Category Archives: Byzantium

Seminar CLXIV: how a seventh-century ship was built, and then abandoned

You may remember, a long time ago, before this blog even, when the powers-that-be in the modern city of Istanbul decided it was time to expand the metro system of the city, started digging and almost immediately found themselves trying to put a tunnel through what was evidently an ancient harbour at Yenikapı? That much, at least, had been sort of expected—the Theodosian harbour of Constantinople was known to be in that location and in any case you can’t really dig into the ground in an old Roman capital city and not strike heritage—so they had archæological intervention ready, but what was not anticipated was the scale of the find. They got thirty-seven vessels out of it in the end, and that took teams of diggers working six days a week right through from 2004 till 2013, with at peak 660 people on site a day, while the bus station and live train tracks that also pass through there continued in operation. It’s one of the more incredible feats of archæology in our times, and one of those 660 people was quite often Dr Rebecca Ingram, who on 14th November 2014 was in Birmingham to tell the General Seminar of the Centre for Byzantine, Ottoman and Modern Greek Studies about it, under the title of “Making it Last: the construction and repair of a 7th-century ship from Constantinople’s Theodosian harbour”.

Survey and measurement of a ship in the Yenikapı harbour excavations, Istanbul

The speaker and her eventual co-author showing nautical archæology at its most glamorous; note the waders…

The harbour itself was the work of Emperor Theodosius I and opened in the 390s AD, but had begun silting up at the western edge as early as the seventh century, and by the twelfth was unusable to any but shallow craft. New docks were still being built in the fifteenth century, that despite, but by 1544 (now of course under Ottoman rule) it was finally abandoned and given over to gardens and housing. The area now sits a block back from the sea, but nonetheless even the fraction that was dug turned out to contain all those ships still, wrecked, sunk or abandoned at various times in that 1200-year history. Of the thirty-seven wrecks, which included six military galleys as well as a range of merchantmen from the fifth to eleventh centuries, eight were selected for detailed study and conservation, and Rebecca was able to speak to us as that work drew near its conclusion and the first ships were being written up.

Shipwreck Yenikapı YK14 under conservation in Istanbul in 2007

Yenikapı shipwreck no. 14 under a soothing regimen of salt spray during conservation in 2007. Note the dock pilings next to which she sank. Other ships had new docks sunk through them, so much a feature of the bottom had they become.

Rebecca had been especially concentrated on the vessel now known as YK11, an eleven-metre commercial vessel built in Turkish pine probably at the beginning of the seventh century, and apparently abandoned on the silt in the western end of the harbour some time soon after the middle of that century. In that relatively short lifespan the ship had seen a lot of use; she had been repaired so much that some of her repairs had repairs, and at one point the whole inside had been rebuilt though the hull was apparently never properly overhauled. The ship was partly built from second-hand timber and thus shows every sign of having been built and run on the cheap and finally—though I don’t think the archæology showed why—having become irreparable. Maybe she just went aground and was too much trouble to refloat…

Yenikapı shipwreck YK11 under slow reconstruction at Istanbul in 2008

Yenikapı YK11 under slow reconstruction with aid of a total station in June 2008

Although Rebecca’s work was mainly focused on the details of the construction, which is beautifully preserved and seems to represent a turning point from shell-building, where the strength is in the hull, to skeleton building, where the strength is in the framework and the hull is just skinning, our questions tended to be that kind of speculation: where would a fairly lightweight ship with an eight-ton cargo capacity have been and gone and what would she have carried? (There was no sign of cargo in the remains.) Would she, for example, have helped supply the city during the Arab sieges through which she must have survived? And when she was abandoned, why was she? Little to none of this could be answered from the archaeology, of course, but Matthew Harpster, also a sometime veteran of the dig, noted the particular concentration of wrecks in the harbour from around the early eleventh century and wondered what disastrous event might have struck. Rebecca said that all attested events of that sort were too late, but this is what you get from taking your stuff out to the public; someone was able to supply a reference to a tidal wave at Constantinople at some point before 1058 from a letter of Jaroslav the Wise. I had heard of this for the first time then and there, but now I am able to offer it as a source for those who like skimming narrative sources for extreme weather events!1 But I am also much more knowledgeable about ship-building and shipping in the Eastern Mediterranean than I was before. And if you would like to be so also, then you may like to follow up the first publications of Rebecca’s team, which have now made it to print.2 I’m here to help!

