Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2019.11.38 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2019.11.38

Justin Leidwanger, Carl Knappett (ed.), Maritime Networks in the Ancient Mediterranean World.   Cambridge; New York:  Cambridge University Press, 2018.  Pp. xiii, 261.  ISBN 9781108429948.  $105.00.  

Reviewed by François Gerardin, Albert-Ludwigs-Universität Freiburg im Breisgau (

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

Networks are not objective historical entities, but rather a means for the analysis of historical data. As such, they constitute a powerful but easily misused tool.1 In deploying network theory to analyze seaborne mobility in the ancient Mediterranean, contributors to the conference volume Maritime Networks in the Ancient Mediterranean World, edited by Justin Leidwanger and Carl Knappett, are all too aware of this problem.2 The avowed aim of the volume is to “push forward the study of Mediterranean maritime interaction through explicit and accessible network approaches, which may be more or less mathematical, but are all ‘models’ in a basic sense and hence intellectually helpful if inevitably reductive” (p. 13). Overall, the eight conference papers, preceded by an introduction and followed by a conclusion, make good on this promise. The book represents a discourse on method in the fields of Mediterranean archaeology and ancient history, showcasing network theory. And it will surely find many readers among archaeologists and historians, whether they are looking to enter the realm of network theory or to improve their current use of these methods.

In their introduction, Leidwanger and Knappett (“Maritime networks, connectivity, and mobility in the ancient Mediterranean”) start from the relative dearth of archaeological data for maritime activities and the challenge this poses to network analysis to ask which models, under those conditions, are most useful and how to test them (question 1). This leads them to the question of temporal and spatial parameters, namely the pitfalls of periodization in regards to the persistence and memory of maritime networks over time (question 2) and the articulation of multiple operational scales in the analysis of ancient networks (question 3). Last come the problems raised by specific types of evidence such as isolated shipwreck cargoes (question 4) and the question of how certain categories of artifacts came to be differently distributed over the same maritime territory (question 5).

In their twin contributions, Tim Evans and Ray Rivers introduce “Ariadne” to the reader — not the mythical character stranded on Naxos, but a form of network analysis, of the stochastic variety, that best captures the effects of a great event on another Aegean island: the Bronze Age eruption of the volcano at Thera. Evans’ quick and informative survey (“Robust spatial analysis”) will initiate the layperson. Rivers’ piece (“New approaches to the Theran eruption”) explores a paradox: why did the eruption not lead to a drop but a boost in maritime connectivity in the south Aegean until exchange collapsed with the “burning of the palaces”? Both papers, which work very well as an inaugural case-study for the entire volume, also complement previous research done by the authors in collaboration with Carl Knappett on this topic.3 Mycenaean coastal landscapes were, according to Thomas Tartaron (“Geography matters: Defining small worlds of the Aegean Bronze Age”), “small worlds,” i.e. “interaction spheres…constituted by habitual face-to-face interaction and cohesion” (p. 73). Zooming in on the Saronic Gulf, he interweaves the stories of two harbor sites, Kolonna on Aegina and Kalamianos in the Peloponnese, and their interactions with neighboring entities at various spatial scales. Mycenaean palace formation plays a prominent role in his narrative. The case-study ends with a sample of ethno-archaeology and how it can help reconstruct the lives of traditional coastal communities. His plea for a qualitative approach nicely contrasts with the preceding papers on the Late Bronze Age.

Moving to the Iron Age and the Greek Archaic and Classical periods, Barbara Kowalzig (“Cults, cabotage, and connectivity: Experimenting with religious and economic networks in the Greco-Roman Mediterranean”) interprets Greek polytheistic religion as an epistemic and ritual network. She argues that cults, like that of Artemis in various sites around the Euboean Gulf, not only reflected mercantile ties but fundamentally supported economic exchange and, therefore, maritime mobility. From the perspective of historical interpretation, Kowalzig’s paper thus proves most interesting. This conclusion, if true, runs counter to what economic historians currently affirm regarding the premodern Mediterranean, namely that religious networks did not necessarily map onto economic ones. Thus the so-called Maghribi traders of the Cairo Geniza kept tight confessional connections with their Jewish peers in Christian land, but did not trade with them.4 In the Greek world, do “religious networks of cabotage,” by contrast, really explain, or at least foster, trade? Whatever the answer, this paper, like the previous one, nicely illustrates a qualitative, rather than quantitative, approach to network theory.

