BMCR 2021.06.10

Ceramics and Atlantic connections: late Roman and early medieval imported pottery on the Atlantic seaboard

, , , Ceramics and Atlantic connections: late Roman and early medieval imported pottery on the Atlantic seaboard. Proceedings of an international symposium at Newcastle University, March 2014. Roman and late antique Mediterranean pottery, 15. Oxford: Archaeopress Archaeology, 2020. Pp. 160. ISBN 9781789693379 $42.00.

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

The disintegration of central state authority in the western half of the Roman empire in the fifth century CE transformed the political economy of the Mediterranean basin and its continental hinterlands and disrupted some deep structures in the mobilities and connectivities that tied the whole region together. Over the following few centuries, some networks and commercial systems disappeared forever while others were reconstituted along a range of different lines. A generation of scholarship—drawing in particular on the rich archaeological record from the inner core of the Mediterranean world—has now traced the contours of many of these ruptures and continuities. Consequential changes and reorderings were also taking places on the distant edges of that world, of course, but these outer areas are less well documented (and less studied) than the center. As a result, we know much less about the effects of “the fall of the Roman empire” on commercial and cultural connectivities in what had been the empire’s peripheral zones.

The volume under review gives us a tantalizing glimpse into one such region. Based on a symposium held at the School of History, Classics and Archaeology at Newcastle University in 2014, Ceramics and Atlantic Connections, edited by Maria Duggan, Sam Turner, and Mark Jackson, contains a sequence of case studies of the imported ceramic assemblages of the Atlantic sectors of Ireland, Britain, Gaul, and the Iberian peninsula in the period c. 400-700 CE. It has been produced to a very high standard: big, glossy pages, overflowing with high-quality illustrations (many in color); precise, large-scale drawings of many different ceramic vessels; detailed maps; and an abundance of tables and charts with the underlying empirical data presented in sharp resolution. The individual essays are a little eclectic and the volume as a whole sometimes has the feel of an “interim report” meant for specialists (there is no index, for example), but the information presented here should be of interest to all students of the late-Roman and post-Roman west.

Michel Bonifay’s short chapter on Mediterranean imports to Britain, focusing on African Red Slip Wares (ARS), opens the volume (1-6). Confirming the emerging orthodoxy that there was no direct commercial contact between Britain and Constantinople in the fifth and sixth centuries, he joins with several other authors in the volume in identifying Vigo (on the Atlantic coast of Galicia) as the key port of transit between British and north African cargoes during this period. By contrast with its wide distribution in the Mediterranean, the north African material in Britain is limited in volume, as Bonifay stresses, but it is enough to show continuous trade, probably reflecting ongoing demand for British tin.

There follow three chapters on ceramic assemblages in the late-Roman and early-medieval British isles. Ewan Campbell offers an unusually personal account of his scholarly career, combining motivational anecdotes about holding one’s ground in the face of disagreement from senior colleagues with a more conventional presentation of the finds, including glass and the elusive E ware, from the site of Dinas Powys in Wales (7-12). Amanda Kelly, Martin Feely, Edward P. Lynch, and Gavyn K. Rollinson employ automated SEM-EDS analysis to examine the only wheel-made flanged rim sherd in the whole of early medieval Ireland, reporting that the micaceous content of the fabric militates against a north-African origin, as had been suspected (25-38). The most wide-ranging contribution among this trio of chapters is Maria Duggan’s survey of the ceramic imports in Atlantic Britain (13-24). After summarizing the latest evidence from the British isles and southwest France (mainly Late Roman Amphora and Late Roman C fine ware, LRC), showing that the British isles were neither isolated nor dependent on unmediated trade with the eastern Mediterranean, Duggan illustrates, with reference to several “import sites” in southwest Britain, especially Bantham, the functioning of a true Atlantic network in this region in the early medieval period.

From the British isles the volume moves south with two chapters on Atlantic Gaul. Joachim Le Bomin presents the first ever survey of ceramic imports in western Gaul in the period c. 250-700 CE (39-54). The results confirm what we might have guessed: the finds, mainly African amphorae (ARS) from the fourth and fifth centuries, are concentrated in the Aquitanian basin (with a secondary concentration along the Seine) and come mostly from urban contexts, especially Bordeaux. Making the most of a field that might seem “sclerotic” (55), David Guitton shifts the focus to domestic production in southwestern Gaul (55-93). He confirms links between the “céramique à l’éponge” from Civaux and the Argonne sigillata (probably manufactured in Vienne) and explains the diffusion of “derivees des sigilles paleochretiennes du groupe Atlantique” (DSPA) in terms of “an active Atlantic trade” (72), noting along the way the increasingly continental source of imports to the region.

The volume concludes with three chapters on the Iberian peninsula. The first, by José Carlos Sánchez Pardo, moves beyond the ceramic material to discuss the full range of evidence, including literary texts, for the role of Galicia in the northwestern Iberian peninsula as a “stepping stone” for the entire Atlantic corridor (94-107). Emphasizing the role of Vigo as a key node in this Atlantic network, he paints a compelling picture of sustained contacts between Galicia and Aquitania, Brittany, and the British Isles in the sixth through eighth centuries. José Carlos Quaresma’s chapter on the ceramic assemblages from Olisipo is more technical in nature, tracing the changing profile of the imports from c. 100 to 550 CE and documenting the continued presence throughout the period of African terra sigillata and late Phocaean fine wares (108-34). The final chapter, by Ana Patrícia Magalhães, Inês Vaz Pinto, and Patrícia Brum, examines the late Roman material (terra sigillata, amphorae, and lamps) from Tróia (135-50). The fish-salting complex—the largest such installation in the early Roman empire—was abandoned in the first half of the fifth century, but north African amphorae continued to be imported (in much smaller numbers) into the seventh century, indicating continued inhabitation of the site.

