Tag Archives: Matthew Harpster

Seminar CLXXIII: lockdown conferring on a friendly scale

The slow approach to the present in my blogging has led us into the first lockdown in 2020, and now all the way through to July, at which point, after having had to cancel the physical version for the first time in its history, the International Medieval Congress at Leeds went virtual in a kind of scratch version so that something, at least, should happen. The team put in huge efforts to make it happen, and I should have felt guilty and taken part perhaps, but I just couldn’t face it, and when the call for replacement papers went out, I just let it go by. We were still dealing with backlogged assessments and all manner of daily crises, all of which we were trying to manage through screens rather than with the kind of empathic, direct, person-to-person dealings which actually help people, and I was exhausted and felt that I could not give even a partial virtual IMC the effort it needed. In fact, any time at all not spent talking into a screen was by then precious like gold… So I ducked out, of that. But it is harder to say no to friends, and in the end better not to, and that’s what this post is about.

You see, from quite early on in the pandemic my friend and colleague Luca Zavagno had been running a seminar series called Byzantium at Ankara in collaboration with another Byzantinist at another Ankara university, Dr Sercan Yandim. This had also now gone virtual, obviously, and Luca and Sercan, faced with putting together a quite different program from the one they might have intended, felt that at least they could embrace the possibilities of this format and get in a rather wider range of speakers. Each seminar thus became a multi-speaker event with a theme, and Luca took the chance with one of them, on 24th July, to kind of get the band back together, meaning the group of us who had produced an issue of al-Masāq with him the previous year, to reflect on the issue and its import under the title of Crisis and Migrations across the Mediterranean Frontier.1

Poster for the 2020-2021 seminar series Byzantium at Ankara

The official poster of the official seminar

So how we did this was that several of us met up on Zoom first of all. This may have been the first time I used Zoom in academic form; Leeds had been working in Blackboard Collaborate and Teams.2 It was also the first contact I’d had with our co-author Nikolas Bakirtzis except by e-mail, and putting a face to the name attached to the text we’d published was a little strange, though very welcome; how did I not already know this man? And was this actually adding anything except speed, given that we still hadn’t actually met? There was a lot of this unreality going on, I guess, especially I was tuning into Turkey from our library at home and Nikos from Cyprus, and so on. We’re all used to this now, but in July 2020 these things were still weird, as was by then the fact that I was in an online format where I wasn’t the only one using a camera; my students had almost all not done so, making teaching them seem very much like singing in the bathroom and about as useful. So this was all a bit different. Anyway, we did a half-hour of scratch planning which identified roughly what each of us would cover, then we went away and wrote our bits as far as we needed to, and then on the day we tuned in and found, firstly, that Luca had added the phrase ‘A Dark Age After All?’ to our title, and secondly, that we had an audience, one as international or more than the presenting panel. And this too seems normal now but wasn’t then; the idea that suddenly everybody’s seminars were open to everyone, and that people who could never normally be expected to turn up because of how far it was now might, was all a bit eye-opening back then.

Anyway, the way it went is perhaps best represented in the way I did for the one-and-only Political Cultures Seminar back at real physical Leeds earlier in the year, as a summary for each of the speakers and then some account of the discussion. And if I do that, it went like this:

    Mallorca in 2007

    Mallorca in 2007, by Sladky, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

  1. Luca Zavagno argued, as he had by this time been doing for a while, that its islands were always the key to the Mediterranean’s connectivity despite their individual isolation, and that he was now starting to see some of Byzantium’s landward provinces as another sort of island, given that after the fifth century all of its provinces north of Egypt and west of the Bosphorus were joined together only by sea. And this got me thinking, indeed, and set us up with the basic premise of our journal issue, and thus gave me the floor.
  2. Belgian postage stamp depicting Henri Pirenne

    Postage stamp depicting the Belgian historian Henri Pirenne

  3. I thus took this lead and linked our work to the age-old Pirenne Thesis, which, when it was new, argued that Roman economic unity in the Mediterranean long outlasted the unified Roman government, and was instead eventually broken up by Islam establishing a new division across the Middle Sea.3 I suggested that, while at the very turn of the millennium we’d been pretty sure Pirenne was wrong, since then there had been something of a reversal and, while whether writers blame Islam for it or not has more to do with their politics than the evidence, we are beginning to return to the idea that the fifth to seventh centuries were a period of great disruption in the Mediterranean.4 I used Matthew Harpster’s exemplary study of shipwrecks and their cargoes which we’d put in the journal issue to showcase the kind of new gathering of evidence which was making people think this.5 (Obviously, it would be difficult for disruption in the fifth and sixth Christian centuries to be caused by a religion which was first preached in the seventh, so I didn’t really address that point any further.) So having set the perspective for our issue I then explained very quickly what had actually been in it, that each of the authors who was present would speak, and then off we went!
  4. Entrance to Stavrovoini Monastery in Cyprus

