Thursday, December 19, 2013


Caroline Sauvage, Routes maritimes et systèmes d'échanges internationaux au Bronze récent en Méditerranée orientale. Travaux de la Maison de l'Orient et de la Méditerranée, 61. Lyon: Maison de l'Orient et de la Méditerranée – Jean Pouilloux, 2012. Pp. 374. ISBN 9782356680280. €44.00.

Reviewed by Jason W. Earle, The Institute for Aegean Prehistory (

Version at BMCR home site

[The Table of Contents is at the end of the review.]

International exchanges, and the maritime routes that facilitated them, have received much attention from scholars of the Late Bronze Age eastern Mediterranean in recent decades. Caroline Sauvage makes a unique contribution to this scholarship with this book, which is based on her 2006 dissertation. Sauvage's aim, as stated in the Introduction (p. 19), is to survey and synthesize evidence from various disciplines (archaeology, Egyptian and Akkadian epigraphy, geography, ship construction, maritime law, economics, etc.). This nuanced presentation is intended to counterbalance prevailing mono-disciplinary views, not to offer a definitive explanation of the mechanisms that moved materials and objects around the eastern Mediterranean. Sauvage limits her discussion chronologically to the Egyptian 18th and 19th Dynasties (defined in absolute dates as the mid-16th to mid-12th century BC) and geographically to the Aegean, Anatolia, Cyprus, the Levant and Egypt (p. 20). An overview of the evidence (coastal archaeological sites, shipwrecks, ancient texts and illustrations, geography, winds and currents) in the Introduction makes clear the questions to be addressed, as well as the potential rewards and limitations of this study (pp. 21–22).

The book is divided into three parts: Part 1 discusses 'Geographies and Materials', Part 2 covers 'Economies and International Relations' (i.e., the social aspects of commercial activities), and Part 3 deals with 'Ships and Routes'. Each part is composed of two chapters, and each chapter contains numerous sections. Although well organized and logically presented, the sheer number of subdivisions within each chapter at times makes the text difficult to follow. That said, a 'Conclusions' section at the end of each chapter helpfully recapitulates the main points.

Chapter 1 begins with a geographic survey of the regions under scrutiny, proceeding clockwise around the eastern Mediterranean (starting in Anatolia and ending on Crete). For each region, Sauvage describes the nature of the shoreline and expounds on a selection of coastal sites. Unfortunately, it is unclear why certain sites were chosen over others (despite a list of criteria on p. 27), and the selectiveness results in a distorted picture of settlement patterns and regional site hierarchies. Moreover, there is little consistency to the order and type of information presented for each site. The final section of the chapter surveys the different types of natural harbors and manmade facilities attested. A short section on the use of topographical markers in navigation seems out of place in this chapter and might have been better placed in Chapter 6.

Chapter 2 examines the various materials and products exchanged, their sources, and, to a limited extent, their distributions in the archaeological record. An extensive review of the materials exchanged (as known from shipwrecks, texts and terrestrial archaeology) follows, and is organized by type: manufactured objects and tribute gifts, animals and animal materials, minerals, metals, vegetable materials, woods, and ships and ship parts. Sauvage divides these goods and materials into two principal categories: luxury products and consumer products. The former consists of objects mentioned in the texts as tribute gifts, exchanges between royal courts, and materials of value or prestige (sometimes transported in ceramics). The latter are utilitarian objects, such as ceramic tablewares, which are not mentioned in the texts but are frequently found in excavations. Sauvage suggests that objects of these two categories may have traveled in separate maritime trade circuits, but does not investigate further how the trade in consumer products operated. Readers hoping to find an extensive discussion of the ceramics trade will be disappointed.

Chapter 3 presents the textual and archaeological evidence for long-distance transactions. Sauvage (following Heltzer and Janssen) appraises the cargoes of the known Late Bronze Age shipwrecks using commodity values recorded in Ugaritic, Egyptian and Hittite texts. The question of whether long-distance transactions were royal or private initiatives is then addressed, with Sauvage concluding that "vessels were royal properties and their maintenance depended on the governing power" (p. 156), and that there is no evidence for international merchants operating completely independent of the governing power (p. 161). The possibility that the textual evidence presents a biased (royal) picture of trade activities, while acknowledged by Sauvage, should temper her conclusions more strongly than is the case.

Chapter 4 addresses evidence for the protection and regulation of long-distance maritime voyages and trade: treaties, laws, commercial firms, loans, insurance, arrival protocols and import taxes. Sauvage's consideration of relations between polities is commendable, as is her discussion of the prevailing economic systems in these regions. The final two sections of this chapter address the use of economic models in interpreting the archaeological and textual evidence. The existence of market economies (in Polanyian terms) is denied, although market elements may account for facts difficult to explain from a purely social perspective, such as the organization of Ugaritic merchants into firms (p. 205). Next, various models of prehistoric exchange are summarized, but preferential treatment is given to those of Polanyi and Renfrew. Only passing attention is paid to the concepts of core–periphery interactions and gateway communities. Sauvage balks at exploring these models' applicability to maritime trade in the Late Bronze Age eastern Mediterranean, conceding that different models may operate simultaneously within a society, that it is difficult to distinguish between various models on the basis of the archaeological evidence, and that there are other ways for acquiring goods and materials besides commerce (e.g., pillaging, piracy).

