The Mediterranean: Ten Millennia of Hierarchies and Marginalisation

Jaime Vives-Ferrándiz

Conservator at the Museo de Prehistoria, Valencia

History, and specifically the discipline of archaeology, allows us to position ourselves with a unique perspective: the long length of processes, reviewing several millennia in which the dynamics of cultural changes and continuities have developed and focusing on several episodes of contact. This aspect is highly pertinent to this issue for two reasons: on the one hand, because current phenomena can be read based on the experiences of other human groups in the past and, on the other, because these past phenomena are irremediably interpreted in the light of current phenomena. Thus, cultural, social, political or economic encounters and divergences, violence or alliances cannot be reduced to a space or time.


In this article I will advocate two things: firstly, that mobility has been a fundamental part of the creation of what we have known as the Mediterranean for around ten thousand years. Secondly, that neither myth nor fright is exclusive to the modern or contemporary reality of this region. My stance is not existentialist because it is based on the thesis that the Mediterranean is not a given but has been historically created and constituted from the experiences of those who have inhabited its shores, frequently linking them together (Broodbank, 2013). To illustrate this, I will choose two crucial moments in the construction of the Mediterranean: the first, approximately 9,000-7,000 years ago, with the Neolithic expansion derived from the development of food production and agriculture. The second, during the first millennium BC, when the sea became smaller due to the notable increase in the intensity of human interactions after the settlement of groups of Levantine origin along the Mediterranean coasts. In both cases, maritime mobility was fundamental in their development.

Towards an Archaeology of Mediterranean Migrations

Archaeology is the discipline of objects. The nature of the archaeological record enables us to write history if it is duly processed, from the excavation in the field to the processing of data and its interpretation. The comparative analysis of the remains of the past has proven to be a very fruitful historical approach on a Mediterranean scale. Archaeology works with tangible culture, objects and practices and how things are done with them. An object can be a seed, but also a protective wall. All of them are full of culture and history. Archaeology provides a privileged glimpse of daily life and enables us to combine several scales of analysis, from the landscape to houses and tombs. In my view, in the study of cultural contact and the issues of mobility and migrations the archaeology of the Mediterranean possesses a privileged position given the large amount of documentation available, because the Mediterranean itself has been established based on these experiences and because they currently occupy centre stage of the social reality of its countries. Thus, it is important to define the meaning we attach to words when contemporary experiences help understand and interpret the contacts and mobility in Antiquity differently, so that modern terminology is applied to the past thorough comparative analyses that clearly reveal what is being compared and why (Knapp and van Dommelen, 2014).

The phenomena of cultural interaction, migrations and mobility in the past can be studied from a tangible perspective, regardless of the date in question. Logically, the most remote periods, without texts or accounts available, can only be approached from archaeology. For all periods, moreover, archaeology opens a window on those people without history (Wolf, 1982), visions from below, and shows the daily reality of the experiences of interaction and migrations. Frequently, archaeology contradicts accounts by the powerful groups that are taken for granted.

The Mediterranean is not a given but has been historically created and constituted from the experiences of those who have inhabited its shores, frequently linking them together

Thus, we can tangibly explore the dynamics of the changes we see in the archaeological record, particularly the emergence of new objects, construction techniques or the knowhow of other regions, or the adaptation of innovations and ideas to local realities. The interpretative task focuses on characterising the processes that have shaped situations that can be very different because of the scale, distance and intensity of the contacts or the type of coexistence, when this happened, and that embrace actions ranging from trade and movement of people for economic reasons to colonisation or violent conquest (Gosden, 2004; Stein, 2005; Van Dommelen and Rowlands, 2012). Finally, it is worth noting that the mobility of people, things or ideas through migrations or exoduses, trade and exchanges, has always had consequences for the groups concerned (Dietler, 2010).