    Supposedly the oldest in Cyprus, the Stavrovoini Monastery, or at least its entrance, image by Dickelbersown work, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

  5. Now, actually, we didn’t go off as planned, because that had already taken up time and Luca thought the others who hadn’t spoken yet should go first, which I agreed with, and so Nikos went next, by saying that one way to look at Mediterranean mobility and connectivity which we hadn’t actually used was the close study of monasteries, whose human inmates often came from afar (and whose texts or inscriptions often tell us this), but whose surviving remains and architecture also testify to such contacts. And he encouraged people to look into this with him going forward.
  6. Dragon's blood trees in Sokotra

    Dragon’s blood trees in Sokotra, image by Rod Waddington from Kergunyah, Australia – Dragon's Blood Tree, Socotra Island, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

  7. Then lastly Rebecca Darley explained that the fifth to seventh centuries were also a time of disruption and breakdown of communications in the Indian Ocean, with communities often surviving very well but without the interchange and contacts that had previously provided for them. She also pointed out, however, that the scales of the two seas were very different: as we spoke, indeed, Sokotra, subject of her article, was in rebellion against the Yemeni government to which it notionally belongs, and the sheer difficulty of getting there (as well as the state of Yemen and the world) meant that just then that was sticking; but nowhere in the Mediterranean could hope to go separate now, and probably couldn’t in our period of concern either, because of just being too easily reachable by their controlling powers.

Now, at this remove I can’t tell you why, but my notes stop there. I don’t know if we’d used up all the time; I recall questions, but apparently I didn’t record any. So in terms of reproducing the conference experience online, I still had some way to go perhaps – and this was about as much academic engagement with a scholarly community as I’d had for maybe six months at this stage, so I can’t rule out that I just sat back and reeled a bit. But it was still quite important, as a reminder that we had done good things, that the relationships which made those things possible continued despite the world situation, were perhaps even enabled in new ways because of how we were dealing with that situation, and that somehow or other there were still things to find out and people with whom it might be fun to do that finding. It was a step out of panic and back towards a community of scholarship, and even at this remove I’m thankful to Luca for getting me to do it and set out on that quite important journey.

1. May I still remind you of that fine issue’s contents? Well, why not, eh? They were:

  1. Luca Zavagno, Jonathan Jarrett & Rebecca Darley, “Editorial” in al-Masāq: Islam and the Medieval Mediterranean, ‘Not the Final Frontier’: The World of Medieval Islands, Vol. 31.2 (Abingdon 2019), pp. 129–39, DOI: 10.1080/09503110.2019.1596645.
  2. Luca Zavagno, “‘Going to the Extremes’: The Balearics and Cyprus in the Early Medieval Byzantine Insular System’, ibid. pp. 140-157, DOI: 10.1080/09503110.2019.1602375
  3. Matthew Harpster, “Sicily: A Frontier in the Centre of the Sea”, ibid. pp. 158-170, DOI: 10.1080/09503110.2019.1602748
  4. Nikolas Bakirtzis and Xenophon Moniaros, “Mastic Production in Medieval Chios: Economic Flows and Transitions in an Insular Setting”, ibid. pp. 171-195, DOI: 10.1080/09503110.2019.1596647
  5. Jonathan Jarrett, “Nests of Pirates: the Balearic Islands and la-Garde-Freinet compared”, ibid. pp. 196–222, DOI: 10.1080/09503110.2019.1600101
  6. Rebecca Darley, “The Island Frontier: Socotra, Sri Lanka and the Shape of Commerce in the Late Antique Western Indian Ocean”, ibid. pp. 223-241, DOI: 10.1080/09503110.2019.1604930.

