Conference PaperPDF Available

The Hidden Divers: Sponge harvesting in the archaeological record of the Mediterranean Basin


Abstract and Figures

The aim of this study is to enhance the visibility of divers in the archaeological record of ancient Greece. Direct evidence of diving in antiquity is rather scarce, and this has contributed to hide their presence in the scholarship, failing to recognise the important roles divers played in their communities. Although references to divers and the use of sponges have been preserved in several texts, no attempt has been made to correlate these narratives with the archaeological record. This research intends to transcend these limitations by applying a new theoretical framework derived from the principles of Middle Range Theory and Behavioural Archaeology. Their respective emphases on the importance of the ethnographic record and experimental archaeology have made it possible to reinterpret and correlate several artefacts to the work of divers in antiquity. The indirect evidence of their work, for example, in the use of sponges in arts, medicine or personal hygiene, points to an extensive use of this commodity that had to be provided by divers. This is the first step in an ongoing research aimed at providing a more accurate understanding of the important role that divers, and sponges as a commodity, played in the trade and economy of the Mediterranean in antiquity.
Content may be subject to copyright.
ISBN 978-0-906305-13-3
— Interdisciplinary Animal Studies Initiative at SOAS —
Proceedings of the International Sponges Conference
[School of Oriental and African Studies]
Island of Hydra, Greece, 19-20 May 2018
* Survival and prosperity in Symi in the South-Eastern Aegean, 1850-1950
* The global commerce in sponges, 1815-1945
* The Cuban sponge economy, 1850s-1980s
* An oral history of the sponge-fishing industry of the Island of Hydra, Greece
* Shallow-water sponge community restoration in the Florida Keys
* Spatial and temporal adaptation of a traditional Mediterranean fishery
* Sexing the sponge: luxury, trade and the female body
* On The sponge fishing activity of the island of Kalymnos by Evdokia Olympitou
* Beneath the 12-Mile Reef: Archival curio of 20th century sponger culture
* Sponges of economic value from Singapore
* Sponges: Philippine waters and the rise of economic zoology, 1881-1916
* Spongia officinalis, the sponge by definition: implications for conservation
* Sponge harvesting in the archaeological record of the Mediterranean basin
* Sponges versus foams: Nature and human artefact
Proceedings of the International Sponges Conference
[SOAS, University of London]
Island of Hydra, Greece, 19-20 May 2018
THE GLOBAL LIFE OF SPONGES :: Proceedings of the
International Sponges Conference [SOAS, University of
London], Island of Hydra, Greece, 19-20 May 2018
Edited: Ed Emery
ISBN :: 978-0-906305-13-3
First published by RN Books of London, in February 2020
Printed by PODWW of Peterborough
Typeset in 10.5pt Times New Roman by Universitas
Copies of this book may be acquired by contacting:
SOAS Bookshop, Thornhaugh Street, London WC1H 0XG
Tel: 0207 898 4470
Inquiries related to the text may be addressed to:
Conference website:
Copyright of this collection © RN Books 2019. Copyright of
individual articles rests with their authors.
With thanks to the Mayor and Municipality of the Island of
Hydra, for their hospitality.
Si forte aliquid repertum fuerit quod lima correctionis indigeat,
corrigatur ut dicit Augustinus: “Talis volo essere in scripturis aliorum
quales exspecto correctores meorum et haec est caritas”.
The publication of this volume has been enabled by
subscription among our conference membership.
INTRODUCTION……………………………………………………………………. p. 1
1. On the status of Spongia officinalis, the sponge by definition, and implications for
conservation. A review
Roberto Pronzato [Università di Genova] & Renata Manconi [Università di Sassari] ...p. 3
2. Sponges versus foams: Nature and human artefact
Axel Thallemer [Hong Kong University of Science and Technology] ..….…………... p. 29
3. Sexing the sponge: Luxury, trade and the female body
Joyce Goggin [Universiteit van Amsterdam] ………………………….…………..…. p. 37
4. The global commerce in sponges, 1815-1945
William Clarence-Smith [SOAS, University of London] …………….……………… . p. 55
5. The hidden divers: Sponge harvesting in the archaeological record of the
Mediterranean basin
Emilio Rodríguez-Álvarez [School of Anthropology, University of Arizona]……….. p. 69
6. Towards a history of sponge harvesting in the Mediterranean: a focus on the
Kalymnos fishery between the two wars
Maïa Fourt, Daniel Faget & Thierry Pérez [Aix-Marseille University, France]……… p 85
7. On The sponge fishing activity and community of the island of Kalymnos by Evdokia
Gelina Harlaftis [Institute for Mediterranean Studies / Ionian University] .………… p. 97
8. Stories of sponges: survival and prosperity in the island society of Symi in the South-
Eastern Aegean, 1850-1950
Theofania Angelopoulou [University of Crete] ……………………….…………….. p. 105
9. An oral history of the sponge-fishing industry of the Island of Hydra, Greece
Ed Emery [SOAS, University of London] …………………………….…………….. p. 127
10. The Cuban sponge economy, 1850s-1980s
William Clarence-Smith [SOAS, University of London] …………….……………… p. 141
11. Beneath the 12-Mile Reef: Archival curio of 20th century sponger culture
Hannah Hjerpe-Schroeder [Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia] ……..……………. p. 147
12. Restoration of sponge beds in the Florida Keys
Ed Emery [SOAS, University of London] …………………………….…………….. p. 153
13. Prospecting for sponges: Philippine waters and the rise of economic zoology,
Anthony Medrano [History and South Asian Studies, Harvard University] ………… p. 157
14. Sponges of economic value from Singapore
Lim Swee Cheng [National University of Singapore] ……………………………….. p. 166
Stories of the sponge fishers
Yannis Yérakis, with a preface by Spiro Ampelas ………………….….….…………. p. 173
On the sponge industry of Hydra: Endless pain upon pain
Yiannis A. Karamitsos ……………………..………….……….….……………….…. p. 185
A note on sponge-fishing in Hydra
Manolis Tsakiris [Ecologists’ Association of Hydra]………….….……………….…. p. 193
The Sponge Collection of Kostas Argitis [Hydra] ..………….……..……..…….…. p. 195
Jason Melissinos – Karaghiozis the Sponge Fisher ..………….……..……..……….. p. 199
The Hidden Divers: Sponge harvesting in the archaeological record of the
Mediterranean Basin
Emilio Rodríguez-Álvarez [School of Anthropology, University of Arizona]
Abstract: The aim of this study is to enhance the visibility of divers in the archaeological
record of ancient Greece. Direct evidence of diving in antiquity is rather scarce, and this
has contributed to hide their presence in the scholarship, failing to recognise the
important roles divers played in their communities. Although references to divers and the
use of sponges have been preserved in several texts, no attempt has been made to
correlate these narratives with the archaeological record.
