Saturday, 3 June 2017

Two long-distance migrants in the eighth- to tenth-century Islamic necropolis at Tauste, Spain

The current brief post is primarily concerned with two women buried in the eighth- to tenth-century Islamic necropolis at Tauste, Spain, both of whom appear to be long-distance migrants from a significantly colder and/or mountainous location than Spain. What follows consists of a brief discussion of the oxygen isotope results from this site and the areas of Eurasia where those with unusual isotope result could have potentially spent their childhoods.

The geographic distribution of areas with rainwater/drinking-water oxygen isotope values below ‑12.0‰, shown in black; the location of the eighth- to tenth-century Islamic necropolis at Tauste, Spain, is marked in red. Image: C. R. Green, based primarily on the IAEA's 2013 RCWIP model. Click here for a larger version of this map.

The Islamic necropolis at Tauste (Zaragoza, Spain), close to the northern frontier of Al-Andalus, was discovered in 2010 and contains a minimum of 4,500 people, all of whom were placed on their right-hand side and aligned to face Mecca. The burial ground has been radiocarbon dated to between the eighth and the tenth centuries AD and the remains of 31 individuals from this cemetery have been additionally subjected to multiple isotope analysis, with the aim of looking at their geographic origins, mobility and nutrition. The results of this suggest that the majority of the population buried here (c. 84%) grew up locally in the Ebro basin of northern Spain. However, five individuals had results significantly outside the expected local ranges for oxygen and/or strontium isotopes, and these outliers are of considerable interest. Two of them, both male, had tooth enamel phosphate oxygen isotope levels—δ¹⁸Op—above 19.1‰, notably higher than those of the majority of the population investigated here (16.4–18.0‰ δ¹⁸Op). As has been discussed in a number of previous posts, such results are indicative of a childhood spent in a much warmer and perhaps more coastal environment than this area of Spain and would be consistent with an origin in the very southernmost parts of Iberia, large areas of North Africa, or parts of the Near East including the northern Arabian peninsula.

Even more interesting are the two individuals, both female, who have exceptionally low oxygen isotope results: 14.48‰ δ¹⁸Op (individual T-31, aged 16–20) and 14.25‰ δ¹⁸Op (individual T-15, aged 33–45). When considering these two individuals, it is worth recalling that—as Montgomery et al have recently emphasised—there are very few environmental, biological, or cultural processes that that can result in human tooth enamel oxygen isotope values that are lower than would be expected on the basis of the consumed drinking-water. So, the question is, where in Eurasia or Africa can be found drinking-water with sufficiently depleted drinking-water oxygen isotope values to produce the tooth enamel results that these two women possess?

Oxygen isotope values versus strontium isotope values in the tooth enamel of individuals from Tauste, showing the main 'local' group and the five outliers (image: Guede et al, 2017, fig. 7, used under PLOS's CC BY 4.0 license).

With regard to this, the authors of the isotope study of the Tauste Islamic necropolis comment only that the two women in question may come 'from a colder or higher altitude region' and 'a more mountainous geographical region', and don't investigate their potential origins any further. However, a significantly greater degree of precision than this is not only arguably possible in light of the above observations, but also actually produces some rather fascinating results. The reason for this is that human tooth enamel phosphate oxygen isotope levels as dramatically low as 14.25 and 14.48‰ δ¹⁸Owould, in light of the above, appear to require a drinking-water value of below -12.2‰ to -12.6‰ δ¹⁸Odw (using the 2008 Daux et al drinking-water equation; using the alternative 2010 revised Levinson equation it would require a drinking-water oxygen isotope value of below -13.7‰ to -14.2‰ δ¹⁸Odw), something that is notably rare across much of the globe.

As can be seen from the map included at the top of this post, areas with rainwater/drinking-water values below -12.0‰ are, in fact, only widely encountered in northern Scandinavia and Russia, and are otherwise really only found in parts of the Alps, the Caucasus Mountains region, and the Hindu Kush, Tibetan Plateau and Tian Shan area in the east. Needless to say, such a very restricted distribution of candidate areas strongly suggests that the two women spent their childhoods not simply in a 'higher altitude region' as the article indicates, but were instead very likely to be long-distance migrants to northern Iberia who had potentially travelled even further over their lifetimes than the two men noted above. Which of these possible childhood residences is more credible is obviously a matter of debate. The closest locale is, of course, the Alps, and if correct it would imply that the women in question had moved from an early medieval Christian milieu to an Islamic one at some point. Next closest is Scandinavia, which is at least worth noting as not only were the Vikings occasionally active around Iberia and in the Mediterranean from the ninth-century, but slaves from more northerly parts of Europe were certainly being traded south to Iberia in this era too (with the English perhaps playing a part in this, given the tenth-century Hudud al-'Alam's reference to trade between Al-Andalus and Britain). Finally, the women could well have grown up in the Islamic world and have simply travelled a significant distance to reach Al-Andalus, perhaps from either the Caucasus Mountains area or even the Hindu Kush. Whatever the case may be, these women are thus clearly of considerable interest.

In conclusion, the isotopic results from the large eighth- to tenth-century Islamic necropolis at Tauste are worth serious consideration, with around 13% of the sampled population having clearly non-local oxygen isotope values. Whilst pinning down the childhood locales of these people with any degree of certainty remains challenging, the published results do at the very least seem to offer yet more potential evidence for there having been a notable degree of medium- to long-distance mobility and contact in early medieval Europe.

Location of Muslim and Christian archaeological sites and the Upper March or Muslim northern frontier in western Europe during the ninth century, with the location of Tauste marked (image: Guede et al, 2017, fig. 9, used under PLOS's CC BY 4.0 license).

The content of this post and page, including any original illustrations, is Copyright © Caitlin R. Green, 2017, All Rights Reserved, and should not be used without permission.

