Vikings, Phoenicians and the ‘Cultural Services’ of the Sea

2015•06•02 Robert Blasiak University of Tokyo

In 1997, Robert Costanza and his twelve co-authors published one of the most widely-cited journal articles in the discipline of ecological economics, estimating the worth of 17 ecosystem services and pegging the annual value of the biosphere at US$33 trillion — roughly double the global gross national product at the time.

Many appreciated the high level of attention attracted by the paper, but criticism of its methodology was swift and comprehensive, culminating, among other things, in the journal Ecological Economics devoting an entire special issue to critiques of the article. Perhaps most emphasized was the inherent weakness in calculating the value of a specific ecosystem service in a single hectare of a biome and then scaling it up to estimate the global value of all hectares of this biome. Or as the editors of Nature put it, “it is nonsensical to ask what is ‘the value’ of the world’s ecosystem services; the economist would ask, ‘value to whom?’”

This question is particularly relevant for cultural services, which are defined in the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment as providing “recreational, aesthetic and spiritual benefits”. But which cultures, nations, communities, or even individuals share the same sense of recreation, aesthetics and spiritual values?

Costanza et al.’s pioneering paper likewise struggled with this issue. The cultural value of the world’s oceans, for instance, was calculated solely based on the price differential of inland and waterfront properties in two US states (California and Alabama), which were then considered as proxies for “developed” and “undeveloped” countries, respectively. Scaling these two figures up, the authors calculated that in 1997 the cultural value of the oceans was US$76 per hectare, annually.

Ecosystems and cultures are inherently dynamic and, over time, the interplay of the two results in mutually-dependent socio-ecological systems shaped by unique traditions and landscapes/seascapes.

Stating such a figure raises many questions, not least among these: Should tangible provisioning services be considered in the same context as the less immediately tangible cultural services? Can cultural aesthetics be meaningfully quantified? And if so, can an ecosystem gain/lose value when cultural values shift? As a recent report from the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES) put it, although it is “common to focus on the economic values provided by the sea (such as fishing, shipping, offshore wind farming), it is less common to regard the sea as a place defined by cultural meanings. For example, what is the value of recreational, aesthetic or spiritual services provided by the sea?”

A growing body of research suggests that communities and the ecosystems surrounding them are in fact coupled systems, sustainable only if both remain functional. Ecosystems and cultures are inherently dynamic and, over time, the interplay of the two results in mutually-dependent socio-ecological systems shaped by unique traditions and landscapes/seascapes. Research on socio-ecological systems has found that they foster higher levels of biodiversity, and provide increased resilience in the face of a range of external threats as well as a range of other benefits related to sustainable living.

At the same time, the unique marriage of a culture and a landscape/seascape is the product of generations of interactions, making such socio-ecological systems ill-suited to short-term interventions aimed at achieving scalability or replicability.

Phoenician wall

The waters of the Mediterranean and later the Atlantic Ocean were crucially important for the Phoenicians, renowned as traders, with settlements spaced at least every 70 miles along the coastline. Photo: Serge Melki. Creative Commons BY (cropped).

Nonetheless, the four-part ecosystem service typology provided by the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (cultural, provisioning, regulating, supporting) reflects the need to focus on ecological processes as well as the cultures and traditions of people inhabiting these ecosystems.

Efforts to assess the value of ecosystem services seem to follow the mantra that “you can’t manage what you don’t measure”, but scholar and author David Korten notes that such views are not universal, with “indigenous leaders pointing out a familiar pattern: first price, then privatize, then commodify, then securitize […]”. In addition to such market-driven processes, imbalances in the efficacy of calculating tangible provisioning services and less tangible cultural services also threaten to externalize negative aspects, for instance in models of compensatory mitigation meant to offset the destruction of one set of natural resources by supporting the protection or conservation of other natural resources.

Objectively measuring the cultural value of any object, activity or even landscape/seascape will always be problematic in a culturally diverse world. Nevertheless, cultural practices and traditions are powerful tools, or in some cases barriers, to sustainable management and use of natural resources. In this context, historical records are particularly useful, and the following sections introduce unexpected examples of cultural linkages with the sea from antiquity. Both of these examples transcend the calculation of heightened real estate values and underscore the diversity of cultural services provided to people by the oceans.

