Trade and travel

One of the best archaeological signals that people were in touch with each other is trade and one of the commodities that survives best in the ground is pottery. The medieval pottery of Sicily has been intensively studied by Sicilian archaeologists and the Rome team of the SICTRANSIT project has played a key role. The shape and colour and type of fabric leads to the definition of huge number of individual types.

Examples of different styles of pottery analysed during the SICTRANSIT project.
Microscope cross-sections of pottery.

The fabric itself contains clay and filler which derive from local rocks: therefore identifying the fragments of minerals and knowing where they originate means that we know where the pots were made. The minerals in the fabric were revealed by Claudio Capelli making thin sections which show up their characteristic colour and shape. Antonino Meo and Paola Orecchioni have studied the enormous assemblages from our excavations and have been able to supplies of the different pottery types from where they were made to where they were found, both within the island and overseas.

Where pots go, people went too, so the potsherds we find are like discarded train tickets, the evidence of innumerable journeys from far and near. Especially popular were the beautifully decorated yellow and green glazed dishes introduced by the Muslims. Perhaps no type of pottery has proved more useful than the amphora a large container used in the Mediterranean to transport liquids such as wine and olive oil for over two thousand years. They have characteristic fabrics and shapes with big handles and sometimes stamps or splashes of paint – suggesting that those who were heaving them on and off ships good recognise where they came from and perhaps what they were carrying.

Examples of the decorated glazed dishes introduced during the Muslim period in Sicily.

Amphorae travelled the Mediterranean in Phoenician and Greek times and by the late Roman period in the 4th-7th centuries there were some twenty types in circulation. These mostly carried wine or olive oil from the olive groves of North Africa to Rome, where they discharged their cargos to provide fuel for the cities' many lamps. This was an imperial trade commanded by the emperor that followed particular routes of supply.

The medieval trade also carried their commodities in amphorae but they were a different shape: baggy in the 8th century, tall and slender in the 10th and larger in the 12th (see a diagram of examples). By the 13th century the amphora had had its day as a transport container and served rather as a storage vessel. The medieval merchants were less constrained than their Roman predecessors, and their routes criss-crossed the seas in all directions, finding markets in many different ports.

[Map interactive]

Most of the pottery found in excavations is locally made or imported and varied in type and quantity through the Middle Ages. To find what Sicily was exporting over this period requires us to identify locally made types and then find examples in ports and settlement all over the Mediterranean. In this way Viva Sacco discovered that the Muslims of medieval Sicily were sending a particular type of amphora overseas, while Léa Drieu found that they had contained wine. This surprising discovery that the Sicilian Muslims were exporting wine to Christian ports made the headlines during our project, but it fits well with the merchant enterprise of the Muslims who were not necessarily wine drinkers themselves.

Glass was also imported into Sicily from different places – identified from the minerals mixed with silica that are diagnostic of workshops – especially those of the Near East. The types also vary with time: goblets, bowls and bottles for the Byzantines, a wide range of exquisite flagons and ampoules in the Muslim period and heavier cruder vases for the Normans.

[Good image of glassware required]

Overall, trade patterns between the 5th to 13th centuries point to the 10th to 11th centuries as a period of notable enterprise, sea traffic and prosperity for Sicily.

The trade in slaves is notorious and well-documented historically, mainly as a net movement of people from Slavic countries (slaves) to markets in the south, including Sicily. These included women, children and eunuchs, and the emphasis on taking people as booty in the Arab wars against Sicily is an indication of demand. The trade is however elusive archaeologically. While aDNA certainly suggests the arrival of people from sub-Saharan Africa and the Balkans in the Muslim period, they are not necessarily slaves.