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23.04.06 Nol (ed.), Riches Beyond the Horizon

23.04.06 Nol (ed.), Riches Beyond the Horizon

This is an archaeology book, but one that has much to offer historians of medieval trade and, by extension, economic historians, art historians, world-systems modellers and indeed anyone with an interest in “objects that move” over long distances in the medieval period. The book is subdivided into two sections: the first, Routes and Supra-regional Connections, contains five papers, all dealing with trade between China and South-East Asia on the one hand, and western destinations--Africa, Constantinople, the Middle East, on the other. The second, Regions and Sites, contains two papers on excavations in Israel, and a third on the Baltic.

All the essays in this book are interesting, although some are more review than original work. Nor are they even in their engagement with existing scholarship. While Nol’s two papers follow current research on medieval trade, others look no further than their adjacent technical literature. There is consistency across the chapters in terms of presentation; most take a surveyor’s approach, with subsections for (usually) different types of archaeological finds, or (sometimes) texts or locations. This makes the book notably easy to consult. The reader comes away with a keen sense of the variety of archaeological tools and approaches that might be brought to bear on long-distance trade. Different papers deploy botany, numismatics, the examination of weaving and dyeing techniques in textile remains, the sourcing of stones, as well as the expected coverage of ceramics, and a close engagement with written sources.

Joanita Vroom sets the scene with an introduction to the Belitung Shipwreck, which sank in c.826 on its way from Tang China to the Middle East. Its cargo of some 60,000 objects, mostly porcelain, was destined for the Caliphate, Byzantium, and beyond. As Vroom notes, despite intense research in recent decades, many people still have no idea of the scale or range of commerce in the Early Middle Ages, thereby introducing one of the volume’s themes: the extraordinary distances travelled by objects.

Hagit Nol’s piece takes its title (“Long-Distance Trade...A general Introduction”) seriously. She guides the reader through the archaeologist’s toolset, separating approaches used to determine provenance and those used to identify routes or movements. The provenance of archaeological finds is indeed a theme that yokes together most of the papers in the collection, which strikes an interesting contrast with much work of the mid-2000s on the early medieval Mediterranean, wherein scholars faced with untraceable objects preferred to emphasise circulation over origin. Nol is keen to combat the assumption that objects moving long distances must be elite luxuries, a principle long enshrined in the study of early medieval trade. Nor does she support distinctions between regional, interregional, and local trade. It is easier to deconstruct analytical categories than erect new ones, but her observations have justice, as the succeeding papers show. This general introduction does the theoretical heavy lifting for the volume, and it is a pity that more of what follows does not explicitly refer back to its themes.

Natalie Kontny takes a source-critical approach to the description of the Indian Ocean in Ibn Khurradādhbih’s Book of Routes and Realms (c.884), famous for its account of the Jewish Rādhānite merchants, and as the foundational text for the tradition of Arabic-Islamic geographic treatises. This excellent article is an outlier in the book, focusing as it does on a textual source. Nonetheless, Kontny keeps her eye on the themes outlined by Nol, and finishes with a tabulation of Indian Ocean trade goods mentioned by Ibn Khurradādhbih, which may be set adjacent to the tables, derived from archaeology, in other contributions. The chapter provides an overview of the Book of Routes and Realms, noting its coverage of non-Islamic regions, and dividing up its Indian Ocean coverage under three rubrics; traders, weakly described; commodities, abundantly described; and trade routes. Kontny maps out routes and queries the identification of entrepôts, highlights the interesting presence of pre-Islamic material, and notes some strange omissions (e.g., the absence of Red Sea trade routes). Finally, she draws attention to the tautology of location knowledge imbalance, as she has it, in which difficult to place locations are predetermined to be unimportant, while those we already know are significant continue to absorb the lion’s share of research.

