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Indo-Byzantine Exchange (Fourth–Eighth Centuries): A Global History

Rebecca Darley, University of Birmingham, UK, Junior Fellow 2012–2013

My PhD project aims to set Byzantine coin finds from southern India into a broader historical context. It stresses the importance of understanding the state structures that interacted through this trade. While at Dumbarton Oaks, I focused on two case studies for which the library resources are ideally suited: the first-century Periplous of the Erythreian Sea (PES), and the numismatic evidence from the East African state of Aksum. The PES is a uniquely detailed account of trade between the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean and, as such, is vital for understanding Indo-Byzantine exchange despite its early date. By focusing on its manuscript survival within a ninth-century compilation of works of geography and wonder, as well as on its internal structure, I argue (in common with Graham Shipley’s 2011 work on the Periplous of Pseudo-Skylax) that a periplous-genre cannot be assumed in the classical and postclassical Greek world. Rather, the PES should be viewed as a work of scholarly geography, albeit one written by a man of mercantile interests and limited education.

In my study of the Aksumite coinage, I questioned the theory that it was developed in order to interact with late Roman and Byzantine currency, thereby facilitating eastern trade via the Red Sea. In the context of recent archaeological explorations of Aksum and its dominions, it appears that Aksumite currency, while referencing the imperial model provided by Roman coinage, must be understood primarily within the economic sphere of the Aksumite state itself. These case studies helped me to refine and nuance key themes running through my dissertation concerning the decontextualized use of sources in earlier scholarship and the assumed centrality of Roman/Byzantine dynamism in east–west trade. Discussions within the Dumbarton Oaks community also directed my attention to the key question of spatial conceptions of India, which underlies much of the western evidence. Having clarified these central foci of my thesis, the final analytical chapters dealing with the coin finds from India and the archaeology of port sites in the Red Sea, Persian Gulf and along the south Indian coast will be revised and molded accordingly to complete my dissertation.