2. I still think Collaborate the best of these, to be honest, because of how conveniently laid out and relatively intuitive all its tools are, but there seems no doubt that it started out marginally less stable and rather hoggier of bandwidth than the other two and then didn’t catch up when the competition improved. Teams at this point was still no more than a meetings tool, and it has never really made it as a virtual classroom as far as I’m concerned; Zoom has taken the lead for good reasons, therefore, but it’s still an ever-moving limited awkward program. If Blackboard had any sense they’d have got Collaborate out there as a stand-alone install…

3. Henri Pirenne, Mohammed and Charlemagne, trans. by Bernard Miall (London 1939).

4. For example, compare Gene W. Heck, Muhammad, Charlemagne, and the Arab Roots of Capitalism (Berlin 2006), DOI: 10.1515/9783110202830 with Emmet Scott, Mohammed & Charlemagne Revisited: The History of a Controversy (Nashville TN 2011). A quick glance at either will show that these books are not, primarily, about the late antique world. On why this is still happening, see with profit Bonnie Effros, “The Enduring Attraction of the Pirenne Thesis” in Speculum Vol. 92 (Cambridge MA 2017), pp. 184–208, DOI: 10.1086/689473.

5. Harpster, “Sicily”.

From Ankara to al-Masāq in eighteen months or so

Right, let’s see about that post I promised. I promised some account of the conference which had taken me to Ankara in February 2018, but given that a decent part of it emerged as a journal issue about which you’ve already heard, and that I already blogged much of the conference elsewhere long ago, I thought it might be more interesting to do this post as a story of how academic ideas becomes a publication at the moment.1 This will be old news to some of my readership, I know, but I’ll load it with enough stuff that didn’t get as far as the journal issue or into the other blog post to keep you interested as well, I hope. So here goes.

Dr Luca Zavagno at the entrance of Ankara Castle

Luca Zavagno, standing outside the walls of Ankara Castle on this very occasion

As I said in the last proper post, my friend and colleague Luca Zavagno had found himself with more of a grant he held with me left than we’d expected, and thus upscaled from what had been meant to be a single workshop at Bilkent Universitesi to a small but complete international conference with a few ancillary events, because he could. The whole program stretched over three days in the end. On the first of these and second of these the relevant events were public lectures held in the afternoon, and then the conference proper happened on the third day. In between times we climbed on castles, taught master-classes to the Bilkent students like visiting celebrities (which, I suppose I have to admit, we sort of were) and tried to make sure our papers would be OK. There were also, I admit, a few meals out. I have some pictures of parts of this academic jamboree, but I think I might be discreetly murdered if I posted them, so you will have to manage without. Instead, have some food for the mind in the form of the running order.

21 February 2018

  • Public lecture: Rebecca Darley, “Speaking in Many Voices: Roman and Byzantine coins in South India as sources for maritime and inland histories”

22 February 2018

23 February 2018

    Workshop: Islands at the Frontier of Empires in the Middle Ages

  • Elif Denel introducing the American Research Institute in Turkey
  • Lutgarde Vandeput introducing the British Institute at Ankara
  • Leslie Brubaker, “Piercing the Cultural Frontier: images of the Virgin in insular churches and the Byzantine heartland”
  • Matthew Harpster, “Sicily: a frontier in the centre of the sea?”
  • Luca Zavagno, “‘I Don’t Know Why I Go to Extremes’: the Balearics and Cyprus between Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages”
  • Rebecca Darley, “Is an Island always a Hub? Sokotra, Sri Lanka and the Shape of Commerce in the Late Antique Western Indian Ocean”
  • Chris Wickham, “Looking Back at the Eighth Century from the Eleventh”
  • Jonathan Jarrett, “Nests of Pirates:The Balearic Islands and la-Garde-Freinet compared”
  • Francisco J. Moreno Martín, “Archaeology of Iberian ‘Ecclesiastical Frontiers’ between 6th and 10th centuries”
  • Round Table

Now, if you are as keen a reader of my work as I wish I somewhere had, you will have maybe noticed that there is a lot more there than got into the eventual publication, and indeed that one article there isn’t here. This is the story of how the moment becomes the monument that I alluded to at the beginning, really. Luca had thrown this together quite quickly; thus, some people had brought stuff that was directly related to the topic, some had fortuitously had something tangentially related presentable, and one or two papers slipped in because they were what the speaker could offer. In particular, it was only a very few days before that Luca had discovered that one of his planned speakers would not be able to make it (and this being before we all adapted to Zoom, that was considered prohibitive), so Francisco wound up stepping in with literally days notice, and the paper was definitely never expected to be more than work in progress. So it goes.