Tuesday, 21 March 2017

A very long way from home: early Byzantine finds at the far ends of the world

The following brief post is once again offered largely for the sake of interest, being concerned with the furthest limits of the distribution of early Byzantine material in Eurasia and Africa. What follows consists of a distribution map of fifth- to seventh-century AD Byzantine finds and contemporary imitations accompanied by a brief discussion and illustration of some of the items that have been found in the far west, far east, far north and far south of the 'Old World'. Needless to say, the extensive distribution of early Byzantine material shown here is of interest for a number of reasons from the perspective of this blog, not least the light that it sheds on early medieval Britain's Byzantine and Indian Ocean imports and connections discussed in previous posts.

Distribution of early Byzantine items and contemporary imitations found outside of the boundaries of the mid-sixth-century empire, along with a depiction of the empire during the reign of Justinian (c. 565 AD). For a larger version of this map, click here. The numbers refer to sections in the text, below. Note, the finds in the Kama region of Russia seem to have arrived there in the eighth to twelfth centuries from Central Asia, hence the inclusion—following Mango (ed.), Byzantine Trade, 4th-12th Centuries (Farnham, 2009), fig. 1.1—of a notional grouping of finds in a regular block to the southeast of the Aral Sea and an arrow indicating the relationship between these and the Russian finds. (Image: C. R. Green, based on the sources listed in fn. 1)

The Far West (1)

For both St Jerome, writing near Bethlehem in 396, and Gildas, writing around a century later in late fifth- or early sixth-century Britain, the British Isles lay 'virtually at the end of the world towards the west and north-west'. Despite this, there was clearly an intriguing degree of contact between the British Isles and the early Byzantine empire during the fifth to seventh centuries, as has been discussed at length in a previous post. In terms of the material evidence for this connection, this is manifested by significant finds of fifth- to sixth-century Eastern Mediterranean and North African pottery in western Britain and Ireland (with around half of the total coming from the probable royal site of Tintagel, Cornwall), alongside Byzantine coins, metalwork, and a number of burials of people whose isotope results indicate that they could well have grown up in Byzantine North Africa. It has often been suggested that the material in the west may have arrived via a different mechanism to that in the east, perhaps representing direct, official contact via the Straits of Gibraltar and the Atlantic coast vs indirect transfer via merchants and elite exchange along the rivers of mainland Europe, although finds of late sixth- to early seventh-century Byzantine coins from the Anglo-Saxon royal site of Rendlesham, Suffolk, have recently been interpreted as evidence for 'direct mercantile contacts' with the Byzantine world in eastern Britain too.

A fifth- or sixth-century Late Roman 1 amphora from the Eastern Mediterranean found on the sea bed at Plymouth; note, this amphora still has the residue in it of the red wine that it once transported (image: Ships Project/ProMare, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

A rim-sherd of Phocaean Red Slip Ware—high quality red-slipped tableware made in modern Turkey during the late fifth to early sixth century—discovered at Collierstown, Co. Meath, Ireland (image: Kelly 2010, CC).

Byzantine bowls and spoons (with Greek inscriptions) from the Eastern Mediterranean, made c. 600 AD and found in the early seventh-century Sutton Hoo ship burial, Suffolk (image: British Museum).

The Wilton Cross, incorporating a Byzantine solidus of Heraclius dating 613–32; made at an East Anglian workshop in the first half of the seventh century and found at Wilton, Norfolk (image: British Museum).

A sixth- to seventh-century early Byzantine censer, found at Glastonbury Abbey; it was found with traces of burnt incense still remaining within it and the closest parallels for the Glastonbury censer come from Sardis (Turkey), Egypt and Galilee (image: British Museum).

The Far East (2, 3, 4)

If there is a substantial amount of early Byzantine material found in Britain and Ireland, the apparent westernmost extremity of the known world in late antiquity, there is also a notable quantity at the far eastern end too. In St Jerome's letter, cited above, the rhetorical opposite extremity of the world to Britain was given as India, but Roman and Byzantine authors were certainly aware of the existence of China and parts of Southeast Asia. China was, for example, mentioned by Roman and early Byzantine writers from the first century BC onwards and it is included not only in Ptolemy's second-century AD Geography (which mentions parts of Southeast Asia too), but also on the Tabula Peutingeriana, a fascinating map that seems to have had its origins in the Late Roman period. Moreover, Roman and especially Chinese sources make several references to Hellenistic, Roman and early Byzantine entertainers, merchants and/or embassies being present in China and Southeast Asia, including a mission in 166 AD that arrived via the south coast—probably entering China via Vietnam and claiming to have been sent by the Roman emperor Andun (Antoninus Pius or Marcus Aurelius Antoninus?), although this was perhaps really a commercial action that chose to represent itself this way—and numerous seventh- and eighth-century Byzantine embassies to Tang China.

In terms of the early Byzantine material found in eastern parts of Eurasia, there is a variety of surviving artefacts ranging from glass vessels, metalwork and textiles through to gold and bronze coinage, with the latter being by far the most numerous category. The most easterly early Byzantine artefacts are actually found in Korea and Japan ('2' on the map, above). The former has seen finds of glass vessels from the late fifth- to early sixth-century AD royal tombs at Silla, Korea, some of which appear to have actually been made in the early Byzantine empire and others of which are believed to be imitative of Late Roman/Early Byzantine forms, whilst in Japan there have been not only finds of early Byzantine 'Levantine 1' glass beads (probably made on the coast of present-day northern Israel) from fifth-century AD tombs, but the important mid-eighth-century AD imperial Shōsōin Repository at Nara, Japan, is also reported to contain a number of Byzantine items including a cushion cover made in early Byzantine Syria. Interestingly, neither Japan nor Korea is mentioned in Roman or Byzantine sources, although a recent isotopic and mitochondrial DNA study of burials on the Imperial estate at Vagnari, southern Italy, has indicated that one of the adults buried there in the first or second century AD could have had Japanese ancestry, given that 'all modern mtDNA matches to her available haplotype sequence are from Japan'.(2)

