Down by the Water: contesting current understandings of maritime identities

Room:    Teaching room 2
Time:      09:00–17:30
Format: Standard paper session and roundtable
Organisers: Verónica Walker Vadillo (University of Helsinki) – Emilia Mataix Ferrandiz, (University of Helsinki/University of Münster) – Tânia Casimiro (Nova University Lisbon)

Waterways have been key factors in the development of societies from prehistoric times to nowadays, particularly due to their role as vectors for cultural interactions, material exchange, and transmission of knowledge. The fluidity of these highways of transport and communications is tightly linked to the presence of meeting points: spaces with unique geographical and/or ecological characteristics that acted as nodal points between different communities. Meeting points are thus defined as spaces of intense social contacts, where physical geography and ecology shape and are shaped by human action.

The subject is challenging, not only due to the untraceable nature of some activities (e.g. those carried out on board of a vessel) or the scarcity of material remains, but also due to the existing gap between theory and practice. Reluctance to use interdisciplinary approaches has prevented the field from engaging in fruitful discussions across disciplines to find new pathways to research. This lack of engagement extends to other sub-disciplines within the field of archaeology; for example, historical ecology has run a parallel theoretical and methodological evolution but with little input from maritime archaeology and vice-versa.

We contend that an interdisciplinary perspective with a focus on human-environment interactions is necessary to set forth more nuanced theories regarding the relation between social systems and their environment. We need to redefine the theoretical and methodological frameworks to be used, and extend bridges with other disciplines to better understand what kind of interactions took place down by the water. We invite researchers to present innovative approaches to the study of human-environment interactions in watery spaces, a definition that widens the range of maritime archaeology. We welcome proposals from the fields of iconography, law, computer modelling, ethnography, geography, history, linguistics, environmental sciences, and other related fields. The organizers are particularly interested in papers seeking to incorporate perspectives from indigenous studies, traditional ecological knowledge, biocultural heritage and related fields that seek to contest Western models.

1. Reading the River Tagus. Literature, Archeology, and Maritime Landscapes

Author(s): Inês Almendra Castro (NOVA Universidade Lisbon)

Rivers are usually seen as water pathways, a combination of atoms or molecules, of H2O, allowing different agents to interact. But rivers can be made of words, of thoughts, of interactions, among many other things. That is how the water crosses the shoreline, how it travels to other continents while remaining still, how it maneuvers through the everyday lives of human beings, past and present. As archeologists, we try to access all the aspects of those lives, but we often find ourselves having difficulties getting to the mind, the “cognitive world” of people living by the water. In this paper I propose using data originating from literature, different authors from different times, from a distant past to a contemporary time. Literature not as an historical source, but as a means of construction of literary landscapes. As an example, I will use the Tagus River, in Portugal, and I will try to disclose how conceptions about that water line change through time, as does the place that the river occupies in people’s imagination. In doing so, hopefully it will be demonstrated how an interdisciplinary approach between Archeology and Literature can be beneficial, and how a river, a running body of water can flow into knowledge.

2. The Influence of Maritime Routes in the Evolution of the Islamic Gharb Cities (8th-13th centuries)

Author(s): Joel Santos (NOVA University of Lisbon)

Since the 8th century that the Muslim presence in the Iberian Peninsula was highly connected with urban centres. A large portion of those cities were located along rivers or in the sea front leading to the development of communities engaged with waterways.

The purpose of this presentation is to understand and debate, using a new approach based on the Theory of Relations, the influence that various cities exerted on each other through maritime communication routes during the Muslim period in the Gharb Al-Andalus – nowadays Portugal – and how this influence impacted on those cities’ growth. Trying to understand the real importance of maritime cities and communities will only be possible by comparing them with inland urban centres, located along terrestrial routes, observing the impact that urban centres related to waterways may have had in the growth or loss of protagonism of inland cities. This human relation with  different environments – terrestrial and maritime – will permit a large-scale interpretation of a wide territory and how waterways were fundamental in the establishment and power development.

