How to argue for an ‘ancient international market economy’ without evidence

Many argue for a ‘partly capitalist international market economy’ in the ancient Near East and Mediterranean that was almost as complex as our own. The key to that argument is trade in bulk goods and not preciosities. Yet there is one small problem with this tall tale: no evidence of trade in bulk goods exists. How does one get around this troublesome little detail?

Many of the goods traded during the Late Bronze Age were almost certainly perishable and would be unlikely to leave much in the way of identifiable remains today. Foodstuffs, wines, perfumes, wood, and unprocessed metals would fall into this category. Thus the most abundant signposts of the trade routes may have perished in antiquity. However, the existence of perishable trade goods can sometimes be identified in written texts and wall paintings which have survived to the present … provided they are interpreted correctly (Cline, Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea, p. 1).

Or you can speculate on the contents of remains of ceramic and stone vessels:

Such vessels may be used to substantiate hypotheses concerning oils, unguents, wines grains and scrap metals being marketed around the Mediterranean during the second millennium BC (Cline, p. 95).

It all depends on the narrative you construct, which then enables you to ‘interpret correctly’ an ambiguous painting or text, or fill those vessels with the much longed-for bulk goods.


3 thoughts on “How to argue for an ‘ancient international market economy’ without evidence

  1. Ha.

    It makes me think of Walter Beltz’s conclusion that “a nomadic setting has left strong traces” in the “earliest levels” of the Pentateuch. For if one already believes that “early Israelites” were nomadic, then it becomes very easy to find evidence that the “earliest levels” of the Pentateuch had nomadic concerns. Abraham’s tent-dwelling? Undoubtedly nomads told this story because they would have considered this “the desirable form of existence”. The stories about Noah’s drunkenness (Gen. 9) and the Tower of Babel (Gen. 11)? The nomads would have told these stories because they reveal a nomadic “polemic” and “outrage” against “city and urban culture” and “tall buildings”. Whether the topic is mobile pasoralists or sedentary city-slickers in these “early texts”, Walter has no trouble finding “evidence” that nomads were behind them all.

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