Distant Seas, connected worlds: Tintagel, Britain and Greece in Late Antiquity
Earlier this year the BSA hosted a half day international symposium titled “Distant Seas, connected worlds: Tintagel, Britain and Greece in Late Antiquity”. In this blog post Jacky Nowakowski (Project Director TCARP) and Win Scutt (English Heritage) share their experience of the event and their time at the BSA:
“As the Aegean and East Mediterranean play such a key role in the post-Roman story of the remarkable fortified coastal settlement of Tintagel in Cornwall, Britain, it was tremendously exciting to take part in a highly enjoyable symposium held at the British School at Athens (BSA) in January this year where new research linking these distant worlds was the order of the day.
“Distant Seas, connected worlds: Tintagel, Britain and Greece in Late Antiquity” was a fascinating opportunity to hear from key researchers about the complex trading links and overlapping maritime circuits which upheld the movement of much-sought after commodities in circulation in the Late Antique world. As we learnt, alongside staple foods of grain, wine, olive oil, garum (fish sauce) and honey, this could include luxury foods and even spices, as well raw materials such as alum, glass and stone. Some of which, of course, clearly ended up a remote headland on the north coast of Cornwall at Tintagel in the 5th to 6th centuries AD! For as Maria Duggan, one of the symposium organisers and key speakers, reminded us, Tintagel, alone in Britain has the largest quantities of imported pottery from these worlds: over 2,000 pot sherds of amphorae and fine dining table wares from the recent excavations as part of the Tintagel Castle Archaeological Research Project (TCARP).
The amphorae, 2 handled clay vessels which contained wine, olive oil or garum. These remarkable discoveries represent the northern reaches of such connectivity.
As project director (on behalf of the Cornwall Archaeological Unit) I was invited to talk about our current TCARP project which has recently involved new excavations at the site. It was wonderful to be supported by my colleague Win Scutt, Curator responsible for the care of Tintagel for English Heritage Trust. Win’s intimate knowledge of Athens, his love of food, his cheeky wit and excitable good humour makes him the ideal travelling champion.
Having landed in Athens over 3,000 km from Cornwall in 3 hours (from London) relatively easily by plane, I found it incredible to think that pottery (which we excavated) has travelled from the Aegean to NW Europe (that is Tintagel), got there by boats leaving the Med and coast-hugging up the Atlantic seaboard. I wonder how long it took? The maritime connections which underpin the trade and movement of luxury goods and commodities around the entire Mediterranean Sea throughout the whole of the Roman period was clearly a tangled web of private, state and/or commercial relationships and partnerships, mixing state control with private enterprise and client led demand. By late Antique times things had geopolitically started to shift and accentuate the east. In those distant days during the dark transformative times of a collapsing western Late Roman Empire, Tintagel was clearly a key destination in the Atlantic. But what makes it such a special place and what does this contact represent? Fascinating questions that intrigued us all.
The symposium was hosted at the British School, a handsome villa, somewhere in the bewildering gridded sloping blocks of streets in central Athens. It was organised by Dr Maria Duggan and Dr Evangelia Kiriatzi, Director of the Fitch laboratory, with the generous and kind support of Professor John Bennet, Director of the BSA. Win told me that his last visit to the BSA, was over 40 years ago! For me, my first time at the BSA, I felt truly embraced and uplifted by my visit. We were both so warmly welcomed.
Supported by a British Academy postdoctoral Fellowship, Dr Maria Duggan has brought together a research collaboration between the University of Newcastle and the British School at Athens where material excavated at Tintagel has been studied in fascinating detail to identify likely production regions of the (imported) pottery – chasing their source. Her research builds upon the pioneering petrographic research of the late Professor David Peacock as well as that of Professor John Hayes on Late Roman Mediterranean pottery.
Maria’s study includes sherds excavated by Tintagel’s original excavator, CA Ralegh Radford, over 80 years ago as well as recent finds from our own work in 2016-2017. The event gave everyone a chance to discuss and reflect on current research as well as to connect and network – 21st century style.
