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Reconstruction of human activity in the ancient Mediterranean

Researchers have developed a unique geographic information system (GIS) to study f 871 shipwrecks in the Mediterranean Sea. Results have created models of the areas where each ship operated as far back as the first century BC.
Reconstruction of human activity in the ancient Mediterranean
Maritime archaeology’s interpretive methodology is generally characterised by applying normative identities to shipwrecks, ‘Greek’ or ‘Chinese’ for example, and the singular interpretation of wreck assemblages. ‘Byzantine’ wrecks are interpreted within Byzantine history, but not within the large corpus of analogous wreck material. These tendencies impact projects, as sites acquiring a known – and exiting – history are more likely to acquire support. Similarly, the UNESCO 2001 Convention protecting underwater cultural heritage also perceives a ‘verifiable’ link between the underwater cultural heritage and a modern ‘state of origin’.

The MISAMS (Modelling inhabited spaces of the ancient Mediterranean Sea) project challenged this interpretive approach by demonstrating that the discipline has no common and explicit methodology to apply normative identities, and that the identities themselves are subjective and fluid, and cannot be used reliably and consistently.

Using trends in social geography and the ability to analyse large datasets of geo-referenced material, MISAMS’ alternative presumed that the Mediterranean Sea is an inhabited landscape, and assemblages on the seafloor are a material record of the community that lived in this space. Applying a unique protocol to a dataset of 871 assemblages, MISAMS defined the catchment basin of each assemblage. The basin, in turn, represented the area in which the ship was most likely operating during its lifetime. Superimposing all polygonal basins in GIS generated patterns of activity that may be deciphered in various ways.

First, GIS can highlight the varying spatial density of the polygons, which designates areas with higher and lower levels of activity. Second, colour-coding regions of the Mediterranean basin (western Mediterranean in red; Adriatic in black; Aegean in blue and eastern Mediterranean being green) characterises activity. If an assemblage’s catchment basin only includes items from the Aegean, the entire polygon is blue; this polygon represents ‘local’ activity on a pan-Mediterranean scale. If the basin has materials from the Adriatic and the Aegean, then black and blue are combined in a proportion reflecting the proportion of materials in the assemblage itself. This darker blue polygon, extending between the two seas, represents inter-regional exchange and activity. In the resulting image, activity in the first century BCE is portrayed.

MISAMS’ results model how people used ships in their construction of the maritime space of the Mediterranean Sea. Rather than sailing across the sea, ships instead operated within smaller regions of activity. Previous scholars have posed similar ideas of localised movements, but MISAMS’ results create concrete results on a centenary scale. The resilience of this maritime regionality is also evident, despite broad political, economic or religious changes on land, and it is possible to determine how natural and artificial coastal landmarks may have delineated spaces at sea. Lastly, the scalability and transferability of this approach fosters its application in other seas around the world.

This approach is important because it represents a major step in the decoupling of maritime archaeological data from textual narratives that generate interpretive contexts. Now, maritime archaeologists have a methodology that utilises the scale and scope of the maritime archaeological dataset, and gives the discipline greater independence and resilience.

Related information


Maritime Archaeology, Geographic Information Systems (GIS), Maritime Landscapes, Mediterranean Sea, History of Archaeological Thought
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