Tuesday, 11 March 2008

Romans in Bali and Vietnam?

A few days ago I semi-flippantly used the analogy of the Romans and the south east asian spice trade to explain that the odd anomalous finding is only interesting when you have other evidence that shows its an oddity, but that in the case of Homo floriensis we have an ongoing debate as to its status as we have no evidence whether or not it's an oddity or not.

And then, having invented the scenario of a Roman spice trade boat having been blown off course and wrecked somewhere on the northern coast of WA, I got to wondering if there was any evidence at all about the spice trade and a Roman presence, however tenuous, further east than India.

And it turns out there is.

Roman black burnished slipware pottery of a type manufactured in Arikamedu, a Roman trading settlement in India has turned up in Bali. Of course this doesn't mean that someone called Quintus was strutting his stuff on Kuta beach during the time of the Antonines, but that someone thought it sufficiently worthwhile to take some of this stuff and try and trade it with people living on Bali, or some on sold it to someone on another island who sold it on - the possibilities are endless, and without context we can say is the simple fact that IndoRoman style pottery has been found in Bali and that this points to contact, possibly via third parties.

Given what we know of the Roman spice trade this seems eminently defensible.

Equally interesting are hints of trade links with the state of Funan in what is now Viet nam with reports of roman coins being found during excavations at Oc Eo in 1940. The reports are sketchy, and given the history of the area since 1940 (second world war - french war - american war - reconstruction) it's perhaps unsurprising that ths has not been investigated further.

That said, the presence of coins does not mean direct contact. Coins are portable, a reasonable way of moving precious metal, and sometimes have a significance more than as a means of exchange. For example in Chinatown in San Francisco there are shops that sell nineteenth century American silver dollars and Chinese cash as good luck tokens to bring prosperity to your house. There are other more subtle examples such as the use of British East India Company silver rupees in hill tribe head dresses in Laos, northern Thailand and northern Burma - yes they could be a cash reserve, but they were primarily social in their value.

Just to add to the fun, archaeologists in Viet Nam recently uncovered a boat that appeared to have been built using Roman boat building techniques. It of course doesn't mean that Roman shipwrights were working in Viet Nam. More likely the technique spread via the Roman settlements in India where local boat builders started using the techniques and they were copied throughout the area. Unfortunately, only having one example all we can do is wave our hands and speculate.

So what does this mean?

As a minimum, there is evidence that there were contacts, however indirect, between south east asia and Roman traders. The form and nature of these contacts are however unknown, in part due to the paucity of evidence. It is not unlikely that individual Roman trader traders voyaged to south east asia but the lack of evidence suggests that they did not form an identifiable commnity

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