This study intends to use statistical analysis based on the Theory of Relations, in order to build a possible network of geographical relationships between the cities of the Gharb Al-Andalus. The study of these relationships may indicate that mutation in the importance of such cities was not only due to their geographic location, but by the influence that each city had over the nearest ones. These influences can be observed by political, military, religious or commercial contacts and relations but, as well, by the different ways they were connected (terrestrial, fluvial, and maritime). Applying Theory of Relations revealed that water routes (fluvial and maritime) had a bigger impact than the terrestrial ones in the importance these cities acquired during the Islamic occupation.

3. The Sea as an Identity Agent: Globalization, Trade, and Maritime Communities

Author(s): Tânia Manuel Casimiro (CFE HTC-NOVA University of Lisbon)

In the Early Modern age, Portugal was among the first European countries to engage in overseas trade and colonial ventures, something rapidly followed by other nations. The influx of new people and things rapidly transformed Europe into an even more multicultural territory in permanent contact with the rest of the wider world, a phenomenon mostly visible in maritime cities directly engaged with world trade. While we possess a vast amount of knowledge describing the overseas contacts and acquisition of goods from historical documents, in recent years archeological excavations have begun to reveal high amounts of the direct evidence of these relations. This includes thousands of people, animals, plants, and objects produced in overseas territories such as Africa, South America, and Asia. They were used in vast amounts in several European countries and are frequently found in archeological excavations.

These ‘maritime commodities’ were in part responsible for changing European perceptions of the world, its dimensions and cultural plurality, which may be discussed as a new European Identity. They also rapidly left their mark on European goods production, leading to changes in cultural aesthetics and the development of new forms of individual and collective behavior.

4. When the sea is all around and yet invisible…

Author(s): Serena Sabatini (University of Gothenburg)

There is a vast literature about islands and their particular relation to the sea and seafaring. It is impossible to generalize about the deep connection between islands, islanders and their surrounding sea. Even leaving aside cultural, political and social concerns, which varies in time and space, geographical, environmental, and geological factors (including for instance size of the island, characteristics of the surrounding sea, climate, morphology, closeness to other islands or to mainland, and different resources locally available) considerably affect the way island inhabitants interact with the sea.

This paper aims to discuss the case of Nuragic Sardinia. This large island in the center of the western Mediterranean is considered by several authors as a likely active actor in the Bronze Age long distance metal trade from the Atlantic to the Levant. It is argued that there is a need to problematize the apparent incongruence between the manifold evidence of long-distance interaction, necessarily maritime-based, and the lack of evident material culture widely attesting interaction with sea. What are we missing?

As in the session abstract the subject is challenging, is the untraceable nature of many maritime related activities affecting our understanding of human/sea relation in Nuragic Sardinia or do we have to re-orient our attention? How can a renewed theoretical approach to the issue help to shed new light on the role of Bronze Age Sardinian communities in the long distance metal trade between the Atlantic and the Mediterranean?

Author(s): Emilia Mataix Ferrándiz (University of Helsinki-Käte Hamburger Kolleg Münster)

The purpose of this presentation is not to discuss something that does not really exist, namely the Roman law of the sea. Instead, I will be looking at the perceptions of Romans about the sea and how that affected its legal status. While the Romans may have approached the sea as a savage wilderness beyond domination of their civil law, their views also reflected the role of empire and civilization in marking the limits of law. In their texts, Roman jurists reflect on different kinds of sea-storm scenes, to which they apply legal institutions in order to organize and provide solutions to the catastrophes suffered by people in what was considered a space free from the rule of Roman civil law. Concretely, I will be focusing on the criminal liability for shipwrecking in the light of the edict de incendio ruina naufragio rate nave expugnata from the 1st cent BC (that dating is my hypothesis) which is linked with a series of edicts dealing with violent behavior also enacted in that period. The analysis of that source leads to a study of the socio-political context and lawmaking practices in the Roman Republic, but overall, to consider the Roman understanding of an ‘unruly’ sea and the civilizing power of law with the focus on the event of shipwrecking. In that respect, shipwrecks appear as events that bridge the gap between land and sea, because of the different legal remedies provided to deal with these catastrophes, which in turn enlarged the scope of land-based legal rulings. This produced a dynamic connection between the conceptual categories of land and sea, with the consistently adaptable character of human structures and institutions along the coast of the sea, and the utterly malleable application of jurisdiction over the sea itself. For the Romans who debated the matter, the main issue was not sovereignty of the sea, but rather the political implications that such an extraordinary command, and with it, unusual powers,  would have.

