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The Global Life of Sponges: Social, cultural, historical, and political



Titles of papers [in alphabetical order of authors]. Abstracts are appended below.


  1. Stories of sponges: survival and prosperity in the island society of Symi in the South-Eastern Aegean, 1850-1950.

Theofania Angelopoulou [University of Crete] [Abstract]


  1. Sponges of economic value from Singapore

Lim Swee Cheng [National University of Singapore] [Abstract]


  1. The global commerce in sponges, 1815-1945

William Clarence-Smith [SOAS, University of London] [Abstract]


  1. An oral history of the sponge-fishing industry of the Island of Hydra, Greece

Ed Emery [SOAS, University of London] [Abstract]


5. SACOLEVE : Spatial and temporal adaptation of a traditional Mediterranean fishery facing regional change: combining history and ecology to study past, present and future of sponge harvesting

Maïa Fourt, Daniel Faget, Thierry Pérez [Aix Marseille Université / Université d’Avignon] [Abstract]


  1. Sexing the sponge: Luxury, trade and the female body

Joyce Goggin [Universiteit van Amsterdam] [Abstract]


  1. OnThe sponge fishing activity and community of the island of Kalymnosby Evdokia Olympitou

Gelina Harlaftis [Ionian University] [Abstract]


  1. 8.Beneath the 12-Mile Reef:Archival curio of 20th century sponger culture

Hannah Hjerpe-Schroeder [Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia] [Abstract]


  1. Shallow-waterspongecommunity restoration in the Florida Keyssuccessful research-outreach partnership

Shelly L. Krueger, Florida Sea Grant, University of Florida IFAS Extension, Monroe County [Abstract] [Video delivery]


  1. Prospecting forsponges: Philippine waters and the rise of economic zoology, 1881-1916

Anthony Medrano [History and South Asian Studies, Harvard University] [Abstract] [Video delivery]


  1. On the status ofSpongia officinalis, the sponge by definition, and implications for conservation.A review (once upon a time)

Roberto Pronzato and Renata Manconi [Università di Genova] [Abstract]


  1. The hidden divers: Sponge harvesting in the archaeological record of the Mediterranean basin

Emilio Rodríguez-Álvarez [School of Anthropology, University of Arizona] [Abstract]


  1. Sponges versus foams: Nature and human artefact

 Axel Thallemer [National University of Singapore] [Abstract]







Stories of sponges: survival and prosperity in the island society of Symi in the South-Eastern Aegean, 1850-1950.   


Theofania Angelopoulou [University of Crete]


ABSTRACT: Reflecting specific cultural contexts that emerged in  the  topography of  the Aegean archipelagos, this paper examines the activity of Fotis and Jacobs Mastorides as an illustration of the historical progress of the  society of  the Island of  Symi actively participating in the development of the sponge industry. In a landscape blighted by poverty and migration, the islanders are forced to react to the market. They import technologies (scaphandro), take social action, change working practices and establish laws in order to keep the natural sponge economy sustainable even for their remote society.


CV: PhD in progress: Material Culture in the Aegean insular societies of the 17th and 18th cent.: University of Crete. MSc Cultural Informatics, Cultural Heritage Management, Prehistoric Archaeology in Aegean. University of Crete, 2001.


My research so far focuses on Cultural Informatics/ Digital Humanities which is about the organization and management of cultural information. I am equally interested in material culture, networks and global history, geography, information theory and philosophy.




Sponges of economic value from Singapore


Lim Swee Cheng [National University of Singapore]


ABSTRACT: The remarkable Neptune's Cup sponge that was discovered from Singapore in 1820 captured the world's imagination with its large and peculiar cup/wine glass form. It was highly sought after by private collectors and the museums in Europe, and was probably the most famous export from Singapore two centuries ago. However this sponge disappeared for over a century, probably due to over-harvesting. The other sponge species with economical value were the bath sponges. According to Willimott in 1939, there was an undeveloped sponge-fishing industry providing sponges for cleaning of paint work on cars and train carriages, and even as toilet (bath) sponges. However, the Fisheries Department of Singapore determined that the local bath sponges were only as good as the lowest quality of Bahamas and Cuban sponges with the help of experts in London. The last known report of the sponge industry was in 1948 in a newspaper article on the only person exporting bath sponges collected by local fishermen that were not very abundant. This was the last account of bath sponge industry that did not take off. This study aims to provide a concise social, cultural and historical records of these two sponges from Singapore.


CV: Lim Swee Cheng has studied the sponge fauna in Singapore and Southeast Asia for over 10 years. He recently updated the South China Sea sponge inventory. He has embarked on a part-time Ph.D program this year at the National University of Singapore working on the taxonomy and systematics of the demosponges living at the abyssal depth of Clarion Clipperton Zone (Pacific Ocean) and resolving their phylogenies with morphological and molecular data.




The global trading, industrialisation, and consumption of sponges, 1840s-1930s


William G. Clarence-Smith [SOAS, University of London]


ABSTRACT: Commercialisation, industrial processing, and consumption have attracted less attention than extraction, artisanal processing, and conservation of sponges. And yet, the upper levels of the commodity chain altered greatly from the mid-19th to the mid-20th century. New production zones arose, making the trade in sponges truly global. Commercial systems were transformed by the advent of the telegraph and steamer, and by the provision of cheap credit. Novel industrial methods were applied to preparing sponges for the market, while potential substitutes were explored. And new or greatly expanded uses drove the boom in the consumption of sponges from the 1840s to the outbreak of World War II, which ended with the triumph of plastic.



