Stanford professor looks underwater for history of the Roman Empire

Related Articles

Related Articles

Using archeological evidence from shipwrecks and harbors, classics scholar Justin Leidwanger uncovers the story of economic networks during a millennium of classical antiquity.

Stanford scholar Justin Leidwanger spends a lot of time underwater.

An assistant professor of classics, Leidwanger is a maritime archeologist. His research entails what it sounds like it would – exploring artifacts that lie beneath the sea.


A scholar with interests in the Roman and early Byzantine eras, Leidwanger has conducted thousands of dives – mostly to explore shipwrecks of the Eastern Mediterranean region. His students, too, don snorkels or scuba gear and work underwater.

Marine archeology, Leidwanger says, provides a privileged perspective on ancient history.

“There is a lot of theoretical work on the maritime economy of the Roman Empire, but I am interested in the close details of sea travel and how archeological finds can shed light on the history of consumption and connectivity around the Mediterranean,” said Leidwanger.

The social networks established by sea travel, Leidwanger says, were the basis of commerce during the Roman Empire, and in the shipwrecks and harbors he is able to see evidence of “who was interacting with whom and how and when these objects were being transported and for what reason.”

Leidwanger’s aim is to bring together the theoretical models of ancient economics and socioeconomic connectivity with hard data from his underwater fieldwork.

“The Roman Empire was the most complex state structure at the time with a lot of movement of goods and people through the landscape,” Leidwanger said. “I am interested in how these structures and social networks change over the life of the Roman Empire.”

He is currently engaged in two projects, the Marzamemi Maritime Heritage Project in Sicily and the Burgaz Harbors Project in Turkey.

“Sicily was a nexus of communication and commerce between the eastern and western Roman Mediterranean. In the shipwrecks there, we are finding evidence of the changing patterns of commerce when the capital moved from Rome to Constantinople in the 4thcentury A.D.,” Leidwanger notes.

In Turkey, archeologists are currently excavating four shallow-water harbors to get a picture of what the harbor structures were like. In the 4th century B.C., during the late Classical period, Burgaz became a regional and international economic center for the export of agricultural goods.

“We are finding evidence of how these integral structures changed over time,” Leidwanger says.

Uncovering history in the mare nostrum

The location of Leidwanger’s current research is key to uncovering archeological data about the importance of the Mediterranean Sea for the Romans.

“The Mediterranean Sea has been described as an ‘inverted continent,’ a zone of human culture and relationships centered on the sea rather than land, a product of geography that led me to focus on the maritime,” Leidwanger said.

To undertake his research, Leidwanger maps and excavates marine sites to understand what was being transported and when.

At sites in Sicily or Turkey, where he travels each summer with Stanford students, Leidwanger excavates harbors and shipwrecks that often contain well-preserved artifacts that he can analyze in the lab.

“The great thing about shipwrecks is that I often find intact pottery jars, which are very helpful, as you can then determine their capacity, what they transported and how they were used.”

These artifacts, he says, often provide glances into their history.

“They sometimes have inscriptions on them, one scratched over another, so I can establish a life history of those objects, which can then quantifiably fit into a larger history on the movement of objects and the nature of consumption in maritime antiquity,” Leidwanger said.

“In Sicily, I have raised artifacts from half a mile off the coast of Marzamemi, where there are a dozen shipwrecks, including vessels carrying massive granite columns and prefabricated marble architectural elements, probably to be used in an early Byzantine church during the 6th century,” he said.

High-tech teamwork

Leidwanger’s work is an international operation. In his two current projects in Sicily and Turkey, Leidwanger has collaborators from Canada, Italy, Turkey and Israel. Stanford students also play a fundamental role on the field trips.

“Our students get a lot of field experience in different parts of the world. This summer, I’ll be taking a number of undergraduates and graduates with me to both Turkey and Sicily. It is a cultural experience, and one in which the students’ input is vital,” Leidwanger said.

Megan Daniels, a graduate student in classics, works with Leidwanger on the site in Turkey, assisting with pottery analysis.

“We perform visual and scientific analyses on the ceramics to better understand local and long-distance trade routes and the long-term dynamics of the maritime economy. Working with the raw materials of trade to contribute to a broader picture of the ancient economy is very exciting,” Daniels said.

Technology plays a key role in the equipment- and cost-intensive world of marine archeology. Sonar and other remote sensing technologies help to find and contextualize sites, while innovative computer applications allow archaeologists to create 3-D maps of the seabed.

“It is important to choose the right tools for the right occasion, and you need to have the right research questions. What goods were moving, and why? How did this change over time? These are the questions that motivate me,” Leidwanger said.

