, the keepers of the golden apples (the same golden apples that Hercules was after).
When I visited, it wasn’t for the apples. It was for these:
These concrete-lined tanks were used for large-scale production of salt-fish and garum, the fermented fish sauce that was essential for Roman cooking. We’ve seen these before, in Tunisia.
Its situation just near the coast and on the bank of a major river, meant that fish formed a key commodity for the city and brought a great deal of wealth to it. There are loads of these tanks built in banks on the lower part of the site.
Over 100 of these tanks have been identified which confirms that this is no local cottage industry, but large-scale manufacturing for export.
It can sometimes seem like Roman sites are remote and out of the way, because they are often situated away from modern cities and a bit off the beaten rack, but the large-scale production of important commodities could only happen in a connected market economy. However remote a site might seem today, in the Roman period roads, sea and river routes and long-distance trade meant that even the furthest-flung corner of the empire could be important to the wider Roman world.
Lixus is visited far less often than the better-known Volubilis, but I’d recommend it. The site is lovely, a hill by a river, with gorgeous views. The remains are in pretty good condition and there is quite a lot to look at, including an amphitheatre, baths, houses and temples.
There were mosaics found at the site but these have all either been covered over for protection or moved to the museum in Tetouan (as in the example below).
Unfortunately, the planned on-site museum isn’t open (this seems to be a common occurrence in Morocco).