Ceramics and Atlantic Connections, then, ranges widely in time and space. The evidence is limited in quantity (as many authors themselves stress) and the conclusions on offer are mostly provisional. But what is presented is already quite substantial and significant for the historical questions sketched at the beginning of this review. From ARS to Gaulish fine wares, especially DSPA, and from LRC fine wares from the eastern Mediterranean to coarse wares produced in the Atlantic zone, especially E ware (the production center for which remains frustratingly unknown), the ceramic vessels presented in such loving detail are more than enough to show the continuous operation of an Atlantic commercial system throughout the late Roman and early medieval period. The longstanding model of British isolation and dependence on unmediated trade with the eastern Mediterranean was based almost entirely on the finds from Tintagel in southwest Britain. The distribution of so many different imported ceramics at multiple sites along the Atlantic corridor, carefully documented here, means that this model can now be retired. This is the major achievement of the volume.

How we should characterize this late-Roman and early-medieval Atlantic commercial system, though, is still open to question, and satisfying answers will require the subsequent research called for by the editors themselves (iv). Two preliminary observations prompted by this volume concern the periodization of Atlantic systems, on the one hand, and their changing geographical configuration(s), on the other.

Though the dating of ceramic assemblages is not always precise, some big-picture trends can be discerned from the information presented here. Several authors highlight the period c. 550-700 as constituting the decisive break from the commercial systems of the early empire, which mostly prevailed through the fourth century (e.g., 3, 16, 42, 87, 103-5, 145-6). One striking feature of this long-term history is that the vitality of the Atlantic commercial system seems to be inversely related to the centralization of Mediterranean state power, evident both during the third-century crisis, when continental routes through Gaul were highly unstable (3), and following the collapse of Roman authority in the fifth century, when a “system of episodic, independent contact . . . across the western European Atlantic Seaboard,” as Sánchez Pardo characterizes it, reveals a form of regional “independence” (103, 105). It may be the case, then, that Atlantic commercial systems were at their most dynamic when untethered from Mediterranean and continental networks of power and exchange.

The geographical configuration of this late-Roman and early-medieval maritime network is characterized by a mix of continuity and change from that of the early and high empire. Throughout the period, Bordeaux remained a key node in regional and supra-regional exchange, both oceanic and continental, just as it had been since the first century CE. Its position in the wide Gironde estuary gave this grand port city unmatched access to the Bay of Biscay and the Atlantic routes that ran across it, while its position at one end of the “Gallic isthmus,” which linked it with Narbo via the Garonne and Aude rivers (with a short overland transfer), made it a critical hub of continental and Mediterranean traffic. Its centrality to late-antique and early-medieval commerce is confirmed by the numerous ceramic finds there, though there are some indications that by the end of the period it was being supplanted by Tolosa as a continental depot (50).

The biggest change in the geographical structure of the Atlantic network in this period was the rise of Vigo as the major transit port for goods moving north and south along the Atlantic seaboard. Indeed, Vigo is the “star” of this volume, repeatedly highlighted for its remarkable late-Roman and early-medieval ceramic assemblages (e.g., 1, 4, 16-17, 22, 32, 94-6, 102, 148). Cádiz had served this function in earlier centuries, when Mediterranean imports to the Atlantic rim were on a greater scale, but in the new commercial dynamics of the late- and post-Roman phases of the system, it was Vigo that emerged as the essential Atlantic “emporium,” as Bonifay puts it (1).

This long-term shift from Cádiz to Vigo as the major Atlantic transit port is an excellent illustration of how a far-flung commercial system can change and adapt over time—within the constraints of the underlying physical geography—and how transregional networks on the periphery of a collapsed imperial system can be reborn, like saplings after a forest fire, to form the basis for new modalities of contact and exchange. The editors deserve our thanks for giving us a new perspective from which to observe the birth of this new world.

Authors and Titles

Michel Bonifay, “Ceramics and Atlantic connections AD 250-700: the African perspective” 1
Ewan Campbell, “A handful of sherds: a retrospective look at imports in Atlantic Britain” 7
Maria Duggan, “Britain in the Atlantic: Late Antique ceramics and connections” 13
Amanda Kelly, Martin Feely, Edward P. Lynch and Gavyn K. Rollinson, “An imported flanged rimsherd discovered on the early medieval site of Kilree 3, Ireland: a study in archaeological deposition and provenance using automated SEM-EDS analysis (QEMSCAN)” 25
Joachim Le Bomin, “Mediterranean pottery imports in western Gaul during the Late Roman period (mid 3rd-early 7thcentury AD): state of knowledge” 39
David Guitton, “À la recherche du temps perdu! A new approach to domestic ceramics of Late Antiquity (4th-6th centuries AD) in the heart of Aquitania Secunda (south-west Gaul)” 55
José Carlos Sánchez Pardo, “Late Antique Atlantic contacts: the case of Galicia” 94
José Carlos Quaresma, “Late contexts from Olisipo (Lisbon, Portugal): Escadinhas de São Crispim” 108
Ana Patrícia Magalhães, Inês Vaz Pinto, and Patrícia Brum, “Late Roman imported pottery in the southwest of Lusitania: the case of Tróia (Portugal)” 135