Stella Demesticha and Lucy Blue (eds). Under the Mediterranean I: Studies in Maritime Archaeology. Leiden: Sidestone Press, 2021. Paperback ISBN: 9789088909450, 370 pp. 28 illus. (bw), 285 illus. (fc).
by Haggai Olshanetsky
In the middle of the 20th century, maritime archaeology (known then as marine archaeology) was more or less born. In the decades that followed, this field has grown with an immense increase in the study of maritime history in antiquity thanks to the interest generated by the impressive finds that the new discipline produced. This rapid development brought in 1976 the birth of the International Symposium of Boat and Ship Archaeology (ISBSA). The first decade of the ISBSA was more oriented towards medieval and post-medieval research, mainly in Western Europe. Thus, a different gathering was conceived – the International Symposium on Ship Construction in Antiquity called TROPIS (‘keel’ in ancient Greek), with the first convention gathering in Greece in 1985. This conference, which despite its name was very broad in terms of topics related to maritime antiquity research, was held several times, the last one in 2008. Accordingly, as the editors of the current book thought that an international conference of this type was still relevant and even necessary, they decided to organise one. This conference was held in 2017 to commemorate 100 years to the birth of the famous Honor Frost, one of the pioneers of Mediterranean maritime archaeology. This was a huge conference, with 102 oral presentations and 54 posters according to the appendix. Of them, 13 of the lectures that focused on Honor Frost and her legacy were published in a special volume. Another 12 contributions appeared as short reports, and the book at the centre of this review brings to press 19 further contributions from the said conference.
The book is divided into three sections. The first, titled “Ships and Shipwrecks”, is made up of six chapters that deliver exactly what the title says. It starts with a chapter on the Late Bronze age wreck of Modi Islet. This chapter, authored by Christos Agouridis and Myrto Michalis, is a good example of how an excavation in harsh underwater terrain needs to be conducted and published, with many 3D images and models of the site and finds. The second chapter takes us from Greece to Cyprus and at least 800 years forward in comparison to the previous one (from the 13-12 centuries BCE to the 4th BCE). In this chapter, Stella Demesticha analyses the cargo of a classic period ship. With beautiful 3D models, she presents the site with hundreds of amphorae that remained on the seabed, and how from the way they were laying on the seabed, the way they were laid as stowage on board the vessel can be reconstructed, completely changing the way the organisation of such cargo is perceived. This section of the book continues with a paper on four Roman vessels that were found in the port of Naples, and another paper on a late 4th to early 5th century CE ship from Narbonne (France). The fifth paper continues this theme, but this time constitutes a preliminary report of a late 12th century Byzantine shipwreck that was found in the port of Rhodes. This ship is the largest found from the period, with a length of at least 35 metres. Accordingly, this ship is important for the study of shipbuilding in the period, and the publication shows the many problems that the team faced, which often occur in this type of research. The shipwrecks section ends with a very different paper that deals with the reconstruction of a replica of the Ma’agan Mikhael ship that is dated to around 400 BCE. The reconstruction uses experimental archaeology and offers a unique insight into the way ships were constructed and sailed. This paper offers interesting information for many, and we can only hope that more such endeavours will take place in the near future.
The second section of the book deals with harbours and, like its predecessor, is also very diverse in subject matter and time. The papers are organised in a chronological sequence covering a millennium and a half, while offering papers on a range of subject matter including the design of harbours, their location and relation to a city, and the changes they underwent through time. For example, the first paper, “Patara’s Harbour”, focuses on the defence systems of the said harbour mainly in the Hellenistic and the Roman periods. The authors suggest that the Roman walls were erected in the 4th or the 5th century CE. Their dating is based on the plastering of the wall which was, in their opinion, more for show than for practical defence compared to walls dated to a later date. This suggestion can be debated, yet it offers very interesting discussions, especially regarding literary sources that can assist us in understanding what was built and when on this site. On the other hand, the eighth paper, authored by J. Lea Beness and Tom Hillard, tried to suggest the location of the ancient harbour of the city of Torone.
The other papers in the section continue on the same theme, with the following three papers also dealing with the Hellenistic and Roman periods. While the twelfth paper of the volume, authored by Patricia Antaki-Masson, focuses on the fortified Crusader harbours of the Syrio-Lebanese-Palestinian Coast. By contrast, the last paper takes us to the other side of the Mediterranean, to Islamic Spain. This paper, titled “The Port of Ishbiliyya and its Shipsheds: Islamic-period transformations of the Guadalquivir River, the port of Seville and the 12th-century Almohad dockyard,” is especially interesting as it shows various changes in the defences and harbour of the city due to changes in the flow of the Guadalquivir River. Furthermore, it is an excellent academic work that convincingly explains the changes and offers a solid suggestion for the location of the Shipsheds.
The last section of the book, defined as “Maritime cultural landscapes,” is composed of six papers. It is the most diverse section in terms of topics, and the title of the section does not fully cover the contents. Like the previous section, some of the papers attempt to find the location of the port of a known city. This is true for both the fifteenth paper, “The Effects of Coastline and River Changes on Anchorages, Harbours, and Habitation Patterns: the case of Akko,” and the seventeenth paper, “Istros, Black Sea Coast, Romania: a geoarchaeological perspective on the location of the harbour(s).” The former tries to calculate the changes in the location of the harbour near Tel Akko due to changes in sea level and river flows from the Bronze age to the Hellenistic period, while the latter tries to locate the harbour of Istros, once a prosperous port city and now a landlocked archaeological site.
On the other hand, the sixteenth paper, “Aegean Navigation and the Shipwrecks of Fournoi: the archipelago in context”, tried to show that the ships that were revealed in the archaeological survey show the importance of this trade route, and that the number of shipwrecks is normal and does not imply any significant danger on this route. The authors Peter Campbell and George Koutsouflakis nicely explore ancient texts and maps to emphasise the importance of the Fournoi ship route due to its currents and winds. They also explore when it was safer, and in which periods it was unsafe due to piracy, and what political changes deemed it even more attractive in the last two and a half millennia.
Yet, the eighteenth paper, authored by Carmen Obied, does something completely different. It tries to understand both the geography and perception of the Roman naval world by examining naval routes and safe havens according to the locations of abandoned anchors. In addition, it examines the connections between ports and their main polis, along with the expansion of cities toward the sea and the construction of new ports. The last paper, written by Michael R. Jones, again shifts to a different field, examining the function of various rock-cut features on Dana Island, with some of them previously suggested as slipways. This paper argues that although they are slightly similar in design to slipways, they better resemble the foundation of buildings and quarries, and that good examples of such quarries can also be found further inland.
To conclude, this book is very diverse and broad in both subject matter and time. The many papers offer new information, theories and methods that will enrich maritime research. I believe that this book is a must in the library of any university, and will be a worthy addition to the book collection of many who are fascinated by ancient ships, trade and the construction of ports and cities.
Haggai Olshanetsky is a post-doctoral fellow in the project “The Roman Egypt Laboratory: Climate Change, Societal Transformations, and the Transition to Late Antiquity,” University of Basel. Currently, he is working on the Roman Army sub-project, inspecting papyrological, epigraphical and archaeological evidence connected to the Roman army in Egypt in order to examine the ability to use the army as an indicator for social and climatic change in the area.