Archaeology / Classics and pop culture / Random thoughts / Travel

Shopping lists, shipping lists, and imagining the Aegean Sea

How do you write your shopping list? Do you jot down reminders as and when you run out of milk and bread? Do you plan recipes and write down lists of ingredients? Do you imagine yourself walking around the shop and do you try to write everything in the order you will find it in the supermarket? The way in which we record information and organise lists says something quite human about how we see the world. If you were to sit down a random group of 20 people and have them list the most important towns en route between London and Edinburgh, you can bet that no two lists would be exactly the same. We all bring our own perceptions, prejudices, and world-views to a task like that; and because of the different social, cultural, political, and economic factors which we have all been served from the great buffet of life, the lens through which we all see the world and the way in which we record that view is necessarily different. Okay, that’s quite a big leap from a weekly Aldi-run to life, the universe, and everything…but bear with me. It’s a good starting point for thinking through the organisation of space and regional studies of landscapes.


Exhibit A: The classic ‘European’ way to organise information on the islands of the Aegean Sea.

Once again, I’ve been thinking about interesting things which we can learn about the Aegean Sea from a collection of fifteenth to twentieth century travelogues I read in December. This time, I would like to share a couple of thoughts on encyclopaedias – and more specifically on their contents pages. This isn’t just because I was too lazy to read beyond the first few pages (I object, milord!) There is – quite unsurprisingly – no hard and fast rule as to the ‘order’ of islands on the Aegean. Let’s take for example ‘Geographie von Griechenland’ by Conrad Bursian, an 1872 German handbook. Bursian starts west of the Aegean with the Ionian islands, up to the north Aegean and round Euboea, and then he works his way south down through the Cyclades and towards Crete. This is quite a common ‘imaginary’ as produced by a European scholar, as it moves through the islands from the west as if one were sailing through the region from western Europe. An interesting variation on this theme is ‘Iles de la Grèce’ by Louis Lacroix, who as far as I can gather spent part of his life living on Cyprus. As a consequence, his view of the world is from the east looking west: he organised his volume starting from Cyprus and Rhodes, up along the Ionian coast through the north Aegean, then down through the Cyclades and round to the Ionian islands – almost the complete opposite of Bursian. Hendrik Frieseman’s ‘Description historique et geographique de l’archipel’, by contrast, is arranged in alphabetical order by name of island! He doesn’t as much think about imagining a route through the islands as much as cataloguing information on them, and treating them more as abstract, academic entities. Just three different encyclopaedias, but three very different outlooks on the world.


Leto’s wanderings, according to the ‘Hymn to Apollo’. Certainly racked up a few airmails there.

We can play this game with antiquity as well. At the start of the (seventh?) century BC ‘Homeric Hymn to Apollo’, the goddess Leto wanders around the shores of Archaic Greece looking for a suitable home to bear her divine son Apollo. Before finally settling on the island of Delos, she travels here, there, and everywhere – well, along the coastlines of the Aegean. But this is all without actually hopping through the Cycladic islands themselves. Let’s take another sort-of-contemporary example, and the ‘Iliad’ of Homer. In the second book of the epic poem, the poet lists all of the allied city states who have come to fight at Troy. In terms of islands, Crete, Rhodes, Karpathos, and Kos all get a name check – but again the Cyclades are missing from the list. Why don’t we hear about the Cyclades in Archaic Greek literature? Why is this region – seemingly at the heart and nucleus of the Aegean Sea – ‘missing’? Perhaps sailing around and galavanting in the ancient world weren’t as common as we like to think that they were. The seventh century poet Hesiod tells us that there were only fifty days of the year when it was safe to take to the seas, otherwise you might find yourself living out the final scenes of Titanic – with a little less DiCaprio, and a little more drowning. Seemingly, what you miss off your list also tells us a little bit about how you might see the world: and in the case of Archaic Greece, the Cyclades were rather unseen.


Titanic: Archaic Greece edition

Lists and contents pages are almost as interesting as itineraries themselves. Travelogues, diaries, and letters home can tell us about what happened en route – about what people saw, about the journeys they plotted, about the last minute changes they had to make when they ran into a storm. But when the explorers got back home from their boat to the comfort of an armchair and a roaring fireside, the way in which they organised their recollections reflects their outlook of the journey, the construction of their memories, the topography of their imagined landscapes. What was included, what was left out, and the way in which information was structured gives us an important glimpse into the way more ancient and more contemporary travellers saw the Aegean Sea. And, as I said, that’s just the contents page…

There’s a lot of information on a little old list. So, next time you’re in Tesco’s, Morrison’s, or wherever, spare a quick thought: what does your shopping list say about you…?


Appropriate places to think about the Classics


3 thoughts on “Shopping lists, shipping lists, and imagining the Aegean Sea

  1. Pingback: GIS report -24/02/17 | res gerendae

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