Global Romans (2). Batujaya and the global connections of Java in the first century CE

Miko Flohr, 14/01/2020

So, let’s just start with the place that got me into this thing in the first place. What was happening on the island where my grandparents were born when the Romans were building their riverine frontier in The Netherlands? Very little of the pre-colonial history of Indonesia is part of the western historical canon. Some people will know that before Islam became the dominant religion on Java – which happened only in the 15th century – the island was under Hindu-Buddhist influence. A few, perhaps, will know that there once was an empire that ruled over larger parts of the Indonesian archipelago from its base in Trowulan, East Java (incidentally, that is within walking distance of the place where in 1920 my grandmother would be born). This so-called Majapahit Empire had its golden age in the 14th century and it was the last in a series of Hindu-Buddhist kingdoms that had ruled over parts of Java from the fourth century CE onwards.

Java before Indianization

In the first century CE, all of this was in the far future. ‘Indianization’ (as it is called by some) had not yet truly begun, and there is no evidence that the Indian religions had established a meaningful presence in Indonesia. In fact, no historical sources from the period exist: the oldest texts on Java date to the reign of an early fifth century (CE) king of the kingdom of Tarumanagara, who was called Purnawarman. They are written in Sanskrit using the so-called Pallava-script – indeed, both the language and the script came from India.

Buni culture pottery, coastal West Java c. 400 BCE to 100 CE . Collection of National Museum of Indonesia, Jakarta.

To understand what is happening on Java before this period, one therefore has to rely on material culture. For a long time, this quite simply meant that, basically, nothing was known about what was happening, and still, the number of seriously investigated archaeological sites with evidence from the last centuries BCE or the first centuries CE on Java remains limited.

This is not to say that nothing is there. A couple of archaeological sites in North-West Java, have yielded remains from datable contexts that give some clues about some of the developments of the period. The evidence remains in many ways elusive: no built structures are known, and most finds are artefacts coming from funerary context.

Buni and Batujaya

The local pottery tradition of the time has become known as the ‘Buni culture’, after one of the principal findspots. It is characterized by very simple, incised geometric decoration in a style that somewhat resembles contemporary pottery traditions elsewhere in South-East Asia. Even if all of this pottery was locally made, this suggests that the north coast of Java had already been integrated in larger regional networks of maritime (cultural) exchange.

Batujaya, West Java: one of the excavated temples amidst rice fields

One of the best published sites with evidence from the period is Batujaya, not far from Buni. This site, discovered only late in the 20th century, is best known for its ‘medieval’ (fifth to ninth century CE) Buddhist temple complex, of which ample remains are visible on-site, but a substantial number of burials from the first two centuries CE have been found in lower levels (Manguin & Indradjaja 2011).

The grave goods from these burials give a good indication of the material culture of North-West Java, which was a mixture of locally produced objects and, increasingly, imports. As in multiple other sites from the period, grave goods included so-called ‘rouletted’ ware and stamped ware from India, but also a gold object that the excavators have associated with ‘Persia’ (or, in this period, rather, the Parthian empire).

Textiles from the Far West?

Still, there may be a bit more. In a 2015 article, the excavators of Batujaya presented a laboratory analysis of some very fragmentary textile remains found in three of the tombs, arguing that one of the texiles was, in fact, asbestos, and suggesting that it might come from what they call the ‘Roman Orient’ (Cameron et al. 2015). This is certainly a possibility – if China in this period were getting their asbestos (indirectly) from the Far West, as their sources suggest, the same might be true for North-West Java. However, other options (particularly India) do not seem to be off the table, and the textile could not be securely provenanced by any technological means.

Nevertheless, whatever was happening on Java, their coastal communities were well-connected with the wider world, and – more interestingly – they had direct access to a network that also had connections to the Roman Empire of the first century CE As ever, the clearest indication for this comes from ceramics: the very same Indian ceramics that have been found in Batujaya has been found, in certain quantities, in the Roman harbours of Berenike and Myos Hormos on the Red Sea in what is now Egypt (Tomber 2000). Maybe, there were, in the first century CE, fewer handshakes between the Limes in Germania Inferior and Java than we would perhaps be inclined to imagine.