1. Or at least, I would be if I could find any mention of that letter to cite. It’s not apparently mentioned in Nora K. Chadwick, The Beginnings of Russian History: an enquiry into sources (Cambridge 1949), so I wonder if what the commentator meant was something in the Russian Primary Chronicle? But I can see nothing there beyond a reference in the notes to an earthquake at Constantinople in the late tenth century reported by Leo the Deacon, so no, I’m at a loss, sorry.

2. Witness Cemal Pulak, Rebecca Ingram & Michael Jones, “The Shipwrecks at Yenikapı: recent research in Byzantine shipbuilding” in Deborah N. Carlson, Justin Leidwanger & Sarah M. Kampbell (edd.), Maritime Studies in the Wake of the Byzantine Shipwreck at Yassiada, Turkey (College Station TX 2015), pp. 102-115; Pulak, Ingram & Jones, “Eight Byzantine Shipwrecks from the Theodosian Harbour Excavations at Yenikapı in Istanbul, Turkey: an introduction” in International Journal of Nautical Archaeology Vol. 44 (Portsmouth 2015), pp. 39-73.


Parting Shots: two Michaels and a Leo

This gallery contains 6 photos.

For once I don’t feel the need to apologise for the lapse in posting here: moving house (including buying a house), starting a new job, learning my way around a new university and city, attending many many meetings, doing the … Continue reading


Vicarious Byzantinist travel photos

This gallery contains 5 photos.

Reducing the backlog anothe tiny slice, two days after the seminar described in the previous post I was at the first General Seminar of the Centre for Byzantine, Ottoman and Modern Greek Studies in Birmingham for autumn 2014. This venerable … Continue reading

Towards a Global Middle Ages III and final: bits and pieces from around the world

I’ve put in two quite heavy posts now about thoughts arising from the meeting of the Global Middle Ages Network I was invited to in September last year, and although they have not exhausted those thoughts they have used up all the big ones, so this last one collects the small stuff. Consequently it’s a bit less structured than the others and I will use headings to gather it up, but hopefully there’s something in it for most readers.

The Rôle of Cities

Cities were one of the things that those assembled thought would be most obviously comparable across a wide area, because most areas of the world had cities in the Middle Ages. But this set off my erstwhile Insular early medievalist’s alarm bells somewhat, because there’s a substantial debate in Anglo-Saxonist circles about when we can start talking about England having had towns, let alone cities, and in Ireland agreement is pretty universal that, unless big monasteries and their dependent settlements count, towns arrived only with the Vikings.1 This has led to some fairly theorised wrangling about how to define a town, with words like Kriterienbundel (a bundle of criteria) flying around it, and I’ve written about this here before. This was not a debate that we seemed to be having here and I wondered why not.

The ghost town of Craco, Italy

In the thirteenth century this place had a bishop, a lord and a university, and yet I cannot help thinking it is not necessarily what we all meant by the word city… It is the ghost town of Craco, in Italy. “Craco0001” by No machine readable author provided. Idéfix~commonswiki assumed (based on copyright claims). – No machine readable source provided. Own work assumed (based on copyright claims).. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons.

It’s not that no-one asked what a city might actually be, not least because I did. The answer that Alan Strathern came up with, a settlement that can’t feed itself, presumably meaning by the agriculture or hunting of its own inhabitants, is actually a pretty good one in basic economic terms, but could again easily encompass a big monastery or an army camp while maybe not including, for example, fifth-century London as we currently envisage it, so I see some problems still.2 There’s also an important difference between a settlement that can’t feed itself and one that could, but is structured so as not to have to; some quite small places running on tribute were not necessarily doing so out of economic necessity, but because it was how they demonstrated and enacted importance. This kind of blur is why we need multiple criteria, but the western Kriterienbundel, which classically includes defences, planned streets, a market, a mint, legal autonomy, a rôle as a central place, population density, economic diversification, plot-type settlement, social stratification, religious organisation and political centrality, might not all make sense in, say, northern China.3 So I leave that there to wonder about, as I think it still needs it.

Map of Anglo-Saxon London in the seventh century

So, OK, we have defences and religious centrality, but probably not political centrality and while we do have economic diversification it’s not in the same place as the defences… I think I’ll leave this to them. Map borrowed from the Musem of London blog, linked through.

