Resilient economies. Production, distribution and trade of stone objects in context

Resilient economies.

Production, distribution and trade of stone objects in context: the Eastern Adriatic and Balkan areas, Late Antiquity to the Early Middle Ages


Project funded by the Alexander von Humboldt Stiftung, Feodor Lynen Return Fellowship (2024)


Late Antiquity to the Early Middle Ages: resilient economies

Present day Europe is struggling to adapt to a new geopolitical context defined by growing pressure on its economy (e.g. disruption of the supply chains, inflation), politics (e.g. Brexit and similar initiatives, rise of populisms) and security (effects of the climate change, pandemics, wars in neighbouring Countries). Hence, “resilience” has become a key concept in European research policies both at national and supranational level.

From this perspective, the study of historical economy in Late Antique and Early Medieval Europe can provide evidence on how Europeans adapted to a comparable context and, in so doing, laid the foundations for an economic and cultural growth that was to be clearly observed from the Late Middle Ages onwards.

People living in Europe during the late 5th / 6th to the 9th centuries had to cope with political instability, pandemics, climate change, and with a general economic downturn, best exemplified by the dramatic contraction of the long-distance trade from 7th century onwards. Just like nowadays, Late Antique and Early Medieval economies were experiencing “stress” in comparison to the previous and subsequent periods.

Yet contrary to what is surmised in many studies, the archaeological finds show that a resilient movement of goods and people continued even in this difficult context, and was often characterised by a “transnational” nature, with persons and objects moving across political and administrative boundaries. Thus, the economic “renaissance” of the High and Late Middle Ages did not appear suddenly, but originated precisely from the economic system which started to develop in the late 5th / 6th-9th centuries.

Thus, in a way, the roots of the free movement of people and goods, that are the foundation of present-day European Union, can be tracked back to the Late Antique and Early Medieval periods. The study of historical economy, and specifically of these centuries, can contribute to the reconstruction of our past as a continent characterised, throughout history, not only by conflicts, but also and most importantly by the presence, way back in time, of deep interrelations among different geopolitical areas.

Stone objects: a very relevant (but overlooked) economic indicator

Due to the scarcity of sources (contracts, account books, chronicles of traders, etc.) in comparison to the Roman Early Imperial period and to the High to Late Middle Ages, the study of historical economy in Late Antiquity to the Early Middle Ages has greatly relied on archaeological sources. Through distribution maps of archaeological finds, archaeologists and historians can understand the extent and characteristics of the trade in various types of goods, and compare this information with the data from the surviving written sources in order to define the players, infrastructures and technologies involved in the trade network.

Despite undoubtedly representing one of the best categories of objects to illustrate the Late Antique and Early Medieval movement of people and goods, which was a key factor leading to the subsequent economic revival, stone objects have been largely marginalised in general economic studies: the reason for this lies perhaps in their relative rareness in comparison to other types of archaeological materials, e.g. ceramics.

Even though trade in many types of stone objects (architectural elements, statues, etc.) had faded away between Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages, it survived in at least three main categories of items: soapstone or steatite vessels (for cooking and storing foodstuffs), hand-quern-stones (for grinding cereals), and sarcophagi. These objects were manufactured by a number of workshops located in different regions of Europe (Central and Southern France, Dalmatia, the Rhine valley, the Western Alps, Central Italy) and could travel for hundreds of kilometres, either by land, river or sea, before reaching their purchasers.

Unlike other proxies of trade and economic activity (e.g. imported pottery), stone artefacts implied the mobility of both people and goods, from the Roman Period to the Medieval times. While in some cases it was the stone that moved (e.g. soapstone vessels, hand-quern-stones), other contexts entailed the movement of persons (e.g. sculptors and stonemasons travelling from their homelands to the constructions places where they were hired, and where they used local lithic raw materials).