In addition to this material from the very far east, we also have a notable quantity of primarily sixth- to early seventh-century Byzantine gold coins and sixth- to eighth-century imitations from tombs in China, along with a number of finds of early Byzantine metalwork and glassware (and imitations of the same) from this country too. Both this material and that discussed in the preceding paragraph is often thought to have arrived via Central Asia along the 'Silk Road', especially given the presence of a number of similar finds in areas such as Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, although some of the Byzantine items found close to the Chinese coast and in Korea and Japan could have alternatively arrived by the less-discussed southern, maritime 'branch' of the Silk Road instead. Certainly, earlier Roman and Greek mariners made use of this route, and early Byzantine written sources moreover appear to make reference to it, whilst finds of fifth- to seventh-century Sasanian glassware in Japan are argued to have probably arrived there via the sea route. With regard to this maritime 'road', another relevant find may well be that of a probably sixth-century Byzantine lamp found in Thailand (marked as '3' on the map, above), and it is worth noting in this context that an East Javanese millefiori bead of sixth-century date has been found at the Byzantine Red Sea port of Berenike too (curiously, such beads are very rare indeed outside of East Java, with the only other concentration really being in the Silla tombs of Korea, mentioned above!).

Finally, thousands of fifth- to seventh-century Byzantine gold and bronze coins and imitations are known from India and Sri Lanka ('4' on the map), accompanied by fifth- to sixth-century amphorae on coastal and inland sites in western India. Such finds support the textual evidence for continued Indo-Roman trade and/or interaction via the Red Sea beyond the more frequently discussed Early Roman era into the Late Roman/Early Byzantine period, as do both the Indo-Pacific imports found at sites such as Byzantine Berenike and the recent isotopic analysis of burials of the fourth- to fifth-century AD at the Byzantine Red Sea port of Aila (Jordan), which indicates that people from areas beyond western Asia and North Africa were living there then, including some who had potentially grown up in the Indus Valley.

A silk cushion cover made in Byzantine Syria and preserved in the eighth-century imperial Shōsōin Repository at Nara, Japan, given to the monastery by the Emperor Shomu in 754; see H. B. Feltham, 'Lions, silks and silver: the influence of Sasanian Persia', Sino-Platonic Papers, 206 (2010), who notes that the cushion represents a copy of Sasanian motifs by 'the Byzantines in Syria' (p. 18). (Image via Pinterest; also in Feltham, 2010, fig, 10, CC)

Early Byzantine glass and imitations recovered from late fifth- to early sixth-century Silla tombs in Korea. (Image via Pinterest)

A gold imitation of a sixth-century Byzantine coin of Justinian I, struck on one side only, found in the Astana cemetery, China (image: British Museum). An example of a genuine Byzantine coin found in China is this mint gold Byzantine solidus of Anastasius (491–518), found in tomb of Emperor Jiemin (d. 532), Northern Wei dynasty.

A probably sixth-century Byzantine bronze lamp from Egypt, found at Pong Tuk, Thailand (image:

A copper-alloy coin of Justin II (565–78), found in southern India or Sri Lanka and collected by Colin Mackenzie in the early nineteenth century (image: British Museum).

The Far North (5)

Turning to the extremity of the world that St Jerome termed 'the frozen zone of the North', there is once again a number of interesting finds dating from the early Byzantine period. The most northerly material mapped here comes from northern Sweden, where a number of sixth- to seventh-century bronze Byzantine coins have been found as part of a wider trend of Hellenistic to early Byzantine coin finds in this region. These have been most recently studied by Zachrisson, who argues that they may well have arrived contemporaneously as part of the trade in northern fur products between Scandinavia and the Mediterranean world, and that they represent a phenomenon distinct from that which carried significant quantities of fifth- to mid-sixth-century Byzantine gold solidi and other material to the Baltic coast, islands and southern Scandinavia.

Looking east of the Baltic, there are other very northerly finds of early Byzantine material known from Estonia and Russia. The Estonian finds consist of two late fifth- to early sixth-century silver bowls discovered at Kriimani and Varnja in eastern Estonia; these are thought to be most probably direct imports from the south, rather than items that originally came to southern Scandinavia and were then transported eastwards, and can perhaps be once more associated with the fur trade or possibly the amber trade. The Russian finds come from the Kama region and consist of around two dozen pieces of early Byzantine silver plate, although in this case many of the finds come from features dating from the eighth to twelfth centuries AD, are found with Sasanian silver, and/or bear Sogdian, Chorasmian and other graffito. In light of this, it has been argued that these early Byzantine silver objects were originally transported to Central Asia before being subsequently re-exported to northern Russia.

The late fifth- to early sixth-century Byzantine bowl found at Kriimani, Estonia (image: Estonian Journal of Archaeology, CC BY-NC 4.0)

A gold solidus of the Byzantine emperor Anastasius (491–518) found on the Swedish island of Öland; pierced for suspension (image: SHM, CC BY 2.5 SE).

An early seventh-century Byzantine silver gilded dish with Silenus and a Maenad; made in Constantinople, 613–629/30, with seals from the reign of Heraclius on the rear, and found in 1878 near Solikamsk, Perm, Russia (image: Internet Archive, Public Domain; a copyrighted colour photograph of this dish is available here).

The Far South (6, 7)

Looking finally to the lands of 'burning heat' to the far south of the early Byzantine empire, there are yet more intriguing finds to note. The first find is located almost on the Equator and comes from the middle of the Indian Ocean on the island of Gan, the largest island of the Maldives, where a cache of fifth- to sixth-century Byzantine gold coins were discovered in 1986 as part of investigations into a sixth-century and later Buddhist monastery located there. Needless to say, this stupa hoard should be almost certainly considered alongside the southern Indian and Sri Lankan finds discussed above. With regard to the Maldives, it is incidentally worth noting that there are references to people from these islands within the Roman empire in the fourth century AD from Ammianus Marcellinus and Philostorgios, and a passing mention seems to be made by Cosmas Indicopleustes in the sixth century, whilst Tang dynasty documents record two visits of Maldivians to China in the seventh century.

