Elusive Phoenicians

Article excerpt

The Greeks, and more recently the Etruscans, have been the visible protagonists of 1st millennium BC Mediterranean history. The Phoenicians have been somewhat elusive, relegated as if to a background. Yet the Fourth International Conference of Phoenician and Punic Studies held in Cadiz (Spain), in October 1995, attracted about 200 papers and 600 participants (for details, see end-note). These recent contributions show the important role that the Phoenicians and later the Carthaginians played for centuries in the political, cultural and economic arenas of the Mediterranean. From their homeland in the Near East, the Phoenicians carried a semitic culture which they transmitted to a host of different peoples across the entire Mediterranean and even beyond. Over 100 years of research in the Levant, in Greece, in Etruria, in Iberia and along the north and west coasts of Africa have come up with considerable traces of their presence. This pan-Mediterranean characteristic declares that Phoenician and Punic studies matter to all scholars with a broad interest in the ancient Mediterranean. This note, not intended as a sort of manifesto on why we should study Phoenician and Punic material culture, explores why - notwithstanding vast publications and a history of studies going back to the beginning of the century - Phoenician and Punic archaeology is still lagging behind other related archaeologies, without the studies which would bring it of age.

Started by the modern decipherment of the Phoenician script in the 18th century, interest in the material remains of the Phoenicians was baptized by the Frenchman Ernest Renan in 1864 when he published the results of his survey, Mission de Phenicie. Like a few other contemporaries of his age, Renan went beyond mere antiquarian interests in seeking to place ancient monumental remains within the landscape of the Levantine littoral (cf. Wilson 1968: 113). His work, including the launching of the Corpus Inscription urn Semiticarum in 1881, in the political situation at the time signalled a series of French campaigns intended to throw light on the Phoenician remains in the east. The works of Dussaud, Conteneau, Montet, Dunand and Poidebard left a rich mine of information ranging from the results of large-scale excavations to hard-hat underwater explorations and aerial surveys (cf. Yon 1995). The excavations of Paul Gauckler in Carthage, 1888-1904 (Gauckler 1915), and the discovery of the tophet there in 1921 by Paul Gielly and Louis Poinssot (cf. Benichou-Safar 1995), opened a new phase of Punic archaeology in the western Mediterranean; in the same year J. Whittaker published the results of his excavations at Mozia (Whittaker 1921). In Sardinia, Antonio Taramelli was busy directing excavations in the major Phoenician centres on the island, at Sulci, Karales, Bithia and Tharros, building on the works of his predecessors Alberto della Marmora and Giovanni Spano (cf. Tore 1989b). In Spain, the mythical Tartessos sparked off Adolf Schulten's research in Andalusia (Schulten 1922). In Malta it was tombs that were coming to light (Caruana 1898), and interestingly enough, in one case (Swarm 1866), a study of the bones unearthed was undertaken and published (Thurnam 1866). The varied results of these investigations began to provide a picture of Phoenician and Punic culture from the material remains rather than from the writings of the classical authors; with parallel excavations of Mycenaean sites in the Greek and Aegean world, they dispelled the 18th-19th-century notions of 'Phoeniciomania' and 'Phoenician megalithism' (cf. Leighton 1989: 197). Other assimilations and syntheses, however, were quickly framed into established historical conceptions based on classical foundations. The classical archaeologist Rhys Carpenter used the new evidence to prove that the Greeks preceded the Phoenicians in a race to reach western Mediterranean shores (Carpenter 1958). His contribution echoes the works of other classical scholars (e. …