Tyrian purple and the Mediterranean murex

The zenith of the Phoenician civilization, which once spread across much of what is today Northern Africa and the Levant, is variously dated to roughly three thousand years ago, around 1200–800 BC. The waters of the Mediterranean and later the Atlantic Ocean were crucially important for the Phoenicians, renowned as traders, with settlements spaced at least every 70 miles along the coastline — a day’s journey in the vessels of the time. First and foremost, the Phoenicians were known as “traders in purple”, as reflected by their name, derived from the Greek term phoenix, meaning reddish-purple. The purple dye, however, was a product of the sea, the outcome of processing countless shells of at least three species of murex (Phyllonotus trunculus, Bolinus brandaris, Thais haemastoma) found in various levels of abundance and in different habitats across the Mediterranean and western coast of Africa.

It has been estimated that the highest quality dye — “Tyrian purple” produced in the Phoenician city of Tyre (located in modern-day Lebanon) from a purported mix of murex and shellfish dyes — was worth twenty times its weight in gold. This marine resource was of paradigmatic cultural significance to early Mediterranean civilizations both before the Phoenicians (the Minoans) and after (the Romans and Ottomans). For over 1,000 years, the fashion persisted, with purple robes treasured by the contemporary elites. At times, the cost of the dye precluded any but the richest from owning purple garments, while at other times it was legally ordained that only specific people were allowed to own or wear purple.

The ocean was providing early Mediterranean civilizations with a service they saw as valuable, straddling the categorizations of provisioning services (ornamental resources) and cultural services (aesthetic value and function as a motif for folklore, national symbols, etc.) as defined by the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment.

But the origins of the colour purple being so admired, and even the start of murex collection and processing for dye are the stuff of myth and legend. In the 2nd century AD, the Greek sophist Julius Pollux wrote that the dog of the Greek hero Heracles had come upon a murex shell on the seashore near Tyre, chewed it, and returned to Heracles with a purple mouth. In this origin story, Heracles related what happened to King Phoenix and it was subsequently decided to adopt purple as a sign of royalty.

Archaeologist Gerhard Forstenpointner and others noted that in one site in south-western Turkey, 60 million processed murex shells were excavated. And remarkably, one contemporary written account of the method for producing purple murex dye still exists, written by Pliny the Elder (AD 23-79). To this day, however, no one has been able to convincingly recreate the dye using this method. Increasing demand, or perhaps over-exploitation, led the Phoenicians to explore new coastlines, and ultimately to develop more resilient ships capable of venturing into the rougher waters of the Atlantic. As a result, murex dye production eventually found its way from the eastern Mediterranean all the way to the island of Mogador, in what is present-day Morocco. Ultimately, the murex dye was replaced by cochineal dyes from the New World and, finally, by synthetic dyes.

From a modern perspective, the ocean was providing early Mediterranean civilizations with a service they saw as valuable, straddling the categorizations of provisioning services (ornamental resources) and cultural services (aesthetic value and function as a motif for folklore, national symbols, etc.) as defined by the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment. Not only did purple murex dye define the aesthetics of the Mediterranean for hundreds of years, it spurred innovation, expansion of empire, legal frameworks, and the writing of legends.

Moreover, although consensus has not been reached on whether over-exploitation did in fact cause the displacement of murex harvesting and dye production into more distant areas, there is a tantalizing possibility that this is an early example of what some researchers refer to as “sequential exploitation”, driven by a cultural marine ecosystem service. Furthermore, it highlights yet another weakness of current day methods for assessing the value of ecosystem services. By placing a value on the ecosystem services in a single hectare of a biome, and scaling this up to the global level, all hectares are afforded an equal value. As Laura Garwin notes, however, “[t]he last hectare to disappear would be much more valuable than the first”.

Early Arab travelers and cultural marine ecosystem services in Northern Europe

Travelling north across Europe for our next example, we find that the interactions of early civilizations of northern Europe (present-day Scandinavia, Finland and the Baltic States) with surrounding marine ecosystems were also closely linked with cultural identity and production activities.

Although archaeologists have found evidence of Viking boat funerals, the only existing eyewitness account is that of an Arab emissary of the 10th century, Ahmad ibn-Fadlan, who relates how the body of a Viking king was placed in a large boat together with his possessions, animal sacrifices and one of his servants. Subsequently, “[…] people came with wood and logs to burn, each holding a piece of wood. The fire enveloped the wood […] and all there was on the boat […] Not an hour had passed before ship, wood, girl and master were no more than ashes and dust.”