This research intends to transcend these limitations by applying a new theoretical
framework derived from the principles of Middle Range Theory and Behavioural
Archaeology. Their respective emphases on the importance of the ethnographic record
and experimental archaeology have made it possible to reinterpret and correlate several
artefacts to the work of divers in antiquity. The indirect evidence of their work, for
example, in the use of sponges in arts, medicine or personal hygiene, points to an
extensive use of this commodity that had to be provided by divers. This is the first step in
an ongoing research aimed at providing a more accurate understanding of the important
role that divers, and sponges as a commodity, played in the trade and economy of the
Mediterranean in antiquity.
This research starts with a paradoxical question: is it possible to carry out an
archaeological study without the support of material evidence? The general assumption,
and it is not necessarily an incorrect one, is that archaeology is, broadly speaking, the
study of past times through its artefacts. Freediving is an activity that seems to offer no
possibilities for the archaeologists, due to the apparently succinct and perishable nature of
the toolkit of the diver. The goal of this work is to demonstrate that it is not only possible
to develop an archaeological study of divers, but that the evidence to succeed in such a
task is hidden in plain sight in front of us. Mediterranean archaeology, especially the
archaeology devoted to Greek and Roman cultures, has found in divers none of their
usual topics of interest, thus relegating their important socio-economic contributions to
footnotes in translations of Oppian and Pliny, or studies related to the use and
exploitation of the sea. So let us first explore what we know about divers in ancient times.
Divers in the Mediterranean: the state of the knowledge
Despite the importance of ethnographic records on communities of divers in the
Mediterranean basin, especially regarding the harvesting of sponges,1 scholarly interest
in the topic has been extremely limited. The only systematic study of divers in the
Mediterranean in antiquity is a paper entitled Scyllias: Diving in Antiquity, by Frank
Frost.2 The author compiled all the available literary evidence from Graeco-Roman
sources who referred to divers, whether historically or metaphorically. The name Scyllias
refers to a diver from Scione, in the Chalcidic peninsula, who, after being conscripted by
the Persians to serve in Xerxes’ invading army in 480 BCE, defected to the Greeks, but
not before triggering the destruction of the Persian fleet at Cape Artemission.3 A parallel
Emilio Rodríguez-Álvarez
tradition recorded by Pausanias in the 2nd century CE mentions the existence of two
statues erected by the Amphictyons of Delphi in this Panhellenic sanctuary to honour
Scyllias and his daughter Hydne, who had also participated in the attack on the Persian
fleet.4 Pliny the Elder5 also mentions a painting by Androbius representing the dive, now
lost. The reference to Hydne is especially interesting, since women are not generally
mentioned in the Greek literary tradition. This research provides some of the earliest
references in Greek language to the use of divers to collect shellfish,6 and concludes that
there were three main areas of application of divers: commercial fishing, salvage, and
war.7 Frost’s compilation of ancient authors was a detailed and meritorious work, that has
served as an index for any scholar8 or general writer,9 dealing with the history of
Any search for artefacts related to diving in antiquity will lead, almost exclusively, to the
figure of a young Etruscan plunging into the water (Figure 1). La Tomba del Tuffatore
(The Tomb of the Diver, c. 470 BCE), discovered in 1968 in a cemetery of the Greek city
of Posidonia (Roman Paestum, in Southern Italy) has been subjected to multiple symbolic
interpretations, from Pythagorean interpretations based on the number of elements
represented to the erotic connotations of death by lovers mad with passion jumping from
cliffs (katapontismos) that we find in several literary works.10 Ross Holloway interpreted
the diving into the sea as a transition of the soul from the perils of life to the safety of the
eternal symposium, represented in the side slabs of the cist, a motif inspired by similar
representations in Etruscan burials.11 Of all possible interpretations, none contemplates
the figure as a diver plunging into the sea.
Figure 1: Slab cover of the Tomb of the Diver, Poseidonia, c.470 BCE. Creative Commons.
Theoretical Framework
The portrayal of divers presented above is not able to transcend the historical narrative
due to its inability to “read” divers in the archaeological record. The main reason for this
is the scope under which divers are studied. Rather than as active agents performing a
task, they are portrayed as artefacts, passive objects of literary study that are unable to
provide us with enough data to reconstruct their social and economic role in the past. In
order to succeed in the task of increasing the visibility of divers in the archaeological
record it is necessary to abandon this passive perspective and to provide a new theoretical
The hidden divers
framework based on two main concepts: Middle Range Theory and Flow Models of
Evidence in Behavioural Archaeology.
The concept of Middle Range Theory (MRT) was first introduced by Lewis Binford in
the early years of Processual Archaeology.12 After careful observation of present-day
communities of hunter-gatherers, he concluded that they could provide us with first-hand
examples of how similar tasks may have been performed in the past. The second
theoretical perspective used in this study applies the Flow Models of Evidence (FME)
from Behavioural Archaeology in order to contextualise our information. In an extremely
brief description of this theory, we can state that at any given time a series of interactions
between individuals and material culture is taking place (systemic context), and when this
human behaviour stops, we are left with a set of material culture in a spatial matrix
(archaeological context). The emphasis is made on human behaviour, divers as active
agents rather than as passive objects of study, with the interaction between humans and
their environment mediated by technology. One of the founders of Behavioural
Archaeology. Michael Schiffer, defined technology as “[…] a corpus of artifacts,
behaviors and knowledge for creating and using products that is transmitted
intergenerationally”.13 This definition goes beyond the scope of the analysis of material
culture to include social and symbolic aspects not only in the transmission but in the very
practice of technology. Language, finally, plays a very important role: It is interesting to
notice how classical authors distinguished “general” divers from sponge-cutters even in
the same work, using the term dutes for the former 14 and spongotomos for the latter.15
What do we actually know about ancient divers?
