Monday, 26 May 2008

The Basques

There is another nation on this route who like the Phoenicians have little to show of their early history but geneticists have shown have a DNA and a language that is unique in Europe and goes back into pre-history. The Basques were also great sailors and they had the bay of Arcachon on their doorstep, an abundant source of oysters along the ocean shelf. Their language is also unique in Europe having no apparent connection to any Roman or Greek influence. The Basques too have their scatter of megalithic monuments, The Santimamiñe Cavesat Kortezubi, near Gernika were discovered by chance in 1916 were a prehistoric sanctuary inhabited certainly 13,000 years ago. The walls are etched with drawings of bison and Ibex. Further north, across the boarder in the Haute Garonne the Aurignac lends its name to a people dating back 32,000 and 26,000 BC who had evolved stone cutting and pierced shell jewellery and other art.

In his compelling the A Basque History of the World, Mark Kurlanksy points out that modern day boundaries may well be entrenched and that in early millennia the Basques may well have lived further north which would have taken them alongside the beds at Rayon, Gujan-Mestras : La Hume , Larros. But in fact the Arcachon beds stretch as far as the Spanish border so the tie in is secure. Anchored really.

It may be circumstantial to conjecture that a nation of great shipbuilders who much later became the navigators for the Spanish in the new world, who developed a trade in salt cod across Europe and possibly even found America, who were great whalers might also have owed their original identity to the oyster bays inshore from the storms of Biscay. The profile fits, right down to their commercial acumen as traders, even if there is seemingly no evidence remaining. Guilt by association perhaps. They have one culinary inheritance however often claimed to Bordeaux which is oysters served with little hot sausages. Properly though these sausages should be chorizo because it was the Basques who made the peppers popular, not the French. Serve it with sherry and the case is made. Although in that perhaps we are ahead of ourselves.

The first trading boats could also take another route - the three river route through France along the Seine, Saône and Rhône. The Greeks founded the port of Massilia (Marseille) near the mouth of the Rhône around 600BC to engineer trade between north and south. Oysters on this route could also have been valuable and obvious cargo to sell on the way to inland people who would not have had links to their own coast. Go back even earlier when England was joined to the European landmass, and the Seine and Soane connection flowed directly into another oyster rich estuary, the Thames.

It is easy enough to imagine a community linked by boat from the west coast of Ireland, Wales, Cornwall, Brittany that traded with Spain and further south. The Brittany tribe of the Veneti could muster more than 200 ships alone by the start of the first millennium which must have been a notable navy. Equally plausible could be that the Phoenicians were the agents who facilitated this. Fragments of wine and olive oil flasks have been found in Cornwall at Tintagel, Lundy, further west at Glastonbury Tor, and in South Wales at the iron age fort at Dinas Powys. The Isles of Scilly also seem to have been an important trading port as far back as 4000 BC. There is an inevitable geographic that seems to tie them all into the coves and culture of the oyster and suggests an evolved trading republic.

As with all things so ancient, it might be a mistake to presume too much in modern terms as to what these links might have meant. Power and community may have been completely different concepts in those days. One intrigue for archaeologists is how seemingly fragmented, well distanced communities seemed to arrive at innovations like pottery and cloth making at the same times, across Britain and also northern Europe. We should not presume too much, least of all that civilisation was a continuous straightforward evolution without interruption from natural or man made disasters. Or that religious worship might have been as it is today in ceremonial form when possibly it was a continuous act of fealty and endurance and it was those acts that led to the huge megalithic structures. What we can see is the extraordinary amount of evidence of activity among early men and women, all so closely allied to oyster coves.

The historian Sanford Holst in a paper to the Annual Conference of the World History Association on June 19, 2004, at Fairfax, Virginia argued that a lot of the confusion over the might and precise dates of the Phoenicians was down to the fact that their influence came from the sea. They did not in conventional terms start to colonise and empire build in other territories until around 1100 BC adding Cadiz, Malaga and Ibiza in Spain, Tangier in Morocco, Carthage (Tunis) in North Africa, plus colonies on Cyprus, Sicily, Sardinia and Corsica. But archaeological dating has shown that Byblos was founded as a small fishing port in 6000BC, and the cedars of Lebanon that grew on the mountainsides provided both wood for ship building and lumber for trade. By 4500BC there is evidence of hundreds of houses. Archaeological dating and writings of the time place the fabled city of Tyre – which at that time was in fact two islands just offshore - as being founded around 2750 BC. This misunderstanding or misinterpretation as to the power and influence of a seaborne community is a constant theme that reoccurs around the world for oyster communities - right up until quite recently when eventually industrialisation and trains that were to fundamentally and fatally undermine them.