Last weekend I attended the concluding conference of the ERC-funded Sealinks project. The Sealinks group, headed by Nicole Boivin of Oxford University, has investigated the early maritime links that connected societies on the Indian Ocean rim, using primarily evidence produced by archaeobotany, zooarchaeology, genetics and linguistics. Many results have already come out, and these shed light on processes going further back in time and having more profound and lasting impact, than those evident from earlier studies based on artefactual, epigraphic and literary evidence.
The conference gathered researchers working with biological and environmental proxies, along with with traditional archaeologists and the odd historian. Indian Ocean trade and navigation, as well as the early history of globalisation being among my other research interests, I found the conference immensely informative. It struck me, however, that although almost all presenters used the N-word, there was next to no discussion on what a network is, how past networks can be approached, and what insights this might give. This is not intended as criticism of the work presented, which was generally of very high standard. In fact the observation would be valid for most archaeological conferences I've attended, and I've worked with the Indian Ocean for more than ten years myself before starting consciously to think in terms of networks myself. Indian Ocean connectivity, however, is a subject that would readily lend itself to network approaches, and in this post I'd like to share a few thoughts on how different groups of material might have benefitted from being approached from a network perspective.
Networks of people
My own research on Indian Ocean trade is primarily on merchant networks: how they formed, cohered, operated and interrelated. In my paper in Oxford I argued that merchants from the Syrian city of Palmyra engaged with local and regional social networks of power, ideology/religion and commerce, in the process of expanding their own ethnically based network from the Syrian Desert into Mesopotamia, the Persian Gulf, the Red Sea and the Arabian Sea. Our data on merchant networks are of literary, epigraphic and ceramic nature – the Palmyrene network for instance being attested by circa 50 inscriptions recording the presence or activities of Palmyrene groups and individuals in settings certainly or very likely connected with Indian Ocean trade. Similar data would be possible to utilize for other groups. Ingo Strauch and collaborators for instance recently published more than 200 inscriptions in Arabic, Indic, Ethiopic, Aramaic and Greek script from a sanctuary in the cave of Hoq on the island of Socotra. Many of these should be possible to connect with places of origin, religion, language, and script used, reconstructing the network that intersected at the node of Hoq in a manner that would be possible to approach by the toolbox of Social Network Analysis.
Networks of objects
New inscriptions are occasionally still discovered, but in general, the written evidence relevant to ancient Indian Ocean trade is delimited and finite. The archaeological data available from Indian Ocean settings, however, has exploded over the last two decades, following major excavation projects and better practices of documenting, identifying and publishing finds. In my opinion, there are cases where distribution patterns are not necessarily well suited for network analyses, as the presence of objects does not always reveal how, when and by which routes and agents they moved from point of origin to find-spot. In the case of the Indian Ocean, however, distribution patterns clearly do have potential for network analyses, as distances, topography and climate led to virtually all communication taking place by sea. Network analysis based on distribution patterns of ceramics, beads and glass – goods that can be traced to place of production on stylistic, chemical and petrographic grounds, could clearly reveal directions, bottlenecks and clustering of trade.
Networks of places
Clearly, the same would be the case with settlements. Attempts at modeling relationships between ports and their hinterlands and between ports, based on size, kinds of imports and exports, period of occupation, distance to other centers, season of navigation etc. might help us think about why some places and some regions were important, while others seem to not to have been taking part in long-distance exchange to the same extent.
Networks of genes
Many of the papers in Oxford were on the movement of crops, animals and people, studied by way of genetic material recovered from archaeological sited. Dispersal of genes was in most cases visualized by phylogenetic trees. This is of course also a network analysis, showing genetic connections between the varieties of crops etc. found in different settings. If sufficient numbers of dated examples exist from a sufficient number of sites, I think these would also be good for showing patterns of prehistoric seafaring.