Archaeologist Traces Ancient Trade Through the Mediterranean

Story posted January 10, 2006

Any mystery lover knows that the thrill is in the unexpected details. That clue that promises to bring the truth a little closer - or to throw you off altogether.

Valeria inscriptions
Funerary inscription from the tomb of Valeria Phryne found near Granada in southern Spain.

And so it was for Jim Higginbotham, associate professor of classics, when he spied a familiar name on some ancient tombs he visited during his 2004-2005 sabbatical stay in Spain.

They were of the household Valeria, an ancient Roman merchant family of some prominence. Valeria is also the name that appears on several ancient Roman coins minted by the family, which are part of the antiquities collection of the Bowdoin College Museum of Art.

"It was a piece of the puzzle coming together," says Higginbotham, who is a classical archaeologist. "We know there were certain Roman families involved in trade and mercantile commerce. Many of these clans went to Spain, where they brought not only goods, but religious beliefs, political institutions and philosophies.

Higginbotham
"Archaeologists are now supplying information that offers a much more nuanced and subtle view on ancient times," says Higginbotham.

"Part of my work during my sabbatical was to look for inscriptions on tombs and note what families they belonged to. When I saw these tombs with the Valeria name, it made this idea of mercantile colonization very personal. And the fact that it connects to our collection at Bowdoin is wonderful."

It is these kinds of connections that Higginbotham hopes will lay the ground work for his next ground work - a new archaeological excavation in Spain, site yet to be discovered.

Having completed more than a decade's worth of work at a site in Paestum, in southern Italy, Higginbotham is now turning to Spain, hoping to find an unexplored archaeological site that will yield more clues on the impact of trade on indigenous cultures in the Mediterranean.

"Spain is great territory," he says, "because it is an area first colonized by the Phoenicians, then the Greeks, then the Romans. It's a marvelous place to study layers of culture and history. Plus, it's not as extensively explored as Italy and Greece, where people have been excavating for a long time. Spain has many sites that are still buried, things yet to discovered."

Spanish countyside
Among the regions of Spain where Higginbotham traveled during his sabattical was the mountainous area of Las Médulas, site of ancient Roman gold mines.

If Higginbotham finds a suitable site, it will likely prove a boon for Bowdoin students. At Paestum, a site jointly overseen by Bowdoin and the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Bowdoin students have regularly aided Higginbotham in his excavations. Among its treasures, that site yielded artifacts from burials dating back from the 1st century B.C. through the 3rd century A.D.

Unlike the riches found in the tombs of the elite, these graves yielded artifacts from everyday folks - men, women, children, soldiers - which give archaeologists and historians a better sense of common life. As they worked their way from the Roman burials down, Higginbotham and his colleagues encountered a Greek acropolis and other rich remains of Greek occupation dating back to the 6th century B.C. and even earlier.

"This gives us some of the earliest evidence for when the Greeks showed up," says Higginbotham, "which is earlier than was thought, based on accounts from ancient literature that was written after the fact. It was open to debate. What archaeology allows you to do is confirm or refute these literary accounts."

Paestum also included remains of a religious temple, replete with inscriptions of families who paid for sanctuaries. One of these families was named Valeria.

"Conquering territories ... is not just soldiers coming and occupying; it often involves peaceful associations built around trade and commerce."

"Valeria is one of many Roman clans actively involved in settling territory within the Italian peninsula," notes Higginbotham. "At first they began close to home, building active trade relationships, then they moved outside Italy - as the Valeria family did in Spain.

"With traditional histories, we talk about generals and their armies conquering territories. There is a typical picture, particularly in studies of Rome, of conquering the Empire. I think what you get from the work at Paestum is a much more nuanced picture of how culture spread. It's not just soldiers coming and occupying; it often involves peaceful associations built around trade and commerce."

It is these relationships Higginbotham hopes to illuminate better as he turns his sights to Spain. In future forays, he will be looking for an unexplored site with strong commercial and domestic connections, possibly a villa. In the Roman world, villas were commercial centers - much like factories - where goods were produced, packaged and distributed. Already, he has traveled several ancient roads in the Andalusian region of southern Spain scouting for Roman bridges - a common feature of ancient times, which connected often isolated villas to each other.

Roman Bridge
Remains of ancient Roman bridges, like this one near Jerez de los Caballeros, give archaeologists clues about early trade routes.

Finding these archaeological clues isn't always easy, however, with many centuries of civilization upon the landscape. Higginbotham is gathering information to help him from several Spanish institutions, including the Real Academia de la Historia and the Museo Arqueológico Nacional in Madrid.

Sometimes though, he says, it's best to follow local lore: "Often there are farmers working in the fields who come across ancient stones. When you talk to locals, they tell you about pottery and pieces of mosaic floors they plow up.

"You can visit the field and tell by the way the land is shaped whether there is architecture under the soil, then look around to see if roads lead into there. Then, you have a good chance of finding a place."

Higginbotham joined the Bowdoin faculty in 1994. His research has received support from the National Endowment for the Humanities and Fletcher Family Research Award, among others.

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