2.2 Maritime anthropology

Within archaeology, the sea is frequently perceived as empty, featureless, liminal, or as an obstacle or conduit to movement (Mithen and Lake 1996; Branigan and Foster 2002). But prehistoric coastal island communities would have been very familiar with the sea, its ebb and flow and the resources that it contained. They would have been adept at navigating within coastal waters and interpreting its tides, currents and wind patterns. In this way, the sea is not inherently symbolic but achieves significance through active engagement; through the daily practices of seafaring and fishing. Through such activities, the sea, like the land, becomes socially constructed.

But is the sea really like the land and are methodologies appropriate to studies of landscape applicable to the sea? We tend to think of the sea as a plane, mean sea-level. However, the constant rising and ebbing of tides and the changing wave regimes clearly demonstrates this to be an illusion. The sea is a volume, it is three dimensional. In basic terms it comprises a submerged seabed, an undulating and ever-changing surface with a variable expanse of water between. Each of these elements contain an abundance of life, both plant and animal, that change depending upon a bewildering range of variables, such as the condition of the seabed, depth, temperature, exposure and time of year, to name a few. These spatial and temporal qualities are very different to those experienced within a landscape (Sturt 2006). The Cartesian concept of a scape and the use of landscape approaches, albeit modified, are perhaps not appropriate to the study of the sea.

Differences between land and sea and people's cultural relationship and adapted response to the sea is perhaps best illustrated through the growing body of research carried out within the field of maritime anthropology (Acheson 1981; Cordell 1989; Durrenberger and Pálsson 1987; McKay 1978; Morphy and Morphy 2006).This body of work alerts us to issues such as the practicalities of boat construction, repair and wayfaring within small-scale maritime communities. Equally, such approaches are useful for the construction of prehistoric accounts of how people engage with the sea, as they alert and sensitise us to the potential complexity of such interactions.

Through human engagement with the sea it may become blanketed with history and imbued with names, myths and legends, and elaborate territories that may become exclusive provinces partitioned with traditional rights and owners much like property on land (Cordell 1989, 1). Cordell (1984, 302) discusses various ways small-scale fishermen have restricted access to sea resources through informal and communal arrangements. Fishing spots and the rights to enter particular sea zones can be closely defined and infringement of rights of access can be a major cause of conflict and tension between fishing communities or kinship groups (Begossi 1995). In many situations fishermen are territorial and the sea is seldom a free and open resource; fishermen develop property interests in sea space (Durrenberger and Pálsson 1987, 508).

The sea may also become socialised through systems of wayfaring – for example, the observation and correct interpretation of: stars; animal behaviour; the appearance of landmarks when viewed from the sea; wave patterns; and wind directions (Goodenough 1953; Sopher 1965; Akimichi 1984; 1996; Gell 1985; Gaffin 1996; Feinburg 1988). Similarly, anthropological studies demonstrate that the sea, and journeys made within it, may be embroidered with stories and mythological events, and comprise named places frequently inhabited by powerful spirits and ancestral beings (Cosentino 1995; Davis 1989; Morphy and Morphy 2006; Rasmussen 1979; Thompson 1995).

The capacity of the sea to contain meanings and mythologies is clarified by Davis' work with coastal Aboriginal communities in Arnhem Land, Northern Australia (1989). Davis focused on the ancestral geographies of the sea, describing how he observed that during fishing trips boat crews would assiduously, but inexplicably, avoid certain water spaces, consistently turning back when their boats might drift across seemingly imaginary boundaries (1989, 44). Davis was later able to coordinate these boundaries with almost indiscernible wave patterns that corresponded with undersea ridges and configurations of the sea floor, some below 30m of water. He was able to establish that these locales within the sea were considered to be created during the dreamtime by ancestral beings. Many of these sacred sites were so powerful that they had to be approached with caution and respect, for transgression was believed to bring about dire physical and psychological consequences (1989, 46). Davis' work demonstrates that the sea, like the landscape, might comprise a web of named and significant locales whose meaning is constructed through both the actions of ancestral beings and reinforced through the daily practices of fishing. This knowledge opens up both an actual and mythical awareness of a submerged and apparently invisible world, known through stories passed through generations but never directly experienced. These sacred sites create a three-dimensional ancestral geography within the sea that link together the movements and activities of dreamtime beings with the actions of modern aboriginal fishing communities. These sacred sites are located through the correct interpretation of a boat's position in relation to specific landmarks, reefs and water currents; knowledge of how to locate these sites being restricted to specific individuals who had earned this right through age, status and initiation.

Cordell's study of the Bahia fishing communities of north-east Brazil illustrates the construction of a socialised seascape through the everyday practices of fishing (1989). Here, Cordell shows how the sea is filled with fishing locales (pesqueiros) and how, through the correct identification of these locales, meaning and history is mapped within coastal waters. These pesqueiros are only accessible to those with knowledge of how to locate them through the correct interpretation of relationships between land and sea features (including coastal headlands, reefs, tidal currents etc.) and precise knowledge of the effects of lunar tide on the behaviour of fish. Access to this knowledge is controlled through family and personal networks, apprenticeships and initiation. Cordell (1989) demonstrates that through daily activities on the sea the seascape is inscribed with biographies, places, patterns of movements, and histories. By means of this process of socialising, the separate concepts of sea and landscape become intimately entwined and inseparable.


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