Cameron, J., A. Indradjaja, P.-Y. Manguin (2015), ‘Asbestos textiles from Batujaya (West Java, Indonesia): Further evidence for early long-distance interaction between the Roman Orient, Southern Asia and island Southeast Asia’ Bulletin de l’École française d’Extrême-Orient 101:159-176.

Manguin, P.-Y., Indradjaja, A. (2011) ‘The Batujaya Site: New Evidence of Early Indian Influence in West Java’ in: P.-Y. Manguin, A. Mani, and G. Wade (eds) Early Interactions between South and Southeast Asia. Reflections on Cross-Cultural Exchange. Singapore: ISEAS, 113-136.

Tomber, R. (2001) ‘Indo-Roman trade: the ceramic evidence from Egypt’ Antiquity 74: 624-631.

Global Romans (1). The classical world through post-colonial eyes

Miko Flohr, 07/01/2020

I have lived inside the boundaries of what used to be the Roman empire for my entire life. Born in Rotterdam in The Netherlands, I grew up in Brabant, in the south of the country, and went to the university in Nijmegen, where they were still excavating the legionary camp as I arrived in 1995 to study Classics; every year or so, newspapers would report new local discoveries – burials, structures, or roads. Later, in Oxford, we lived within a couple of hundreds of meters of the old Roman road between Silchester and Towchester. Since moving back to the Netherlands, we live right between the Roman castellum at Valkenburg, and the small town of Forum Hadriani at Voorburg, and I happen to work within fifty meters of the northern boundary of the Empire – when I go on my bike from home to work, I often cross it twice. I know no better than that the object of my study is a regular part of the past of the places that I have called home.

Birth places of my ancestors, five generations back. Top: The Netherlands. Bottom: Java, Indonesia.

Oddly enough, it took me some time to realize that this does not also mean that my deeper personal roots lie within the empire. Actually, as the map above shows, the reverse is true. My mother was born just north of the Rhine, in Arnhem, her parents in Arnhem and Groningen. Part of my grandfather’s family can be traced back to the riverine area that was once just inside the empire (but only just); however, my grandmother’s ancestry almost entirely came from Frisia, which never was part of the Roman realm. More radically, my father was born on the other end of the world, in Southern Sumatra, in what then still was called the Dutch East Indies by some. Both of my grandparents who were born on Java and had mixed Javanese-European ancestry. Only in 1954, they came to Europe. It is safe to say that there is not an awful lot of Greco-Roman blood running through my veins.

In a way, of course, this is pompous nonsense. Family histories can only be traced back to the early modern period, and we are shaped by them only to a fairly limited extent even if they are of great antiquarian personal interest. Also, there is no intrinsic meaning attached to living within or outside the former boundaries of an empire that has been gone for a millennium and a half apart from the fact that Roman stuff may be found in your back yard or around the corner. Antiquity is dead and gone, and no-one in this world, except for the pope maybe in Rome, entertains a living relation with the world of the first centuries of our era.

Still, place matters, and it is kind of ironical how we, in the Netherlands, and in larger parts of North-Western Europe (never mind North-America), have somehow decided, long ago, that our collective historical narratives start from Greece and Rome, far away in the Mediterranean. In a way, we have artificially appropriated a past that is wholly or partially unrelated to the land where our families come from and we have made it our own. Additionally, we have asked people arriving in our country from elsewhere (like my father’s family) to buy into this narrative even if it essentially excludes the places where they (also) come from. It is surely a tempting narrative – I am certainly not the only European with roots in the Far East to study Greco-Roman ‘classics’. But it is also a bit odd, if you think about it – it is strange to spend your professional life within a historical tradition that has nothing to say about the land where part of your family comes from.

Personally, I only gradually came to be bothered by the geographical boundaries of ‘our’ ancient world. Of course, I learned about Rome’s intensive trade with India in the first and second centuries CE, and I read stuff about China under the Qin and Han emperors, but the actual position of Rome, and its empire, in the wider world of the early first millennium CE is something that only came onto my radar over the course of the last two years or so; perhaps, this is due to the increasingly heated debates about the extent to which European perceptions of the past are still firmly rooted in ideas defined in the era of European colonial empires. Should not a post-colonial view on the history of the world also have implications for the way in which we approach the Ancient Mediterranean, and if so, which?