The advantage of applying a new theoretical framework for the study of ancient divers is
two-fold: on the one hand we can recover important misread evidence from the
archaeological record and return it to its proper context, where it can help to provide us
with a more accurate vision of ancient divers and, on the other hand, it serves to generate
new evidence about them and their feats. This work provides several examples of misread
and hidden evidence on the archaeological record, but before dealing with them let us
consider the most obvious premise of all: divers in the past were human beings.
Physiological stresses in ancient divers
This statement might be considered simplistic, even naïve, but it encloses an important
research consideration: all physiological stresses that affect modern divers, whether
traditional shellfish and sponge collectors, sportive spearfishers or elite deep water
freedivers, also affected sponge collectors and subsistence divers in the past. The
collection of data regarding this topic is conditioned by the preservation bias that favours
the presence of hard over soft tissue in the archaeological record. Since the development
of apnea as a competitive sport, the studies on the physiological effects of freediving on
the human body have flourished, being able to explain both the reasons why those depths
can be reached and the damages that can be caused on several tissues. Although
decompression sickness is less of a risk for freedivers than for SCUBA divers, arising
from the alveolar collapse caused by the hydrostatic pressure,16 there are several common
risks to all divers, such as narcosis, haemoptysis and hypoxia (“blackout”). Past and
present diver alike are obliged to equalise to relieve the pressure on the eardrums,
because they can be damaged as a result of repetitive dives or the temperature of the
Emilio Rod ríguez-Álvarez
These risks affect mostly soft tissue and, when they occur, the diver might pay with
his/her life. But even if the natural (e.g. arid landscapes, anaerobic conditions) or cultural
conditions of the preservation (e.g. mummification) provide us with access to soft tissue,
the short time between the accident and the deposition of the body will not allow for any
trace to be left in the body that could withstand the passing of time. Only when diving
takes place repeatedly during the lifetime of the subject and even by generations, can we
expect an evolution of the soft tissue to adapt to the water. This is the conclusion that
Melissa A. Ilardo et al 17 have reached after studying the genetic adaptations to diving
among the Bajau people, a group of sea nomads from South East Asia. This study
concludes that natural selection on genetic variants has favoured PDE10A, a gene that
increases the size of the spleen, and the BDKRB2, which affects the human diving reflex.
A larger spleen provides an extra reserve of blood cells to the diver that gets activated
underwater but, and this is the significant element in evolutive terms, there is not
statistically significant differences between those Bajau engaged in diving and those with
a more land-based subsistence.18 Measurements of spleen size could be taken for other
groups such as the Chinchorro, in South America, which mummified their deceased and
for whom the practice of apnea has been assessed by other methods.19
Despite the significance of the research on the Bajau, most physiological studies on
freediving are usually linked to the record-breaking depths of professional apneists. The
difference consists in diving as deep as possible, expending the least amount of oxygen
and energy possible, and returning to the surface, calling it a day after one single dive.
This contrasts with the more active work of fishing and collecting practised by ancient
and traditional divers, or the skills shown by combat divers in several historical passages
from ancient historians.20 In modern terms, spearfishing is an activity much closer to
ancient and traditional divers. For example, the species of sponge harvested in the
Mediterranean grow at depths of between 4 and 40 meters, and most of the rock fishes
can be found between 5 and 15 meters.21 The revival ofskandalopetra as a competitive
sport, especially the annual festival celebrated in the island of Kalymnos, may also
provide us with new physiological and ethnographic information. These disciplines are
significantly different to the No-limits world records in freediving established by Herbert
Nitsch (214m) and Tanya Streeter (160m). Thus, the physiological effects of diving in
ancient times must be understood in the repetition of the same activity rather than the
depths of a single dive.
Aristotle 22 addressed the problems of equalising, indicating that to avoid the problem
divers made a permanent piercing in their eardrums, a behaviour that Frost23 paralleled
with some practices among pre-industrial divers, although he does not provide a specific
example nor does he explain how the pierced eardrum was prevented from healing and
closing up again. Oppian 24 recorded that on some occasions divers emerged with the face
covered in blood and the nose bleeding profusely due to the changes in pressure. His
description matches that of haemoptysis after breath-hold diving, caused by a rapid rise to
the surface at depths of not even 25 m.25
The tools of the trade
As stated above, the tools of a diver were common ones and in most cases made of
perishable materials, leaving a limited record to work with. Careful examination of this
record, however, allows us to provide material evidence for this trade. Although several
authors provide more or less extensive references for the work of divers, the texts of
Pliny 26 and especially Oppian 27 present the most complete descriptions on the topic.
Both writers are relatively late sources (1st and 2nd c. CE respectively), but the tools and
The hidden divers
techniques described in their works are mentioned as well in earlier authors, so it is
plausible to infer that their descriptions of diving can be applied, to some extent, to
earlier periods. Oppian provides the most complete of these descriptions and considers
that divers have the worst and most woeful of works.28
From these textual evidences we can list several tools used by divers, namely knives and
bills, lead weights, ropes, oil, and, in order to reach the sponge beds, boats. Net bags are
not mentioned, but their usage by divers is well attested. All these elements can be found
in the archaeological record and can be associated to divers if the theoretical model
presented above is applied and the misinterpretations are reinterpreted. The best, but by
no means the only, example of misidentification is provided by a famous Caeretan hydria
dated c. 525-510 BCE that is today in the private collection of the Niarchos Foundation.29
On it, a sea-creature, identified always as a ketos, or sea-monster, is fighting a heroic
figure, identified as Perseus by Isler 30 and Herakles by Boardman,31 despite the fact that
no attributes associated to these characters are present in the scene. Both heroes have
Figure 2: Caeretan hydria, 520-510 BCE. Side A, a human figure fighting a sea monster. Note
the seal on the left side of the scene. Marangou 1995.
