BMCR 2020.09.30

From Hispalis to Ishbiliyya: the ancient port of Seville, from the Roman empire to the end of the Islamic period

, From Hispalis to Ishbiliyya: the ancient port of Seville, from the Roman empire to the end of the Islamic period (45 BC-AD 1248). Archaeopress Roman archaeology, 54. Oxford: Archaeopress Publishing, 2019. xx, 215 p.. ISBN 9781789690583. £45.00.

Table of Contents

Carlos Cabrera Tejedor’s From Hispalis to Ishbiliyya is a welcome contribution to the study of ancient and Medieval Iberia, offering a diachronic and multi-disciplinary study of what was once one of the most important ports in the western Mediterranean. To achieve this, Cabrera has undertaken study of previously unpublished—and in some cases unknown—archaeological materials from past excavation projects in Seville alongside the results of existing studies into the paleoclimate and hydrogeography of Andalucía. The Plaza Nueva excavation, part of an aborted effort at building a subway system in the 1980s, provides the bulk of the archaeological material subjected to close analysis, and this material is supplemented with reports from other urban rescue projects.

The task of reconciling all the disparate sources of information assembled here and then reconstructing a history of the port facilities of Seville across thirteen centuries is an ambitious one. Seville’s Roman period port is buried under seven meters or more of strata, and, as is so often the case, centuries of successive occupation and urbanism leave most of the ancient city out of reach. To overcome some of these difficulties, the author relies on an extensive knowledge of the modern excavation history of Seville along with his own hands-on analysis of materials from previously-unpublished excavations at key points in the city.

The introductory section (Chapter 2) clearly lays out the methods to be followed and the sources of information used, highlighting the multi-disciplinary approach of the book and also setting out the three historical periods that are covered in the three chapters that make up the core of the book. It is also here that the reader learns that this study is not about the city of Seville and its ancient and Medieval history, but instead about its port and associated facilities and infrastructure. Readers looking for a synthetic approach to Seville’s history and archaeology will find much of interest, particularly in the list of references.[1] However, where discussion of the broader urban plan, architecture, and monuments does occur, this is incidental to the analysis of Seville’s port and the route of the Guadalquivir River’s channel along the western side of the urban core.

Because Seville’s Roman history is intimately tied to the production of agricultural surplus for export—mainly to Rome—Cabrera synthesizes a sizeable body of scholarship on the economic output of Roman Baetica in Chapter 3, which focuses on the Roman port(s) of Hispalis. The archaeological record for Baetica’s production of olive oil in particular is vast, both from the Guadalquivir River basin and from Monte Testaccio in Rome. From this evidence and a substantial body of previous scholarship, Cabrera estimates the volume of export which is then used to project the size of the fleet that serviced Seville’s Roman port. This allows for some very general comparisons with other better-known ports of the Roman world. Unfortunately, because hard archaeological evidence for the Roman port in Seville is virtually non-existent, it is difficult to assess the validity of these estimations and comparisons.

Cabrera’s reconstruction of the city’s port in Roman times is built mainly on indirect evidence, from which he draws some interesting and sometimes convincing inferences. For example, a masonry wall intersected at irregular distances by perpendicular walls of varying construction techniques (pp. 70-72) is plausibly interpreted as a series of adjustments to the city’s quays as the channel of the river gradually shifted to the west (pp. 83-86). Similarly, warehouse complexes on the western (riverward) side and on the southern end of the Roman city raise the possibility that there were port facilities near these areas (pp. 75-77). A number of wooden stakes or poles from different excavations at various points along what is generally considered the western edge of the Roman city may represent the piles upon which Roman period port structures—wharves, quays, etc.—were built. In order to link these and other disconnected pieces of evidence, Cabrera has sought to reconstruct the line of the Guadalquivir River in the Roman period, along with a series of changes across its later history. This is a crucial contribution of Cabrera’s book, and the discussion of the river’s historical changes takes up a sizeable portion of this chapter and, along with climatic data, the following two chapters. Although this sort of work is somewhat conjectural and not necessarily capable of offering firm conclusions, it is also essential if we hope to improve our understanding of the port and the city of Seville—and of many other cities of the Roman and post-Roman world. Because so much of the ancient city lies buried many meters below the core of a bustling urban metropolis, it will never be possible to get more than scattered snapshots of the Roman city. Studies like this one, which take a more holistic approach, in this case involving geomorphology, hydrology, paleoclimatology, etc., can help us to reconstruct a more compelling image of the city’s layout and evolution across many centuries of occupation.