Even more southerly are the finds of early Byzantine materials made along the East African coast of Tanzania, well within the southern hemisphere (marked as '6' on the map). The earliest recorded finds from here are Byzantine coins of Justin I (518–27), Justinian I (527–65) and Heraclius (610–41) found on Pemba Island, part of the Zanzibar Archipelago, and the main coast opposite at Tanga. Although these coins have been subject of some scepticism, recent archaeological work on the Tanga coast offers a degree of support, indicating that there was probably long-distance trading taking place here in the pre-Islamic period and noting that this area is likely to be the location of the trading centre known to Graeco-Romans as Toniki. Even more significantly, excavations on Zanzibar island at the Unguja Ukuu site, just to the south of the Tanga coast, have revealed the presence of two pieces of early Byzantine fine ware pottery made in fifth- to early sixth-century Egypt and some probable early Byzantine glass from a level radiocarbon dated to c. 500 AD, whilst the north coast of Zanzibar has seen a find of fifth-century Byzantine amphorae sherds from the Fukuchani site. Moreover, further relevant finds been made a little way down the East African coast, close to the probable location of the southernmost 'metropolis' and trading port known to the Romans, Rhapta (mentioned by the Periplus and Ptolemy, and reportedly located in 2016 by divers off Mafia Island, Tanzania, who found the remains of five to six metre high walls associated with Roman-style ceramics and tile), including pieces of glassware that are comparable to examples from Fayum, Egypt, and were apparently made in sixth-century Syria, these having been recovered from a site at Kivinja that is radiocarbon dated to the fifth to sixth centuries AD.

Turning lastly to West Africa, recent work has again revealed evidence for the presence of probable early Byzantine material and contemporary imitations in the Sahara itself and also in parts of Sub-Saharan West Africa. The finds from within the Sahara are associated with the Garamantes, who made use of elaborate underground irrigation systems known as foggara in the Fezzan area of Libya in order to create a prosperous civilisation in the Sahara desert, including several small planned towns with a capital, Garama, that at its peak was home to around 4,000 people with a further 6,000 in surrounding satellite villages. Early Byzantine items recovered from here include fourth- to fifth-century AD glass vessels from the the heartland of the Garamantian kingdom—the Saharan oasis belt of the Wadi al-Ajal—which were made out of Egyptian HIMT glass, and part of a late sixth- or early seventh-century North African amphora recovered from the Garamantian fortified village of Aghram Nadharif in south-western Libya (a comparable example was excavated from early Byzantine Leptis Magna). Beyond the Sahara in Burkina Faso and Mali (marked as '7' on the map) there are yet more relevant items which presumably arrived in Sub-Saharan West Africa via the Garamantian kingdom. These include cowrie shells dated to the fifth to seventh century (which must have come from the Red Sea or further afield), carnelian and glass beads imported from both early Byzantine Egypt/the Levant and the Sasanian Middle East, and copper-alloy items of the fifth to seventh centuries made from metal that was imported from the Eastern Mediterranean and Britain, all recovered from a fourth- to seventh-century cemetery site at Kissi, Burkina Faso. Likewise, there have been finds of amphorae rims which seem to be imitative of North African amphorae of Late Roman/early Byzantine date (up to the seventh century) from three sites in Mali, to the west of Kissi, one from a context dated c. 450–600 AD.

A gold coin of the emperor Leo I (d. 474) found on Gan, the largest island of the Maldives; this is one of several fifth- to sixth-century Byzantine coins found in a container buried on a monastic site believed to have been established in the sixth century AD (image: NCLHR, reportedly Public Domain).

Ptolemy's map of East Africa from a fifteenth-century copy, with the 'metropolis' of Rhapta marked along with other trading sites along the east coast down to Tanzania that were known to the Romans (image: Wikimedia Commons).

A selection of beads found at Kissi, Burkina Faso. Carnelian beads like those shown here were found in the fifth- to seventh-century grave 10 at Kissi 3 and are believed to have been manufactured in the Byzantine Near East/Egypt; chemical analysis of the glass beads indicates that they were made using glass from the Near and Middle East, with the majority actually being made within the Sasanian Empire. (Image: B. Voss/Afriques, CC)