Emilio Rodríguez-Álvarez
mythological feats ascribed to them regarding the liberation of a princess from a sea
monster. Other authors such as Hemelrijk32 and Marangou33 consider the male figure an
anonymous hero, and the scene probably the representation of an unknown myth from the
Ionian city of Phokaia, due to the presence of a seal on the scene (phoke in Greek) and
the Ionian style displayed by the Eagle painter, the craftsman to whom the manufacturing
of the vessel is ascribed. The symbolic interpretation of this hydria is much simpler,
especially if we analyse both scenes together and relate them to the cultural context they
belonged to. The combination of a fishing and a hunting scene are common motifs in the
funerary tradition of the Etruscans, the region where the hydria is considered to have
been manufactured, and in this context, and also in the absence of any heroic reference or
symbol, the simpler explanation for the scene is that it represents a diver fighting a dog-
fish. He defends himself with a harpe, a curved knife resembling a bill-hook, a very
common agricultural implement used especially for pruning but also as a multi-purpose
tool. Its sickle-shaped blade makes it very useful tool for harvesting sponges, cutting
them off with a single circular motion of the arm.
It could be argued that, given the lack of a proper excavation context, it is not possible to
identify harpes used by divers as opposed to harpes used by farmers, but it is important
to notice that several museums in Greece have in their deposits harpes made of bronze,
and this material is an indicator of at least its maritime nature. In the Archaeological
Museum of Eretria we can find an example of a harpe made of bronze and dated to the
6th c. BCE (Figure 3). By this date, iron, not bronze, was the standard metal in tool
manufacture, not only due to its better overall resistance and performance, but also
because of its price, since the copper and tin necessary to make bronze were, especially in
the case of the second, luxury imports. Why then have a harpe made out of a metal that is
going to perform worse and be substantially more expensive? Because salt corrodes iron
very quickly, especially the low-carbon one of this period, but bronze performs better in
the sea. The need for changing constantly an iron tool used at sea is compensated by the
utilisation of bronze, in a period otherwise dominated by iron tools.
Figure 3: Central artefact, bronze harpe, 6th c. BCE. Archaeological Museum of Eretria.
Author’s collection.
The hidden divers
Another element to analyse is the white object carried out by the diver in the left hand.
Marangou 34 and Hemelrijk 35 interpret it as a stone the figure is throwing to the monster
from the shore (none of them consider the action is taking place underwater despite the
multiple animal figures that surround the dogfish). Oppian mentions the use of lead
weights, which corrode into a white crust, but it is not possible to ascertain that the
amorphous object represented might be one of these weights. There are, however,
examples of lead weights that could be used for diving in the archaeological record. Piero
Gianfrotta 36 pointed out the problem of distinguishing examples used for diving and/or
other fishing activities if they are not recovered in very specific contexts. In a publication
presenting several finds of remotely operated artefacts for the recovery of objects from
the sea Ehud Galili and Baruch Rosen considered that salvaging-rings, made of lead and
used to recover lines stuck into the reefs, could have had a second life as weights for
The last element to be discussed for the Caeretan hydria is the sea creature that is attacking
the diver, and that in fact provides more evidence for the subaquatic interpretation of the
scene. The pisciform monster has been generally identified as a ketos, a name that EXTENDS
from mythological creatures to any large marine creature such as whales or large fishes in
general. In a recent paper, John Papadopoulos,38 who has published extensively on the
biological nature of many of these monsters,39 has interpreted this creature as a Pelagecus
glesne, an oarfish, a deep water creature (100-1000 m) that can occasionally be captured by
nets in shallower waters and that can reach lengths of up to 11m.40 The reasons argued for this
identification are the serpentine body, the lack of scales and dorsal fin, as well as the general
naturalistic character of the rest of the animals represented. The problem with this
identification is that it requires as many aspects to be ignored as those that are identified,
especially regarding the head of the creature, that the author admits is an artistic licence in an
otherwise naturalistic representation of the oarfish.41 Furthermore, the real oarfish has very
small fins and jaws, something that clearly contrasts with the image represented on the hydria.
There is another interpretation that, without leaving the naturalistic scope of Papadopoulos
article, links more elements of the illustration to a real creature. The ketos is in fact a dog-fish,
a shark. Although the red dorsal fin and perhaps the red traces on top of the head may
resemble those of an oarfish, the large jaws, teeth and fins, the size and position of the eyes,
the absence of scales, the red lines that represent the gills, and the contrast between the darker
upper part painted black and the lighter lower part of the body painted white point to an Isurus
oxyrrinchus, a short fin mako shark, an endemic species to the Mediterranean. There is no
question that the upper part of the head has more characteristics of a mammal than a marine
creature, but this depiction only emphasises the identifications of this creature as a dog-fish,
especially due to the emphasis of the nozzle painted in red. Encounters between divers and
sharks were known in ancient times 42 and even then divers knew that the most effective way
to survive a shark attack was to attack its nozzle.
For the use of ropes in a diving context we need to rely on another scene from Greek
pottery, in this case an Attic oinochoe dated between 510-490 BCE, excavated at Vulci
(Etruria) and today deposited in the British Museum. In the scene a figure is standing on
the prow of the ship with a rope attached to his waist that projects back to the hands of a
second figure inside the boat. Although the scene can be interpreted as a diver getting
ready to get into water, the weight of interpretative tradition that seeks a mythological
meaning relates the scene to the landing of Protesilaos at Troy, despite the fact that no
indicator of a hero, a city or a war can be found in the scene. Ropes are extremely
perishable materials, and only special postdepositional conditions will allow their
preservation in the archaeological record. Ropes, as well as nets, were made of linen or
Emilio Rodríguez-Álvarez
flax, and under usual conditions would last only for 2 or 3 months; beyond that repairing
became fruitless. This constant manufacturing and repairing of nets has provided us with
a more tangible find, myriads of bronze netting needles of the “Mediterranean” type, a
slim rod with forks at both ends.43 Nets were used to collect sponges, coral and seashells
underwater. T.B.A. Spratt describes a sponge collector’s bag as having a long loop that
goes around the neck,44 and an example of this net can be found, according to Heinz-
Figure 4: Athenian Black Figure oinochoe, c.510-490 BCE. British Museum
The hidden divers
Figure 5: Netting needle from the Archaeological Museum of Corinth. Author’s Collection.