However, the extent and “degree of mobility” of both items and people varied over time during the Late Antique and Early Medieval centuries. For instance, while the mobility of sculptors and stoneworkers appears to have greatly increased from the 7th century onwards, the trade in ready-made sarcophagi, still existing in the 5th-6th century in a number of European regions, witnessed a gradual narrowing in the distribution areas. Eventually, the movement of goods was replaced by the movement of people, as, from about the 8th century, the manufacturing of sarcophagi for an upper-class clientele was often taken over by the same mobile sculptors who carved architectural decoration for churches and monasteries.

In comparison to the Roman Early Imperial period, Late Antique and Early Medieval hand-quern-stones were distributed in lesser amounts, but still over remarkable distances, and across political and administrative boundaries. The same applies to soapstone vessels, which market experienced a little “boom” starting from the late 5th / 6th century. Both categories of objects, therefore, clearly show a trend going against the generalised context of economic regionalisation attested by abundant archaeological evidence, first and foremost by ceramics.

Between West and East: the market for stone objects in the Eastern Adriatic and Balkan areas

The Eastern Adriatic and Balkan areas (which, in the 5th / 6th to the 9th centuries, witnessed relevant political changes resulting from interaction and conflicts between Eastern, Western, and local powers) are an exceptional framework to study the economics of stone between Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages. Traces of “trade-sensitive” stone artefacts, such as architectural sculpture, sarcophagi, soapstone vessels, and hand-quern-stones are well attested in these regions.

Stone objects sporadically published in exhibition catalogues or scientific papers show that the Eastern Adriatic and the Balkan areas were most probably characterised by comparable phenomena to the neighbouring westwards territories. However, the main categories of finds did not benefit from systematic publication on a regional or micro-regional level, and this rich body of evidence is therefore overlooked in general studies: in particular, soapstone vessels and hand-quern-stones found in these regions seem to be almost completely unknown to scholars working on Central and Western Europe.

Late Antique sarcophagi, especially the “serial” productions from the Brač island, have been more thoroughly studied and published by Croatian scholars, but they are still rarely considered in broader, European-wide economic studies. A similar picture is shown by architectural stone artefacts from the 8th and 9th centuries found in nowadays Croatia and North-Eastern Italy: the productions of several mobile workshops and its distribution in nowadays Croatia and North-Eastern Italy has been comprehensively studied by the local scholars, but yet again, their important results are often overlooked in European-wide studies. Sculptural production is far worse known outside nowadays Croatia, i.e. in the neighbouring territories of the Eastern Adriatic and the Balkan areas, where no comparable systematic studies have been conducted. Better known are the imported Late Antique sculpted furnishings, for instance from the Constantinopolitan region to Poreč: besides the examples originating from well-known stone sources (e.g. Prokonnesos marble quarries), the provenance, manufacturing process and distribution of these objects should be, however, systematically reviewed.

Identifying the main features and trends in the economics of stone in the Eastern Adriatic and Balkan areas appears therefore as a necessary and very relevant research goal. The study of the “overlooked” stone items, and especially in these extremely archaeologically rich, but likewise “overlooked”, regions between East and West, will expectantly contribute to a better understanding of the “resilient” evolution of European economies between Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages.


Beghelli, M. (2021): Sculpture in the seventh century CE. Some securely dated objects in context. Hortus Artium Medievalium 27, 151-168.

Beghelli, M. (2021b): On the road and in the tavern. Practical aspects of the master builders’ mobility: distances, journey durations, stopovers and hospitality, costs (7th-9th c.). In: Mens acris in corpore commodo. Festschrift in honour of the 70th birthday of Ivan Matejčić, Eds Bradanović, M., Jurković, M. (Zagreb, Motovun), 139-148.

Beghelli, M. (2022): Artisanal mobility, artisanal sedentariness, and the economic context. Some examples from the 7th-9th centuries. In: Un monde en mouvement : la circulation des hommes, des biens et des idées à l’époque mérovingienne (Ve-VIIIe siècle), Actes des 40e journées de l’AFAM, Eds Henigfeld, Y., Peytremann, E. (Nantes), 134-147.

Beghelli, M. (2023): From the quarry to the church. The economics of Early Medieval stone architectural sculpture: materials, makers and patrons (7th-9th centuries) (Mainz).