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Roman Trade With the Canary Islands Volume 50 Number 3, May/June 1997
by Andrew L. Slayman

[image] The site of El Bebedero on Lanzarote in the Canary Islands has provided the first secure evidence of Roman trade with the archipelago. (Courtesy Pablo Atoche Peña) [LARGER IMAGE]

Excavations on the island of Lanzarote in the Canary Islands have turned up the first securely dated evidence of Roman trade with the archipelago. Dug by a team under Pablo Atoche Peña of the Universidad de Las Palmas de Gran Canaria and Juan Ángel Paz Peralta of the Universidad de Zaragoza, Spain, the prehistoric settlement of El Bebedero yielded about 100 Roman potsherds, nine pieces of metal, and one piece of glass. The artifacts were found in strata dated between the first and fourth centuries A.D.

Greek accounts tell of an island beyond the Pillars of Hercules where the Elysian Fields lay. The Greek historian Plutarch (ca. A.D. 46-120) described the islands more accurately, and the Roman poet Lucan (A.D. 39-65) and the Egyptian astronomer and geographer Ptolemy (ca. A.D. 90-168) gave their precise locations. In 1964 a Roman amphora was discovered in waters off Lanzarote, and since then a number of others have been found underwater. All, however, lacked proper context and could not be dated precisely; that they were truly Roman was also questioned because many were similar to amphorae used by the Spanish in the sixteenth century for trade with the Americas. The finds from El Bebedero show that Romans did trade with the Canaries, though there is no evidence of their ever settling there.

Most of the potsherds belong to large amphorae used to carry such commodities as wine, salt fish, and olive oil. Analysis of their clay indicates that the vessels originally came from Campania (a region in central Italy), Baetica (southern Spain), and Tunisia. Atoche Peña and Paz Peralta have suggested, however, that all of them probably arrived in the Canaries via Baetica, a natural stopover on the way from Italy and Tunisia. What they brought to the islands is unknown, but such amphorae were likely used to carry fish from the rich fishing banks nearby to Roman salting plants on the Moroccan coast and thence to Spain.

That all of the amphorae arrived on Lanzarote between the first and fourth centuries A.D. suggests that trade with Rome was largely confined to this period, roughly coinciding with Rome's involvement in northwestern Africa. Nearby Mauretania, now northern Morocco and Algeria, was a client kingdom of Rome beginning ca. 49 B.C., and in A.D. 40 Emperor Claudius divided it into the provinces of Tingitana and Caesariensis. Roman rule of Mauretania extended into the early fifth century, when the Vandal king Gaiseric descended on the area; by 461 Rome had given up claim to the provinces.

© 1997 by the Archaeological Institute of America