Eberhard Giesecke 45 in the fresco of the West House at Akrotiri. Although the traditional
interpretation of this scene is that of a naval battle and sailors being tossed off the ships
with weights on their necks,46 Gieseke reinterprets is as a group of divers with net baskets
around their necks collecting the coral that is represented on the reef.
Figure 6: Possible scene of divers collecting coral, West House at Akrotiri.
There are two elements related to diving mentioned in the literary sources that have
caused multiple interpretative problems to scholars working with those texts. Aristotle47
describes what seems to be some kind of snorkel made with reeds, and a lebes or
cauldron in the water to give an extra lung of air. With regard to the snorkel, the arundo
donax, a reed plant used in ancient times for musical instruments, can reach a diameter of
20-30 mm; most present-day snorkels measure between 15 and 25 mm. Regarding the
cauldron, it is not explained very clearly how the diver may have dealt with the
differential pressure of the air breathed from the cauldron once this was submerged.
Divers could have entered the water by the shore or, as we have seen in several artistic
representations, by jumping from rocks and cliffs, but in order to reach the richest, and
less exploited, areas a boat would have been necessary. There are a multitude of
representations of small fishing boats, especially in Greek painted pottery, but the
discovery of a 6th c. BCE boat in Marseille (Jules Verne 9 wreck) and the reconstruction
that was made of this boat by a team of researchers lead by Patrice Pomey offers us the
most direct insight on the performance of a Greek fishing boat of the Archaic period. The
Jules Verne wreck was excavated in 1993 in Place Jules Verne, which occupies the area
of the ancient harbour of the Greek colony of Massalia. It was a coastal sailing boat of
c.10m in length used for the fishing of red coral, as the small fragments recovered from
Emilio Rod ríguez-Álvarez
the hull indicate.48 The state of preservation of the hull and the ligatures that stitched the
planks together, called sewn technique, encouraged the reconstruction of a sailing replica,
the Gyptis, with which to perform tests on the capabilities of this boat.49 These results are
an invaluable archaeological and ethnographic insight on the labour organisation of these
crews, who were directly involved in the harvesting of red coral.
The exploitation of marine sources
The study of the products harvested by divers can provide us with an extensive evidence
of their activities and the economic role they played in their society. The presence of
marine species that can only be accessed by means of diving is one of the easiest means
of detecting the presence of divers in a community. The first divers exploited goods such
as shellfish, which preserves rather well in the archaeological record thanks to the
calcium carbonate of the shells, and the most skilful divers were able to capture fish by
hand. We have no knowledge of the use of other tools by divers to catch them; small
bronze tridents and forks have been recovered in the archaeological record, and several
ancient authors50 wrote about the catching of fish underwater, but not direct evidence has
yet been clearly established. Present-day spearfishers pierce octopus in the crevices
where they live with small tridents and kill them by biting them between the eyes, so it is
at least feasible that some of these small tridents might have been used underwater.
That diving was considered to be an old activity is indicated by the several myths that
take place underwater. On his way to Knossos to fight with the Minotaur, the Athenian
hero Theseus, to prove to king Minos that he was favoured by the gods, had to dive to the
palace of the goddess of the sea Amphitrite.51 Bacchylides probably dedicated his ode to
the god Apollo in his sanctuary in the island of Delos, itself famous for its divers.
Although fishermen diving to collect other seafood never disappeared, the increase in the
demand for certain products triggered the appearance of full-time divers who specialised in
the collection of murex (for purple dye), red coral, and sponges. The over-exploitation of
the first two probably depleted the beds that were accessible to the divers, and new devices
and methods were developed for their collection.52 Although it has been claimed that the
basins found on dye factories were devoted to the breeding of murex, there is not yet
convincing evidence based on the biology of this species to support that interpretation, and
it is possible that these basins were just used for storage before processing.53 But even if
such breeding basins existed it is clear that, at least in origin, the collection of murex was
carried out by divers, since this mollusc lives in depths of between 4 and 150 metres.
Sponges, on the other hand, regenerate faster than populations of murex or corals.
Of all the products harvested in the sea, sponges were undoubtedly the most commonly
exploited. Their direct presence in the archaeological record is not common, although it is
possible, as the findings in Bramdean (Hampshire) and York indicate.54 Indirect presence
of their use is early and abundant; an example of this is the texture of a Middle Minoan
IIA wall from the North West Portico at Knossos, decorated with a pattern obtained by
pressing a sponge on the wet plaster.55 The use of sponges in forming and finishing
pottery is also well attested, and sponges, corals, and other marine motifs are common
decorative elements in painted pottery from the Bronze Age onwards.
Despite this artistic source, the main use of sponges was related to medicine and hygiene.
In a detailed survey of the use of sponges in ancient authors, Eleni Voultsiadou56 provides
us with comprehensive list of the application of sponges, in which medicine, especially
the works assigned to Hippocrates (5th c. BCE), have a central role. It is important to
The hidden divers
remember that up to the appearance of synthetic components, sponges were the only
materials that could fulfil certain medical tasks. If we consider how extensive the use of
sponges was in medicine, and we infer from that their commercial importance, then the
addition of the evidence for the use of sponges as elements of personal and household
hygiene only adds to the ubiquity of this product all across the Mediterranean and, in later
centuries, to the Roman empire, from baths to latrines.
