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Final Report Summary - MISAMS (Modelling Inhabited Spaces of the Ancient Mediterranean Sea)

As concepts of culture have shifted over the past century, from the fixed and normative perspectives of Kossinna, Childe and Boas prescribing discrete suites of characteristics, to studies by Ford, White, Binford, and Barth, portraying culture as agglomerations of socially-constructed elements that people can adopt, express, and recognize to varying degrees, studies of seas and oceans have changed as well. The essentialist interpretations of Indian Ocean and Pacific Islanders by Radcliffe-Brown and Malinowski, or Childe’s ‘maritime civilizations’ of the ancient Cyclades, Greece, and Sardinia, were replaced in anthropological studies by Cressman, Vasilevskii and Powers, and others who wrote of ‘maritime cultures’ as flexible social constructs around the Pacific Rim. Historical and geographical studies have shifted as well, exploring how the oceans and seas are not monolithic units but socially-constructed palimpsests of inhabitation and interaction. Indeed, Lewis and Wigen, Bentley, and Lambert, Martins and Ogborn have demonstrated how the seas represent one of many new spatial hierarchies around the globe, as have The Geographical Review, The Professional Geographer, and Mobilities, in issues on seas and oceans.
As Dr. Harpster’s 2013 analysis of approximately 250 professional articles published between 1972 and 2008 demonstrates, however, the dominant interpretive paradigm in maritime archaeology has not changed and continues to rely on fixed, normative perceptions of the past commonly influenced by textual sources. Beginning in the Mediterranean in the 1960s, the discipline’s first practitioners adopted perspectives consistent with their training and the atmosphere around them, contextualizing excavated wrecks within an essentialist view of past communities. Sites became ‘Phoenician’ or ‘Roman’ to ease their incorporation into historical narratives, and to ease the discipline into Mediterranean archaeological practices. The widespread perpetuation of these normative identities, however, has identified ‘Greek’, ‘Chinese’, and ‘Anglo-Saxon’ structural characteristics in hulls, and portrays seas as a tabula rasa populated or colonized only by expressions of terrestrial entities, a view of the Mediterranean unlike those of ancient writers who most commonly attributed ships to individuals. This normative bias guides field methods, dissuades indigenous archaeological interpretations, and perpetuates concepts of the sea within only ‘Western’ dynamics – a rubric clashing with indigenous views that construct the present sea much like that in antiquity: a cartography of names, myths, legends, anthropomorphisms, and mysteries. Indeed, Australian laws once preferred the protection of historically-attested wrecks, whereas the UNESCO 2001 Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage places protective responsibilities with modern corollaries of a wreck’s ‘state of origin’.
The discipline is not monolithic, but archaeological investigations of ‘maritime culture’ as an alternative are few and tentative. Muckelroy’s and Westerdahl’s views benefitted from the changes permeating the Social Sciences, yet neither author explicitly recognizes either these changes, or the associated scholarship discussing the difficulties of normative perspectives of culture. Indeed, their critics promoting culture as a fixed and functionalist construct seem equally unaware of the philosophical roots of their own views. Other alternatives arise, but by circumstance. Maritime archaeological narratives of movement by Nieto, Leidwanger, and Boetto augment studies of the ancient Mediterranean economy, whereas other options address prehistoric and proto-historic topics, or details of construction not in textual sources. Studies of ‘maritime landscapes’ as an alternative spatial hierarchy are promising but formative; although concentrated in northern Europe, they are still not compatible. Despite changes elsewhere in the Social Sciences, research in maritime archaeology is still tethered to textual narratives and the discrete, normative identities the discipline began with.
Dr. Harpster’s Marie Curie Inter-European Fellowship project MISAMS (Modelling Inhabited Spaces of the Ancient Mediterranean Sea) used a dataset of 871 submerged sites in the Mediterranean Sea as a case-study to test the viability of two premises forming an alternative interpretive approach. First, the corpus of data on the seafloor is now large enough to generate its own interpretive context, so the discipline may create meaning independent of normative labels and their historical narratives. Second, because the new maritime archaeological narrative emerging from this corpus is independent of normative labels and the associated geopolitical constructs, it can represent the actions of a maritime culture, the social construct creating and using these ships, and constructing and inhabiting the Mediterranean Sea through its beliefs, actions and patterns.
To test these premises, all items within the dataset’s assemblages, not only ‘cargo’, were compiled, and sources of items were color-coded by region: Western Mediterranean (red), Adriatic Sea (black), Aegean Sea (blue), Eastern Mediterranean (green). These four regions were chosen because they contain the most data, and because a fifth region cannot be distinguished by a fifth color. As the protocol combines these four colors to model levels of isolation or interaction, and due to the additive nature of the RGB color scale in an electronic display, any fifth color used to distinguish a region is already a combination of the previous two or three – a purple-coded region cannot be distinguished from the interaction of Aegean and Western Mediterranean activity, for example. Next, the catchment basin of each assemblage, based upon its contents, was plotted in ArcGIS as a polygon, representing the area in which the ship was most likely operating prior to loss. As each assemblage is representing human activity and mobility, not a sedentary object like a temple, these polygons are a crucial contrast to dots on a map that essentialize a ship’s activity to its moment of loss the same way that normative labels essentialize a ship to a single identity. Based upon the contents of each assemblage and the color-coding, each polygon was assigned a color; if necessary, these colors could be combined in proportions reflecting the proportions of items in each assemblage.
Within this proof-of-concept, the polygons superimposition demonstrated that 80 percent of the ships lost in the Western Mediterranean were most likely operating only in that space, representing ‘local’ activity on a pan-Mediterranean scale; similar concentrations were evident in the Aegean Sea (85 percent local) and the eastern Mediterranean basin (65 percent local). The Ionian Sea was an area of trans-shipment and inter-regional exchange, however, with wrecks’ polygons extending east and west beyond the sea’s borders. Importantly, these divisions were relatively stable – even while the coastline was presumptively united in the high Roman Empire, ships and people operated within these gradually fluctuating zones. Equally, because the protocol is scalable, the limitations of the four-color problem are eliminated. By isolating the western basin and recoding the coastline with new colors (Gibraltar to Marseilles – red; Marseilles to the Tiber – green; Tiber to Sicily – blue; Sicily to Gibraltar – black), the protocol models inhabitation patterns at a higher resolution.
Dr. Harpster’s project has conclusively demonstrated the viability of his two premises, and has created a new set of interpretive tools that are applicable to further work in the Mediterranean Sea and elsewhere around the world. His efforts have demonstrated that maritime activity in antiquity, and the maritime community undertaking that activity, operated semi-autonomously from the geo-political constructs on land, governed more likely by geographical determinants than economic rules. His efforts have generated a monograph, currently under review at Oxford University Press, as well as numerous professional presentations at the University of Birmingham, Southampton University, University of Southern Denmark, Oxford University, and Nanyang University in Singapore.

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