I would argue that it is the task of Ancient Historians to begin to set this record straight. Some of us, of course, have already begun spinning historical threads connecting the Greco-Roman world to the world around the ancient Mediterranean, including India and China. Yet it is safe to say that very little of that has really entered the central debates in our field, or reached a broader public. Indeed, if Greco-Roman scholars experiment with the concept of globalisation, they mostly use it as a concept within the confines of the classical world – that’s how provincial we (still) are! Indeed, the wider world is only rarely part of what we teach – our world, too often, still stops where (and when) they stop writing Greek and Latin. There are some prominent exceptions, but it also seems that many of us simply don’t know very well what the hell is happening out there. This needs to change – we need to change.

So here we go. What I will be doing is write a number of blogs on the ‘echoes’ of Rome in the world outside the boundaries of the empire – and vice-versa. One could argue that this still is, essentially, a Romano-centric approach, and that certainly is true. But it also offers a powerful perspective, and what I hope is that it does give me some clues in connecting all the dots – after all, I have a direct personal interest in doing this. I have no fixed schedule, and no clear timetable for this, and many other obligations, so we’ll see how it goes. This might be a five-year project, on and off, but eventually, we’ll get there, and it will help me understand how the Greco-Roman world in our handbooks related to and interacted with the world beyond the Rhine, the Danube, and the Syrian, Arab and North-African deserts. Maybe, it will help some of you as well.

Note: The title of this series is resembling that of Frits Naerebout’s recommendable article ‘Global Romans? Is globalisation a concept that is going to help us understand the Roman empire?’ (Talanta 38-39 [2008], 149-170), which can be found here. It deserves some emphasis, however, that it lacks the question mark.

Laat ons zuinig zijn op het Koninklijk Nederlands Instituut Rome

Miko Flohr, 12/06/2019

En toen, in november 2004, behaagde het Hare Majesteit de Koningin om naar de Via Omero te komen. Het Nederlands Instituut te Rome werd een eeuw oud, en mocht zich vanaf dat moment Koninklijk gaan noemen. Het leidde tot bijzondere taferelen: daar stonden we dan, in de zaal waar we normaal onze presentaties hielden, en uren discussieerden over het Rome van 100, 1500 of 1940 na Christus – en daar stond Beatrix, die uitgebreid de tijd nam om met de geselecteerde gasten te praten over hun werk. Het was een prachtige dag.

De verlening van het predicaat was, vond ik – en dat vind ik nog steeds – een terechte kroon op het werk van het oudste en belangrijkste interuniversitaire instituut van Nederland: met beperkte middelen, vaak tegen de tijdgeest in, had het instituut zich tot een betrouwbare thuishaven ontwikkeld voor Nederlandse wetenschappers – scriptieschrijvers, promovendi, gepromoveerden, hoogleraren – die om wat voor reden dan ook voor korte of langere tijd in Rome moesten zijn: voor de archieven van het Vaticaan, voor de Nationale archieven van Italië – en voor de archeologie. Ik was geen wetenschapper geworden zonder het instituut: mijn eerste verblijf, in Januari 2001, was de eyeopener van mijn leven: sindsdien brandt het vuur, soms harder dan ik hebben kan. Ik ben niet de enige.

Van niemand, voor iedereen

Het KNIR is van fundamenteel belang voor het Nederlandse geesteswetenschappelijke ecosysteem – als plek waar je onderzoek doet, inspiratie vindt, discussies voert en mensen ontmoet buiten de gestaalde academische verhoudingen zoals die ‘thuis’ gelden. Het kan die rol in belangrijke mate zo spelen omdat het instituut niemand toebehoort – en dus ons allemaal. De wetenschappelijke staf wisselt iedere paar jaar van samenstelling – men werkt er maximaal zes jaar – alle deelnemende universiteiten komen zo aan bod. De laatste directeuren kwamen achtereenvolgens van Leiden, van de UvA, uit Groningen, van de VU, en uit Utrecht; Nijmegen was vertegenwoordigd op andere posities. Zo kon het instituut worden wat het is: voor iedereen, maar van niemand. Een baken van (relatieve) zelfstandigheid in een academisch landschap waarin alles in toenemende mate centraal ingesnoerd moet zijn.