Of the ones that didn’t get published, therefore, I’ll say a little on content as well as process. Rebecca’s public lecture looked at the distribution of Roman and Byzantine coin finds in India as compared to local coinage systems and as compared to temple sites, pursuing a connection she had by this time already suggested in print.2 There seem to be some sharp differentiations; Roman silver, gold and even copper is sometimes found in most areas south of the Deccan, but Byzantine coin only much further south (and only in gold), and both Roman and Byzantine stuff often appears slashed, cut up or imitated using gold foil round base-metal cores, none of which happened to local coinages. The former Rebecca suggested might be to do with the emergence of the Vakataka Empire during the late Roman era, across whose borders Byzantine coin seems not have got (and which ran no coin of its own as far as we know); the latter is where the temples might come in, if the damage to the coins was somehow part of the ritual in which they were given to such institutions (some of whose treasuries are even now objects of mystery and speculation). This didn’t go into the journal issue mainly becaue Rebecca was still working out what these things might mean, but also because it was nowhere near that issue’s topic, however interesting, and so it was left for her to pursue further elsewhere.3

Francisco Moreno Martín and Rebecca Darley conferring before the latter's public lecture at the University of Bilkent in 2018

Francisco and Rebecca conferring before Rebecca’s lecture, Professor Paul Latimer at right about to do the introductions

The next day Francisco took us through some of the different ways in which Spanish nationalist politics had looked at and used the Visigothic period in their thought and propaganda. As the only period in which the whole Iberian peninsula has been under one autonomous rule, between 624 and 711 except during the numerous civil wars, and under a Catholic autonomous rule to boot, you can see how this would be useful to such agendas, and indeed it was seen so in the ninetheenth century by such historians as Lafuente and Amador de Rios, but initially at least it did not form a big part of the propaganda of the Franco era, the Generalissimo seeing himself (and having himself shown) more in the mould of a Crusader or hero of the Reconquista, but his state more like the Roman Empire (like most right-wing states of the period, one might observe). The alliance with Nazi Germany however brought a shift in emphasis away from the Romans towards the supposedly shared Germanic background of the Goths, and a chance to grab border territory off defeated France in 1941 was framed as revenge for several occasions on which the Franks of French had underhandedly defeated the Goths or Spanish. This powered some new archæology of ‘Germanic’ burials but, when Germany lost the war, Franco had to fall back on the Church, always his support and now the only apparent explanation for why his far-right government alone survived, and started paying more attention to the Reconquista and the Asturian kings again. This was an object lesson in how political preoccupations can drive not just propaganda but the research behind it, but it was also one that Francisco was largely reprising from the work of people he’d edited rather than being something of his to offer, as well as being nowhere near the theme of the workshop, so it too did not get included.4

When it came to the actual workshop, the first two papers were never intended to be more than advertisements for two scholarly institutes in the neighbourhood and the facilities they could offer scholars working on the area, which are indeed worth knowing about, but which were obviously not publications. Leslie Brubaker’s paper was closely related to the one she gave at that year’s Spoleto conference, which was printed as part of that, but her version of it for this workshop included some reflections on how, if you looked at the right way everything could be considered a frontier, and on how islands, our actual theme, were so rarely self-sufficient as for their coasts to constitute boundaries that were ‘meant to be breached’, and I wish we could have found some way to include those alongside what we did.5 Matthew’s, Luca’s and Rebecca’s papers did all go into the publication, so I’ll not say more about them here as I’ve already written them up once; they are all very good, however!6 Chris’s paper was about state-economy interactions across the three-century period of his title, and concluded that the eleventh-century world was economically busier but more broken up, making a tax-driven state harder to maintain and in some part, thus explaining a shift of economic basis; and from here, I can see that this was all work going towards his eventual (and amazing) article ‘How Did the Feudal Economy Work?’ As it was, it was still work in progress as far as he was concerned, and admittedly not even slightly about islands, and so we couldn’t really prevail upon him to let us have it.7 And then there was me, and I’ve already mentioned how Francisco had stepped into the breach.