Chapters 4 and 5 continue along similar lines. Scattered archaeological remains are pieced together to create a coherent interpretation of what may have comprised the port city in each stage, as at least one channel of the Guadalquivir River migrated westward from the 9th century onward. Chapter 4 on the Late Antique city is (almost necessarily) the book’s weakest contribution, hampered as it is by an almost total lack of archaeological evidence relating to the city’s port installations. Here Cabrera is forced to rely on written sources that simply do not provide sufficient information to build even a conjectural reconstruction of the Late Antique port. That Seville was an important city during the Late Antique period is beyond all doubt. But Cabrera points out that most of the areas associated with port activity during the Roman period appear to have been converted for residential use in the course of the third century, so any Late Antique port installations must be sought elsewhere in the city. If Seville had a thriving sea trade, as seems likely from the large volume of imported materials revealed by archaeology over the years, any physical infrastructure associated with this activity has yet to be revealed. The identification of a 6th/7th century iron anchor from the Plaza Nueva excavation is a bright spot of Chapter 4. In addition to being fascinating in its own right, the anchor also appears to confirm that the river’s channel was still suitable for seagoing vessels at this point in the city’s history. Beyond that, current archaeological evidence is insufficient to allow for any kind of understanding of the city’s Late Antique port facilities.

Chapter 5, on “Seville after the Umayyad conquest,” benefits from a much richer archaeological record and a number of Arabic and later Spanish textual sources, all of which help to improve the picture that can be offered of the city’s port in this phase. One of the highlights of the book is the careful documentation of the highly fragmented and very poorly preserved wooden remains of a boat revealed during the Plaza Nueva excavation (pp. 143-162). Scientific analysis of the wood places the boat’s initial construction in the 10th century, and ceramics collected from the strata that accumulated on top of the boat show that, by the 11th century, this area was no longer a navigable channel of the river. A funerary epitaph found in this general area in the 19th century appears to agree with the written sources pointing to a cemetery located in this area in the 11th century, indicating that this was an extramural area at that time. Cabrera’s analysis suggests that the main channel of the river shifted to the west rather significantly in the Early Medieval period, as a result of frequent and sometimes catastrophic flooding events possibly linked to the Medieval Climate Anomaly (pp. 165-172). The river gradually developed a pronounced meander to the west of its old (Roman and Late Antique) channel in this period, and the Medieval city expanded westward to occupy the intervening space. This section highlights the value of a multi-disciplinary approach to the city’s history, as it builds on the full range of evidence and approaches laid out in Chapter 2.

The book is well-presented and reasonably cohesive, despite the broad chronological spread of the study and the diverse—and frequently incomplete—datasets under consideration. The text would perhaps have benefited from one more review of the proofs, as a few errors have managed to sneak through the process; fortunately, none of these is significant enough to cause any confusion. The entire work is heavily illustrated with 170 detailed maps and photographs, many of them in color. A number of the maps were designed by the author, and these prove to be especially helpful in drawing the reader through the dense discussion of excavation evidence from specific areas of the city in Chapters 3 and 5. These maps point the way forward for future research into Seville’s port and urbanism, as they provide a sense of the kinds of evidence that archaeological interventions may encounter throughout the city for various points in its history. This is particularly valuable in the case of future rescue excavations, whose results can be so difficult to interpret due to the small size of the site and/or the fractional remains revealed.

In the end, the portraits of Seville’s ports—in the Roman, Late Antique, and Medieval periods—are necessarily incomplete and sometimes highly conjectural. There is simply not enough archaeological evidence to provide a definitive analysis at this time. As Cabrera himself concludes, however, this is not the point of the current book. Instead, the project is meant to “…constitute a solid foundation for additional studies on the ancient port of Seville…” (p. 191). It remains to be seen whether the hypotheses advanced here will stand up to the constant accumulation of further archaeological evidence. However, given the range of sources, approaches, and types of evidence mustered to build this study, From Hispalis to Ishbiliyya seems certain to become a standard point of reference for future studies of ancient and Medieval Seville—both the port and the city as a whole.


[1] Good starting points are J. Beltrán Fortes and O. Rodríguez Gutiérrez (eds.), Sevilla Arqueológica. La ciudad en Época Protohistórica, Antigua y Andalusí, Universidad de Sevilla, 2014 and D. González Acuña, Forma Urbis Hispalensis: el Urbanismo de la Ciudad Romana de Hispalis a Través de los Testimonios Arqueológicos, Universidad de Sevilla, Fundación Focus-Abengoa, 2011.