The Neolithic: A History of Maritime Mobility

I start looking at this Mediterranean under construction with the beginnings of the current warm climate pulse, the period we call Holocene, approximately 12,000 years ago. In short, the beginning of this era coincides with changes in the ways of life of some human groups that inhabited the so-called Fertile Crescent – a term coined in the early 20th century to refer to part of the current countries of Iraq, southern Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine and Israel –, who began to explore ways to produce agricultural resources through the domestication of vegetal and animal species, and that we know as the Neolithic way of life. The relevance of these changes in human history is enormous because it meant the development of agriculture and stockbreeding, practices also linked to the sedentarisation of the population, in contrast to other economic strategies based on hunting and gathering developed by groups with high levels of seasonal mobility in the territory. This was followed by the expansion of the Neolithic ways of life to other Mediterranean areas, which is documented from 9,000 years ago in the Aegean and approximately 7,500 years ago in the Iberian Peninsula. This was partly due to the gradual migration of colonists by sea. I will return to the maritime dimension later.

With the current state of knowledge, the documentary dossier to approach the development of the process of Neolithic expansion through the Mediterranean is based on a set of sites along the coasts from western Greece to the Strait of Gibraltar, comprising a material set formed by pottery vessels, axes and polished wood adzes, silex sickles and vegetable remains and domesticated animals, objects totally unknown by the local communities of each place. Moreover, the so-called Neolithic pack is systematically recognised in the archaeological record of each region along the approximately 3,500 km of the Mediterranean Sea (Rojo, Garrido and García, 2012).

I will highlight the tangible links between household goods. Out of all of these, pottery vessels have been the object of a centuries-old tradition among scholars. They are long-lasting, practically indestructible, found in all sites and provide highly relevant historical information if they are approached with the appropriate methodological tools: they tell us about uses and skills, reveal differences between sites, and their surfaces were often decorated, opening the door to explore the symbolic world of their users and the cultural relations between them. The different decorative techniques applied to Late Neolithic pottery are particularly interesting, ranging from simple continuous lines made with sharp objects to imprints with cords or fingerings and, above all, decorations made with different parts of the cockle’s valve (Cardium, hence the name of cardium pottery to refer to the latter). Through decoration, family groups or people who, at least, shared relations were identified. Moreover, the fact that the types of decoration on pottery are rarely exclusive to a site suggests that there was some mobility of people or that different decorative traditions coexisted in the same community. However, the Iberian Neolithic is distinctive from the Italic or the Aegean in aspects such as the implementation in the landscape, the selection of crops or the decorative style of the pieces of pottery, albeit maintaining similar general features such as, in the main, the fact of being food producing communities.

The most plausible explanation to understand the mechanisms of Neolithic expansion is that of the gradual migration of peasants who would occupy lands of hunter-gatherers or areas with population gaps

On a prehistoric scale this phenomenon was very fast (Martí Oliver, 2007). It spread through the Mediterranean in a time span of approximately 2,000 years, albeit not steadily, because there are significant variations in the progress according to the microregions concerned. If we examine the local contexts in detail, we see the sudden emergence in the best known time sequences, including the eastern coast of the Iberian Peninsula, of people with other tangible culture (Martí and Juan Cabanilles, 2014). Thus, we acknowledge the appearance of a Neolithic pack – pottery, crops, livestock, polished wooden axes, silex sickles ‒ that illustrates the arrival of peasants and stockbreeders. And, for instance, the carved lithic industry of the Neolithic and Mesolithic communities varies so much that we can conclude that we are dealing with two cultural traditions, with all that means in terms of population differences.

The Neolithic expansion process has been widely studied and debated. There is a consensus that there was no simultaneous domestication or hesitant processes of adoption of agriculture by local groups of hunter-gatherers gradually domesticating local species. The most plausible explanation to understand the mechanisms of Neolithic expansion is that of the gradual migration of peasants who would occupy lands of hunter-gatherers or areas with population gaps. Simply, the social ‒ economic, reproductive ‒ success of the Neolithic groups would relegate the local ways of life to extinction, or result in their demographic absorption, which are processes that are not free of episodes of physical or symbolic violence. The worlds of hunter-gatherers and peasants were very different and, despite sharing the same space, they would see the territory differently. At present, there is some questioning of the idea that some hunter-gatherers were Neolithicised; in other words, that they adopted ways of life of neighbouring Neolithic communities based on contact and interactions, although this possibility can be qualified case by case throughout the Mediterranean by assessing the social, symbolic or economic incentives inherent to becoming peasants.