So, in the weeks subsequent to all this when Luca, Rebecca and I worked this out, what this mean we had was Matthew, Luca, me and Rebecca’s workshop paper, and we also actually had the promise of a version of the paper which had been cancelled, by Nikolas Bakirtzis and a collaborator of his, Xenophon Moniaros. Five chapters is too few for a book, but it’s about right for a journal issue, so we looked around for likely venues and lit upon al-Masāq: Islam and the Medieval Mediterranean. They turned out to be a more or less ideal venue except in one particular, which was that they could give us a choice of being published either three years down the line or in eighteen months; the former was too far away but the deadlines for the latter meant a lot of work squeezed in between teaching. In particular, as editors of the issue, it fell to us to find reviewers for each article. Since we were between us three-fifths of the authors who were being reviewed, and some of our expertises were pretty identifiable as well, this got a little surreal, though I did not know either of the people who reviewed mine and got a slightly rough ride from one of them, which did make it a better article but required work I really struggled to do in the time available (mainly reading about Balearic archaeology). I guess the article now provides quite a good state of the question on late antique settlement in the Balearics…

Volume 31 issue 2 of al-Masāq: Islam and the Medieval Mediterranean, entitled Not the Final Frontier: The World of Early Medieval Islands

Volume 31 issue 2 of al-Masāq: Islam and the Medieval Mediterranean, entitled Not the Final Frontier: The World of Early Medieval Islands, editors Jonathan Jarrett, Luca Zavagno and Rebecca Darley

But, on the other hand, it ran through editing and proofs very easily, partly I’d like to say because of the excellent editing work we’d done ourselves, but also because of very good type-setting by the publishers, working with a bewildering number of Mediterranean languages and some fairly scientific archaeology to boot, and the whole thing existed within eighteen months of our first having the idea, which was extremely convenient for us all, I think. Had I had world enough and time I would have done more work on mine—I’m not sure if there’s anything I’ve ever published bar my first article on which I might not, ideally, have done more work and of course my book then had to modify that first article extensively…—but as it was, it was one of those things which seemed impossible but, because there were three of us doing it and no-one wanted to disappoint the others was in the end possible anyway, and we are all (still) quite proud of it. But I’m not sure I foresaw that in Ankara in February 2018!

1. The journal issue being, of course, Luca Zavagno, Rebecca Darley & Jonathan Jarrett (edd.), ‘Not the Final Frontier’: the World of Medieval Islands, al-Masāq: Islam and the Medieval Mediterranean Vol. 31 no. 2 (Abingdon 2019), pp. 129-241.

2. Rebecca Darley, “Self, Other and the Use and Appropriation of Late Roman coins in south India and Sri Lanka (4th-7th centuries A.D.)” in H. P. Ray (ed.), Negotiating Cultural Identity: Landscapes in Early Medieval South Asian History (London 2015), pp. 60-84, DOI: 10.4324/9780429274169-4.

3. Already in Rebecca Darley, “罗马-拜占庭钱币的流入与印度次大陆的社会变迁”, transl. Wang Baixu in 古代文明 Vol. 14 no. 3 (Changchun 2020), pp. 43–50, and soon to appear in English.

4. Francisco Moreno Martín (ed.), El franquismo y la apropiación del pasado: El uso de la historia, de la arqueología y de la historia del arte para la legitimación de la dictadura (Madrid 2016).

5. Leslie Brubaker, “The Migrations of the Mother of God: Santa Maria Antiqua in Rome, Hagios Demetrios in Thessaloniki, and the Blachernai in Constantinople” in Le migrazioni nell’Alto Medioevo, Settimane di Studio del Centro Italiano di Studi sull’Alto Medioevo Vol. 66 Pt. 2 (Spoleto 2019), pp. 1003-1020.

6. Matthew Harpster, “Sicily: A Frontier in the Centre of the Sea?” in Zavagno, Darley & Jarrett, ‘Not the Final Frontier’, pp. 158–170, DOI: 10.1080/09503110.2019.1602748; Luca Zavagno, “‘Going to the Extremes’: The Balearics and Cyprus in the Early Medieval Byzantine Insular System”, ibid., pp. 140–157, DOI: 10.1080/09503110.2019.1602375; Rebecca Darley, “The Island Frontier: Socotra, Sri Lanka and the Shape of Commerce in the Late Antique Western Indian Ocean”, ibid. pp. 223–241, DOI: 10.1080/09503110.2019.1604930.

7. Chris Wickham, “How did the Feudal Economy Work? the Economic Logic of Medieval Societies” in Past & Present no. 251 (Oxford 2021), pp. 3–40, DOI: 10.1093/pastj/gtaa018, which was really never going to be published anywhere else given his long connection with the journal.

Name in Print XXI: Islands are the New Frontiers

After the drought, apparently, cometh the monsoon. The short delay in posting this caused by the International Medieval Congress just gone has seen me with another publication and I hadn’t even told you about this one yet!