Chapter 5 focuses on the evidence for ship construction and documents the existence of various ship types. Sauvage argues that Late Bronze Age ships were the result of a long period of assimilation and combination of diverse technologies, and suggests that the geographic names of ships (e.g., 'ships of Byblos') recorded in texts may reflect the technological origins of certain vessel types rather than their home port. To judge by the large numbers of ships mentioned in texts, Sauvage posits that there must have been intense exchanges between regions (p. 259)—an implicit argument against the (unacknowledged) minimalist perspective of Bronze Age trade.1

Chapter 6 assesses probable sea routes within the eastern Mediterranean in the light of the textual/archaeological evidence and geographic/climatological factors. The notion of seasonal navigation, briefly addressed earlier in relation to treaties forbidding the overwintering of foreign merchants (p. 168), is cogently explained by changes in the direction and intensity of prevailing winds. A review of natural hazards posed by coastal navigation is complemented by a discussion of offshore navigation skills and techniques. By demonstrating that skilled sailors could establish their approximate position on the open sea, Sauvage makes a compelling case for such voyages and counters a prevalent view that sailors tended to hug the coasts of the eastern Mediterranean.

While this is a strong book, a few flaws must be noted. First, the picture painted by Sauvage is somewhat static due to a tendency to collapse evidence from different times (as in her discussion of the Aegean olive oil trade on p. 129). Consequently, there is little consideration of diachronic developments in maritime commerce vis-à-vis cultural, political and economic changes.2 Moreover, the questions of why and how this complex web of long-distance maritime exchanges emerged in the first place are left unasked. Another shortcoming is the absence of a focused discussion of non-palatial trade, i.e., of intra-regional cabotage. While Sauvage acknowledges the probable existence of 'independent' merchants acting locally (p. 274), she does not develop any models.3 The transport and use of sub-elite goods like Mycenaean pottery, which has been found in considerable quantities in Cyprus, the Levant and Egypt, are largely unconsidered despite many publications on the subject.4

More generally, a chronological chart is absent, and the maps do not include many of the sites mentioned in the text. Illustrations of the places and objects discussed are uneven; for instance, the Levantine sites surveyed in Chapter 1 are accompanied by many figures whereas three of the four Aegean sites presented have none at all. These deficiencies are regrettable since few readers will be conversant with the entire range of materials covered.

All in all, Sauvage provides an admirable overview of the multifarious factors that conditioned long-distance maritime commerce in the Late Bronze Age eastern Mediterranean. Scholars of this area and period will welcome Sauvage's book for its nuanced synthesis of international exchanges from a variety of viewpoints.

Table of Contents

Préface par Laure Pantalacci et Marguerite Yon
Abréviations usuelles dans le texte
Partie I. Geographies et materiaux
1. Geographie et topographie littorale de la méditerranée orientale
2. Les produits commercialisés
Partie II. Économies et relations internationales
3. Les transactions
4. Relations internationales et systèmes économiques
Partie III. Navires et routes
5. Les navires
6. Les routes
Index des textes
Table des figures


1.   E.g., A.M. Snodgrass, "Bronze Age Exchange: A Minimalist Position," in N.H. Gale (ed.), Bronze Age Trade in the Mediterranean. Papers Presented at the Conference Held at Rewley House, Oxford, in December 1989 (Jonsered: Paul Åströms Förlag, 1991), pp. 15–20; S.W. Manning and. L. Hulin, "Maritime Commerce and Geographies of Mobility in the Late Bronze Age of the Eastern Mediterranean: Problematizations," in E. Blake and A.B. Knapp (eds.), The Archaeology of Mediterranean Prehistory (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2005), pp. 270–302.
2.   Cf. A. Sherratt and S. Sherratt, "From Luxuries to Commodities: The Nature of Mediterranean Bronze Age Trading Systems," in N.H. Gale (ed.), Bronze Age Trade in the Mediterranean (Jonsered: Paul Åströms Förlag, 1991), pp. 351–386; S. Sherratt, "Potemkin Palaces and Route-based Economies," in S. Voutsaki and J. Killen (eds.), Economy and Politics in the Mycenaean Palace States: Proceedings of a Conference Held on 1–3 July 1999 in the Faculty of Classics, Cambridge (Cambridge: Cambridge Philological Society, 2001), pp. 214–254.
3.   Information from later periods might prove useful in this regard: cf. P. Horden and N. Purcell, The Corrupting Sea: A Study of Mediterranean History (Oxford: Blackwell, 2000).
4.   See, e.g., S. Sherratt, "E pur si muove: Pots Markets and Values in the Second Millennium Mediterranean," in J. P. Crielaard, V. Stissi, and G. J. van Wijngaarden (eds.), The Complex Past of Pottery: Production, Circulation and Consumption of Mycenaean and Greek Pottery (Sixteenth to Early Fifth Centuries BC). Proceedings of the ARCHON International Conference, Held in Amsterdam, 8–9 November 1996 (Amsterdam: J. C. Gieben, 1999), pp. 163–211; G.J. van Wijngaarden, Use and Appreciation of Mycenaean Pottery in the Levant, Cyprus and Italy (1600–1200 BC) (Amsterdam, Amsterdam University Press, 2002); P.W. Stockhammer, "Conceptualizing Cultural Hybridization in Archaeology," in P.W. Stockhammer (ed.), Conceptualizing Cultural Hybridization: A Transdisciplinary Approach (Berlin: Springer, 2012), pp. 43–58.

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