 The consequences of the Neolithisation processes are obvious. On the one hand, there were clear physical changes because the colonists transformed the landscapes they found. On the other, domestication involved altering the way we relate to vegetables, animals and humans. Moreover, new social relations were created. For instance, among Neolithic communities, houses are well identified as basic units from which production and consumption is organised on a daily basis. Consequently, the family or household would make up the fundamental productive and social unit, because the tangible proof of storage, objects for food production and other basic needs are related to family huts, in contrast to what happens among hunting and gathering groups, where food and other resources are shared between all community members. Therefore, among a peasantry arranged by household groups or families, the number of members, the organisation of work, the quality of the land available, the chance of a good or bad harvest or the capacity to store for the future opened the door to inequalities between families. If, moreover, the gains or losses, as well as the family assets, were inherited, the social differences would only grow exponentially in the long term.

Domestication involved altering the way we relate to vegetables, animals and humans. Moreover, new social relations were created

In fact, we see great diversity within the settlements throughout the Mediterranean due, as mentioned before, to issues related to demography and political and economic organisation. In the Western Mediterranean the richest information comes from the settlement of La Draga (Girona) because it has partially been preserved in a water environment, the lake of Banyoles, and a large amount of wood or textile materials has been found that perish in other conditions. There are settlements made up by a few huts (Benàmer, Mas d’Is), with differences in their tangible expressions, but there are contemporary occupations in caves (Cova de l’Or, La Sarsa or Cova de les Cendres) with related objects of powerful symbolic content, such as the figured decorations on pottery that have parallels in shelters with cave paintings (Martí and Juan Cabanilles, 2014). In the East, the story is quite different, with much more extensive (Ain Ghazal) and compact settlements, with authentic masonry and earth walls (Jericho) and where rectangular dwellings sometimes up to two floors were built (Çatalhöyük in Turkey, Beidha in Jordan).

Apart from this, two questions have occupied researchers of this period: why the migration of small human groups occurred and how? They are interrelated and the answer comes from the very logic of movements. The archaeological evidence makes us think that there were small leaps (coined in the Anglo-Saxon bibliography with the illustrative term leapfrogging) of small groups that moved from an occupied space to another that could be colonised, in many cases abandoned by Mesolithic groups – the name given to the last communities or hunters and gatherers. From the new enclaves there was later a demic and territorial expansion and the bases were laid for another leap towards other territories. Thus, it is not a wave of gradual advance but occasional leaps over time and space, with moments of rapid advances and others slower, or a combination of several parallel episodes. For instance, based on the study of the pottery of the early Neolithic episodes in the Valencian Community – the sites of El Barranquet, Mas d’Is or Cova d’En Pardo – relations have been suggested with southern France or the Ligurian coasts. Moreover, in southern France, the settlement of Pont de Roque-Haute shows strong tangible links with the Tyrrhenian coasts and, in contrast, the neighbouring site of Peiro Signado had relations with the Ligurian field (Broodbank, 2013). In the south of the Italian Peninsula multidirectional relations have also been documented with Sicily, Malta and the Aegean coasts (Robb, 2007).

There were small leaps of small groups that moved from an occupied space to another that could be colonised, in many cases abandoned by Mesolithic groups – the name given to the last communities or hunters and gatherers

The reasons for emigrating from a favourable place to another must have been diverse, depending on the context, from tensions to economic pressures. Nevertheless, the pioneering spirit behind these attitudes is often highlighted. Apart from the specific mechanisms of cultural transmission or of the consequences of the migration of peasant communities, I would now like to emphasise that the process is characterised by a highly intense maritime mobility. Of course, the Neolithic expansion by land also existed – let us recall its origins in southern Turkey and northern Iraq, from where the Neolithic people expanded by land; and it was also fast, no less than by sea, as shown by the dates of their arrival on the coasts of the North Sea, although there are also areas where the process slowed down. But the Mediterranean Sea was going to enter into history: the Aegean, with its chains of islands and uneven coasts, the Adriatic, the Tyrrhenian Sea or the western basin must have been crossed by these peasant communities to reach the Greek, Italian or Iberian Peninsula coasts, respectively, without forgetting the big islands, in small but crucial movements because of their long-term historical consequences.

