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More Byzantine Archaeology: Byzantine Trade

As the end of the semester approaches, I forced myself to find time to peruse the new (2009) volume entitled Byzantine Trade, 4th-12th centuries edited by M. Mundell Mango.  It is a pretty neat and diverse collection of papers that touch on trade from the beginning of Late Antiquity to 4th Crusade.  The papers range from discussions of amphoras, shipwrecks, and pottery to studies on the location and organization of manufacturing.  I’ll admit upfront that I did not read all the papers in the volume so I hardly feel qualified to give a comprehensive review, but the articles that I did read were good.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the volume is the editors effort to locate the papers in relation to other recent scholarly works on trade and the economy in the Late Antique and Byzantine Mediterranean.  She takes particular aim at the recent A. Laiou edited Economic History of Byzantium which Mundell Mango points out continued problematic periodization schemes by beginning its analysis at the 7th century and thereby “failing to analyze at the same level the preceding period of formation that links Byzantium to the ancient world.” (4).

More importantly, perhaps, she noted that this volume sought to separate trade from discussions of the economy.  When I first read this, it blew my mind, but as I thought more carefully about it, I began to understand her point.  On some level, our theorizing about the ancient economy has dictated the kinds of questions that we have asked from our material and the kinds of analyses that we have conducted.  For example, most rural survey projects take as a point of departure M. Finley’s ideas of the relationship between the (consumer) city and the (producer) countryside.  Our work at Pyla-Koutsopetria, for example, is explicitly informed by the ideas advanced in Horden and Purcell’s Corrupting Sea and their idea that the ancient Mediterranean economy was dominated by semi-autonomous micro-regions. By separating trade from larger economic theorizing, there is a chance that we can produce a far less structured body of data that has the potential to reveal new patterns or organization that do more than challenge or confirm the growing body of economic theorizing.  In fact, Sean Kingsley’s unstructured datasets (that is to say, a data set made of individual records without any methodological relationship to one another) of Late Antique and Byzantine shipwrecks could present just the kind of evidence necessary to create new models of how trade actually occurred in the ancient and Medieval Mediterranean (31-36).  Of course, this kind of optimistic empiricism is difficult to come by in practice (and even more difficult to fund!), although one can imagine a time soon when the results of the various survey projects in the Eastern Mediterranean could offer a similar kind of unstructured data for analysis. It is interesting to observe, however, that most of the papers in this volume fall quickly back on longstanding

P. Armstrong’s article, “Trade in the east Mediterranean in the 8th century”, for example, continues the work of pushing the date of Cypriot Red Slip pottery later demonstrating that trade in this common Eastern Mediterranean table ware continued into the 8th century (157-178).  (Moreover, she reminds us that despite its name, CRS (or perhaps better Late Roman D Ware) may not all originate on the island of Cyprus!).  Armstrong’s article complements a shorter piece by I. Dimopoulos which looks at the trade in Byzantine red wares in the 11th and 13th century.  Both of these articles provide (as well as O. Karagiorgou’s  short offering on “Mapping trade by the amphora” (37-58)) continue the discussion of the relationship between the Late Roman and Byzantine economy on archaeological grounds. To my mind, these discussions are rooted in certain basic expectations regarding the economy, specifically, the notion that the Late Roman economy faltered over the course of the 7th-9th century. This basic assumption suggests that the economy is tied to administrative structures and practices like the annona trade and the political control of the Mediterranean basin.  Demonstrating the certain kinds of trade continued even as the political power of the Roman state abated does little to separate the idea of trade from larger questions of economic integration or administrative and political control.

I was drawn to this book while thinking about my own venture into the study of Byzantine archaeology and it struck me that the approach advocated here is explicitly anti-theoretical (if one understands the economy as a more intensively theorized version of the practice of trade).  The results are interesting and useful, but it barely scratches the surface of what Byzantine archaeologists are currently doing in the field.

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Categories: Archaeology, Byzantium
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