Containers and Connectivity

If you haven’t read Andrew Bevan’s recent article in Current Archaeology, you should drop everything and read it now. It’s titled “Mediterranean Containerization” and presents a concise history of containers for trade in the Mediterranean basin from prehistory to modern times. His article begins with amphora and moves to barrels, crates, modern shipping containers, and, of course, wood pallets. His main focus is on liquid products, olive oil and wine, and his argument centers on the “precocious” character of these containers in a Mediterranean context. I won’t even attempt to summarize his intricate arguments on this blog post, but I want to highlight a few things from it.

1. Mediterranean connectivity (or liquidity in Bevan’s terms, a clever play on the liquid in Mediterranean containers and the liquid state of the sea through which these containers travelled). Bevan makes the point that the connection between various Mediterranean regions created an environment susceptible for certain parallel strategies to mediate interregional contact. While Bevan is careful to avoid any kind of environmental determinism, he does note that the need to communicate through the network of Mediterranean places (and here we can clearly see the shadow of both Horden and Purcell’s and Cyprian Broodbank’s works)  required certain technological solutions. The development of the ceramic amphora and certain changes of these vessel shapes, capacity, and distribution demonstrate the shifting contingencies of the political, economic, and social life in the Mediterranean basin. 

2. Reuse. For Bevan, the significance of containers extends well beyond their primary use as transport vessels. Storage vessels designed for large scale transport of goods around the Mediterranean basin often enjoyed long lives as local storage containers, burial pots, and even houses. The ubiquitous character of these transport amphora and other containers created a kind of utilitarian koine built around the adaptive reuse of these objects. In modern times, the reuse of shipping containers and (yes!) wooden shipping pallets, provides a good example about how the containerization of transport creates a medium for other expressions of culture. My pallet project and studies of the famous “blue tarp” follow certain lines by showing how these ubiquitous aspects of global transport culture have created distinct modes of expression characteristic of our contemporary culture.

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3. Amphoras and Other Transport. One thing that Bevan notes is that amphora were not the only way in which commodities were moved around the Mediterranean landscape. I can’t recommend enough my buddy Scott Gallimore’s recent article in the most recent ZPE on some ostraka from Chersonesos on Crete. Scott argues that these ostraka (as well as some from near Carthage in North Africa) were chits used to record the transfer of wine from skins used in overland transport to amphora for overseas exports from Crete. The use of wine or oil skins to transport goods from small producers overland is something often overlooked by scholars who have tended to see amphoras almost exclusively as the marker of trade contacts. 

This has particular significance for my site of Pyla-Koutsopetria on Cyprus where we have a superabundance of Late Roman 1 amphora. It may be that these locally produced amphora (although not at our site) received olive oil from the region around Koutsopetria and it was transferred to amphora for export at our site, and this accounts for the massive quantity of amphora sherds at our site.

4. Responses and a Reply. I really liked the format of the article which included several responses which almost read like peer reviews of the article. The editors let Bevan reply to the critiques and he clarified some of the more controversial or opaque statements. The conversational aspect of the article expanded how I read his work. In particular, some of the respondents showed interest in thinking about how these containers manifested a Latourian sense of agency. Bevan does not talk in any great detail about this but the first respondents clearly thought that this was a productive route for further inquiry transforming the meaning of the article through their research interests.

The wealth of this article is almost impossible to summarize. It is among the most stimulating articles I’ve read for quite some time. As with most of Bevan’s stuff, his work is grounded in empirical research, and while there are a few little issues that our hardcore ceramicists (Mark Lawall’s comments demonstrate this) will pick up on and dispute, it is more important to appreciate the larger concepts involved his efforts. And even if you disagree with all of his conclusions, you have to admire his willingness to present in an article a synthetic overview of something as profoundly significant as containerization in a Mediterranean. His work will at very least be a point of departure.

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