If shipping had already been tentatively explored on some coasts of the eastern Mediterranean by Mesolithic groups, they were still movements limited to temporary needs, for the exploitation of surrounding resources. However, seen retrospectively, trans-Mediterranean shipping owes its gradual development to Neolithic peasants, who also transformed the meaning of the geography: some zones, such as the big islands of the Mediterranean and southern Italy, went from being relegated in the historical dynamics to being spaces of technological innovation and points of social exchange or meeting.

Neolithic groups sailed in monoxile canoes, such as the one discovered in La Marmotta, a site in Lake Bracciano, near Rome, and dated to the mid-fifth millennium BC. There are no known older finds but experimentations with replicas of this kind of boat and historical records of its use by other communities – for example those of the Pacific ‒ confirm that the oldest Neolithic expansion through the Mediterranean was feasible in this kind of vessel. The canoe of La Marmotta measures 10 m in length and could accommodate from 10 to 15 people, with their personal belongings, and could travel 20-25 km a day, short cabotage stages, normally without losing sight of important geographical points on the coast.

Zones, such as the big islands of the Mediterranean and southern Italy, went from being relegated in the historical dynamics to being spaces of technological innovation and points of social exchange or meeting

This is, broadly, the panorama of the Neolithic pioneering communities. In Mediterranean terms, the sea probably began to become a different entity from the preceding one, not fully integrated but with spheres already linked to each other. The integration was greater in the following millennia, to the point that the cases of exchanges of goods whose origin was in distant places only accessible by sea increased exponentially – for example, stones like obsidian, which is only found in the Mediterranean in volcanic islands, or the copper of rich outcrops in the islands of Sardinia or Cyprus. With the integration of the Mediterranean underway, my next stop on this journey is around the beginnings of the first millennium BC, when seafarers of Levantine origin made the sea smaller.

Mediterranean Trade and Interaction in the First Millennium BC

The next historical case of cultural contact and mobility that concerns us dates, grosso modo, to the start of the first millennium BC, and throughout the next few centuries before Roman domination of the Mediterranean Sea. Diverse eastern, Levantine and Greek groups established networks of contact with distant lands, which they maintained in the long term with the foundation of permanent settlements throughout the Mediterranean coasts and even in the Atlantic. It was a new phenomenon in the prehistory of this sea, as for the first time distant connections were established with spheres increasingly more integrated in a local and Mediterranean contact network that made the sea increasingly smaller. Therefore, those communities located conveniently close to shipping routes changed the course of their history, as they had access to trade and contact networks that brought them wealth and power. Moreover, the intensity of the episodes of mobility from this date acted as a catalysing mechanism of the spread of certain practices, from consumption to technology, whose simultaneous appearance in distant places indicate the high degree of existing contact. Certain technological changes were essential to allow this connection: the invention of the sail, around the third millennium BC, somewhere in the eastern Mediterranean, is one of them. Another is the development of celestial navigation. Together, these changes gave vessels the capacity to undertake long crossings and intensify contacts.

During the last few years there has been recognition, increasingly with more material foundation, of the joint participation of eastern, central Mediterranean and Western seafarers in the cultural developments of the end of the Bronze Age; in other words, at the end of the second millennium BC and the start of the next (Guerrero, 2008). Metal was a vector of power, and in the centuries that concern us the sea played a fundamental role in the control of the circulation of metal between inland and coastal routes. Towards the end of the Bronze Age a series of small settlements appeared in natural inlets and bays, essential in a system of mobility of people and objects based fundamentally on cabotage. These places had small workshops and spaces for recycling copper and bronze, as shown by the finds of slag of these metals, and nozzles and moulds to cast small objects, such as punches and bars, as happens in Cap Prim, in the extreme south of the Bay of Xàbia (Alicante) or further north in the promontory of Sant Martí d’Empúries (Girona), in the Bay of Roses. The inhabitants of the Balearic Islands also participated in these phenomena, as there was a complex system of infrastructures for cabotage, as suggested by the coastal or small island settlements, with water and food supply points linked to visible shipping milestones (Calvo et al., 2011). Metalwork and its circulation is seen in small coastal places such as Na Galera (Majorca) or in Cala Blanca (Menorca) from casting moulds, ingots and workshops, which suggests a similar panorama to that of the eastern peninsular coast and allows us to deduce regular traffic between the islands and the peninsula for the exchange of ingots and copper-based objects. In general, we recognise multidirectional contacts to trade in metal – especially silver and copper ‒ in the mining basins in Cyprus, Sardinia and the Atlantic area (Celestino et al., 2008).

