Sunday, November 09, 2008

Conference: Intercultural Contacts in the Ancient Mediterranean

Intute: Arts and Humanities

Andrea Vianello summarises a few points discussed during this event held in Cairo at the end of October 2008.

Introduction to the conference: Kim Duistermaat stressed the need for archaeology to be relevant to the modern world and how this conference was an example of this. Intercultural contacts are a hot issue of our world, and both the Arab and “Western” cultures historically originated on its shores and have co-existed for millennia. Looking to a common past is therefore a good way to start a dialogue and see how different cultures can coexist. The EU supported this view sponsoring the conference. A few presenters (starting with Susan Sherratt) recalled the recent idea proposed by French President Nicolas Sarkozy of a Mediterranean Union suggesting that it happened several times in the past, and, at least culturally, the dialogue between different cultures in the Mediterranean never stopped. Maintaining the distances with the current political projects, it seems however that archaeology can make the difference in prompting dialogue and be part of the intercultural contacts that were mentioned so much during the conference.

Chronology: Prof. Manfred Bietak is running a long-term project on this issue, SCIEM, and has collected much of the available information. Results from the project are being published, but it was useful on this occasion to see them discussed. In short, Bietak has still many problems in synchronising the many relative chronologies of the eastern Mediterranean, and the joint chronology that is slowly taking shape at least using part of the available contexts disagrees with C14 results.

DNA studies: Dr. P. Perkins presented a paper reviewing the substance behind the claims that the Etruscans have an eastern origin as suggested by Herodotus. The mass media put some enthusiasm on the news, and Dr. Perkins reviewed what was the origin of that claim and what is its validity for archaeologists about one year later. The origin were two papers based on genetic (i.e. DNA) studies on modern populations. One study focused on the human population at Murlo, and a second one focused instead on bovine DNA. They prove that people and animals from the Near East eventually ended up in Italy at some point in time. Exactly when the geneticists cannot say, explained Perkins, and considering that people and animals moved around the Mediterranean well before the Etruscans (a direct connection between Near East and Italy can be made as early as the Late Bronze Age) and many times after them, the research appears pointless from an archaeological point of view.

Late Bronze Age exchange network: Diamantis Panagiotopoulos and Gert Jan van Wijngaarden in separate presentations have emphasised how dynamic the network was and how it adapted on a region by region case. Panagiotopoulos looked at the reasons for the network to exist as it did: a lower dependency on governing elites (weak ties of an open network in his language) boosted its dynamism. Van Wijngaarden instead focused on Egypt, and showed how thing changed in that area throughout the Late Bronze Age. He interpreted the Aegean-type pottery from Egypt as exotica (it is not the only region of the Mediterranean where this is the case), and could interpret the efforts to procure this pottery as strategies to acquire exotica.

Marie-Henriette Gates and Andrea Vianello (also in separate papers) considered the unifying reason that prompted and fuelled the Bronze Age network. Gates emphasised the economic reasons while Vianello, agreeing with Gates on the fundamental importance of the economic motivations for the exchanges, looked also at the social implications that the network had. The network is a very complex phenomenon indeed and it might be conceptualised as an experimental lab that gave to birth to what will become known as Mare Nostrum.

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