Considering Globalization in the Ancient Mediterranean



Recently, two events of scholarly and cultural significance here in Chicago centered on the intriguing and much debated subject matter of globalization. Wearing my archaeological hat, I first attended a symposium at the University of Chicago, titled “The Connected Iron Age: Interregional networks in the Eastern Mediterranean.” We explored this topic based on new findings and their interpretations from the Black Sea and Cyprus to the Greek Islands and beyond. In this context I decided to also see the ongoing and inspiring exhibition at the Field Museum, Ancient Mediterranean Cultures in Contact, that seeks to demonstrate “what happens when people trade, travel, and exchange ideas in the ancient world and today” by showcasing objects from its Greek, Roman, Egyptian, and Etruscan collections. Prominently displayed texts suggest the manifold dynamics of influence, change, and exchange among these neighboring, yet discrete, civilizations.


Roman necklace.


Etruscan bronze bowl.


Part of an Etruscan funerary monument.

My own academic interests are primarily focused on the Phoenicians, those “superconductors” of trade, change-makers, and far-flung settlers throughout the Mediterranean world of the first millennium B.C.E. I have tracked their “footprints” across the sea the Romans called mare nostrum (our sea) from Lebanon, their erstwhile mother country, to Portugal. Whether on Cyprus, the Aegean islands, Sicily, Sardinia, Spain, Portugal, Morocco, or, famously, Carthage in Tunisia, Phoenicians not only imported some of their Near Eastern cultural heritage but also mixed, mingled with, and, perchance, brought changes to local populations they encountered. Thus, Phoenician newcomers are credited for introducing the pottery wheel as well as the domesticated chicken, among other things, to the Iberian Peninsula.


Phoenician amulet depicting face of Phoencian deity, Baal Hammon.


Undecorated trefoil mouth juglet (an iconic and much-copied Phoenician vessel).


Red-slipped juglet.


Red-slipped urn.

Besides excavating Phoenician sites, primarily on the southern coast of Spain and its isles, I visited several outstanding museums and special exhibitions that illustrate the give-and-take dynamic among diverse and disparate populations and their worlds in the first millennium B.C.E.

On a perfectly delightful trip with my friend Paula Duffy, we drove from her Umbrian abode east to the Adriatic coast, first to Ravenna and then to the location of the former Etruscan harbor site, Spina. In the latter part of the first millennium B.C.E., Spina was a lively and rich port of call, and the preferred trade partner of Athens on the Adriatic Sea. Here, Greeks, Etruscans, Carthaginians, and others traded wine, olive oil, amber, marble, and the exquisite Greek black-figure pottery. The site of Spina and its harbor have mostly disappeared below the silt sediments of the river Po that flows here in the Adriatic Sea. Paula and I were rambling about, imagining what might have been here, no doubt inspired by early evening cocktails in the ‘on-the-road,’ hilarious yacht club at Porto Garibaldi.


This is neither Phoenician nor Etruscan but a delicious meal at Porto Garibaldi.

But the area around ancient Spina, mainly cemeteries, has been excavated and the burial inventories are now displayed in the Museo Archeologico Nazionale in Ferrara. The Museo is housed in one of the many formidable Ferrara Renaissance palazzi, the 15th century Palazzo Costabili. As the Michelin guide might put it, Ferrara and this museum “meritent le detour.” The collection at the Museo Archeologico was, to me, not only a high point of this trip, but it also added immensely to my understanding of the eclectic nature of an ancient globalized Mediterranean civilization.


Etruscan crown and amber necklace.


So-called “eye” pearls, popular among Phoenician small finds.


Amber pearls—highly desirable amber was imported from the Baltic on the “Baltic road.”


An amazing assemblage of oil bottles of Phoenician design.


Small Phoenician bottles, reminiscent of Missoni designs.


Another Missoni-esque vessel.

Perhaps the most comprehensive concept of cultural globalization I saw in Europe, one that connects the ancient Mediterranean world with the more northerly trans-Alpine Celtic realm, was an exhibition in the Archaeologische Staatssammlung in Munich.


Cover picture of the exhibition catalogue showing Aphrodite holding her favorite bird, the dove.

Its title, Im Licht des Suedens (in the southern light) is wonderfully evocative. It denotes an unspoken longing by those who lived in more frigid climes, north of the Alps, for the glorious Mediterranean sunshine, its luscious fruit, wine, and olive, certain luxury objects, exotic jewelry and amulets, precious glassware, and intriguing cultic objects. The eminent Roman historian, Livy, V.33 writes, “It was the tradition that it was the lure of Italian fruits, and especially wine that drew the Gauls across the Alps” (I owe this reference and thoughts about the title to the magnanimous and erudite patron of the show, H.R.H. Duke Franz of Bavaria). Hundreds of objects from everyday life, ceremonial feasting, religious symbols, jewelry, pictorial representations, and inscriptions, show those connections.


Wonderfully brilliant amber.


Italic banquet scene.

Travel and trade were well on their way in the 2nd millennium B.C.E., and may have had earliest beginnings in Neolithic times. So-called “amber roads” originating on the shores of the Baltic Sea and “tin roads” leading from mines in Cornwall crossed Europe from north to south. They were important highways and offered plentiful opportunities for encounters between the Mediterranean and Central European worlds.

Among the many agents who took part in globalizing the Mediterranean world of the first millennium B.C.E. Celts, Etruscans, and Greeks, I maintain that the Phoenicians played a foremost role in this remarkable process. Not only are their cultural hallmarks ubiquitous across the length and breadth of the mare nostrum, but they passed through the Straights of Gibraltar into the Atlantic. At what must have seemed the edge of the known world, sometime in the late 10th or early 9th century BC.E., they founded a city, Gadir (now Cadiz), and there built a temple to the city god of Tyre (Lebanon), Melquart, who later came to be associated with Herakles throughout the Greek world. From there they proceeded along the coast north to Portugal where there is ample evidence for Phoenician settlements up to the Mondego River. There are theories that their Atlantic voyages were destined to explore the tin mines in far-off Cornwall, but that has so far not been proven.