Vol. 31 issue 2 of al-Masāq: Islam and the Medieval Mediterranean, entitled Not the Final Frontier: The World of Early Medieval Islands

Vol. 31 issue 2 of al-Masāq: Islam and the Medieval Mediterranean, entitled Not the Final Frontier: The World of Early Medieval Islands, editors Jonathan Jarrett, Luca Zavagno and Rebecca Darley

What is this, you may ask, and to that I say, it is a special issue of the well-known journal of the Society for the Medieval Mediterranean, al-Masāq: Islam and the Medieval Mediterranean, to wit volume 31 issue 2, which has been edited by Luca Zavagno of Bilkent University, Rebecca Darley of Birkbeck, University of London and also myself. If you cast your reader’s mind back you may remembr me saying Luca and I had got some money to run a program of workshops on Mediterranean islands in the early Middle Ages, on which Luca is preparing a book, a program that somehow turned into a small international conference about which I will eventually report but is already documented here; this issue is the proceedings of that conference.

Cover page of Jonathan Jarrett, "Nests of Pirates: the Balearic Islands and la-Garde-Freinet compared" in al-Masāq: Islam and the Medieval Mediterranean Vol. 31.2, ‘Not the Final Frontier’: The World of Medieval Islands (Abingdon 2019), 196–222, DOI: 10.1080/09503110.2019.1600101

Cover page of Jonathan Jarrett, "Nests of Pirates: the Balearic Islands and la-Garde-Freinet compared" in al-Masāq: Islam and the Medieval Mediterranean Vol. 31.2, ‘Not the Final Frontier’: The World of Medieval Islands (Abingdon 2019), 196–222, DOI: 10.1080/09503110.2019.1600101

Now, I spoke at that conference, setting up a deliberately odd comparison between the Balearic Islands and a coastal, landward space, the century-long Muslim colony at la Garde-Freinet in Provence, so I am in this issue, meaning I have a new article out.1 The basic point is that though you’d think there are some pretty basic defining characteristics of islands, they don’t affect how island spaces work as much as other factors, and as a result a landward space can be just as or more ‘insular’ as a geographic island, depending on other things. When I gave that paper I did so with very little knowledge of the areas concerned; by the time I submitted it I knew rather more; and by the time I’d finished dealing with the reviewers’ comments, I knew quite a lot, including about Malta (which is in there too, now), though not enough to prevent me running into someone on Tuesday who had published on la Garde-Freinet whose work I’d missed.2 Finding that stuff out, as it so often seems to do when I go looking for something, exposed a number of assumptions and flaws in the historiography, so there is definitely scholarship going on here, but the overall point that scholarship is serving is a little quirky. I still think it’s interesting and a good piece, however!

Start page of Luca Zavagno, Jonathan Jarrett and Rebecca Darley, "Editorial" in al-Masāq: Islam and the Medieval Mediterranean Vol. 31.2, ‘Not the Final Frontier’: The World of Medieval Islands (Abingdon 2019), 129–39, DOI: 10.1080/09503110.2019.1596645

Start page of Luca Zavagno, Jonathan Jarrett and Rebecca Darley, "Editorial" in al-Masāq: Islam and the Medieval Mediterranean Vol. 31.2, ‘Not the Final Frontier’: The World of Medieval Islands (Abingdon 2019), 129–39, DOI: 10.1080/09503110.2019.1596645

Now, in fact, because of being an editor, I’m actually in this issue twice, because Luca, Rebecca and I co-wrote the ‘Editorial’.3 Actually, truth be told, Luca wrote it, then we severally interveneed, but it’s basically Luca’s text and ideas, and Luca has read a lot about islands and can synthesize it very thoroughly. Otherwise you can find in this issue a study of Mediterranean sea traffic measured from shipwrecks by diving archaeologist Matthew Harpster of Koç University in Istanbul; Luca’s own thorough comparison of most of the islands of the Mediterranean in their transition from Byzantine to Islamic rule; a painstaking study of Chios, an island in the Ægean made unusual by its cash crop, mastic gum, which can be produced almost nowhere else; and Rebecca’s comparison of two extra-Mediterranean islands, Sokotra and Sri Lanka, to bring out some complications of how concepts of island and frontier interact that you couldn’t get without such exterior comparisons, then reflected back in on what the rest of us were doing.4 It’s all quite clever, if I do say so myself, and you might like to read it!

Statistics, as ever: the ‘Editorial’ went through four drafts but I only dealt with two of them, and was eleven months from submission of final version to print, which is really pretty good though demanded a lot to get it done; and my article went in nine days behind that so is basically the same stats, but went through five drafts as I picked up more information. The publication time lowers my average a bit, and the copy-editors were among the best I’ve ever dealt with, especially given that between us all we probably cite or quote in ten languages. So overall, despite tight timescales and some obscure procedures, this has been a good publication experience and I’m extremely pleased that one of my projects has delivered in such a tangible way.

