Between Africa and Ifriqiya - Late antique pottery from Tunisia
Highlighted Works of Art - 2013 winter
In the history of Classical archaeology, the problems of periodization and geographical localisation have been revisited again and again. The familiar tripartite division of European and Mediterranean history first appeared in the three-volume Historia Universalis (1685-1696) by Christoph Keller (Cellarius), who linked the beginning of the Middle Ages (medium aevum) to the establishment of Christanity as the state religion of the Roman Empire (313).
For the Humanists, the year 476 marked the end of Antiquity, when the Germanic Odoacer (476-493) proclaimed himself as king of Italy, de iure ending the Western Roman Empire. Today, however, the time-frame of Antiquity is being extended down to the Muslim conquest in the 7th century AD, since the economic unity and Hellenized culture of the Mediterranean world seems to persist unbroken until that time.
The culture of what became present-day Tunisia was in Late Antiquity characterised, thanks to the fusion of indigenous Berber, Graeco-Roman and Germanic (Vandal) culture, by elements of all three of these traditions, further enriched by the various currents of pagan and Christian religious thought. The area also changed rulers several times during the period. Following the administrative reforms of emperor Diocletian (284-305), the territory formerly belonging to Africa Proconsularis of the Roman Empire was turned into a new province named Africa Byzacena. In 439 it was occupied by the Vandal ruler Geiserich, who ensured the establishment of the North African Vandal Kingdom, capturing the provincial capital, Carthage.
In 533 Belisarius, a general of emperor Iustinian I (527-565) annexed the area to the Byzantine Empire. In the following one and a half centuries not even the uprisings of the local Berber tribes could endanger the authority of Byzantium. Finally, in the second half of the 7th century, during the Muslim conquest, it fell under Ummayad rule.
One might think that these political upheavals and wars would have exhausted the economy of the area, which had by then been flourishing for centuries. But this did not happen. In the Vandal Kingdom, Graeco-Roman culture remained the point of reference, and kings legislated and used their power on the Roman model. Despite the change of regime, the area was still strongly linked both politically and culturally to the Eastern part of the Mediterranean. The continuity of a Graeco-Roman lifestyle and the power of commerce are well illustrated by the renovation of the commercial harbour of Carthage in the Vandal period, and by the basically undisturbed operation of the pottery workshops.
The large estates of the North African territories, with their legendary economic potential, served as the main centres for production. The distribution of goods happened through the ports. Ports served as the starting-points for a network of maritime commerce. From the 4th century onwards, products from the area reached every market of the Mediterranean. Wine, oil, and fish sauce were transported in amphorae. Fine tableware, and lamps were also exported, together with the most important export item, the wheat.
Even though the world of Late Antiquity underwent constant transition and change, the everyday necessities remained essentially the same. Thus, local production of wine, oil and fish sauce was still significant during the Vandal period. Wine was transported in the amphorae of a capacity of 3.5 litres produced around Carthage and Neapolis (Nabeul) between the end of the 4th and the beginning of the 5th centuries AD, and known as spatheion because of their elongated shape (the Greek word spathion means a small sword).(1)
Storage vessels like these have been recovered even from such distant, strongly-defended military centers deep inside Europe, as the mountain fort of Tonovcov grad in Slovenia, or at Vindobona (Vienna), one of the northern border-posts of the Roman Empire. This attests to the intensity of commercial relations.
From the middle of the 5th century onwards, the long-distance system of commerce organized by the Roman state ceased in the areas of the former Western Roman Empire. In the Vandal period, emphasis was placed on regional commercial relations, with different ports conducting overseas business in different directions and becoming independent from the older, Carthage-based system. Characteristic products of this period were the "mini spatheion" amphorae produced around Neapolis and Moknine. These vessels had significantly smaller capacity (usually 1-3 litres) than the earlier specimens, but their shape followed the traditional elongated form. (2)
From the middle of the 3rd century AD, the Roman Empire gradually lost its military power, which made the northern export of the fine pottery mass-produced in Tunisian workshops (the so-called terra sigillata chiara) increasingly difficult. However, these wares can still be found in the larger centers of the Danube region, where - despite their apparent modesty - they represented luxury. This is exemplified by the appliqué-decorated, orange-slipped dishes produced in series between 275 and 400 in the Central Tunisian workshop of Sidi Marzouk Tounsi. (3) Although they were made in serial production, they became individual pieces thanks to the free variation of the separately applied decoration on the rim, the body or the bottom of the vessels.
North African oil lamps made in plaster moulds were also popular exported goods in the Late Roman - Early Byzantine period. Since the discus was frequently decorated with Biblical and Christian motifs, they are usually considered as Early Christian objects. But these lamps were not only produced and used in a Christian milieu; their decoration reflects the culture of the period, when Christianity and paganism were in constant interaction. It is thus not surprising that the decoration of lamps made in Central Tunisia was so varied: animal figures used in previous periods - such as lions (4-5) or hunting scenes (6) - also appear in the 5th and 6th centuries, just like the more recent representation of Christ(?) (7) or the frequently-used Christogram.
Thus we can see that the characteristics of North African pottery production remained the same from the middle of the 4th to the end of the 7th century. Only the Muslim conquest, which reached the area from Egypt, brought significant changes, with the products and economic power of the former province of Africa becoming unavailable in Europe for several centuries. Africa Byzacena, once one of the most prosperous provinces of the Roman Empire, and later the central area of the Vandal Kingdom, was integrated - as part of Ifriqiya - into the system of the Islam World.
Piroska HárshegyiWe are grateful for the generous support of Napfolt Ltd.