1.     The map included here is based on M. M. Mango (ed.), Byzantine Trade, 4th-12th Centuries: The Archaeology of Local, Regional and International Trade (Farnham, 2009), figs. 1.1 and 15.4, with a significant number of modifications and additions. Sources utilised include the following: K. C. MacDonald, 'A view from the South: sub-Saharan evidence for contacts between North Africa, Mauritania and the Niger, 1000 BC–AD 700', in A. Dowler & E. R. Galvin, Money, Trade and Trade Routes in Pre-Islamic North Africa (London, 2011), pp. 72–82; S. Magnavita, 'Initial encounters: seeking traces of ancient trade connections between West Africa and the wider world', Afriques, 4 (2013), online at; S. Magnavita, 'Sahelian crossroads: some aspects on the Iron Age sites of Kissi, Burkina Faso', in S. Magnavita et al (eds.), Crossroads / Carrefour Sahel: Cultural and Technological Developments in First Millennium BC/AD West Africa (Frankfurt, 2009), pp. 79–104; T. R. Fenn et al, 'Contacts between West Africa and Roman North Africa: archaeometallurgical results from Kissi, northeastern Burkina Faso', in S. Magnavita et al (eds.), Crossroads / Carrefour Sahel, pp. 119–46; C. N. Duckworth, 'From the Mediterranean to the Libyan Sahara: chemical analyses of Garamantian glass', Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports, 7 (2015), 633–9 at p. 635; M. Liverani (ed.), Aghram Nadharif: the Barkat Oasis (Sha'abiya of Ghat, Libyan Sahara) in Garamantian Times. The Archaeology of Libyan Sahara, Volume II (Firenze, 2005), pp. 242, 248, 368 ; R. R. Darley, Indo-Byzantine Exchange, 4th to 7th Centuries: a Global History (University of Birmingham PhD Thesis, 2013); N. Mohamed, 'Maldivian seafaring in the pre-Portuguese period', National Centre for Linguistic and Historical Research, Republic of Maldives (2005), online at; S. Moorhead, 'Early Byzantine copper coins found in Britain – a review in light of new finds recorded with the Portable Antiquities Scheme', in O. Tekin (ed.), Ancient History, Numismatics and Epigraphy in the Mediterranean World (Istanbul, 2009), pp. 263–74; A. I. Zachrisson, 'Vittnesbörd om pälshandel? Ett arkeologiskt perspektiv på romerska bronsmynt funna i norra Sverige', Fornvännen, 105 (2010), 187–202; R. Hobbs, Late Roman Precious Metal Deposits, c. AD 200-700: Changes Over Time and Space (University of London PhD Thesis, 1997); P. Somogyi, 'New remarks on the flow of Byzantine coins in Avaria and Walachia during the second half of the seventh century', in F. Curta & R. Kovalev (eds.), The Other Europe in the Middle Ages: Avars, Bulgars, Khazars and Cumans (Leiden, 2008), pp. 83–149; F. Curta & A. Gândilă, 'Hoards and hoarding patterns in the Early Byzantine Balkans', Dumbarton Oaks Papers, 65–66 (2011–2012), 45–111; E. Stolyarik, Essays on Monetary Circulation in the North Western Black Sea Region in the Late Roman and Byzantine Periods (Odessa, 1993); H. Horsnaes, 'Late Roman and Byzantine coins found in Denmark', in M. Wołoszyn (ed.), Byzantine Coins in Central Europe between the 5th and the 10th century (Krakow, 2009), pp. 231–70; M. Woloszyn, 'Byzantine coins from the 6th and the 7th c. from Poland and their East–Central European context. Ways and phases, context and function', in A. Bursche et al (eds.), Roman Coins outside the Empire. Ways and Phases, Context and Function (Wetteren, 2008), pp. 195–224; D. Quast & U. Tamla, 'Two fifth century AD Byzantine silver bowls from Estonia', Estonian Journal of Archaeology, 14 (2010), 99–122; A. Naymark, Sogdiana, its Christians and Byzantium: a Study of Artistic and Cultural Connections in Late Antiquity and Early Middle Ages (Indiana University PhD Thesis, 2001); R. Hobbs, 'Roman coins from Merv, Turkmenistan', Oxford Journal of Archaeology, 14 (1995), 97–102; Lin Ying, 'Solidi in China and monetary culture along the Silk Road', The Silk Road, 3.2 (2005), 16–20; J. Drauschke, '"Byzantine" and "oriental" imports in the Merovingian Empire from the second half of the fifth to the beginning of the eighth century', in A. Harris (ed.), Incipient Globalisation? Long-Distance Contacts in the Sixth Century (Oxford, 2007), pp. 53–73; P. Bartlett et al, 'The Byzantine gold coinage of Spania (Justinian I to Heraclius)', Revue Numismatique, 6 (2011), 351–401; B. Ager, 'Byzantine influences on Visigothic jewellery', in C. Entwistle and N. Adams (eds.), Intelligible Beauty: Recent Research on Byzantine Jewellery (London, 2010), pp. 72–82; B. M. Serrano, 'Old and new coins in Southern Hispania in the 6th century AD', in J. Chameroy & P-M. Guihard, Produktion und Recyceln von Münzen in der Spätantike (Mainz, 2016), pp. 139–53; C. Morrisson, 'Regio dives in omnibus bonis ornata: the African economy from the Vandals to the Arab conquest in the light of coin evidence', in S. T. Stevens & J. P. Conant (eds.), North Africa under Byzantium and Early Islam (Washington, D.C., 2016), pp. 173–98; C. Kwangshik, 'Silla Art and the Silk Road', International Journal of Korean History, 19 (2014), 1–22; S. Lee & D. P. Leidy, Silla: Korea's Golden Kingdom (New York, 2013); B. Borrell, 'The early Byzantine lamp from Pong Tuk', Journal of the Siam Society, 96 (2008), 1–26; H. Feltham, 'Lions, silks and silver: the influence of Sasanian Persia', Sino-Platonic Papers, 206 (2010), 1–51; N. Chittick, 'Six early coins from near Tanga', Azania, 1 (1966), 156–7; C. Ntandu, 'The find of ancient trade materials on the northern coast of Tanzania', online at; N. Boivin et al, 'East Africa and Madagascar in the Indian Ocean world', Journal of World Prehistory, 26 (2013), 213–81; A. M. Juma, 'The Swahili and the Mediterranean worlds: pottery of the late Roman period from Zanzibar', Antiquity, 70 (1996), 148–54; A. Juma, Unguja Ukuu on Zanzibar: an Archaeological Study of Early Urbanism (Uppsala, 2004); F. A. Chami, 'The Early Iron Age on Mafia Island and its relationship with the mainland', Azania, 34 (1999), 1–10; D. T. Potts, 'The circulation of foreign coins within Arabia and Arabian coins outside the Peninsula in the pre-Islamic era', in M. Huth and P. G. van Alfen (eds.), Coinage of the Caravan Kingdoms (New York, 2010), 65–82; T. Power, The Red Sea from Byzantium to the Caliphate: AD 500–1000 (Oxford, 2012); G. Duby, Map of 'L'empire byzantin à l'avènement de Justinien I (527 EC) et à sa mort (565 EC)', Grand Atlas Historique (Larousse, 1995–2004), available on Wikimedia Commons, with slight modifications.
2.     T. L. Prowse et al, 'Stable isotope and mitochondrial DNA evidence for geographic origins on a Roman estate at Vagnari (Italy)', in H. Eckardt (ed.), Roman Diasporas: Arachaeological Approaches to Mobility and Diversity in the Roman Empire (Portsmouth RI, 2010), pp. 175–97 at pp. 186, 189, 191, quotation at pp. 189–91; T. L. Prowse, 'Isotopes and mobility in the ancient Roman world', in L. de Ligt & L. E. Tacoma (eds.), Migration and Mobility in the Early Roman Empire (Leiden, 2016), pp. 205–34 at p. 194.

The content of this post and page, including any original illustrations, is Copyright © Caitlin R. Green, 2017, All Rights Reserved, and should not be used without permission. 