Elizabeth Greene (“Shipwrecks as indices of Archaic Mediterranean trade networks”) successfully applies “ego-network” analysis to visualize the context of shipwreck cargoes and identify four “zones of maritime interaction” of increasing size. One hardly needs Foucault’s elegant but somewhat superfluous concept of “other spaces” to understand that shipwrecks do not represent transparent windows onto the societies that produced them. Instead, following Greene’s own conclusion (p. 155), it would be more fruitful to compare the zones of interaction identified through the material assemblages of shipwrecks with the cultic networks that Kowalzig discusses in the preceding chapter. Do they overlap? And, if so, does it mean that religion worked as a motivation for economic interaction? It is a far cry from Euripides’ Iphigenia in Aulis to the shipwrecks of the Archaic Mediterranean, both geographically and conceptually. Yet a commonly defined use of network analysis and visualization could have helped bridge the gap. Despite the intrinsic interest of both contributions as they currently stand, I believe there is something of a missed opportunity here and that both papers, which are fundamentally on the same topic, could have spoken to each other more.

Mark Lawall and Shawn Graham (“Netlogo simulations and the use of transport amphoras in Antiquity”) are concerned with one type of evidence only: transport amphoras in the Aegean from the Iron Age to the Hellenistic period, including those found in the sanctuary of Demeter and Kore at Acrocorinth. They draw on two models, the mimicry model and the stylistic change model, both offered by the agent-based modelling (ABM) software NetLogo, to understand how network patterns in the organization of the consumer or producer group affect the selection and survival of amphora shapes. The analysis yields sophisticated results. Yet, rather than explain the models at such length, more room could have been made for the confrontation of the simulations with the actual amphora record. As the authors themselves acknowledge, “such proposals, of course, are only to be taken as hypotheses” (p. 164), and so one hopes that more work will verify those hypotheses. The late Hellenistic amphora trade, according to the authors (p. 181), constitutes a thought-provoking case study, but one also thinks of the example provided by Byzantine globular amphoras discussed in chapter 9 (see below).

Tom Brughmans (“Lessons learned from network science techniques”) wonders what makes a network model relevant to a specific case-study. In keeping with the volume’s emphasis on method and using a dataset of Roman tableware ceramic from the eastern Mediterranean, commonly referred to by archaeologists as eastern sigillata, he warns readers that network analysis does not always bring novel results. Negative, or “uninformative” results, he claims, should be published at this early stage of development in “network science.” His contribution, with detailed appendix and explicit formulation of all intellectual premises, in his case the “dependency assumption,” will prove most useful to experienced practitioners of network analysis, but less accessible to the uninitiated.

Paul Arthur, Marco Leo Imperiale, and Giuseppe Muci (“Amphoras, networks, and Byzantine maritime trade”) approach the distribution of so-called globular amphoras in the eighth century Mediterranean with “affiliation networks.” While addressing the same issues as Lawall and Graham, but for the Byzantine period, they move from a well-defined dataset to formulate the hypothesis that the state, in a period of economic straits, set out to control the circulation of goods that were moved in amphoras. The paper, written in a very accessible style, can be read before that of Lawall and Graham, which is more theoretically informed and provides further tools to discuss the transition from homogeneity to heterogeneity in the amphora record and vice versa.

In her concluding remarks, Barbara Mills (“Navigating Mediterranean archaeology’s maritime networks”) examines the difference between terrestrial and maritime networks and returns to some of the cross-cutting themes of the volume’s papers. Among the avenues for further research that she identifies, the question of “power relationships” and the equation between centrality and power is certainly worth pursuing. As she also notes, the papers assembled in the volume mostly cover the northern Mediterranean, leaving aside North Africa and the Levant. The editors understandably had to make choices. Finally, the volume is strongly weighted toward both the beginning and the end of the ancient world, the Bronze Age and the late antique period (which is unsurprising, given the specializations of the volume’s editors).