The provenance of LRA1 amphora is south-eastern Turkey and the island of Cyprus. The LRA2 amphora is connected to the Aegean and the Peloponnese. Both these amphora forms are the most common in the Tintagel assemblage. Emergent results from Maria’s work in collaboration with Dr Evangelia Kiriatzi and Dr Noémi Müller show that, while these were broadly sourced within these regions, there was some variability. The identification of southern Spanish amphorae from the Huelva region gives another dimension to the complex make-up of the material that ended up at Tintagel. Noted quantities of fine wares – the LRC (PRS) – again from central western Anatolia/modern Turkey (the Foça area), also part of this variable package ending up at Tintagel (“a little bit of everything”) – highlights the special nature of contact here. As Paul Reynolds told us, while LRC wares (Phocaean table wares) were the most important regularly exported product from the Aegean to both East and West, its (recorded) distribution is uneven, so its discovery at any given place is important even fundamental to an understanding as to what drives the shipping networks – ergo, the connectivity. Perhaps Tintagel was a particularly special destination where “goods” turned up on client demand. An intriguing thought. Is this patronage of an individual? The assemblage is clearly more diverse than we had previously known for post-Roman western Britain.
Professor Paul Reynolds told us about how cabotage played a major role in the maritime trading world that is the anchoring from port to port where smaller anchorages (offloading points) take advantage of predictable winds, currents and land visibility. Such long-distance journeys would have been well-planned where merchants bound for specific long-distance destinations may have offloaded and picked up numerous other cargoes en route to their final destination. These anchorages clearly are key in facilitating long-distance commercial trading.
It is clear that the mass production of Roman amphorae was a major state-controlled industry in the Aegean and the Cyclades during the 5th to 7th centuries AD and Dr Charikleia Diamanti introduced us to the 5th century urban production sites on Kos such as Halasarna (which had fallen out of use by the mid 6th century, perhaps by historical events such as the great plague of AD 541/2). Nonetheless amphora production sites developed well into the 7th century on Paros, Keros, Naxos, and ancient Thera with clear evidence of spheres of overlapping connectivity between islands. It’s as if the amphorae and other key objects are glue that binds these worlds together. Ideas driving the contact through pragmatic channels.
Professor Stella Demesticha reminded us that the enhancement of long-distance trade had an enormous impact on the local hubs and networks of production. This meant LRA1 workshops popped up around the eastern Mediterranean where Cyprus was a particular major production centre and, in the 6th century, a key wine producer. Stella also showed that shipwrecks dating from the 4th century in the Eastern Aegean provided excellent snapshots of the goods that travelled together as the order in which the cargo was loaded was exceptionally well preserved.
In a rounding up the day Professor Sam Turner reminded us of the stark material (as seen in the archaeology and material culture) differences between the northern world and that of the Mediterranean in late Antiquity and emphasised the importance of seaways in the transmission, not only of goods, but ideas such as the spread of Christianity. The role of the Church as a major player in Late Antiquity connectivity cannot be understated. Like Beowulf’s great “ whale-road”, the Mediterranean Sea with Homer’s “wine-dark” glaze, had provided a mirror on the integrated commercial entity that it was throughout the Roman Empire and so its changing role in later antiquity with an increased presence of the Church as a main driver of contact, took on an entirely different complexion. In the far north geopolitical shifts towards connectivity in the North Sea zone opened up different avenues of contact while in the south western reaches of Britain places such as Tintagel had already witnessed such shifts in play.
We celebrated the success of the day with a shared mezze meal at a very hipster restaurant somewhere in the gridded blocks of streets which make up a great deal of Athens. To be honest I didn’t know where we were, but the food was excellent as well as the company and it was a great choice. The following day Vangelio, Maria and colleagues Noémi and Zoe treated Win, myself and Paul Reynolds to a tour around the research facilities at the remarkable Fitch Laboratory at the BSA. This amazing research centre houses a significant resource of over 10,000 thin sections of archaeological ceramics and geological samples from around the Aegean and many parts of the Mediterranean, which forms a unique database. Our Tintagel samples will join them. It was fascinating to watch the magical processes that go into making up those precious thin sections which give us such singular insights into the production of these pots – these extraordinary pots which carry such powerful stories linking and forging relationships and connectivity between such distant and remote worlds.
Thank you BSA for hosting such a great symposium and providing so much food for thought!”