Saturday, 25 February 2017

Global Britain? A brief chronology of an awareness of Britain's existence

The following quick post is really just a bit of fun, designed to look briefly at the potential evidence for a spreading awareness of Britain's existence outside of Northwestern/Atlantic Europe in the period through until the fourteenth century AD (just before the 'Age of Discovery'). The map below plots some of the possible evidence for such an awareness, both in terms of the earliest literary and cartographic references to Britain (in black) and some potential literary and archaeological evidence for the physical presence of people from Britain in those areas (in red).

Map showing some of the earliest literary and cartographic references to Britain (in black) and potential evidence for the physical presence of people from Britain in areas outside of Northwestern/Atlantic Europe (in red). Image: C. R. Green, using a base map from Wikimedia Commons.
600 BCMarseille and the Greeks. The earliest literary evidence for a wider awareness of Britain is usually thought to be an early Greek periplooi of perhaps around 600 BC that described the coast from Massalia—Marseille—to the English Channel. This 'Massaliote Periplus' seems to have mentioned the lands of the Hierni and Albiones (Ireland and Britain) and was preserved, via an intervening lost Hellenistic geographical work, in Avienus' fourth-century AD Ora maritima. How much earlier an awareness of Britain may have existed in the northern Mediterranean is impossible to say, but there are certainly items of Mediterranean origin known from Bronze Age Britain, such as a Sicilian strumento of c. 1200–1100 BC that was found on the sea-floor at Salcombe, Devon, along with other Bronze Age items from a probable twelfth-century BC shipwreck.
500 BCCarthage and the Phoenicians. The earliest textual evidence for a Carthaginian/Phoenician awareness of Britain relates to Himilco's voyage north from the Pillars of Herakles (Straits of Gibraltar) in around 500 BC, which is believed to have led to him visiting both Britain and Ireland. A record of Himilco's voyage is once again preserved in Rufus Festus Avienus' Ora maritima, who ascribes his knowledge of it to ancient Punic sources, and it is also very briefly mentioned in Pliny's Natural History (2.169). A variety of archaeological and place-name evidence is now available to support the idea of a degree of contact between pre-Roman Britain and the Carthaginians, as has been discussed in a number of earlier posts. How much earlier than c. 500 BC there was a Carthaginian/Phoenician awareness of Britain is open to question, but it is worth noting that several people buried in the ninth century BC on the Kent coast have oxygen isotope results strongly indicative of an early life spent in North Africa.
430–300 BCGreece and the eastern Mediterranean. Whilst a knowledge of the existence of Britain may well have spread to Greeks in the eastern Mediterranean from an early date, the first textual evidence for this comes from the late fifth or fourth centuries BC. The earliest potential witness is found in Herodotus of Halicarnassus' reference to the Kassiterides ('Tin Islands') in the far west of Europe in around 430 BC, assuming that this name does indeed refer to the Scilly Isles/Cornwall, as D. W. Roller has most recently suggested. Alternatively, Pytheas of Massalia's (Marseille) first-hand account of his late fourth-century BC voyage to Britain was probably circulating in the eastern Mediterranean soon after its completion, as it is mentioned by both Timaeus (b. c. 350 BC), who wrote his Histories in Athens, and Dicaearchus of Messana (d. c. 285 BC), who similarly lived and wrote in Greece.
A British enamelled terret ring from a horse harness, found at Fayum—ancient Crocodilopolis/Arsinoë—in Egypt (image: British Museum).
245 BCAlexandria, Egypt. The late fourth-century BC voyage of Pytheas of Massalia to Britain and beyond was apparently mentioned by Eratosthenes of Cyrene, a librarian at the Library of Alexandria, in his Geographika, published in c. 245 BC or after. As to whether there was any independent or earlier knowledge of Britain in Egypt, this is open to debate, but it is worth noting that one of the people buried on the coast of Kent in the ninth century BC and another buried there in the fourth century BC had oxygen isotope results that strongly suggest a childhood spent in the Nile Valley. Later evidence for a continuing awareness of Britain and/or presence of people from Britain in Egypt include a find of a British enamelled terret ring from a horse harness at Fayum, Egypt, thought likely to have been carried to Egypt by someone who served in a military unit in Britain during the second century AD; a Byzantine record of a seventh-century maritime journey from Alexandria to Britain and back (see below under 550 AD); and Benjamin de Tudela's medieval notice of the existence of a funduq or commercial inn for English merchants at Alexandria in the mid-twelfth century.
134 ADSyria. Titus Quintius Petrullus, a centurion from Britain, was buried at Bosra, southern Syria, sometime in the second century AD; he was probably posted here during the reign of Hadrian as a result of the Jewish War of 134 AD. It is likely that there was an awareness of Britain in the region of Syria well before this, given its pre-Roman Phoenician and Greek connections; certainly, Malcolm Todd has followed Milne and Goodchild in believing that Syrian/eastern Mediterranean merchants could well have occasionally visited and directly traded with pre-Roman Britain on the basis of a significant number of Seleucid and other eastern Mediterranean Greek autonomous coins found along the south coast of Britain.
175 ADMorocco. A centurion named Aurelius Nectoreca was based in Morocco in reign of Commodus (161-92 AD) and dedicated two altars there; he was a centurion in the vexillatio Brittonum stationed in Volubilis in Mauretania Tingitana, and both this posting and his name suggest that he was, in fact, a Briton. It is also worth noting that two very worn Flavian-era Romano-British brooches have been found at or close to the Roman cities of Volubilis and Thamusida in Morocco, as discussed in a previous post. Likewise of potential interest is the memorial set up to Titus Flavius Virilis by his wife Lollia Bodicca at Lambaesis, Algeria, in c. 200 AD, given that one or both of them are likely to have been British in origin. With regard to the possibility of earlier contacts between this area and Britain, we should note both the potential Punic links discussed above—under c. 500 BC—and the finds of second-century BC coins of the great Numidian kings Masinissa (202–148 BC) and Micipsa (148–118 BC) that have been made along the southern and western coasts of Britain, especially as the latter are now usually considered to be genuine pre-Roman losses in Britain.