Anthropologists of resort

Here just a short note that there was, in some ways surprisingly little resort to anthropological models in this meeting but when the anthropologists did come in it tended to be the same one. I am of the opinion that while we can almost always profit from talking to anthropologists and then taking their models home to try on, a meeting and project with as broad a comparative framework as this one might need the outside help least of all; there are already an immense number of models flying about, surely, or ought to be. This is in fact more or the less the state I want to get my frontiers network to (had you considered offering a paper, by the way?), where we actually make our own theory. But until this group gets itself there, one name seems likely to recur, and that name was David Graeber. I have not read Graeber, though he is one of my anthropologist of resort‘s own anthropologists of resort and I know that I need to, and I see that he works on concepts that should indeed be comparable between societies, here mainly economic value, but I will need to read him before I can stop worrying about how well work based on him will encompass societies that didn’t use money and in which honour was something you could put a price on in law (which was supposed to be paid in money they didn’t have).4 I suppose this misgiving only exposes my ignorance and I ought to just knuckle down and get one of his books out of a library when I have long-term access to one again next month.5

Models of Trust

Some of the most interesting conversations in the meeting for me were about whether trust might be a concept around which one could organise a global comparison of medieval-period societies. It’s hard to dig further into this without basically summarising Ian Forrest‘s presentation, but he made the excellent point that as long as we are looking at contact over distances, trust was crucial because so little of what people knew of each other could be checked or verified.6 There was much debate about, firstly, whether this was a medieval issue or a more general one and whether that made a difference to its potential for the project, which Ian thought was best answered in terms of scale, often my favourite terms as you know, and secondly how trust could have been tested in such milieux, whether religion secured it and how foreigners could access that or whether kinship might work better (and how they accessed that.7 Paulo Fernando de Moraes Farias told us of work that broke trust relationships down into horizontal ones, as between brothers, and hierarchical ones, as between boss and subordinate, and that in some ways the most interesting points of comparison might be between things that wouldn’t fit that scheme, and that struck me as really clever but also murderously abstruse to try and carry out, especially (as Ian had up-front admitted) in areas where the evidence was largely archæological.8 Lots to think about here but less clear as yet how to test it all…

And, types of network

There was also some interesting talk around the idea of networks. Jonathan Shepard had diaarmingly admitted that he was trying to continue working on empires by seeing them as large top-down networks, but was quickly led into the alternatives, because if a network is not top-down, no-one is in overall control of its structure, which will instead presumably develop as needed and possible and die off where non-functional. There were also in-between states to be considered such as diasporas, where the initial distribution is very much directed from above but its effects and low-level distribution is basically uncontrolled, or the slave trade, where the initial gathering of points of linkage is very localised but subsequent transmission takes place through a highly-structured network which is, nonetheless, not always there because, as Rebecca Darley pointed out, the early Middle Ages at least has to deal with the idea of trading places that occupied only intermittently.9 These were all interesting ways to think about intermittency and duration in almost any area. How were such intermittent networks accessed? If people rarely went somewhere, how did anyone know where to go? I imagined, for example, Norse settlers in Newfoundland sometimes, in very hard winters, trying to find the Dorset people to trade with (as some people think they did, even if perhaps in better circumstances), and going to places they supposed they might be and hoping to coincide. Does that still count? And if so, did it have much effect? In some ways you could dismiss it as occasional and not how that society usually worked (or indeed as entirely hypothetical) but if it ever did, they must have been pretty profound experiences for those taking part…

Wool recovered from a Dorset site in Baffin Island that has been argued to be a Viking import to the area

Wool recovered from a Dorset site in Baffin Island that has been argued to be a Viking import to the area

That’s about enough, anyway, but it goes to show that despite some of my big-order doubts about the viability of this group’s concept, attempting the work at all involves enough productive thinking about difficult cases of comparison and contact that we can all profit from their attempt even if it doesn’t achieve its main goal, and that might be quite enough to count it as a success!

1. My go-to for this is still Martin Biddle, “Towns” in David Wilson (ed.), The Archaeology of Anglo-Saxon England (London 1976), pp. 99-150, and for Ireland Charles Doherty, “The monastic town in early medieval Ireland” in Howard B. Clarke and A. Simms (edd.), The comparative history of urban origins in non-Roman Europe: Ireland, Wales, Denmark, Germany, Poland and Russia from the 9th to the 13th century, British Archaeological Reports (International Series) 255 (Oxford 1985), 2 vols, II, pp. 45-75; both are old but make the point.

2. I haven’t read this, but a quick search makes look like the obvious thing on this Howard B. Clarke, “Kingdom, emporium and town: the impact of Viking Dublin” in History Studies Vol. 2 (Limerick 2000), pp. 13-24.

3. Biddle, “Towns”, pp. 99-100; the idea is older, though, perhaps as old as Edith Ennen, Frühgeschichte der europäischen Stadt (Bonn 1953).

