It is one of the most obvious observations we are routinely required to make. We uncover an artefact: say a fragment of Mycenaean pot on a Late Bronze Age site in Sicily. So we have evidence of ‘trade’.
No, we don’t. Trade is an economic process (exchange) and a social relationship (between buyer and seller). And, in this instance, we have no direct evidence whatsoever that this has taken place.
Henceforward I put ‘trade’ in inverted commas to highlight the fact that it is an archaeological factoid. Again and again, in monographs and syntheses, people use this term as a virtual synonym for movement, even when there is zero evidence for actual ‘trade’.
Many then build a edifice of interpretation on what they consider a solid foundation-block of evidence for ‘trade’. What, they ask, was the Sicilian chieftain ‘trading’ for his Mycenaean pots?
Let’s leave aside any questions we may have about whether the provenance is definite. Let’s assume absolute certainty that the stuff was made in one place and deposited in another; that it has, unquestionably, moved.
Now let’s consider some evidence. Take the Standard of Ur. Found in the Royal Graves excavated by Leonard Woolley in Iraq in the 1920s, it is justly famous as an exceptionally early artistic masterpiece.
One side depicts chariots, spearmen, battle, prisoners-of-war (now slaves), and the victorious Sumerian king. The other depicts the royal court: top tier we see the king with his courtiers (seated with cups) and entertainers; middle and lower tiers we see animals being led and (unknown) goods being carried in backpacks.
This is the subject-matter of countless artistic images across diverse cultures over thousands of years. Objects are moving. But it has nothing to do with ‘trade’ – they move as plunder and tribute.
Gifts not goods
Consider a completely different example: different place, different time, different genre. It’s an extract from Homer. Odysseus is about to depart the Palace of King Alkinous. His host knows what’s required. Turning to his retainers, he says:
As for you, sirs, here are my wishes – let them stand as an order to every one of you that frequent my palace to drink the sparkling wine of the elders and enjoy the minstrel’s song. I know that the clothing, gold ornaments, and other presents that our counsellors brought in are already laid by for our guest in a wooden strongbox. I now suggest that we each give him a large tripod and cauldron. Later we will recoup ourselves by a tax on the people, since it would be hard on us singly to have to make so generous a donation.
Objects are moving, but there is no ‘trade’. We are dealing with elite ‘gift-exchange’ in the context of ‘guest-friendship’. And, again, the high-living is premised on tribute.
A final example, just to cap the point that we are dealing with widespread cultural norms in pre-modern societies. Beowulf has just killed Grendel. King Hrothgar is best pleased and wants to show it. The famous Old English poem lists the following gifts:
a stiff battle banner woven with gold thread, a helmet incised with battle scenes, a coat of mail… a huge damascened sword… eight horses with gold-plated bridles…
For each of Beowulf’s men, moreover, there is a gold buckle, and for the single warrior slain a gold-price is paid.
Once again, goods are on the move – and not a merchant-capitalist in sight.
In every case, we are dealing not with ‘trade’, but with socially embedded, politically controlled, militarily enforced movement of goods in the form of plunder, gift-exchange, and tribute/taxation.
There is absolutely no basis for concluding that a movement of objects observed in the archaeological record
for the prehistoric, ancient, or medieval periods has anything to do with ‘trade’.
It is capitalism that makes buying and selling the norm. It is neoclassical economics – a pseudo-science akin to alchemy – that insists that something called ‘the market’ is some sort of universal. And it is pure prejudice to analyse the past in the terms of the present.
Archaeologists should know better. Let’s stop being lazy and sloppy and saying ‘trade’ when what we what we really mean is that we haven’t yet worked out the real reason why artefacts are moving around the landscape.
The Romans, by the way, are no exception. So I’ll deal with them next time.