Le Maguer-Gillon looks at trade in incense in Western Asia, a subject that has seen increased interest of late, covering the seventh to thirteenth centuries. The paper deploys botany to map the sources of vegetable-based incense, archaeology to trace usage, and Arabic textual sources to present historical knowledge of incense. The latter, because incense was a high prestige product, turn out to be extensive, although of limited use for reconstructing trade. As a perishable material, archaeological finds of incense itself are vanishingly rare. The author rustles up three, however, in East Africa, Yemen, and China. (Others are known, for example from Western European grave goods). Incense burners make up for the lack. Many were found at Sīrāf, together with Chinese ceramics, allowing the identification of that port as an entrepôt exporting frankincense to China. A prime example of the laws of supply and demand emerges from this latter example, for frankincense was an exotic and expensive luxury in China, while in the Islamic Middle East, it had lost prestige since antiquity--certainly because it was in plentiful production in the Arabian Peninsula. Its high status was taken over by musk and other incenses from the east. In all, a fascinating paper which points the way towards further research.

Qin and Ching Ho address the early days of Chinese export trade in ceramics, from the ninth to tenth centuries, and their distribution in East Africa. They begin with literary sources, summarising three Tang Dynasty writers who discussed travel west from China, before moving on to a survey of finds in African locations. Apart from Fustat (Cairo), all the finds are coastal, or indeed insular. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Fustat dominates, but the emphasis is Indian Ocean routes. Judging from the textual sources provided, the authors are perhaps optimistic in concluding that the Chinese had a “good understanding” of Africa (107), and indeed, their analysis indicates that ceramics likely moved through three different trade circuits, changing hands at entrepôts such as Sīrāf. Qin and Ching Ho emphasise discontinuity, noting that while ceramics were constantly emerging from China, they were not uniform in type or origin. It is possible to say, for example, that wares from Changsha (Hunan province) fell out of use after the ninth century, replaced by Yue Wares from a thousand kilometres further east in Zhejiang. Although it appears that ceramics were being made for an export market in the period, supply fluctuations can be put down to internal stresses in China: distribution mechanisms, then, were intimately tied to production systems. This is an interesting paper, and the authors raise interesting questions, not least the disparity between the vast quantities of Changsha Wares found in the Belitung wreck and their relative scarceness in excavation sites. Although the authors discuss four types of wares exported from China, they offer tables of find sites for only two--an unfortunate omission.

Guangcan Xin’s short paper provides a valuable introduction to two important early medieval shipwrecks, the Belitung and Cirebon wrecks. The wrecks’ contents--immense quantities of Chinese ceramics--go some way to proving the contention in Nol’s introductory paper that long range trade was not solely in luxuries. At the same time, Xin’s paper raises the vexed question of the representative value of the shipwrecks, and archeological finds in general. Were the Cirebon and Belitung ships representative of their time, as she asserts, or unique outliers? Thus far, we cannot know, but the data presented in the previous paper raises the possibility that Belitung was a unicum.

Joanita Vroom’s contribution begins with “From Xi’an to Birka and back...” and as its title implies, the terrestrial range here is considerable. She surveys Byzantine knowledge of the horizons of the earth, using geographical texts to guide discussion of archaeological finds. It is, then, the only paper in this volume to cover Western Europe, noting Byzantine finds at King Arthur’s putative castle at Tintagel, as well as in Scotland, Ireland, and Scandinavia. It is perhaps not surprising to find Byzantine artefacts in Yemen, but that some made it as far as Japan is remarkable. In addition to surveying the material, Vroom draws out some useful trends in her data. Some objects move further than others, with glass beads--found in both West Africa and Japan--having the widest range. Ceramics moved east, but not beyond India. In the early Middle Ages, as later, sending china to China was a losing proposition. She concludes with a useful overview, showing that with the end of the early Byzantine period, exports to the south and east declined, while those to the north prospered. Vroom’s review is both valuable and engaging, not least for its summary tables of Byzantine finds.

In her second contribution, Nol tackles the seemingly obscure trade in rocks from the seventh to eleventh centuries. One is presented with a picture of the stony beach at Acre, perforated by large annular depressions, clearly of human manufacture. Here are the exact traces of millstones, hewed out by long-forgotten hands. Even such heavy objects, it turns out, could travel a great distance. Finds from the region south of Tel Aviv include marble basins, rotary querns, weights from oil presses, pavements, and architectural elements. These present significant problems of dating and distribution, if not of provenance, and Nol admits that the results of her geospatial analysis are modest. Many of the conclusions are unsurprising--that stone objects had long lifespans, for instance, or that marble was moved by sea. Still, there is much of interest, such as the clustering of finds along now dry streams, which casts light upon transport under earlier hydrological regimes. Other outcomes await explanation, for example the introduction of beach rock querns in the ninth century. Despite rather unyielding materiel, Nol draws in recent historiography, amplifying her earlier contention that distinctions between local and longer-range trade are often unjustified.

