Coins, contacts, and trading links in the pre-modern

A friend recently commented on my post on Cosmas Indicopleusetes to the effect that the coin evidence suggested that the contacts between Byzantium and India were slight.

My own view about these things is rather more nuanced these days.

There was undoubtedly a significant trade in spices between Rome and what is now Kerala and Sri Lanka before roughly 700AD.

This involved Somali and other African traders as middlemen and the majority of the trade was probably indirect. The presence of coins and pottery shows that there was trade involving individuals who had contact with the late Roman and Byzantine world.

As well as the St Thomas Christians, there were small ancient Jewish communities in South Asia, and there is even a small black community.

The latter is quite interesting, especially given the murals in the palace ruins at Sigiriya that depict black concubines. Likewise there is a substantial moslem community in Galle that arrived prior to the Dutch, and have never integrated into the Sinhala Buddhist minority.

Even though it is a politically sensitive topic, the presence of pre Islamic Christian remains in the Gulf states and Iran also shows that there were substantial Christian communities involved in the trade and probably pilgrimage. These support networks would have allowed adventurous individuals from the west to reach India and Sri Lanka, just as in early modern times Ralph Fitch reached Chiang Mai, and Robert Shirley, James I’s ambassador to the Shah of Persia encountered Thomas Coryat in the Iranian desert walking from Constantinople to Gujarat.

After 700 AD, the rise of Islam probably made the Gulf route more difficult and while the spice route via Somalia continued the increasing impoverishment of Byzantium reduced the market and the degree of engagement. Clearly there was some engagement, even as as far away as England, Aldhelm knew of pepper, which comes only from Kerala, but most if not all trade was via intermediaries..

The coin evidence, which is virtually non-existent after late antique time does not help us – coins were treated as a way of transporting gold and silver, not necessarily of presence – just as when travelling in third world countries I carry some US dollars and Euros as I know I can always find someone to exchange them.

One thing that struck me when I was recently in Sri Lanka is just how much early modern Dutch and Portuguese small change had been found. We know of course the history of colonialism and why  this would be so. At the same time no coin hoards from rome or Byzantium have been found suggesting that there was not a substantial direct presence, and the coins and pottery turned up by accident.

So, my view is that some adventurous individuals did go there from Rome and Byzantium, but that the majority of the links were indirect and probably via the monsoonal trade route from East Africa.

There is an obvious contrast with the situation in South America, where there is zero evidence of contact between the indigenous polities and the cultures of Europe before 1492. Even in areas such as the Pacific NorthWest where one might expect a trickle on effect in terms of useful items of material culture, such as fish-hooks and other useful tools there is little or no evidence of contact with the outside world before the arrival of Russian fur trappers in the eighteenth century.

Of course material culture is not everything, for example we know that the Yolngu were trading sea cucumbers with Maccassan fishermen as early as the fifteenth century, however there is little material evidence for this trade, purely because neither culture made extensive use of items that would survive the climate of Arnhem land.

Archaeologists have tended to focus on coins, as they tend to be reasonably indestructible, reasonably easy to lose, and have an explicit provenance.

However there tends to be a bit of a tendency to over extrapolate the discovery of coins where they shouldn’t into evidence of contact. This neglects the role of coins as portable wealth, and also the human love of shiny things – people will hang onto an unusual or exotic piece as a lucky coin or a talisman as in the recent discovery of a Roman coin in China – for there to be evidence of contact there has to be a decent quantity of them, not just the odd outlier.

And while the outliers make good copy as in the Kilwa coins mystery, they are just that – outliers and not indicators of trade or substantial contact.

Roman style pottery has been found in Bali – it’s not inconceivable that it got there as a result of trade, it does not however mean that someone called Quintus was strolling along Kuta beach 1800 years ago – he might have, but there is no evidence to suggest a substantial presence on the back of the spice trade.

So, while the presence of material objects can indicate that there was contact, items such as coins which represent portable wealth can easily be handed on as part of an indirect trade operation where I give you some money, you give the money to a man with a boat who hires a crew, sails to Sri Lanka and brings back my cinnamon. You pocket a profit, as does the boat owner. The cinnamon merchant is happy to take your gold as it can be melted down and reused in a way more useful to him.

In fact when thinking about coins we really need coins that indicate evidence of presence and here we are talking about reasonable quantities of low value items, such as the vast number of VoC duits found in Sri Lanka – if we didn’t know from the historical records and the VoC forts, we could guess at a substantial presence due to the amount of small change used to pay soldiers and the like

[update 27/11/2013]

Rebecca Barley. from the University of Birmingham in the UK has just posted an online review of the presence of late Roman copper coins in South India. It’s particularly interesting in the light of my arguement above that the real indicator of presence is a substantial quantity of low value currency – and this would seem to suggest a substantial Roman trading presence in the general area of Karur in Tamil Nadu, at least in the third and fourth centuries AD.


About dgm

Former IT professional, previously a digital archiving and repository person, ex research psychologist, blogger, twitterer, and amateur classical medieval and nineteenth century historian ...
This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Coins, contacts, and trading links in the pre-modern

  1. Pingback: Beads and trading links | stuff 'n other stuff

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s