1. Jonathan Jarrett, “Nests of Pirates: the Balearic Islands and la-Garde-Freinet compared” in al-Masāq: Islam and the Medieval Mediterranean Vol. 31.2, ‘Not the Final Frontier’: The World of Medieval Islands (Abingdon 2019), pp. 196–222, DOI: 10.1080/09503110.2019.1600101.

2. That being Andreas Obenaus, “… Diese haben nämlich die maurischen Piraten verwüstet” in idem, Eugen Pfister & Birgit Tremml (edd.), Schrecken der Händler und Herrscher: Piratengemeinschaften in der Geschichte (Wien 2012), pp. 33-54 at pp. 44-49.

3. Luca Zavagno, Jonathan Jarrett & Rebecca Darley, “Editorial” in al-Masāq: Islam and the Medieval Mediterranean Vol. 31.2, ‘Not the Final Frontier’: The World of Medieval Islands (Abingdon 2019), pp. 129–39, DOI: 10.1080/09503110.2019.1596645.

4. Luca Zavagno, “‘Going to the Extremes’: The Balearics and Cyprus in the Early Medieval Byzantine Insular System’, ibid. pp. 140-157, DOI: 10.1080/09503110.2019.1602375; Matthew Harpster, “Sicily: A Frontier in the Centre of the Sea”, ibid. pp. 158-170, DOI: 10.1080/09503110.2019.1602748; Nikolas Bakirtzis and Xenophon Moniaros, “Mastic Production in Medieval Chios: Economic Flows and Transitions in an Insular Setting”, ibid. pp. 171-195, DOI: 10.1080/09503110.2019.1596647; and Rebecca Darley, “The Island Frontier: Socotra, Sri Lanka and the Shape of Commerce in the Late Antique Western Indian Ocean”, ibid. pp. 223-241, DOI: 10.1080/09503110.2019.1604930.

Seminar CCXXVIII: a new method for analysing Mediterranean connectivity

The seminar report backlog now takes us back to Birmingham, where on the 5th February 2015 Dr Matthew Harpster was addressing the General Seminar of the Centre for Byzantine, Ottoman and Modern Greek Studies. Matthew is one of the friends I hope to keep from Birmingham; we had friends in common when I arrived and then someone gave me the office opposite him, so I had quite a lot of contact with him, but still I didn’t actually see him talk about his stuff until I was working at the Barber Institute of Fine Arts. This then was that occasion, and it sparked off quite a lot of subsequent thought and action. His title was “Refashioning a Maritime Past in the Eastern Mediterranean”.

Nautical archæology under way at the Bozburun shipwreck site off the Turkish coast in 1996

Nautical archæology under way at the Bozburun shipwreck site off the Turkish coast in 1996; it probably isn’t Matthew in that wetsuit, but it could be!

It had been Matthew’s doing that this same seminar had earlier been addressed by Rebecca Ingram on the subject of shipwrecks, because Matthew too is a maritime archæologist who once worked at the Theodosian Harbour in Istanbul with her, and like her he also had a particular shipwreck with which he was concerned, a ninth-century one off Turkey.1 This seems likely to have been a Byzantine one but as Matthew had poked at this he had become less and less sure that we have any solid methodology for making such judgements: does one go from the cargo, the personal effects of the crew, the location, the building style, or some or all of these? All of these things could easily be out of place as we understand them. Matthew had gone so far as to assemble all the 254 attempts to identify shipwrecks in the International Journal of Nautical Archaeology from 1972 to 2012 as he counted them, and found no consistent practice.2 At that point his project became the one that then brought him to Birmingham, to database as many shipwrecks as possible from the ancient world and try and pattern-spot in such a way as might underpin such a consistent methodology for identification.

Cover of Parker's Ancient Shipwrecks of the Mediterranean

Cover of Matthew’s foundational text, Parker’s Ancient Shipwrecks of the Mediterranean

There is at least an easy place to start, an inventory of 730 ancient shipwrecks assembled in the early 1990s to which Matthew was able to add 120 more; the standard of record is of course variable but it’s a start.3 From there Matthew had used the cargo, fittings and personal items recorded for each wreck to work out route profiles for each vessel, assigning each of its items a point of origin and using those points as plots for a polygon that represented that shipwreck’s notional catchment area. Of course, this relies on others’ identifications of the goods and archæology being able to assign them correctly to places of origin, and as Morn Capper (present) pointed out, it is also tracking the finds, not the ships, and if those finds had moved in several ships in turn, not one all the way, the polygon of the one that actually sank would be considerably larger than that ship’s own sea area.