4. See Elina Screen, “Anglo-Saxon law and numismatics: a reassessment in the light of Patrick Wormald’s The Making of English Law” in British Numismatic Journal Vol. 77 (London 2007), pp. 150-172.

5. Presumably his Debt: the first 5,000 years (Bew York City 2011), but I’ll take recommendations…

6. For this I always think of Ernst Pitz, “Erschleichung und Anfechtung von Herrscher- und Papsturkunden vom 4. bis 10. Jahrhundert” in Fälschungen im Mittelalter. Internationaler Kongreß der Monumenta Germaniae Historica, München, 16.-19. September 1986, Schriften der Monumenta Germaniae Historica 33 (Hannover 1988), 5 vols, III, pp. 69-113, because of the stories in it about popes who just have no idea what is going on in many farflung places when people come from there to get it changed.

7. Some of these points came from Chris Wickham, who prefaced them with the name of Jessica Goldberg, whose most relevant work would seem to be Institutions and geographies of trade in the medieval Mediterranean: the business world of the Maghribi traders (Cambridge 2012).

8. I didn’t catch the reference here. My notes contain the word ‘Salura’, but I can’t tell if this is a cite or a place or what, sorry!

9. Professor Shepard’s examples were here coming largely from his (and others’) Dirhams for Slaves project, about which I have several reservations, but I can’t find that it’s as yet published anything, so I can’t tell you where to find the opportunity to think differently, sorry!


Crusaders and money, seen in a different way

This gallery contains 10 photos.

This strategy I have adopted of putting the current content up top and the backlog below is getting somewhat top-heavy, but there is just one more thing to announce, and then I expect actually to start letting some of these … Continue reading

A prophetless coinage

I stubbed this post quite soon after starting at the Barber Institute with no intent more serious than to post a picture of a marvellous coin and enthuse about it. And I hope you can see why!

Gold solidus of Emperor Heraclius and his two sons, struck in Constantinople between 638 and 641, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B2912

Gold solidus of Emperor Heraclius and his two sons, struck in Constantinople between 638 and 641, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B2912

This is, as the caption says, a solidus of Heraclius with his two sons, whom we usually know as Heraclius Constantine and Heraclonas but whose given names were both Constantine, and the former of whom subsequently reigned briefly as Constantine III (641). There is lots to say about this coin type, which was novel in many ways: there is for example no legend identifying the emperors, only a monogram of Heraclius’s name on the reverse to the left of the cross, which will be important in a moment; it is making a strong point because the Church opposed the legitimacy of Heraclonas, who was Heraclius’s son by Empress Martina who was also Heraclius’s niece; and one could go on. But I mainly wanted to post it because they look so much like a poster for a superhero movie; one can almost see the cloaks billowing in the studio wind. (My original title for the post was Emperors Assemble…) I am not the only person who’s put these online, but who cares? But then very recently, while looking up stuff for a different project, I found a web-page discussing an Arabic imitation of this coin type which had a couple of things badly wrong with it, and a bigger point emerged.

Gold dinar struck in Syria between 639 and 705, Barber Institute of Fine Arts A-B30.

Gold dinar struck by an unknown authority in Syria between, well, who knows? 639 and 705 would be probably-safe outside guesses. Barber Institute of Fine Arts A-B30.

You can immediately see both the similarities and differences. The Latin legend is replaced by Arabic, and the Arabic reads, for those who can, ‘bism Allah la ilaha illa Allah wahdahu Muhammad rasul Allah’ [Edit: corrected, it turns out I cannot], ‘In the name of God, there is no god but God, Muhammad is the prophet of God’. The monogram goes, being replaced perhaps by the beginning of the Bism Allah in Latin letters. All crosses are replaced by pellets, so that the three figures now look oddly as if they’re holding walking canes and the cross-on-steps becomes a pole-on-steps. But it’s plainly the same type underneath it, I’m sure you’ll agree.

All of this is something that can be seen on copper coins of similar types which are presumed to come from the same period, normally guessed at between the 670s and 695 or so, in which latter year Caliph ‘Abd al-Malik seems to have begun a reform of the disparate coinages of his realm which would unite them into one system of coins with no pictures, only script, running over Arabia and Persia alike. Before then, however, and in some places also after then, coins like this that echoed, imitated and adapted previous types, both Byzantine and Persian, had been the working currency. Few of those were gold, however, and few of these ones are known; the web article I linked to above says that all the known ones are in the British Museum. Well, one of them is in the Barber Institute of Fine Arts—in fact, it and I have both spent much of the week in the School of Chemistry with an XRF machine, but let that pass—and that is the first mistake I wanted to correct.