New depths
This study has demonstrated that, if low-visibility communities are studied under a light
that emphasises the importance of the contributions of anthropology in the development
of archaeological theory, we can provide a much more detailed picture than the one with
which this chapter started. Despite this achievement, it is not possible to ignore a very
important reality regarding the nature of the record: it is fragmentary and de-
contextualised. The collection of data and artefacts mostly from museum collections is
painstakingly slow due to the misidentification of these objects, making each discovery
an isolated event. These are all important contributions for our knowledge not only of
divers and the economic role they played in their societies, and more research on their
technology must be encouraged for other cultures of the Mediterranean, such as the
Carthaginians, the Etruscans and the Phoenicians. Research on traditional divers must be
also encouraged, emphasising especially the material aspects not only of their work but of
their lives as a whole, with the intention of providing an analytical framework against
which our dataset can be compared. But if we really want to understand the life and work
of ancient divers we need to excavate settlements in which diving was one of the central
elements of society and economy.
1. E.g. Bernard 1976.
2. Frost 1968.
3. Herodotus 1922: 7.189; Paton 1916: 3:3 Ant. Palat. IX.296.
4. Pausanias 1994: 3:19.1-2.
5. Pliny the Elder 1945: XXXV.139.
6. Homer 1925: 16.750.
7. Frost 1968: 183.
8. E.g. Voultsiadou 2007; Oleson 1976; Galili 1985; Meijer 2014.
9. Pelizzari & Tovaglieri 2004; Donald 2013.
10. E.g. Anacreon fr.21 in Edmonds 1961.
11. Holloway 2006; DeVries 1978.
12. Binford 1965a; Binford 1962; Binford 1965b.
13. Schiffer 1995: 230; also Schiffer 1992: 44.
14. Oppian et. Alii 1928: Hal. 4.593.
15. Oppian et. Alii 1928: Hal. 5.612.
Emilio Rod ríguez-Álvarez
16. Fitz-Clarke 2009; Fitz-Clarke 2007.
17. Ilardo et al. 2018.
18. Ilardo et al. 2018: 580.e4.
19. Standen et al. 1997.
20. Herodotus 1925: 8.8; Thucydides 1920: 4.26; Thucydides 1921: 25.6-8; Dio Cassius
1917: 46.35.6; Appian 1912: 6.91.
21. Powell 1996: 86-87.
22. Aristotle Prob. Phys. 1936: 32.2-11.
23. Frost 1968: 182.
24. Oppian Hal. 1928: 5.612-674.
25. Boussuges et al. 1999: 697.
26. Pliny 1940: 9.148-153.
27. Oppian 1928: Hal. 5.612-674.
28. Oppian 1928: Hal. 5.612-613.
29. Marangou 1995.
30. Isler 1983.
31. Boardman 1989.
32. Hemelrijk 1984; 2009; Schaus & Hemelrijk 1985.
33. Marangou 1995.
34. Marangou 1995.
35. Hemelrijk 1984.
36. Gianfrotta 1999: 16.
37. Galili & Rosen 2008: 290.
38. Papadopoulos 2016.
39. E.g. Papadopoulos & Ruscillo 2002.
40. Papadopoulos 2016: 79.
41. Papadopoulos 2016: 81.
42. Oppian et al. 1928: Hal. 5.612-674; Pliny 1940: 9.148-153.
43. Alfaro Giner 2010: 64.
44. Spratt 1865: 225.
45. Giesecke 1983: 151.
46. Powell 1996.
47. Aristotle De partibus animalium 1936: 2.16.
48. Pomey 1995.
49. Pomey & Poveda 2018.
50. Oppian et al. 1928: Halieutica 4.593-596; Heraclides of Pontus & Gottschalk 1980:
51. Bacchylides 1992: Ode 17.
52. Galili & Rosen 2008; Bernal Casasola 2010: 128.
53. Marzano 2013: 146.
The hidden divers
54. de Grossi Mazzorin 2008: 5–6.
55. Powell 1996: 89.
56. Voultsiadou 2007.
ALFARO GINER, C. 2010. Fishing Nets in the Ancient World: the Historical and
Archaeological Evidence, in Ancient Nets and Fishing Gear. Proceedings of the
International Workshop on ‘Nets and Fishing Gear in Classical Antiquity: A First
Approach’ Cadiz, November 15-17, 2007, Monographs of the Sagena Project: 54–81.
Cadiz and Aarhus: Cadiz University and Aarhus University Press.
APPIAN. 1912. Appian: Roman History, I, Books 1-8.1. (trans.) H. White. Cambridge,
Mass: Harvard University Press.
ARISTOTLE. & W.S. HETT. 1936. Problems. Revised edition. Loeb Classical Library 316.
Cambridge, Mass: Loeb Classical Library.
BACCHYLIDES. 1992. Greek Lyric: Volume IV, Bacchylides, Corinna, and Others. (trans.)
Corinna & D.A. Campbell. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.
BERNAL CASASOLA, D. 2010. Fishing Tackle in Hispania: reflections, Proposals and First
Results, in T. Bekker-Nielsen & D. Bernal Casasola (ed.) Ancient Nets and Fishing
Gear, Proceedings of the International Workshop on ‘Nets and Fishing Gear in
Classical Antiquity: a First Approach’. Cadiz, November 15-17 2007.: 82–137.
Cadiz: Universidad de Cadiz and Aarhus Press.
BERNARD, H.R. 1976. Kalymnos: the island of the Sponge Fishermen Annals of the New
York Academy of Sciences 268: 289–307.
BINFORD, L.R. 1962. Archaeology as Anthropology American Antiquity 28: 217–25.
— 1965a. Archaeological Systematics and the Study of Culture Process American
Antiquity 31: 203–10.
— 1965b. Archaeological Systematics and the Study of Culture Process American
Antiquity 31: 203–10.
BOARDMAN, J. 1989. Herakles at Sea, in H.U. Cain, H. Gabelmann, & D. Salzmann (ed.)
Festschrift für Nikolaus Himmelmann: 191–95. Mainz am Rhein.
— 2001.The History of Greek Vases. London: Thames & Hudson.
1999. Haemoptysis after breath-hold diving European Respiratory Journal 13: 697–
DE GROSSI MAZZORIN, J. 2008. Archeozoologia. Lo Studio dei resti animali in
archeologia. Bari: Editori Laterza.
DEVRIES, K. 1978. Diving into the Mediterranean Expedition 21: 4–8.
DIO CASSIUS. 1917. Roman History, Volume V: Books 46-50. (trans.) E. Cary & H.B.