In Huelva there is data for understanding long-distance Mediterranean trade from the end of the late Bronze Age. The inhabitants of the hillocks came into contact, around the 9th century BC, with groups of eastern traders, as shown by the discovery of precision scales for exchanges, specialised craft objects and remains of metalwork – copper, silver, iron ‒ as well as pottery of diverse origin – Sardinia, southern Italy, Greece, Mediterranean Levant, etc. ‒ that clearly illustrate the commercial and interethnic nature of this contact. Consequently, a panorama emerges in which the circulation of metal, its transformation and later commercialisation, together with other manufactured goods, interested the local populations.

The so-called Phoenician trade diaspora was caused by economic motives derived from internal and external causes of greater scope in the geopolitics of the eastern Mediterranean

In these cases, there were no great permanent settlements of foreign people in these territories but rather episodes of limited contact between traders and seafarers in local territories, in contrast to what would happen a little later, from the 8th century BC, when the so-called Phoenician trade diaspora occurred. This name denominates the establishment of small groups of Phoenicians in their own settlements, frequently in relation with the sea and with shipping routes, on islands, promontories near the mouths of rivers and estuaries, both in the Mediterranean ambit and the Atlantic. This diaspora was caused by economic motives derived from internal and external causes of greater scope in the geopolitics of the eastern Mediterranean (Aubet, 2009). Phoenician shipping only followed the pre-existing routes, but they consolidated the aforementioned experiences and increased the trade and intensity of the contacts (Ruiz-Gálvez, 2013). The diaspora began around the 10th and 9th centuries BC, mainly led by the city of Tyre, with the foundation of trading settlements in Euboea, Crete and Cyprus, and a little later in the central Mediterranean – Carthage ‒ and until the Atlantic – Cadiz, among others ‒, including the coasts of Portugal and Morocco. Around the 7th century BC, there was a dense network of Phoenician settlements in the western basin of the Mediterranean aimed at the economic exploitation of the environment – metalworking, agriculture ‒ through joint participation with local sectors. Again in Huelva, we see this local joint participation in settlements such as Cabezo de San Pedro or Cabezo de la Esperanza together with others located more inland – Aznalcóllar, San Bartolomé de Almonte, Niebla ‒ that would form part of a network to exploit the mine seams, above all silver.

It is clear that the intensity, scale and connections and currents of the mobility would be different from this moment, which would affect the nature of the interaction and the consequences of the contact. The words established in part of the historiography to understand these situations have been the colonial foundations, the concept of colonisation and acculturation and unequal exchange, against which, in recent years, a new paradigm has emerged from postcolonial reflections, which emphasises heterogeneity of the world built through contact and, above all, bestows historicity on all those concerned because the relations are not only unidirectional. On the other hand, we do not always talk of conquest and domination of lands or open violence, or of a permanent confrontation between foreign and local groups, although the contact frequently unleashes interethnic violence, but also alliances. The postcolonial perspectives applied to Antiquity have asserted aspects important to remember because they have a marked everyday material and practical dimension – in contrast to other postcolonial studies ‒: on the one hand, the variable of the place of contact where diverse groups were protagonists of history results in the concept of hybridism, hybridisation and hybrid practices to recognise social categories that go beyond a foreign-local division. On the other, the consequences of the contacts are not uniform, as they bring about new practices, objects and identities because the protagonists of the cultural meetings are the people who interact, reject or collaborate through everyday practices, defined by their tradition.