The second, though, is that the article suggests, following a Flickr site called Taboo Numismatics to which it links, that the Arab-Byzantine type (as these adaptive coinages are canonically called) actually depicts the Prophet Muhammad. Now, one can see the argument: there is a bearded figure on it and the reverse legend names the Prophet, albeit in terms that might equally just be a profession of faith. Still, the name is there and the picture is there, and the fact that they’re not on the same face is a problem but one that also exists for the Heraclius coin.

There is also the problem that Islam is supposed to abhor images of people, of course, and as we know of recent years to be especially keen that the Prophet not be depicted. This has not always been so, however, and indeed the point of the first site that I linked to is explicitly that, that many medieval images of Muhammad from Islamic contexts are known. There are also coins for which this case would be much stronger, which take a new image of a standing figure in a headdress, carrying a broad sword, and place the legend ‘Muhammad rasul Allah’ around him. The type also exists naming ‘Abd al-Malik, and the ‘Muhammad’ version of it seems only to have been struck in Palestine, but we don’t know how they relate; it’s usual to assume that ‘Abd al-Malik introduced the design and that for some reason Palestine only struck it anonymously, but it seems equally possible to me that Palestine did actually strike a coin showing the Prophet and that ‘Abd al-Malik borrowed the design for his halfway-house pre-reform coinage. The Barber does have some of these coins, but I’m chary of putting images of them on the web right now: you can see one that was sold in 2013 here, and here’s one of the ‘Abd al-Malik ones.

Copper fals of 'Abd al-Malik, Commander of the Faithful, struck at Manbij between 680 and 696, Barber Institute of Fine Arts A-B36

Copper fals of ‘Abd al-Malik, Commander of the Faithful, struck at Manbij between 680 and 696, Barber Institute of Fine Arts A-B36

If there is to be a search for early Islamic coins showing Muhammad, therefore, it’s with the ‘Standing Caliph’ types of Palestine that it must start. The Three Standing Figures gold dinars won’t really work for it. Yes, there is the legend, but there are also many points against. In the first place, the portraiture is so exact a copy of the coins of Heraclius, right down to the barbs of the moustache, that it is clear that one of those coins was before the engraver. They would, indeed, have been fairly frequent among gold coins in the area and so the resemblance would have been noticeable more widely. What message could this be meant to send if that coin were showing Muhammad? That he had somehow been Heraclius? It seems unlikely. But even then, there are three figures: who are the others? The site I started with makes a spirited attempt to explain them as Abu Bakr, the first Caliph, at Heraclius’s right and Aisha, Muhammad’s wife, at his left, but this also won’t really work; that site has the advantage (for these purposes) of a fairly poor image that allows him to maintain that the right-most figure is veiled, but our own won’t easily allow that. It seems very much simpler to say: they’re not supposed to be anyone, but they are supposed to look like what the figures on those gold coins the people of the area knew looked like, with suitable adaptations to point out that something new was in fact going on. There is gold of the Standing Caliph type, too, naming ‘Abd al-Malik, so this presumably didn’t last very long, but in any case. I’m pretty sure that what I’ve just put online is not a picture of Muhammad!

The most accessible study of the Arab-Byzantine coinage is Clive Foss, Arab-Byzantine Coins: an introduction, with a catalogue of he Dumbarton Oaks Collection, Dumbarton Oaks Publications 12 (Washington DC 2008), which does discuss the Muhammad problem. Note that Tony Goodwin, “The Arab-Byzantine coinage of jund Filastin – a potential historical source” in Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies Vol. 28 (Leeds 2004), pp. 1-12, also argues that the Standing Caliph coinage of Palestine is earlier than ‘Abd al-Malik’s. To Tony Goodwin also goes the honour of publishing the Barber’s dinar, along with some others from this part of the collection, as “Some Interesting Arab-Byzantine Coins from the Barber Institute Collection” in Numismatic Circular Vol. 111 no. 4 (London 2003), pp. 196-198. It remains for me and my collaborators to get any more of them out there…


The Empress, her Son, her General and his Heir

This gallery contains 15 photos.

Another day, another upload of Barber Institute coins to the web! This one is only small, 27 coins, and these comprise the coins of the notorious Empress Eirini, with her son Constantine VI (780-797) and then without (797-802), and those … Continue reading