Marissa Ferrante, an undergraduate majoring in archeology, traveled to Sicily as part of the team last summer.

According to Ferrante, who is currently creating a 3-D topographic map of the site and the seabed, “Excavating underwater sites and collecting data in the field has allowed me to relate classroom discussions of theories and archaeological best practices to real-world applications.”

Preserving cultural heritage

Leidwanger and his team use technological tools to map the site and then set up a conservation lab to begin analysis.

“Underwater artifacts tend to soak up salt, so they need long-term treatment. Wood, pottery, stone and metal all need different treatment processes. At our colleagues’ lab in Turkey, for example, they are still conserving and mending pottery that was excavated in the 1980s and 1990s.”

After the artifacts are extracted and restored, they are often exhibited in museums and used to highlight heritage issues and establish marine preserves.

Leidwanger, who teaches a class on archeological ethics, is passionate about the process of sustainable archeology.

“Legal jurisdictions, particularly underwater, aren’t always well defined, and heritage and preservation therefore become key issues. The sovereignty over sites and excavated materials can be unclear and there are some opportunists around.”

Leidwanger makes an effort to situate his research within a broader dialogue on natural and cultural heritage practices. In Sicily, for example, he said he is “helping to implement state-of-the-art site management alongside local initiatives for environmentally sustainable tourism and economic development.”

For Leidwanger, archeology is more than just looking at artifacts and excavation sites:

“For me, it is about establishing and maintaining cultural heritage so that we can better understand history. It is about social networks and human relationships with objects and places, relationships that are as important today as they were in the past.”

Header Image : Roman mosaic from the 2nd century AD : WikiPedia

Contributing Source : Stanford University

Download the HeritageDaily mobile application on iOS and Android

More on this topic


Pace of Prehistoric Human Innovation Could be Revealed by ‘Linguistic Thermometer’

Multi-disciplinary researchers at The University of Manchester have helped develop a powerful physics-based tool to map the pace of language development and human innovation over thousands of years - even stretching into pre-history before records were kept.

Study Sheds New Light on the Behaviour of the Giant Carnivorous Dinosaur Spinosaurus

New research from Queen Mary University of London and the University of Maryland, has reignited the debate around the behaviour of the giant dinosaur Spinosaurus.

New Skull of Tube-Crested Dinosaur Reveals Evolution of Bizarre Crest

The first new skull of a rare species of the dinosaur Parasaurolophus (recognized by the large hollow tube that grows on its head) discovered in 97 years.

Women Influenced Coevolution of Dogs and Humans

In a cross-cultural analysis, Washington State University researchers found several factors may have played a role in building the mutually beneficial relationship between humans and dogs, including temperature, hunting and surprisingly - gender.

Dinosaur Embryo Helps Crack Baby Tyrannosaur Mystery

They are among the largest predators ever to walk the Earth, but experts have discovered that some baby tyrannosaurs were only the size of a Border Collie dog when they took their first steps.

First People to Enter the Americas Likely Did so With Their Dogs

The first people to settle in the Americas likely brought their own canine companions with them, according to new research which sheds more light on the origin of dogs.

Climate Change in Antiquity: Mass Emigration Due to Water Scarcity

The absence of monsoon rains at the source of the Nile was the cause of migrations and the demise of entire settlements in the late Roman province of Egypt.

Archaeologists Discover Bas-Relief of Golden Eagle at Aztec Templo Mayor

A team of archaeologists from the Instituto Nacional de Antropologia e Historia (INAH) have announced the discovery of a bas-relief depicting an American golden eagle (aquila chrysaetos canadensis).

Popular stories

Exploring the Stonehenge Landscape

The Stonehenge Landscape contains over 400 ancient sites, that includes burial mounds known as barrows, Woodhenge, the Durrington Walls, the Stonehenge Cursus, the Avenue, and surrounds the monument of Stonehenge which is managed by English Heritage.

The Iron Age Tribes of Britain

The British Iron Age is a conventional name to describe the independent Iron Age cultures that inhabited the mainland and smaller islands of present-day Britain.

The Roman Conquest of Wales

The conquest of Wales began in either AD 47 or 48, following the landing of Roman forces in Britannia sent by Emperor Claudius in AD 43.

Vallum Antonini – The Antonine Wall

The Antonine Wall (Vallum Antonini) was a defensive wall built by the Romans in present-day Scotland, that ran for 39 miles between the Firth of Forth, and the Firth of Clyde (west of Edinburgh along the central belt).