6. Diving into Theory: Why should we combine Method and Theory in Maritime Archaeology?

Author(s): Filipe Castro and Ricardo Borrero (NOVA University of Lisbon)

This paper aims to discuss how method and theory can be combined in maritime archeology. For years now maritime archeology seems to separate these two components and while methodological and technological papers seem to ignore philosophical and anthropological approaches, papers which debate theoretical subjects such as human mobility and behavior, among other subjects, rarely have strong methodological and technological foundations. 

Several reasons can be considered although we believe that the lack of communications between researchers oriented towards the formulation of methods and theory-oriented researchers is one of the main factors causing the split of these two components, which weakens the scientific foundations of the discipline. We draw from the authors converging experiences as students, professors and lecturers in countries with different economic backgrounds and development degrees in subjects related to technical, methodological, theoretical and critical analysis in order to debate how we can combine different paths in the creation of a maritime archeology that displays a balance between method and theory, by means of respect towards students and researchers individualities, participation of the stakeholders, instilling love of the truth, social responsibility (or compromise), and ethics and fighting biases and prejudices.

7. Ocean Imperatives: Conceptualising Maritime Infrastructure for the Study of  Maritime Connectivity

Author(s): Veronica Walker Vadillo (University of Helsinki)

How did Southeast Asia transform from a hub of regional coastal networks into a trans-regional interdependent port ecosystem by the early modern period? To answer this question, which is crucial to understanding the historical developments of polities along the Indo-Pacific region, this presentation proposes to examine the synergetic nature of shipping logistics and infrastructure in order to push current boundaries that place the focus on trade goods.Maritime networks conform an interdependent ecosystem where every piece must interlock to the others like a well-oiled machine. The environment determines when ports are accessible, the depth of ports determines the size and number of ships that can be serviced, and the size of ships determines the requirements of wharf storage facilities and stevedore crews. All this requires specialized skills and intellectual ingenuity that develops around navigation, stevedoring, and the construction of infrastructures to overcome environmental hurdles.

Using an interdisciplinary approach that draws on environmental, archaeological, iconographic, ethnographic, and historical data, this presentation will explore shipping logistics and infrastructure as a novel source material to advance a new research framework that incorporates methods rooted in geographically oriented landscape perspectives, such as the Maritime Cultural Landscape, Historical Ecology, and Human Ecodynamics. This additional turn of the screw offers an innovative understanding of the role of maritime networks in the history of the region by looking at the past from the water, and seeking out the ocean imperatives that shaped how people moved seamlessly through oceans, seas, and rivers.


8. The “Dawn of Everything” in Maritime Archaeology: seasonal maritimity, anti-maritimity, and the construction of maritime identities

Host: Linda Hulin, Magdalen College/Harris Manchester College, University of Oxford

Discussants: Veronica Walker Vadillo, Emilia Mataix Ferrandiz, Tânia Casimiro

The round table is hosted by Linda Hulin, who will kick-start the discussion by pondering on Graeber and Wengrow’s The Dawn of Everything: a new history of humankind  and how the conversations started in the book can help advance theories in maritime archaeology. The round table will then turn to the discussants, who will further explore the topics of seasonal maritimity (V. Walker Vadillo), anti-maritimity (Emilia Mataix Ferrandiz) and the construction of maritime identities (Tânia Casimiro). The discussants will kick start the debate with their vision on these topics and their expectations of where the field will lead us next, before taking the conversation to the floor with comments and questions from the audience.