Foster. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.
DONALD, I. 2013. Underwater foraging – Freediving for food: An instructional guide to
freediving, sustainable marine foraging and spearfishing. 1 edition. CreateSpace
Independent Publishing Platform.
EDMONDS, J.M. 1961. The Fragments of Attic Comedy. Vol. IIIA. Leiden: Brill.
Emilio Rod ríguez-Álvarez
FITZ-CLARKE, J.R. 2007. Mechanics of airway and alveolar collapse in human breath-
hold divingRespiratory Physiology & Neurobiology 159: 202–210.
— 2009. Lung compression effects on gas exchange in human breath-hold diving
Respiratory Physiology & Neurobiology 165: 221–228.
FROST, F.J. 1968. Scyllias: Diving in Antiquity Greece & Rome 15. Second Series: 180
GALILI, E. 1985. A group of stone anchors from Newe-Yam The International Journal of
Nautical Archaeology and Underwater Exploration 14: 143–53.
GALILI, E. & B. ROSEN. 2008. Ancient Remotely-Operated Instruments Recovered Under
Water off the Israeli Coast International Journal of Nautical Archaeology 37: 283–
GIANFROTTA, P. 1999. Archeologia subacquea e testimonianze di pesca Mélanges de
l’Ecole française de Rome. Antiqui 111: 9–36.
GIESECKE, H.-E. 1983. The Akrotiri ship fresco The International Journal of Nautical
Archaeology and Underwater Exploration 12: 123–43.
HEMELRIJK, J.M. 1984. Caeretan Hydriae: Text. Philipp von Zabern.
HEMELRIJK, J.M. 2009. More about Caeretan Hydriae: addenda et clarificanda.
Amsterdam: Allard Pierson Series.
HERACLIDES OF PONTUS & H.B. GOTTSCHALK. 1980. Heraclides of Pontus. Oxford:
Oxford University Press.
HERODOTUS. 1922. Histories, Volume III: Books 5-7. (trans.) A.D. Godley. Cambridge,
MA: Harvard University Press.
— 1925.Histories, Volume IV: Books 8-9. (trans.) A.D. Godley. Cambridge, MA:
Harvard University Press.
HOLLOWAY, R.R. 2006. The Tomb of the DiverAmerican Journal of Archaeology 110:
NIELSEN. & E. WILLERSLEV. 2018. Physiological and Genetic Adaptations to Diving
in Sea Nomads Cell 173: 569-580.e15.
ISLER, H.P. 1983. Drei neue Gefässe aus der Werkstatt der Caeretaner Hydrien JdI 98:
MARANGOU, L.I. (ed.) 1995. Ancient Greek Art from the Collection of Stavros S.
Niarchos. Athens: N.P Goulandris Foundation and Museum of Cycladic Art.
MARZANO, A. 2013. Harvesting the Sea: The Exploitation of Marine Resources in the
Roman Mediterranean. 1 edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
MEIJER, F. 2014. A History of Seafaring in the Classical World (Routledge Revivals).
OLESON, J.P. 1976. A Possible Physiological Basis for the Term urinator, ‘diver’ The
American Journal of Philology 97: 22–29.
OPPIAN., COLLUTHUS., TRYPHIODORUS. & A.W. MAIR. 1928. Oppian, Colluthus,
Tryphiodorus. Loeb Classical Library 219. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University
The hidden divers
PAPADOPOULOS, J.K. 2016. The Natural History of a Caeretan Hydria BABESCH 91: 69–
PAPADOPOULOS, J.K. & D. RUSCILLO. 2002. A Ketos in Early Athens: An Archaeology of
Whales and Sea Monsters in the Greek World American Journal of Archaeology 106:
PATON, W.R. (William R. 1916.The Greek anthology. Vol. 3. 5 vols. London and New
York: London, W. Heinemann; New York, G.P. Putnam’s Sons.
PAUSANIAS 1994a. Descripción de Grecia. Libros VII-X. (trans.) María Cruz Herrero
Ingelmo. Vol. 3. 3 vols. Madrid: Editorial Gredos.
— 1994b. Descripción de Grecia. Libros I-II. (trans.) Ma. Cruz Herrero Ingelmo. Vol. 1.
3 vols. Madrid: Editorial Gredos.
PELIZZARI, U. & S. TOVAGLIERI. 2004. Manual of Freediving: Underwater on a Single
Breath. Rev Upd edition. Reddick, FL: Idelson Gnocchi Pub.
PLINY. 1940. Pliny: Natural History, Volume III, Books 8-11. (trans.) H. Rackham.
Harvard University Press.
— 1945.Pliny: Natural History, Volume IX, Books 33-35. (trans.) H. Rackham. Harvard
University Press.
POMEY, P. 1995. Les épaves grecques et romaines de la place Jules-Verne à Marseille
Comptes rendus des séances de l’Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres 139:
POMEY, P. & P. POVEDA. 2018. Gyptis: Sailing Replica of a 6th-century-BC Archaic
Greek Sewn Boat The International Journal of Nautical Archaeology and
Underwater Exploration 47: 45–56.
POWELL, J. 1996. Fishing in the Prehistoric Aegean. Studies in Mediterranean
Archaeology and Literature 137. Göteborg: Paul Åströms Förlag.
SCHAUS, G.P. & J.M. HEMELRIJK. 1985. Caeretan Hydriae American Journal of
Archaeology 89: 701.
SCHIFFER, M.B. 1985. Is There a ‘Pompeii Premise’ in Archaeology? Journal of
Anthropological Research 41: 18–41.
— 1992.Technological perspectives on behavioral change. Culture and Technology.
Tucson: University of Arizona Press.
— 1995.Behavioral Archaeology. 1st Edition. University of Utah Press.
SPRATT, T.B.A. 1865. Travels and Researches in Crete. London: John van Voorst.
STANDEN, V.G., B.T. ARRIAZA. & C. SANTORO. 1997. External Auditory Exostosis in
Prehistoric Chilean Populations: A Test of the Cold Water Hypothesis American
Journal of Physical Anthropology 103: 119–29.
