Bermuda’s history is a rich tapestry of diverse cultures and influences, woven together by the island’s strategic location at the crossroads of the Atlantic Ocean. As a major port in the Atlantic, Bermuda was connected to regions all around the Atlantic Basin; from Peru and Guiana to the Azores and Angola. But did you know that there is an artefact in the Museum’s collection that connects Bermuda to a port thousands of miles away and predates the earliest record of Bermuda by a thousand years?
Before I start this story, I should begin with some context, and dare I say some archaeological theory. As a young archaeology student, I read an article titled “Notes on the Life History of a Potsherd”, by Cornelius Holtorf. In the article Holtorf, explores the biographical history of a pot sherd, or a broken piece of pottery, found during an archaeological excavation. He argues that such an object has a life history that extends beyond its creation, use, and disposal by humans, and that the object can provide valuable insights into human behavior and culture.
Holtorf examines the various stages in the life history of the pot sherd, including its creation by a potter, its use by a person or group of people, its eventual breakage and disposal, its discovery and excavation by archaeologists, and its subsequent curation and display in a museum.
He argues that each of these stages has contributed to the object’s life history, and that the object has accumulated a range of meanings and associations as it has passed through different hands and contexts.
I was always fascinated by this concept; the idea that as an object moves through time, each person that comes into contact with it adds a new layer to its biography.
Back to our ancient history. The history of Bermuda is full of fascinating stories and connections to the wider world. One such connection can be found in the National Museum of Bermuda’s collection, in the form of Ancient Roman pottery fragments found on Warwick, which wrecked in Bermuda in 1619. What makes these fragments so intriguing is that they tie together the history of two burgeoning maritime ports separated by over a thousand years; the Roman port of Londinium and the Atlantic port of Bermuda.
On October 20 1619, the Warwick was anchored in Castle Harbour when a November gale drove the ship against the cliffs at Wallers Bay on the south side of the anchorage completely destroying the ship and valuable supplies for Jamestown. Buried within the ship’s ballast were fragments of Roman pottery, providing a rare glimpse into an intricate web of connections.
Established by groups of Roman merchants and traders in AD 48 the port of Londinium was a busy and bustling place. Situated on the River Thames, it was a hub of trade and commerce — a vital gateway for goods coming in and out of Britain with ships arriving and departing from all over the Roman Empire. It quickly became a crucial center for the Roman Empire.
Ships of all sizes entered and exited the port, loaded by dockworkers with goods such as grain, pottery, and textiles while traders and merchants negotiated deals and conducted business.
In addition to the commercial activity, the port of Londinium would have been a lively and diverse place, with people of many different backgrounds and cultures mixing and interacting. You would have heard a variety of languages and accents, and seen people of different cultural backgrounds and ethnicities, as evidenced by archaeological excavations of London. It is during this period that our Roman pottery fragments found their way into the Thames where they lay for over 1400 years.
Following the departure of the Romans from Britain in the 5th century, Londinium declined in importance for several centuries. During this period the old Roman city was abandoned and Anglo-Saxons developed the port town Lundenwic in the area now known as Convent Garden. A major port under the control of the Mercian kingdom it was a tempting prize and under regular attack from the Vikings. By the 9th century, Alfred the Great – a name likely familiar to fans of Netflix’s The Last Kingdom – had assumed control of the former Roman city, and changed its name to Lundenburh, later shorten to London. London grew rapidly, and by the 11th century, the city was a major trading center, with ships arriving from all over Europe to trade goods.
During the Medieval period, the development of London’s ports continued apace. In the 12th century, the first stone bridge was built over the River Thames, linking the city with the south bank of the river. This bridge, known as London Bridge, quickly became a vital artery for trade, and a market developed on the bridge itself.
By the 17th century, London’s importance as a port had grown even further, thanks in part to the beginning expansion of the English trade networks. The port of London became a major hub of trade with the colonies, facilitating the import and export of goods ranging from spices and textiles to tobacco. As fate would have it, it is during this period that our roman pottery fragments resurface, dredged up from the bottom of the Thames with rocks and used as ballast in the hold of Warwick.
At the time Warwick wrecked in Bermuda in 1619, London was a well-established English port, serving as a vital hub of trade and commerce for centuries. Bermuda, on the other hand, was newly established, having been settled by the English just seven years earlier. However, the island’s strategic location in the middle of the North Atlantic made it a crucial stopping point for ships traveling between Europe and the Americas. When Warwick wrecked, the pottery fragments buried within the ballast ended up underwater once again, this time on the bottom of Castle Harbour.
Over time, as these pottery fragments lay buried, Bermuda grew and developed into a major port, playing a significant role in the economic and social development of the island and the wider Atlantic World.
Over 300 years later, during excavations conducted by teams from the Institute of Nautical Archaeology, the Center for Maritime Archaeology and Conservation at Texas A&M University, and the National Museum of Bermuda, led by NMB staff archaeologist Dr. Piotr Bojakowski, artefacts from Warwick, including our Roman pottery fragments were recovered. Eventually these fragments found their way into the Museum’s collection and on display in Shipwreck Island, where visitors can view them every day and an overly passionate Curator can highlight them in her tours: “Alright everyone what if I told you Bermuda has ancient Roman history?…”
Ports have always been vital hubs of trade and commerce, serving as gateways for goods and people traveling between different parts of the world. They have been instrumental in driving economic growth, providing employment opportunities, and stimulating the development of local industries. They have also been vital centers for cultural exchange.
The pottery fragments found on Warwick offer a fascinating insight into how seemingly innocuous broken and discarded pieces of pottery can connect two major ports separated by thousands of years and miles and showcase the crucial role ports have played in the growth and development of communities throughout history. The next time you visit the Museum stop by Shipwreck Island and see if you can spot our Roman history on display.
Watts, Gordon (2014) Shipwrecked. National Museum of Bermuda Press.
Bojakowski, P and K Custer-Bojakowski (2017) “Warwick: report on the excavation of an early 17th-century English shipwreck in Castle Harbour, Bermuda” The International Journal of Nautical Archaeology