9. An ocean sewn with islands – and shipwrecks: toward a critical approach to Underwater Cultural Heritage

Author(s): Natali Pearson (University of Sydney)

Sprawled across the equator and home to 250 million people across more than 13,000 islands, the Indonesian archipelago is at the coalface of the Anthropocene. In recent years, the socio-economic and health impacts of the pandemic have compounded already grave levels of inequality and intolerance. What relevance do shipwrecks and other forms of underwater cultural heritage have within this context? To what extent, if at all, can maritime heritage research address these wider problems? Using critical heritage approaches, this paper examines the value of shipwrecks in Indonesia and asks not only whether the abundance of such heritage is a blessing or a curse at a time of so many complex and competing priorities but, more saliently, how maritime heritage can be used to respond to the challenges of the present. As it proposes, underwater cultural heritage in Indonesia is profoundly connected to issues relating to social justice, local livelihoods and heritage sustainability, but the potential of these connections has been overshadowed by the binary nature of the debates that characterise shipwreck management discourses in and of Indonesia. This paper traces the history of shipwreck management in Indonesia in order illuminate how the scientific standards embodied in maritime archaeology have informed assessments of Indonesia’s perceived inability to protect and preserve the wrecks in its waters over time. It reveals the hubristic attitudes that have underpinned interpretations of shipwreck management in the Indonesian context, thus precluding broader conceptualisations of maritime heritage beyond the archaeological. By drawing attention to the intersection of international and national interests – and how they play out at the local level – this paper takes a step towards a new approach to underwater cultural heritage, one that recognises such heritage as a flashpoint for some of the biggest issues of our times.


Author(s): Linda Hulin (University of Oxford)

The location of ports is usually viewed as those points in the landscape where coastal morphology and terrestrial economic networks best coincide. Multiple interests are at play, depending upon the scale of the interests involved: to be a port at all implies warehousing capacity, transport links, and the presence of merchants and, in larger facilities, institutional authorities. The more investment in the infrastructure of a port, the more likely shipping and receiving merchants are likely to use it. However, this ‘build it and they will come’ lens obscures the realities of mariner—rather than merchant—requirements. The needs of sailors rest overnight, to take on water, or revictual, follow rhythms that are not necessarily met in established ports, either because they occur between stops or because the use of established ports may involve cost. Similarly, ports that are advantageous to merchants are not necessarily the best equipped for making repairs to ships. This paper explores, through selected case studies in the Mediterranean, the differing requirements of sailors and merchants and offers a more nuanced view of mariner engagement with trade.

11. The boat and the plough: biocultural heritage and the interpretation of   archaeological sites in the Mekong River

Author(s): Veronica Walker Vadillo (University of Helsinki)

The location of pre-Angkorian archaeological sites in the main course of the Mekong River Basin between Kratie (Cambodia) and Champassak (Laos) has been attributed to local populations’ attempts to control goods moving in and out of the hinterland based on Bronson’s model of river hierarchies in Southeast Asia. These interpretations have placed an emphasis on trade, in addition to rice cultivation, as a marker for social complexity and wealth accumulation. In this presentation I will argue that the location of these sites can be linked to fish resources, and that social complexity can be similarly attributed to societal responses to fisheries management, adding to an increasing list of examples of convergence in cultural niche construction surrounding floodplain fishery in tropical river environments. In doing so, the essay reviews two data sets that are rarely used to discuss the selected archaeological material: regional fish ecosystems and traditional ecological knowledge of fishing practices among local communities. The study examines fish migration patterns, and explores traditional fishing practices connected to the systematic exploitation of the two main ecological niches linked to the reproductive life of fish –floodplains and deep pools. The location of these fishing grounds and the constraints that fishing resources impose on people is discussed in relation to archaeological data and livelihood activities related to fishing and fish processing. The discussion will then explore similar examples of floodplain fisheries management in the Amazon and Congo River Basins.