Did the Romans get to Japan?
It has been a big couple of weeks for the extensive reach and multiculturalism of the Roman empire. First, there were the putative people of putative Chinese ancestry (I'm putting that carefully) found in Roman London. Now there has been another much hyped discovery, of Roman coins, probably Constantinian (early fourth century AD) , found in a medieval castle in Japan.
To be fair, this has been treated in the media with considerably more circumspection than the Chinese connection. And that is partly because very few of us, me included, really understand the history of this castle where these coins (which I guess are Constantinian, but well....who really knows?) were found. Even the journalists have trod carefully.
For me -- and all I have done is look at the media reports, like everyone else -- is that the "facts" dont quite add up. From what we read, the place was abandoned by the sixteenth century. Yet along with the Roman coins, there were Ottoman coins of the seventeenth century. This doesnt look to me like a "sealed deposit"! And it rings warning bells about collectors and collections. Like, for example, should we be imagining an eighteenth-century Japanese coin collector just dropping a little bag of his collecton into the castle's ruins?
It reminds me of a "light bulb" moment when I was an undergraduate, thanks to Moses Finley. I am sure he wrote about this somewhere, but I haven't found it. What I remember is that he was explaining to us one academic line which stressed how many fragments of Greek pottery had been discovered in some Scandanavian country (I am afraid I can't recall which). The raw figures of the fragments made it look like (as some really did argue) that there was quite a classical Greek presence here up north, or among our Scandanavian neighbours.
As Finley pointed out to us, this was all fine ... except that all these many fragments came from one single pot, presumably a prize possession of a modern collector, which in its eventual dispersion, when broken up, was found in a variety of different locations.
Message: you can't simply take pottery as a proxy for where the ancient Greeks or Romans actually were.