New Research: Shipwrecks in the Supposedly "Dark Ages" Indicate Existence of a Consumer Revolution

Roundup: Talking About History

Dalya Alberge, in the London Times (June 9, 2004):

RESEARCH has overturned centuries-old theories that the Dark Ages came soon after the turbulent decline of the Roman Empire in the 4th century AD.

Sean Kingsley, a British archaeologist, has drawn up a new map of 222 shipwrecks dating from the 4th to 10th centuries AD, which shows the emergence of a consumer revolution with an epicentre in the Holy Land.

The conclusions are dramatic, he said: "Rather than dying a quick death following the supposed decline of the Roman Empire, the Mediterranean Sea became a springboard for remarkably vibrant commercial trade."

Dr Kingsley, Visiting Fellow at the Research Centre for Late Antique and Byzantine Studies at the University of Reading, said that the division of the Late Roman Empire between Rome and Constantinople created a multitude of bustling new markets as the backwaters of the eastern Mediterranean became vibrant sea lanes. Some 92 of the 222 shipwrecks as far afield as Italy, Sardinia, Israel and Eritrea have come to light in the past 12 years. They had been transporting wine, oil, fish and prefabricated churches -marble slabs complete with sculpted capitals and staircases.

He said: "Our new master map of Mediterranean shipwrecks testifies to centuries-old globalisation. Once the shackles of Rome were cast off, Eastern merchants jumped into this vacuum to eagerly sell produce how and wher-ever they saw fit; the cat could now have the cream. Rather than an impoverished society scraping a living off simple farming, a highly sophisticated consumer society evolved, more like Thatcher's Britain than some Third World state."

Having researched shipwrecks off Israel and the Mediterranean for 15 years, he concludes that the tonnes of pottery, glass and marble excavated reflect the huge volume of traffic that continued to ply the Mediterranean. He mentioned a 6th-century ship found off the coast of southern France which had an 18,000 litre (3,600-gallon) cargo of North African and Eastern wine and oil amphorae, and a 9th-century vessel found near south-west Turkey with 1,200 wine amphorae from eastern Crimea.

The evidence, he said, challenges Edward Gibbon's 18th-century epic masterpiece, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, which has influenced generations of scholars into believing that the sacking of Rome by the Goths in AD 410 ushered in the Dark Ages. Historians have assumed that, after three centuries of political, religious and economic stability, the Roman Empire entered a storm in the late 4th century AD, Dr Kingsley said.

Monumental city landscapes fragmented, environmental crises such as the bubonic plague of AD 541 wiped out up to one third of the Mediterranean's population and, from the 4th to the 8th centuries, winds of change blew new peoples on to the political map: Abbasids, Avars, Byzantines, Goths, Lombards, Umayyads and Venetians. Dr Kingsley said that, for the early archaeologist, Rome symbolised the zenith of cultural achievement, an epic civilisation bursting with monumental architecture and the finest art: "The Later Roman Empire, by contrast, was a grubby era lacking in finesse and unworthy of study. Consequently, early archaeologists usually hacked these upper archaeological levels away without record, eager to reach the eternal treasures of the Roman age." He added: "Despite the web of catastrophe and strain that beset the world of Late Antiquity, it was a testimony to the human spirit that maritime trade found a way not only to survive, but to thrive." His latest research will be published in Barbarian Seas -Late Rome to Islam on June 14, as part of an encyclopaedia of underwater archaeology.

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