Remaining in Israel, Shamir and Baginski offer a comprehensive survey of excavated textiles from the region, covering the ninth to thirteenth centuries. This consists of nine archaeological sites and numerous finds, all of them fragmentary, most of them tiny. For the historian, the concluding summary offers the most intriguing information. This reader was fascinated to learn that the favoured colour for clothing changed from red to blue somewhere around the seventh century, that printed cottons were already imported from India in this period, that wool textiles declined in use after antiquity. I could go on, albeit with the caveat that using nine sites to cover four centuries again raises the question of representativeness (as the authors acknowledge). The paper includes a glossary of technical terms and extensive pictures, which are very helpful.

The final essay takes us to the Baltic, where Wiechmann conducts a numismatic study of eighth- to ninth-century finds from Groß Stromkendorf (in northeast Germany near Wismar, which did not then exist), a settlement perhaps corresponding to the emporium Reric in the Frankish Annals. The coinage appears to mark the beginning of monetisation in the Viking Baltic, a significant development by any measure. Wiechmann does not omit the necessary socio-economic and political background before proceeding to survey the material finds. These amount to eighty-eight coins, which proves sufficient to draw out some compelling conclusions. The settlement dates, for instance, can be determined as beginning in the third decade of the eighth century and persisting for a little less than a hundred years. In that short span, the place forged far-flung connections, with coins originating in locations from Spain to Uzbekistan. Silver dirhams play a famous part in the study of the “Viking” world; those at Groß Stromkendorf may be the earliest yet discovered, dating to before 760, and may mark the beginning of the silver weight payment system that prevailed in subsequent centuries. Conversely, sceattas of England, Frisia, or Denmark seem to have circulated not by weight but as coinage proper. Other interesting points abound, for example the small coinage from the Caliphate made of copper, which could play no part in the Baltic economy, but may have been carried in the pockets of Muslim merchants.

With any collection of papers, the reader will wonder how many pertain to her interests, and whether that number justifies a purchase. The answer, as always, depends. The cover asserts coverage of six centuries, but only one paper starts as early as the sixth, and only three extend past the eleventh. All of them deal with the ninth century. This might be said to be a book about the eighth to tenth centuries, then, with some outliers. From the western medieval perspective of this reviewer, this means that it is a book on Carolingian and post-Carolingian trade, a recognisable genre. But from the same perspective, it is also about--as the title says--what lies beyond the horizon. All the papers can be said to pertain to the interests of a Euro-Mediterranean medievalist, but some of them do so only indirectly.

The proofreading leaves something to be desired, with a typo on the very first page of text. More serious is the choice of endnotes over footnotes, with some of them, inexplicably, failing to cite page numbers. The book is well illustrated, although a few of the graphics look amateurish. It is also well tabulated, with most of the papers offering useful tables of archaeological finds.

As an aside, this reader was frequently vexed by the quantities invoked for ceramic finds. It is one thing to say that 490,000 ceramic objects were excavated from the Cirebon wreck, but without knowing whether they were sherds, intact pieces, or--possibly--a number of complete pieces estimated from sherd finds, the given quantities are of limited value. Everyone knows a dropped mug may shatter into four pieces, or forty.

This book is a valuable contribution to what we might call the empirical stream in early medieval research, and finds a natural home on the shelf with, inter alia, books by McCormick or Wickham. I recommend it to researchers of Carolingian and post-Carolingian trade, as well as--although I am less qualified to say--Indian Ocean specialists. For the former, it stands out for its originality--here one discovers numerous examples of finds and conclusions that don’t make it into standard texts on ninth- to eleventh-century trade. When I wish to communicate to students the range and complexity of early medieval trade, I will reach happily for this book.