Monday, 25 February 2013

Roman Bricks in America

Rather nice piece in the Atlantic explaining how a recycled Roman brick from England ended up in Oregon.

A fascinating story in itself, but also one that neatly demonstrates the global reach of trade on the nineteenth century, just as the assault on Petropavlovsk Kamchatsky shows the grlobal reach of the Crimean war, or indeed George Kennan's Tent Life in Siberia shows the global reach of commerce.

Another nice example is the use of the Mexican dollar or silver Peso in China well into the twentieth century. The silver peso was the direct descendant of the pieces of eight of fame. Same size, same weight. The Spaniards traded with the Chinese in the Phillipines and the Chinese liked the peso for its regularity, and consistency. So it became established as a trade currency with the new Chinese republic in 1911 striking their own coins of the same weight.

Peter Fleming, in his 1930's travel writing about China, mentions having to get a supply of Mexican dollars for exchange purposes, in other words they were known and trusted, just as the US dollar is in countries such as Laos today.

Not that any of this is new, the world has always been connected as delving into Sighelm showed me, or indeed the original Scylax and his possible trip down the Ganges 2500 years before Eric Newby.

Trade has always found a way. One morning in northern Greece we were on the road early and we passed some trucks with plates we didn't recognise pulled over at the side of the road and the drivers were performing their morning prayers. The trucks turned out to be from Teheran. Like I said trade always finds a way.

The other nice thing about the Roman brick story is that it demonstrates that things quite often turn up in surprising places for very ordinary reasons. When I  read the introductory paragraph, I thought 'oh yes, ship's ballast'.

I was wrong this time. But actually the bricks could have been loaded as ballast as part of the cargo to be replaced with rocks and dirt from Portland if required - and that explains how Roman small change sometimes turns up in the Americas - not that some Roman got there but that they dropped the change and some thousand plus years later it ends up in a load of dirt and rocks as ballast. Still an interesting story, but perhaps not so much fun as people first thought ...

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