Het is ontzettend belangrijk om zuinig te zijn op dit soort kleine, kwetsbare instellingen. De impact van het instituut is niet gemakkelijk meetbaar, maar bestaat in de inspiratie die wetenschappers die er maar kort waren soms hun hele carrière meenemen, uit de netwerken en samenwerkingsverbanden die er gesmeed worden – we kennen elkaar allemaal beter uit Rome dan uit het haastige Nederland, waar nooit tijd is – en uit de ideeën die er vorm krijgen. Ja, er wordt ook meetbare ‘output’ geproduceerd in de prachtige bibliotheek – en veel ook – maar die valt eigenlijk in het niet bij het onmetelijke dat iedereen meeneemt.

Groningse Geldingsdrang

In Groningen – ieder buitenlands instituut heeft een ‘penvoerder’ in Nederland die voor de financiële zaken zorgt, en in 1991 werd het NIR aan Groningen toegewezen – wordt daar blijkbaar anno 2019 toch wat anders over gedacht. Men heeft besloten om het Koninklijk *Nederlands* instituut onderdeel te maken van de eigen internationaliseringsagenda, en de capaciteit van het instituut voor een deel te gaan reserveren voor de ‘internationale ervaring’ van BA-studenten – zoals de ‘notitie’ het zegt: ‘de Italiaanse, mediterraanse (sic!) omgeving biedt studenten een waardevolle buitenland-ervaring. Cultuur, natuur en klimaat en sociaal-economische karakteristieken zijn wezenlijk anders dan die van noord-west Europa’. Maar dat is nog niet het ergste.

Het ergste is dat Groningen het KNIR onder direct gezag van de eigen universiteit wil plaatsen – de directeur wordt in de toekomst werknemer aan de RUG – en de invulling op zich wil nemen van niet minder dan de helft (!) van het programma aan het KNIR. Groningen wil het Nederlands Instituut in Rome daarmee in feite omvormen tot het Gronings-Nederlands Instituut te Rome. Het GNIR. Daarmee is het gedaan met de onafhankelijkheid van het Instituut, en komt een van de laatste echte academische vrijplaatsen op de tocht te staan.

Onnodig hard machtsspel

Zulks wordt de academische gemeenschap bovendien via een onnodig hard academisch machtsspel door de strot geduwd. De wetenschappelijke adviesraad van het Instituut – met daarin vertegenwoordigers van alle deelnemende universiteiten – is niet in het gesprek over de plannen betrokken. De wetenschappelijke staf van het instituut – de mensen die de tent draaiende houden! – is in de planvorming volledig gepasseerd. De Groningse OR heeft vragen gesteld die het CvB niet wilde beantwoorden – totdat vandaag bleek dat alles in kannen en kruiken was. De Groningse Rector Magnificus benoemt de facto zichzelf (!) tot interim-directeur van het instituut (is dat niet gewoon machtsmisbruik?). Hij kent overigens, als econoom, de kerndisciplines van het instituut niet, en hij spreekt geen Italiaans, dus die komt daar alleen maar de verandering managen. De universiteit laat weten dat hij ‘slechts’ een paar keer op en neer zal vliegen – een ronduit angstaanjagend idee. De notitie (en de officiële communicatie) doet voorkomen of er eigenlijk in de praktijk niet zo heel veel verandert, maar haalt wel de hele bestuursstructuur overhoop – hetgeen doet vermoeden dat het erom draait in de praktijk wel veel te veranderen – en veel meer dan men nu vertellen wil. Een belabberde gang van zaken, die dit mooie instituut niet past.