Suitable seascapes for ritual cremations were providing local communities with what would today be classified as a cultural ecosystem service, defining cultural identity and distinguishing one community from another.

The cultural significance of boats and the sea is evident in the ritual cremation taking place on the king’s ship rather than on land. Moreover, contemporary accounts by other travelers in northern Europe repeatedly emphasize burial practices, sometimes even explicitly describing these as distinguishing factors of different cultural groups. For instance, in his account of the Burtas tribe, which lived between the Black Sea and Caspian Sea, ibn-Rusta noted: “They are divided into two types, one of which burns their dead and the other inters them.” Suitable seascapes for ritual cremations were therefore providing local communities with what would today be classified as a cultural ecosystem service, defining cultural identity and distinguishing one community from another.

According to historical records from ibn-Khurradadhbhih and others, the early tribes of northern Europe were substantially reliant on ecosystem services derived from both landscapes and seascapes. By the 10th century, established trade routes extended from present-day Scandinavia to China, with furs, spices, silver and other goods moving east and west. One of the primary trade goods was swords that were smelted in Arab lands and traded in Northern Europe for sable pelts and slaves. This trade enabled the development of another ritualized connection with the sea: according to one eyewitness, Abu Hamid, in these Northern European communities, “every human being needs a sword each year to throw into the Sea of Darkness […] all those who have thrown a sword into the sea take their share of the fish […] If the Yura do not throw the swords that we have mentioned into the water, no fish come out and they die of hunger.”

In this case as well, what would today be defined as different categories of ecosystem services — provisioning and cultural — were integrally linked, and were perhaps even an early system for distributing communal fishing rights. Likewise, the cultural practices were embedded within a broader network of interdependence connecting not only the different ecosystem services, but also creating the need for interaction with distant blacksmiths in Arab lands.

Present day lessons from the distant past

A common element in the two cases presented here is that the only existing descriptions of the cultural marine ecosystem services were provided by outsiders, travelers or visitors. Thousands of pages of Viking sagas written by the Viking communities themselves exist, but provide no detailed accounts of ship burials or sword-throwing rituals, focusing instead on feuds, battles and conquest. Likewise, the only records of how purple murex dye was produced and gained such prominence were written by Greeks and Romans rather than the Phoenicians themselves. One possible explanation is that cultural marine ecosystem services may become so deeply ingrained and fundamental to a society that they are no longer noteworthy, while visitors from foreign lands would marvel at such practices and record them for posterity.

Bolinus brandaris

The Phoenicians were known as “traders in purple”, due to a prized dye derived from processing the shells of at least three species of murex (one of which, Bolinus brandaris, is pictured here) found in various levels of abundance across the Mediterranean and western coast of Africa. Photo: H. Zell. Creative Commons BY-SA.

Valuation of marine ecosystem services like fishing and wind farming may be objectively calculable based on global market values, but perhaps cultural marine ecosystem services can only be fully appreciated through a complementary approach integrating both local and outsider perspectives.

Likewise, although there are some inherent limitations to assessing cultural marine ecosystem services from the distant past, the substantial distance from modern economies and cultures makes it possible to objectively judge just how much overlap there seems to be among the categories of ecosystem services defined in the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment typology. The purple murex dye of Phoenician times was at the nexus of a broad spectrum of cultural, aesthetic and production activities, impossible to reduce to a single category of ecosystem service or value.

While some efforts to quantify the value of ecosystem services are driven by an attempt to internalize negative environmental costs into production activities, they run the risk of over-emphasizing the more tangible ecosystem services, while undervaluing the less tangible, which form the fundamental fabric of human interactions with the environment. Further research is needed on how to value the intangible, how to manage what is not necessarily measureable, and how to translate such concepts into largely unregulated free markets and rigid policy frameworks.

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Vikings, Phoenicians and the ‘Cultural Services’ of the Sea by Robert Blasiak is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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Author

Robert Blasiak

University of Tokyo

Robert Blasiak is a Research Fellow at the University of Tokyo Graduate School of Agricultural and Life Sciences, where he is studying international cooperation processes directed at long-term sustainable management and use of marine resources. He is also a visiting research fellow at the United Nations University Institute for the Advanced Study of Sustainability.

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  • carol

    Cultural practices can be powerful tools, or in some cases barriers, to sustainably managing/using natural resources. What can we learn from history?