The production of the book is nearly flawless. I have found very few typos or inaccuracies: “of of values” in the key to table 2.2 p. 33; the Journal of Juristic Papyri cited in the bibliography p. 182 is really the Journal of Juristic Papyrology. I am wondering if there could have been a single bibliography for the entire book, since several shared references, such as Cyprian Broodbank’s Island Archaeology of the Early Cyclades, resurface at the end of virtually all essays. The index will prove particularly valuable to those digging for information on a particular kind of network analysis. Appropriate tables and illustrations always constitute an essential part of each paper’s argument. They make the book both user-friendly and convincing.

To achieve a high degree of coherence among all contributions was no easy task. To a very large extent, the authors of the volume have succeeded in presenting a consistent sample of current research in Mediterranean archaeology and history, with networks given pride of place. Moving from the Late Bronze age to the late antique world, the reader learns how to choose not just any, but the most appropriate network models. The contributors are aware that networks cannot be their final word on ancient societies and use network theory accordingly to save the phenomena of human mobility in the ancient Mediterranean. This is arguably the greatest strength of the volume. Reading all contributions together, one gets a strong sense of what robust network analysis could and should be. There is a great deal that remains to be done, to be sure, but this is a major contribution to a promising field of inquiry.

Table of Contents

Justin Leidwanger & Carl Knappett. “Maritime Networks, Connectivity, and Mobility in the Ancient Mediterranean” (1-21)
Tim Evans. “Robust Spatial Network Analysis” (22-38)
Ray Rivers. “New Approaches to the Theran Eruption” (39-60)
Thomas F. Tartaron. “Geography Matters: Defining Maritime Small Worlds of the Aegean Bronze Age” (61-92)
Barbara Kowalzig. “Cults, Cabotage, and Connectivity: Experimenting With Religious and Economic Networks in the Greco-Roman Mediterranean” (93-131)
Elizabeth S. Greene. “Shipwrecks as Indices of Archaic Mediterranean Trade Networks” (132-162)
Mark L. Lawall & Shawn Graham. “Netlogo Simulations and the Use of Transport Amphoras in Antiquity” (163-183)
Tom Brughmans. “Lessons Learned from the Uninformative Use of Network Science Techniques: An Exploratory Analysis of Tableware Distribution in the Roman Eastern Mediterranean” (184-218)
Paul Arthur, Marco Leo Imperiale, & Giuseppe Muci. “Amphoras, Networks, and Byzantine Maritime Trade” (219-237)
Barbara J. Mills. “Navigating Mediterranean Archaeology’s Maritime Networks” (238-256)


1.   On the potentially injudicious use of network theory or the concept of network in the history and archaeology of the ancient Mediterranean, see J. Zurbach, “Mobilités, réseaux, ethnicité: Bilan et perspectives,” in J. Zurbach and L. Capdetrey (ed.), Mobilités grecques: mouvements, réseaux, contacts en Méditerranée, de l'époque archaïque à l'époque hellénistique (Bordeaux, 2012) 265-8. T. Brughmans, “Connecting the dots: towards archaeological network analysis,” Oxford Journal of Archaeology, 29.3 (2010), 277–303, followed by id., “Thinking Through Networks: A Review of Formal Network Methods in Archaeology,” Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory 20.4 (2013), 623–662, has also called for a more critical attitude in the selection and application of network models.
2.   The meeting took the form of a workshop that took place in November 2013 in Toronto. A manifesto for the study of ancient Mediterranean maritime networks by the same group of authors had already appeared in Antiquity, giving a preview of the workshop’s research goals and outcomes.
3.   See among others C. Knappett, R. Rivers, & T. Evans, “The Theran eruption and Minoan palatial collapse: New interpretations gained from modelling the maritime network,” Antiquity, 85 (2011), 1008-1023.
4.   See the introduction of J. L. Goldberg, Trade and Institutions in the Medieval Mediterranean: the Geniza merchants and their business world (Cambridge, 2012).

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