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Beirutis Set One Fine Table

Inaugurating the Diya Mutasim Dermatology Library
Incoming:  Welcome to new VP and FM Dean Dr. Mohamed H. Sayegh and FAS Dean Patrick McGreevy.

Summer 2009 Vol. VII, No. 4

Beirutis Set One Fine Table

What the ceramic finds in the AUB Souks excavations tell us today about Beirut’s far flung trade routes 2,000 years ago.

Since 1994, the post-war archaeological rescue work in the Beirut Central District has been on an unprecedented scale. Numerous Lebanese and foreign teams participated in the excavation of the Bronze Age, Iron Age, Classical, Medieval and Ottoman city, some 5000 years of Beirut's history.

The Anglo-Lebanese AUB excavations in the Beirut Souks

From 1994-1997 the AUB Anglo-Lebanese team, under the direction of Helga Seeden (AUB) and Dominic Perring and Tim Williams (University of London), investigated a large section (over 3 hectares) of the Hellenistic and Roman-Byzantine layout of classical Beirut in the Beirut Souks district. It can be said to be the largest, single, open-area excavation by modern methods and the data recovered (together with that of all the other teams) has focused attention on Beirut as a platform for the study of sites and regional trade in the Roman Mediterranean.

In the AUB Souks excavations some 20,000 archaeological deposits and structures were recorded, of late Iron Age to Ottoman date, comprising a hellenistic cemetery, several insulae of the Classical city (streets and porticoes, houses, shops, bakeries, a fullery, inns, cisterns), part of the Roman Imperial baths, the Roman quay, Medieval defenses, Fatimid and Crusader occupation, and post-Medieval glass and silk workshops (see below).

Ceramics and trade

The Classical ceramics from the AUB Souks excavations are being prepared for publication by Paul Reynolds, ICREA Professor of the University of Barcelona. The 2009 OUTDOORS festival offered the opportunity to present some of the ceramic finds to the students and general public – amphorae, table and kitchen wares – and explain some of the ways in which these pottery finds illustrate Beirut´s varied regional and long distance trade connections with the provinces of the Roman Empire

The city had its own amphora type, in this case for local wine. It is now possible to trace the stages of its development from its Hellenistic origins in the late 2nd century BC, to the end of its production in the 7th century. Another much smaller, carrot-shaped, amphora produced in Beirut over the 1st to 3rd centuries AD was designed to carry dates, figs and prunes, these being exported to the distant provinces of the Roman West, to Gallia, Germania and Britannia, the Roman army being the principal market. This is the poet Martial´s ‘pointed jar’ or ‘twisted cone’ that carried ‘Syrian figs’ or the ‘damascene prunes’ that he gave to his friends at the feast of Saturnalia.

As today, in the Roman world cargo ships criss-crossed the busy seas, transporting goods from one port to another, arriving at the port of Berytus from all corners of the Roman Mediterranean, the Aegean and the Black Sea. From its early days as a  Roman colony for army veterans under the emperor Augustus Beirut had acquired a penchant for fish sauce (garum). In the 1st and 2nd centuries heavy amphorae carrying these and other fish products arrived from Cádiz in southern Spain and the fish salteries of Roman Portugal.

In the 3rd century Beirut sought additional fish products, especially larger chunks of tuna fish and probably also expensive sturgeon, from the fisheries of the Black Sea, both from the Straits of Kerch in the Crimea and from Sinope on the southern coast. The massive amphorae carrying these goods bear red indicating the weight of the fish and names of the merchants involved.

Wines were a major import, Berytus receiving regular shipments from the Aegean and Asia Minor, southern Anatolia, northern Italy, as well as from Egypt, Gaza and, closer to home, from the southern ports of Roman Phoenicia (Tyre and Akko-Acre) and from Tartus-Amrit and Ras al Basit on the north Syrian coast. In the first century distinctive wide-mouthed amphorae supplied the port with fruit from Naples and Libya.

Alongside these amphora cargoes, in the 1st and 2nd centuries, came frying pans from Phocaea in western Turkey, as well as the baking dishes of the Bay of Naples, the latter also accompanied by delicate Italian thin-walled red tableware. From the 4th century onwards Beirut imported all its tableware from Tunisia (African Red Slip Ware), Cyprus and Phocea. By the time of the earthquake that badly destroyed Beirut in AD 551, the range of imported amphorae was reduced to Levantine forms carrying wine from Gaza, Caesarea, the Antioch region and Cyprus; by now the only long distant imports came from Sinope on the Black Sea, the latter perhaps returning with Phocean Red Slip Ware on ships that had carried state cargoes to Constantinople and the armies of the lower Danube.

-Paul Reynolds

For detailed information on the excavation results, see especially volumes 43 (1997-98), 45-46 (2001-2002) and 48-49 (2004-2005) of AUB's journal BERYTUS Archaeological Studies. These volumes (as well as the forthcoming 2009-2010 volume) contain extensive bibliographical reference lists of this ongoing project.