Map of ancient shipwrecks from the Benthos project

This is, sadly, not Matthew’s work but someone else’s attempt to do something similar, mapping the ancient Mediterranean’s nautical archæology, but only where it now rests, not where it had come from… The project concerned is called Benthos, and looks interesting but doesn’t seem to have progressed beyond its preliminary phase as of three years ago, alas.

But, this is something that one can do, it’s still telling one about a species of connection and the results are impressive, the more so because of the work Matthew had done with Dr Henry Chapman to load them into GIS and process them. I wish I could show you one of the resulting visualisations, as they are not only fascinating but things of psychedelic beauty, but Matthew seems not to have put any of them on the web where I can steal them, goshdarnit. In any case, in so far as what they show can be summarised, that summary might be:

  1. The weight of maritime activity shifted eastwards in the Mediterranean between the fourth century B. C. and the fourth century A. D., with more and more material travelling in the eastern half of the Mediterranean and less in the western one.
  2. Throughout that period, however, there is a visible separation of the two halves, either side of a zone including Sicily, Malta and the northern tip of Africa, which seems to have been a zone busy with transshipment but across the whole of which relatively little passed without stopping.
  3. In the fifth century A. D. this trend changes, with the Eastern Mediterranean dropping off in importance and goods from the West beginning to travel much further. Pirenne would have been worried!
  4. Pirenne would, however, probably have taken refuge in the fact that there is much less data from the late period, and in fact almost nothing for the eighth to tenth centuries, but the real peak is in the first centuries B. C. and A. D., not as one might have expected the height of the Roman Empire, and any conclusions for what was going on outside that period are based on dangerously small samples. Was sailing just safer under Hadrian or something? In any case, moving on… 

Matthew’s main point was that, within the limits of the evidence, his method could be used to measure and display change over time in the much-vaunted connectivity of the Mediterranean, but in discussion, predictably, the gathering set to trying to work out what else it told us or might do if extended.4 Archie Dunn wondered how journeys recorded in texts would map using such a method, Rebecca Darley offered military campaigns, as well as coins of course, and I wondered about inscriptions and diplomatic formulae. It seemed to me, and I said out loud, that all these things might well map out differently and result in an even more complex and textured picture of how people moved around the Mediterranean. And at that point Professor Leslie Brubaker said, “Funding bid!” and well, somehow from this seminar came a research proposal involving seven people, including myself, Rebecca, Matthew, Henry and Leslie, and it’s currently under review after making it to the second round of the European Research Council’s Advanced Grant competition, so I guess we shall see what a great fire a little matter may yet kindle; I’m still quite excited about the prospects it raises. But whatever comes of it, Matthew started it, by giving this excellent paper to an audience who thought of useful questions, and that is really how all this is supposed to work, isn’t it?

Divers over an ancient shipwreck off the coast of Sicily

Who knows what we may find? Though I at least won’t have to get wet for my portion of the material if it all comes together… This is a recent excavation off the coast of Sicily of a ‘2,000-year-old ship’ about which I can tell you no more, but it’s a good image to close with!

1. And indeed he has published on it: see M. Harpster, “Designing the 9th-Century-AD Vessel from Bozburun, Turkey” in International Journal of Nautical Archaeology Vol. 38 (Oxford 2009), pp. 297-313, DOI: 10.1111/j.1095-9270.2009.00226.x.

2. See Harpster, “Shipwreck Identity, Methodology, and Nautical Archaeology” in Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory Vol. 20 (Heidelberg 2013), pp. 588-622, DOI: 10.1007/s10816-012-9131-x.

3. A. J. Parker, Ancient Shipwrecks of the Mediterranean and Roman Provinces, British Archaeological Reports (International Series) 580 (Oxford 1992).

4. The vaunting is primarily to be found in Peregrine Horden & Nicholas Purcell, The Corrupting Sea: a study of Mediterranean history (Oxford 2000), on which see Paolo Squatriti, “Mohammed, the Early Medieval Mediterranean, and Charlemagne” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 11 (Oxford 2003), pp. 263-279, DOI: 10.1046/j.0963-9462.2002.00111.x.