Maritime Archaeology and Ancient Trade in the Mediterranean (Oxford Centre for Maritime Archaeology, Monograph 6) edited by Damian Robinson , Andrew Wilson (eds) 230 pages, 85 colour and 36 b&w illustrations, 11 tablesOxford Centre for Maritime Archaeology, Institute of Archaeology, 36 Beaumont Street, Oxford OX1 2PG, 2011, £40 (hbk), ISBN 978-1905905171
Article first published online: 4 FEB 2013
© 2013 The Authors. International Journal of Nautical Archaeology © 2013 The Nautical Archaeology Society
International Journal of Nautical Archaeology
Volume 42, Issue 1, pages 217–218, March 2013
How to Cite
Parker, A. J. (2013), Maritime Archaeology and Ancient Trade in the Mediterranean (Oxford Centre for Maritime Archaeology, Monograph 6) edited by Damian Robinson , Andrew Wilson (eds) 230 pages, 85 colour and 36 b&w illustrations, 11 tablesOxford Centre for Maritime Archaeology, Institute of Archaeology, 36 Beaumont Street, Oxford OX1 2PG, 2011, £40 (hbk), ISBN 978-1905905171. International Journal of Nautical Archaeology, 42: 217–218. doi: 10.1111/1095-9270.12008_6
- Issue published online: 4 FEB 2013
- Article first published online: 4 FEB 2013
A unique surprise! Your reviewer opened this volume, sent to him for review in the usual way, to discover that it was dedicated to him (and, jointly, to David Blackman). How should one handle a book which opens with a compliment to one's ‘knowledge and erudition'? Adopt a stiff upper lip, and slate it? Or flush to the roots and toady to the well-meaning dedicators?
In the event, neither—this is a well-produced and valuable collection of essays, a credit to the Oxford Centre and to the editors. There are 13 papers, beginning with ‘Introduction: Maritime archaeology and the ancient economy’, a generally well-judged summary and introduction by the two editors. Of the rest, Oleson, Brandon and Hohlfelder on Roman concrete engineering, and Hohlfelder on Lycia, while excellent, are along lines published elsewhere; likewise, Franck Goddio's paper on Heracleion-Thonis and Alexandria is interesting and well presented, but is essentially an overview. In ‘Developments in Mediterranean shipping and maritime trade from the Hellenistic period to AD 1000’ Andrew Wilson sets out at greater length some of the criticisms of method or philosophy he has expressed in other publications; together with some other contributors, he gives a ‘forthcoming’ publication as a supporting reference, suggesting that we may never arrive at a full and final exposition of his argued opinions—I hope not! He also takes advantage of his editor's position to comment on submissions made by other contributors, which seems unfair—especially as his rather schematic, generalizing approach is, it seems to me, inferior to the more complex, subtle arguments of Pascal Arnaud, in ‘Ancient sailing-routes and trade patterns: the impact of human factors’.
By contrast, the paper by David Fabre, on the shipwrecks of Heracleion-Thonis, is an eye-opener. Survey of the submerged port has produced hundreds of anchors and more than 60 ancient wooden hulls, dating mostly from the 6th to the 2nd century BC. The ship remains which have been studied are of shallow-draft sea-going ships (some with ballast), mostly of local acacia wood. There are many unusual construction features, including some planking assembled by free tenons which pass through mortises cut right through four or more adjoining planks. Fabre rightly promises a monograph on this extraordinary collection of ship remains, and one must forebear from generalizing on the basis of what he admits is merely a preliminary study; however, it is worth questioning whether he has taken the best approach to discussion of this novel material, for one senses that he is not at ease in composing technical descriptions in English, especially since he apparently feels it necessary to adopt well-worn expressions such as ‘mortise and tenon’ when a more specific terminology, if necessary newly devised, seems more appropriate to what he wishes to describe and explain.
Of the remaining papers, which are all on specific subjects in Roman archaeology, the most convincing is by Theodore Papaioannou, on the export of amphoras and fine-ware from Asia Minor (1st c. BC–7th c. AD). The author selects material judiciously, prepares his own helpful illustrations, shows an awareness of relevant archaeological theory, and is open about the limitations of his method. As with some other papers in this volume, one badly needs to see the author's ideas more patiently and extensively set forth, and it is to be hoped that the Oxford Centre will be able to support such publications by means of fellowships and sabbaticals.
Candace Rice, on ceramic assemblages and ports, presents a well-argued paper, though the field of view is limited; she says nothing about the term ‘port’, or about the nature of the assemblages listed. Katia Schörle, on harbours of the Tyrrhenian coast, gives an interesting review of the subject, analysing harbours by size rather than by other aspects, but wanting in systematic comparisons or a feeling for landscape. Karen Heslin, on dolia wrecks and the wine trade, seems to lack involvement with the archaeology; her paper seems to depend only on secondary sources, and to have gaps in the reading. This raises a matter of concern, at least to the present reviewer: where are now the resources which enable well-informed research in marine archaeology? The library resources, in London and Oxford, on which I drew to compile Ancient Shipwrecks of the Mediterranean and the Roman Provinces, had by 1995 dwindled, and this was one reason why there has never been a follow-up to that work. If there is to be effective scholarship on classical marine archaeology in Britain, surely it is up to the Oxford Centre to ensure that adequate library and information resources are available to its researchers.
Some of the above points, and others related to the remaining two papers, can be illustrated from the case of the Roman Columns Wreck of Camarina in Sicily. My entry for this site in the 1992 catalogue (no. 163) mentioned ‘recent’ finds and other work: in the 1990s, more was published about the site by both G. Di Stefano and A. Freschi, and material from the wreck was exhibited in Sicily. From all this, and from comparison with other wrecks of the kind, it became clear that neither the two giallo antico columns nor the African amphoras and coarseware on board were definitely a cargo in the general, commercial sense; it could be that the ship was chartered, or borrowed, or even owned, by an African of senatorial or equestrian rank who was moving some or all of his household to Italy following advancement by Septimius Severus. Whether or not this scenario is justified, it illustrates the importance of a detailed examination of every site so as to bring up their ‘fine-grained texture’, while not losing sight of wider issues of archaeological modelling or historical context. Moreover, one can see that the fullest possible knowledge of reports, catalogues, publications and technical assessments is essential in order to build a proper picture of the site. Of course, this will appear a counsel of unattainable perfection to the PhD students whose papers are under review here! But, whether student or professor, the archaeologist needs to progress systematically. Ben Russell's paper on stone-carrying ships is thorough, sober and well informed: excellent work, well presented. However, the author is tempted, in my view too readily, to go for historicist ‘cash value'—as when he comments, not far from the start of the paper: ‘How representative these shipwrecks are of ancient shipping patterns is, of course, impossible to say.’ Likewise, Victoria Leitch, reviewing what she calls ‘African Cooking Wares’ (mostly black-rimmed plates or lids and rilled casseroles) is puzzled by the small number of wrecked cargoes—of which she thinks the pottery from the Camarina Columns Wreck is one. Both authors are seeing their material as a point on a graph, a cell in a spreadsheet, when perhaps they need to rethink all their assumptions about who traded what with whom and how in the Roman world, and then see what shipwrecks have to tell.
For brevity, this review omits caveats, queries and qualifications. It goes without saying that the reviewer could probably do no better than any of the authors whose work he so readily criticizes. But, just as vigilance is the price of freedom, so close autopsy and constant self-questioning are the way to archaeological results. I hope the Oxford Centre for Maritime Archaeology can build upon the foundations set forth in this volume.