Map of the Roman-era Periplus of the Erythraean Sea showing trade-routes down the African coast and across the Indian Ocean; the locations producing Anglo-Saxon-style beads are marked with stars and the location of the Tanzanian port of Rhapta has been updated from the original map as per Chami, 1994 and recent discoveries off the Tanzanian coast; for a larger version of this map, click here (image: C. R. Green, modified from a map on Wikimedia Commons by George Tsiagalakis, CC-BY-SA-4).
550 AD?Tanzania? A small number of beads have been found on the East African coast at Dar es Salaam and Kisiju, Tanzania, which have been considered to be early Anglo-Saxon in origin by a number of researchers, including Richard Hodges and Barbara Green, as was discussed in a previous post. Given their likely origin, their rarity within their local context, and their findspots on the coast in an area that had known trading links to the Mediterranean, it has been suggested by Joan Harding that that these beads could have been personal possessions carried by a small number of individuals from Europe, perhaps travelling back along the trade routes that brought elephant ivory, cowrie shells, garnets and other goods from the Red Sea and beyond to fifth- to seventh-century England, although this suggestion does need to be treated with a sensible degree of caution. In this context, it is perhaps worth noting that there is certainly evidence for the presence of people from the England in the Mediterranean region, at least, during the sixth century AD and shortly after, which may be relevant, including as part of a Frankish delegation to Constantinople in the mid-sixth century and as slaves at Rome and Marseille in the later sixth century, whilst an Anglo-Saxon merchant named Botto was definitely based at Marseille during the eighth century AD (Annales Petaviani, s.a. 790). Likewise of potential interest is an increasing body of textual, archaeological and isotope evidence for the presence of people from North Africa and the eastern Mediterranean in fifth- to seventh-century Britain, including a reference in the seventh-century Life of St John the Almsgiver to a ship from Alexandria, Egypt, visiting Britain in around 610–20 AD and exchanging a cargo of corn for one of tin.
817 ADBaghdad, Iraq. Britain and Ireland are mentioned by Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi, a Persian scholar working in Baghdad, in his Kitāb Ṣūrat al-Arḍ or Geography (a reworking and updating of Ptolemy's second-century Geography). According to D. M. Dunlop, this work was completed in around 817 AD and represents the earliest Arabic reference to Britain, with places mentioned including the island itself, London and York.
883 AD?India? According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle entry for 883 AD, King Alfred sent Sigehelm and Æthelstan with alms to the shrines of 'St Thomas in Indea [India] and to St Bartholomew', fulfilling a promise made 'when they besieged the raiding-army at London' (MSS D, E & F; also mentioned by William of Malmesbury and other later authors). This passage has, needless to say, been the subject of considerable interest. Some, following MSS B & C, have suggested that we might see the dominant form of India as a mistranscription of Judea. However, whilst possible, this is by no means certain nor is it the most common interpretation, and St Thomas and St Bartholomew were indeed commonly believed to have been martyred in India in tales that were current in Anglo-Saxon England, as the ninth-century Old English Martyrology attests. As such, the claimed visit to India by Alfred's men is cautiously included here.
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle entry for 883 AD in MS F, Cotton MS Domitian A VIII, f. 55v, which refers to Alfred sending alms to the St Thomas and St Bartholomew in India (image: British Library).
913 ADPersia. Ibn Rustah, a Persian scholar and geographer from Isfahan, Iran, includes a detailed passage on Britain in his early tenth-century Arabic Book of Precious Records. This passage was discussed at length in a previous post and arguably demonstrates a knowledge of the Anglo-Saxon 'heptarchy', early Byzantine contacts with Britain, and the Anglo-Saxon trading city of Lundenwic (London). Ibn Rustah's information on these matters derived ultimately from Harun ibn Yahya, a Syrian who was probably captured at Ascalon (Ashkelon, Israel) sometime around AD 886 by Byzantine pirates and was then kept prisoner at Constantinople for a period, before being released and subsequently travelling to Rome.
925 ADNovgorod, Russia. A Late Saxon strap-end has been excavated from an early to mid-tenth-century level at Riurikovo Gorodishche, near Novgorod, Russia which is virtually identical to examples from Whitby Abbey and is considered by Jonathan Shepard to be indicative of the presence of an Anglo-Saxon individual travelling along 'the Way from the Varangians to the Greeks' either to or from Constantinople. Certainly, there is textual evidence for the presence of people from the Byzantine Empire in tenth- and eleventh-century England, backed up by finds of coins and seals, and some of these may well have travelled by this route, whilst in the eleventh century several English royal exiles are known to have found their way to the royal court of the Rus', including the sons of King Edmund Ironside (d. 1016) and Harold Godwinson's daughter Gytha of Wessex. Other early evidence for the probable presence of people from Britain in what is now Russia includes the textual and place-name evidence for Anglo-Saxon exiles from Norman England having founded a 'New England' on the north-eastern Black Sea coast and Crimean peninsula at the end of the eleventh century; as was discussed in a previous post, this Nova Anglia potentially survived as late as the thirteenth or fourteenth century and the associated names continued to appear on maps of the region well into the eighteenth century
982 ADAfghanistan. The late tenth-century Persian Hudud al-'Alam, 'The Regions of the World', was written in 982 AD for a prince in north-western Afghanistan. In addition to a general statement that 'there are twelve islands called Briṭāniya, of which some are cultivated and some desolate. On them are found numerous mountains, rivers, villages, and different mines', the author of the Hudud al-'Alam also notes that Britannia (Bariṭīniya) is 'the last land (shahr) of Rūm on the coast of the Ocean. It is an emporium (bārgāh) of Rūm and Spain.' This text was discussed in a previous post and is mainly derivative of earlier Arabic works; however, the statement that Britain is an emporium of the Byzantine Empire (Rūm) and Spain is found nowhere else, suggesting that the author possessed additional sources of information now lost to us.
A mid-fourteenth-century depiction of the Battle of Legnica, 1241, fought between the Mongols and European knights in Poland (image: Wikimedia Commons).