Het Nederlands Instituut kreeg in 2004 niet voor niets het predicaat ‘Koninklijk’. Het kreeg dat omdat het in ons academische ecosysteem een heel bijzondere rol speelt, en omdat het ons land op fantastische wijze vertegenwoordigt in een van de belangrijkste academische centra van Europa – in Rome komt iedereen, en in dat internationale netwerk speelt ons kleine land met dit instituut een onevenredig grote rol. Het instituut hoeft niet per definitie te blijven zoals het nu is – de tijden veranderen, het instituut verandert logischerwijs mee, stapje voor stapje. Maar dat Groningen het nu zo halsoverkop en half in het donker zichzelf toe wil eigenen is bij de wilde spinnen af, en vraagt om een ondubbelzinnig weerwoord. Van ons allemaal, maar misschien ook wel van de Majesteit zelf. Of, zoals dat dan gaat, van Zijn Minister.


Miko Flohr, 24/12/2018

Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem. Excavations in 1934 unearthed late antique mosaics possibly belonging to the original church built under (and by) the Roman emperor Constantine in the early fourth century.

Design (7) – Animals from Bavaria

Miko Flohr, 21/12/2018

Here we are on the other side of the Alps, outside the Mediterranean, where things worked differently. This greyish-black vase from ca. 500 BC is decorated with geometric patterns (stamped) and an animal-frieze (hand-drawn). It was found in Matzhausen, which is northeast of Regensburg in Bavaria, and belongs to the early La Tène-culture.

Design (6) – Abduction in Bronze

Miko Flohr, 20/12/2018

This large bronze vessel (Met) is thought to date back to the fourth century BCE, and it shows how, by the time of Aristotle and Alexander, the Greeks had developed a quite distinct style in depicting the human body. The scene is thought to depict the abduction of Ariadne by Dionysos, but what strikes me is the detailed quality of the decoration, which is not something you encounter in earlier periods. While the body of this hydria was hammered to shape, the decorations were made in molds and then fixed to the vessel. You can read more about how these vessels were made here.

Design (5) – Fear of emptiness?

Miko Flohr, 19/12/2018

This sixth century BCE pyxis probably comes from Corinth and  currently belongs to the collection of the Honolulu Museum of Art. Note how the decoration uses three different colours (background yellow, black and dark red) combining geometrical patterns with mythological animals and floral motifs – typically for its time, there is a tendency to fill up all ’empty’ space with motifs and other elements.   

Design (4) – Lines and Birds

Miko Flohr, 18/12/2018

This is an early seventh century BC vase from Etruria, now in the Lowe Art Museum in Miami. Classical archaeologists would typically look further eastwards in this period, towards Athens and Corinth, but Central Italy is alive and kicking, and has its own ways of doing stuff. There is more red, and less black, but basic ingredients are similar, combining repetitive decorative elements with simple geometric patterns – in this case, lines. Still, this vase stands out in its simplicity. 

Design (3) – This is not modern art

Miko Flohr, 17/12/2018

This is a tiny fragment of a Hellenistic bowl, probably dating to the second or first century BCE, and probably coming from somewhere in the Eastern part of the Mediterranean; it was donated to the Metropolitan Museum of Art by J.P. Morgan Jr. in 1917; typically, its precise origins remain unknown. But what is it? Clearly, this is not pottery – nor is it metal. It is, in fact, glass. While glass-blowing was not invented until the first century BCE, there was a tradition of glass-working in the eastern mediterranean – and by using molds, you can cast the glass in the desired form. Often, elaborate color schemes would be applied, but they were unable to fully control the casting process, so the result always looks a bit messy. Still, it is one of those indications that the ancient world was much more colorful than we tended to assume until not so long ago. 

Design (2) – Griffins on bronze

Miko Flohr, 16/12/2018

This so-called kylix comes from somewhere in central Italy and dates back to the seventh century BCE, when Rome still was in its infancy, and Athenian democracy had yet to be invented; it belongs to the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It is made of bronze, but it actually looks quite rough on the surface, and a bit irregular – part of this may be preservation, but certainly not all of it (e.g. look at the handle). What I find particularly interesting, though, is the way in which the frieze of griffins has been made – they have simply been engraved in the bronze, without any relief, as would become the norm later on. This makes the bowl look simple and basic compared to some of the more complex artefacts of later periods.