THUCYDIDES. 1920. History of the Peloponnesian War, Volume II: Books 3-4. (trans.) C.F.
Smith. Revised edition. Harvard University Press.
— 1921.History of the Peloponnesian War, Volume IV: Books 7-8. (trans.) C.F. Smith.
Harvard University Press.
VOULTSIADOU, E. 2007. Sponges: an historical survey of their knowledge in Greek
antiquity Journal of the Marine Biological Association of the United Kingdom 87:
Full-text available
Four rare discoveries from the coast of Antalya provide evidence that divers were active in the area during the Hellenistic-Roman Periods as has been indicated in many different sites of the Mediterranean basin in the same period. The first discovery was a stone tool found off the ancient Cilicia Region on Alanya-Antalya coastline of Southern Turkey in 2011. The second find was discovered in 2019, off the coast of ancient Lycia region, alongside the shores of the Three-Islands of Kemer-Antalya. This second artifact is a more familiar ring-shaped object made of lead. It is similar to objects found off the coast of Israel and identified as “salvage rings.” These two objects were found as lone objects, neither associated with a shipwreck nor within a specific context. These were followed by two other ring-shaped objects found in 2021, again off the ancient Lycia region, one in Kaş and the other one on the Kekova coastline. Both of these objects are marble weights and akin to the one which had been found on the coast of Caesarea, Israel and named as a “salvaging ring” in the literature. These two marble rings have been found near shipwrecks. One surmises they were possibly used by divers to retrieve some sunken cargo. All four finds could be examples of diver weights that were used by ancient divers for reaching the desired depths faster for salvage operations or other diving activities such as harvesting sponges and oysters. Artifacts of these sorts found on the seabed are extremely rare. Along the entire 640 km Antalya coastline, over a time span of two decades, these are the only four recovered objects. In searching for the history of these artifacts and their originally intended purposes, a study is conducted with similar objects from different sites of the Mediterranean. This paper concludes with a recent experiment to test whether the artifacts could have been diver weights.
Full-text available
This article publishes a fragment of a scapula of a fin whale (Balaenoptera physalus) found in an Early Geometric well in the area of the later Athenian Agora. Deriving from the carcass of an immature beached whale, the bone was brought to Athens and was used probably as a cutting surface, before being discarded ca. 850 B.C. The context of this extraordinary artifact is analyzed and discussed, as are its possible functions. The occurrence of whales in the Aegean and Mediterranean is reviewed, so too the use of whales and whalebones in ancient Greece and in other cultures. Although the incidence of whalebone is rare in archaeological contexts in the Aegean, Classical literature is full of references to both fantastic sea monsters and real whales. The words that the Greeks and Romans used for whales and the language of whales in mythology and natural history reveal a rich and varied tradition. There is a similarly rich and long tradition of iconographic representations in ancient art, particularly of fabulous sea monsters, one that extends from Aegean prehistory into the Classical era and well beyond. The Agora whalebone provides a unique insight into the archaeology of whales and sea monsters in Greek literature, natural history, art, and material culture.
Full-text available
In a recent article in this journal, Binford (1981) called attention to a counterproductive "Pompeii premise" and attributed it to the present author. Drawing on two case studies of house floor assemblages from the Southwestern literature, this paper shows that an insidious Pompeii premise can be found in archaeology, but it is different from the one identified by Binford. The real Pompeii premise is not employed by this author, but by those who fail to evaluate in detail how specific house-floor assemblages were formed by cultural and noncultural processes. To promote more rigorous analyses, this paper summarizes the basic formation processes that affect the composition of house-floor assemblages and provides several provisional measures for assessing de facto refuse.
Harvesting the Sea provides the first systematic treatment of the exploitation of various marine resources, such as large-scale fishing, fish salting, salt and purple-dye production, and oyster and fish-farming, in the Roman world and its role within the ancient economy. Bringing together literary, epigraphic, and legal sources, with a wealth of archaeological data collected in recent years, Marzano shows that these marine resources were an important feature of the Roman economy and, in scope and market-oriented production, paralleled phenomena taking place in the Roman agricultural economy on land. The book also examines the importance of technological innovations, the organization of labour, and the use of the existing legal framework in defence of economic interests against competitors for the same natural resource.
It is argued that the normative theory of culture, widely held among archaeologists, is inadequate for the generation of fruitful explanatory hypotheses of cultural process. One obvious shortcoming of this theoretical position has been the development of archaeological systematics that have obviated any possibility of measuring multivariate phenomena and permit only the measurement of unspecified "cultural differences and similarities," as if these were univariate phenomena. As an alternative to this approach, it is proposed that culture be viewed as a system composed of subsystems, and it is suggested that differences and similarities between different classes of archaeological remains reflect different subsystems and hence may be expected to vary independently of each other in the normal operation of the system or during change in the system. A general discussion of ceramic classification and the classification of differences and similarities between assemblages is presented as an example of the multivariate approach to the study of cultural variability. It is suggested that a multivariate approach in systematics will encourage the study of cultural variability and its causes and thereby enhance the study of culture process.
Piero A. Gianfrotta, Archeologia subacquea e testimonianze di pesca, p. 9-36. Per la loro stessa natura e per i tipi di attrezzatura impiegati le antiche attività di pesca non hanno lasciato resti materiali evidenti nei vari campi d'applicazione (mari, laghi, fiumi, stagni, ecc). Esse erano, infatti, costituite per lo più da reti, da nasse di vimini, da cordami, da sugheri e da galleggianti di altra materia (végétale, fittile, di vetro, ecc), da ami (di legno, d'osso e spesso anche di metallo), da fiocine e da vari altri arnesi, oppure realizzate con espedienti di ancora più labile consistenza. Chiariti gli obiettivi della ricerca, dall'archeologia subacquea si può senza dubbio ricavare una documentazione diretta non trascurabile da mettere a confronto con le testimonianze letterarie, iconografiche e archeologiche in genere. Utili indicazioni sono già disponibili riguardanti varie categorie di oggetti e di attrezzature, le imbarcazioni da pesca, gli impianti per l'allevamento e le installazioni per la lavorazione del pescato.