We do not always talk of conquest and domination of lands or open violence, or of a permanent confrontation between foreign and local groups, although the contact frequently unleashes interethnic violence, but also alliances

In this respect, a line of analysis that has proven fruitful in recent years to explore this coexistence is the identification of phenomena of hybridisation or of hybrid practices, the result of the everyday coexistence of groups of diverse origins. As well as attesting to close contacts, the domestic material culture indicates that, in these cases, new practices were created in the process of accommodating foreign cultural traditions, new objects and traditional knowhow or, vice versa, existing objects adapted to new uses. For example, pottery cookware and tableware changed between many Iberian communities in the course of a couple of generations, perhaps because culinary habits changed as a result of cohabitation. Other examples come from the potential of studying technology as a mediator between people and things, because technical systems are absorbed in social relations and the sequences of the operative chains are choices determined by tradition. Thus, the technology of pottery production shows borrowings from and convergences of different traditions –modelled by hand and turned on a lathe ‒ that denote multidirectionality in the operative chains through the participation of people with different cultural backgrounds (Van Dommelen and Rowlands, 2012; Vives-Ferrándiz, 2014).

Nonetheless, acknowledging that local agencies operate actively in the framework of the relations with eastern seafarers or that there were hybrid practices that were the result of the process of interaction between different social spheres in no way implies symmetry in social relations or the dissolution of any power relationship. On the contrary, these situations of contact must be understood contextually, in the long term and bearing in mind the power relations of the groups and social inequalities. This does not mean, however, that the differences were always dictated by asymmetric relationships between locals and outsiders. In this case study, the motivations for the Phoenician settlement were economic and they did not seek occupation of land or open conquest, to judge by the small number of Phoenicians displaced, the size of their settlements and the extension of their necropolises. Negotiation must have been necessary but also included conflicts, undoubtedly in relation to the intensification of trade and the economic relations and alliances forged. This is proven by the repeated episodes of instability, for instance, around the river Segura and Vinalopó or the protective walls that were built in the 7th century BC and that indicate different defensive traditions in the area of Cadiz or, again, in the mouth of the river Segura. Another example is the territorial restructuring due to contact, as can be seen in Huelva, where a hierarchical network was developed with an organisation of structured work with the object of extracting and channelling the metal to the main sea ports (Celestino et al,. 2008; Vives-Ferrándiz, 2014).

Violence is an unquestionable consequence of the effects of contact and is in itself another factor of empowerment. Contact does not always involve coercion, but it likely channels existing tensions

Violence is an unquestionable consequence of the effects of contact and is in itself another factor of empowerment. Contact does not always involve coercion, but it likely channels existing tensions. Thus, we must bear in mind the degree of violence of the local communities when they began their social complexity, before the Phoenician arrival, which traditionally has not been assessed by research. In any case, in the long term we see that the reiterated contact involved the emergence of new identities with an ideology based on the weapons and on the figure of the warrior. In the small necropolises that appeared from the 6th century BC there are some tombs with iron weapons and they often have ostentatious imports, which suggests that they are related to figures or powerful families that identify status and warrior violence. In parallel, at a territorial scale we witness the emergence of local powers in walled settlements from which political territories were controlled that organised production and supply on a greater scale than the family. These are some of the archaeological markers of a social change that we agree to call Iberian culture, whose historical development is closely linked to a Mediterranean that is now intensively connected.

A Final Reflection

My approach to the Mediterranean has consisted of assessing the significance of the long length of the historical processes by examining two cases in which the maritime geography has been key to the historical development: the Neolithic expansion and the trade contact in the first millennium BC. I have argued that the Mediterranean is not a given entity in which societies have acted as a blue canvas, in which the fact of travelling by sea has been natural. On the contrary, the Mediterranean has been established while its shores and islands were occupied by human groups, regions were linked together and the sea became small because of the fundamental role of shipping technology. Thus, there have been places that are more Mediterranean than others, in the sense that there have been spaces whose geographic location positioned them in a privileged situation in some periods but not in others. Thus, nodes of power have been constituted that engendered more connections than others.

Finally, it is worth highlighting that the Mediterranean is also not a maritime area that has naturally eased contact or separated because the human experience is relegated to an epiphenomenon of geography. From a socially committed archaeology we consider that geography is also in history. Proof of this is the different consideration of some of the hotspots of current geopolitics, such as the Strait of Gibraltar: during part of ancient history this area was socially and economically integrated but today its integration is far from a reality.