1254 ADKarakorum, Mongolia. The Flemish Franciscan missionary and explorer William of Rubruck (d. c. 1293) encountered a man of English origin whilst visiting Mongolia in 1254 AD. The man in question, named Basil, was living at Karakorum (near Kharkhorin, Mongolia), the capital of the Mongol Empire between 1235 and 1260, and is described as 'the son of an Englishman', although he himself was apparently born in Hungary; he is also probably the 'nephew of a bishop' that William later mentions that he met at Karakorum and who he states was captured by the Mongols at Belgrade. With regard to this, it is worth noting that Basil is not the only Englishman known to have been living among the Mongols during the mid-thirteenth century. Ivo of Narbonne, for example, reported in a letter copied by Matthew Paris in his Chronica maiora that the 'prince of Dalmatia' captured eight fugitives in 1242 during the surprise withdrawal of the Mongols from Central Europe, just as they were at the gates of Vienna, and that these captives included 'an Englishman' who
had twice come as an envoy and interpreter from the king of Tattars to the king of Hungary, and plainly threatened and warned them of the evils which afterwards happened, unless he should give up himself and his kingdom to be subject to the Tattars. 
This English envoy of the Mongols (Tatars/'Tartars') was apparently an exile from England who had lost all he owned to gambling at Acre, Israel, and then wandered 'in a shameful state of want' further east into modern Iraq and beyond before the Mongols persuaded him to join them due to his apparent skill with languages, at which point he then travelled with them until he was finally captured in Austria. Given that he had clearly travelled huge distances with the Mongols and most especially his role as envoy and interpreter for the Great Khan of the Mongol Empire, it seems likely that he was an earlier English visitor than Basil to the Mongol capital of Karakorum, Mongolia, although no positive proof of this is currently available.
        In addition to individual English people who were living amongst the Mongols on their own account or as slaves, there were also direct diplomatic contacts between the Mongol rulers and the English during the thirteenth century that are of note in terms of demonstrating a Mongol awareness of England, although much of this evidence admittedly relates to the Mongol Ilkhanate that stretched from Iraq to northern Afghanistan. Of especial note here, perhaps, is the potential evidence for unidentified Mongol envoys ('Tartars') actually crossing the Channel to visit England in 1264, much to the apparent disgruntlement of the papal legate Guy Foulques—the future Pope Clement IV—who was left waiting in Boulogne for his own authorisation to cross! Likewise, in 1287–8 the Turkic/Chinese Christian monk and diplomat Rabban Sauma, originally from Beijing, China, visited Europe as an emissary of the Mongol Ilkhanate and met with King Edward I of England in Gascony, and yet another Mongol envoy named Buscarello de Ghizolfi—a Genoese adventurer who had settled in Persia—visited London in January 1290, accompanied by three squires who were probably Mongols. As to envoys dispatched in the opposite direction, the regime at Acre sent the English Dominican friar David of Ashby eastwards in 1260 (he returned in 1274, accompanying the Mongol embassy that attended the Second Council of Lyon in that year) and King Edward I sent Geoffrey of Langley with Buscarello de Ghizolfi to the Mongol Ilkhanate capital of Tabriz, Iran on a diplomatic mission in 1291.
1313 ADBeijing, China. The date given here is that of a spring visit to England by an ambassador of 'the emperor of the Tartars', as described in the royal household records for Edward II. Jacques Paviot suggests that this Mongol envoy may have actually been representing the Great Khan in China, rather than the Middle Eastern Mongol il-khan, something supported by the fact that he was one William of Villeneuve (note, the Mongol Empire had included parts of northern China since the first half of the thirteenth century and had subsequently given rise to the Yuan Dynasty of China, 1271–1368, founded by the Mongol ruler Kublai Khan). This Franciscan missionary was one of seven suffragan bishops consecrated by Pope Clement V in 1307 to serve in the newly created archdiocese of Beijing, China (Khanbaliq), at the request of John of Montecorvino, the founder of the Chinese mission in the late thirteenth century. William is usually assumed to have made it to India but not to have carried on to China with the others, as he is said to be next recorded at Avignon, France, in 1318, but this seems not to take account of the English record of his activities, which indicates that he actually returned to Europe as a Mongol envoy in 1313, hence Jacques Paviot's suggestion. In this light, it is worth noting that Edward II also sent letters to several eastern rulers including the emperor of China in May 1313, and that he mentions and commends William of Villeneuve in these, something that might add further weight to the notion that William returned to Europe in 1313 as an envoy of the Great Khan in China and which is, in any case, an event that is of interest in its own right in terms of potentially securely demonstrating an awareness of England's existence in Beijing.
        As to whether there was any earlier awareness of Britain and/or of people from the British Isles in China, this seems plausible. Not only had the Mongol Empire—which clearly had direct diplomatic relations with England and at least some contact with individual English people, as noted above—controlled parts of China from the earlier thirteenth century onwards and all of China from the 1270s, but the establishment of the Mongol Yuan dynasty in China also seems to have led to Islamic geographical knowledge becoming available there (as witnessed by, for example, the lost early fourteenth-century Chinese map of Li Zemin and the derivative but surviving fifteenth-century Korean Kangnido map, which includes fairly detailed representations of Europe, Africa and the Middle East along with Chinese transcriptions of Persianized Arabic place-names for those regions). Needless to say, Britain was certainly known to Islamic geographers from the ninth-century AD onwards, as was noted above, just as it was too to the Christian missionaries who were present in China from 1294 until 1368, another potential additional conduit for an earlier awareness of Britain's existence. Whether there was any knowledge of the British Isles and/or individuals from them significantly earlier than this—in, say, the Roman and early Byzantine eras when there was a notable degree of contact between the Roman and Chinese empires—is impossible to say. However, there are certainly some possible burials of East Asian individuals known from Roman London which are potentially intriguing in this light.
Europe, North Africa (with a large central lake/sea) and the Middle East on the Honkōji copy of the Korean Kangnido map of 1402; 100 Chinese transcriptions of Persianized Arabic place-names are shown in Europe; note, the Mediterranean is not shaded on this map due to an error by a copyist at some point (image: Wikimedia Commons).

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