Trade or Gift Exchange

18 Nov

Ever since my recent rant I’ve been trying to gear myself up to write a review of Paradigms and Methods in Early Medieval Studies. To be honest, I don’t consider that a rant or off-base. This approach still concerns me.

In any case, there are two kinds of books which, on finishing, I’m excited enough about to review. One is the book I found very useful and the other is the book that sucked and/or ticked me off. I have a hard time reviewing books which I think were “just OK.” Paradigms is one of these.

It had some very good articles. Genevra Kornbluth uses a single luxury item to demonstrate why people should be cautious in assigning ethnic linkages to objects. Constance Brittain Bouchard provided a very interesting discussion of how she believes the patrilineal model can be largely attributed to the Carolingians. I also enjoyed a discussion of Michael Kulikowski’s in assessing archaeology to determine if urban centers really declined or changed. I once criticized Kulikowski for what I felt was his trying to fit something with insufficient evidence, at least as stated in Late Roman Spain and Its Cities, into an overall model however there’s no evidence of that in this quite good, IMO, essay.

Then there were some articles I’m less fond of. I can’t say any were terrible but some repeated arguments which were quite well worn; not new paradigms at all. Others appeared to have some axe-grinding going on.

I’d like to mention one essay I particularly enjoyed. Florin Curta discusses the exchange of Baltic Sea goods with Eastern Europe in, “The Amber Trail in Early Medieval Eastern Europe.” I’ve quite enjoyed hearing him speak and attending sessions he’s organized over the years at Kalamazoo and I thought his Making of the Slavs was quite good.

During the 6th century numerous finds of amber originating from the Baltic Sea region have been found in the Middle Danube, near the present Hungarian-Romanian border and on the northern shore of the Black Sea on the Crimean peninsula.1 Most commonly this is in the form of disk- or barrel-shaped beads however raw amber is also found. Historians have tended to view this as evidence of an active trade network between southeastern Europe and the Baltic. Curta believes that while this is evidence of an exchange network, it is more indicative of gift-giving than trade.

During the 6th century, amber finds take on a curious pattern. Curta displays both a map and a table showing that there are a few finds near the Baltic Coast, then virtually nothing for a distance of up to 750 km from the coast with substantial amber finds at a distance of 750-1500 km. Of 2,254 beads found, 2,199 are found at this distance from the coast. (64)

Curta believes this distribution pattern is inconsistent with a trade network and should be viewed as evidence of elite gift exchange between the Baltic and present-day Hungary and Crimea. He believes that, “A commercial network for the distribution of amber south- and eastward from the Baltic Sea would have produced a much more dispersed distribution, not unlike that of the early Roman period.” (68) He believes that the amber was given, often in raw form with beads then manufactured locally. This amber was then used as a means of status display, particularly for women as the Middle Danube began to undergo social differentiation. (68-9) He further enhances this concept by stating that, “The association of amber with elites is amply confirmed by excavations in Crimea and the Caucasus region, where amber is restricted to a few, high-status sites.” (69)

Amber is found through the 7th century, including in bronze hoards in Ukraine. (71) Around the year 700 amber disappears from both the Middle Danube and Crimea. Curta believes this should be interpreted as an interruption of contact between these areas and the Baltic Coast elites. Once amber begins to be distributed again during the Carolingian period, the Middle Danube is not part of the picture. (71-2) In essence, Curta believes historians have been looking for a revival of something that didn’t exist prior to the 9th century and that the Amber Trail in the 6th and 7th centuries wasn’t a trail at all, but that the concentrated nature of depositions at substantial distances from the point of origin of the product should be considered evidence of another form of contact and exchange; one of gift-giving between elites.

Obviously, I found this article very interesting. My one regret is that it isn’t longer. It consists of about 11 pages of text (the first and last are half pages) including two maps and a table; likely 3,500-4,000 words. There are many details I’m interested in finding more about. I would have been interested in finding out if Curta felt these were simple two-way Baltic-Danubian and Baltic-Crimean exchange systems, or if there were contacts between the Danube and Crimea as well, creating something of a triangle. I would also have liked more detail on the finds themselves and on the evolution of a social hierarchy which Curta only mentions briefly. The presence of raw amber is also interesting and not something I would have expected to be exchanged as a gift. I suspect this is a failing on my part; after all, even today we often trade raw timber internationally rather than sending finished lumber (there are sound reasons for this, including the susceptibility of finished lumber to salt water damage when compared with timber). I think it’s important to note that though Curta’s explanation accounts for high-level elite contact rather than lower level contact through trade, it is contact and evidence that early medieval culture groups maintained communication and networks with one another. Interesting stuff and something I hope I have the chance to find him going into in more depth elsewhere.

1Curta states that infrared spectrography can determine if amber is Baltic in origin. (61-2)

Curta, Florin, “The Amber Trail in Early Medieval Eastern Europe” in Paradigms and Methods in Early Medieval Studies, ed., Celia Chazelle and Felice Lifshitz. (Palgrave MacMillan: New York, 2007), pp. 61-79. ISBN: 978-1-4039-6942-2


Posted by on November 18, 2010 in Books, Economy


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2 responses to “Trade or Gift Exchange

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