An oral history of the sponge-fishing industry of the Island of Hydra, Greece


Ed Emery [SOAS, University of London]


ABSTRACT: The Island of Hydra had an important role as a base for sponge-fishing, correlated with its history as a provider of merchant ships and ships of war. The trade extended across the Mediterranean to North Africa. Sponges were treated locally and traded internationally. The trade came to an end in the 1960s. This paper is based on interviews with islanders whose families were active in various aspects of the sponge-fishing industry.




SACOLEVE : Spatial and temporal adaptation of a traditional Mediterranean fishery facing regional change: combining history and ecology to study past, present and future of sponge harvesting


Maïa Fourt [1], Daniel Faget [2], Thierry Pérez [1]


ABSTRACT: The production of Mediterranean bath sponges collapsed during the past century as it is shown by Tunisian catches which fell from 108 tons in 1920 to 9 tons in 1988. Another illustration is given by the well-known sponge fishing island of Kalymnos which lost about 90% of its active fishermen population in a century between 1858 and 1967. For what reasons a Mediterranean traditional fishery once prosperous has dramatically declined? What part of the decline can be attributed to the lessening of the bath sponge stock and what to a decreasing number of fishermen? How can this sponge fishery collapse be related to changes in uses, overfishing, disease outbreaks triggered by climate events? How did sponge fishermen adapt to Regional Changes in the past? What is the future of such a fishery? What kind of guidelines can we provide for this fishery facing the on-going Regional Change? To answer these questions, SACOLEVE looks through ecological and historical windows into past evolution of the sponge fishery, chosen here as a model of traditional fishery which suffered good number of upheavals over the last three centuries. The overreaching aim of this program is to propose a management strategy for traditional fisheries that will allow attaining eco-durable practices in the current environmental, socio-economic and geopolitical contexts.



Financial support by the Labex “Objectif Terre – Bassin Méditerranéen (OT-Med)”, the National Center for Scientific Research through the “Mistral/Biodivmex program”, and the “Projet Exploratoire Premier Soutien (PEPS) blanc 2016”.


  1. 1.Institut Méditerranéen de Biodiversité et d’Ecologie marine et continentale, UMR CNRS 7263 / IRD 237 / Aix Marseille Université / Université d’Avignon. Station Marine d’Endoume


  1. 2.Temps, Espaces, Langage, Europe Méridionale et Méditerranée, UMR CNRS 7303 / Aix Marseille Université.





Sexing the sponge: Luxury, trade and the female body


Joyce Goggin [Universiteit van Amsterdam]


ABSTRACT: This paper will address the economics and potentials of the sponge market in the past, while looking forward to the present, in order to explore the cultural history of the sponge with reference to scholarship that focuses on how women have been construed as prime consumers of luxury goods since the (early) modern period. I will, therefore, open my discussion with the demand for sponges in northern Europe for cosmetic purposes beginning in the 18th century, in relation to discourses on women, vanity and rapaciousness. Moving forward, I will discuss how, in the 19th century, Richard Carlile attempted to persuade women of the convenience of the sponge – his favoured method of contraception – in Every Woman’s Book: Or, What is Love (1828), based on the analogy commonly drawn between the vagina and the sponge. In so doing, I will have occasion to discuss the history of the equation of female genitalia with the sponge, evident in such anatomical terms as “urethral sponge,” which describes the cushion of tissue surrounding the urethra, situated against the pubic bone and vaginal wall. And finally, I will explore how such perceptions have played out in contemporary markets and cultural contexts, drawing on examples such as the menstrual sponge, the “Today” contraceptive sponge, and the “Sponge-worthy” episode of Seinfeld, the popular 1990s television series.


CV: Joyce Goggin is a senior lecturer in literature at the University of Amsterdam, where she also conducts research on film and (new) media. She has published widely on gambling and finance in literature, painting, film, TV, and computer games. She is currently researching and writing on finance and securitisation, 17th-century Dutch theatre, LEGO and fan labour. Her recent publications include “Crise et comédie: Le système de John Law au théâtre néerlandais”, (Presses Universitaires de Rennes, 2017), “Trading and Trick Taking in the Dutch Republic: Pasquin’s Wind Cards and the South Sea Bubble”, (Western Michigan University, 2017), and a co-edited volume entitled The Aesthetics and Affects of Cuteness (Routledge 2016).




On the sponge fishing activity and community of the island of Kalymnos by Evdokia Olympitou


Gelina Harlaftis [Ionian University]


ABSTRACT: Evdokia Olympitou (1962-2011), an ethnographer, was an Assistant Professor in the Department of History of Ionian University. Her book, published in 2014 by the National Hellenic Research Foundation (in Greek) on the sponge fishing activity and maritime community of the island of Kalymnos is by far the best study written on the subject combining ethnography and history. The aim of this paper is to present and discuss her methodology and analysis which I consider important not only for sponge fishing but also for the examination of a Greek island maritime community. The study evolves around seven axes. Olympitou sets the framework of the administrative environment of Kalymnos during the 19th and 20th centuries within the Ottoman, Italian and Greek dominion providing social analysis of the new town of Pothia in a comparative perspective. She analyses sponge fishing as a main industrial activity of the island; the ways of fishing, the ships, the shipowners, traders, sponge divers and seamen, fishing fields and sea routes in a quantative and qualitative way. She provides the history of sponge fishing technology and the effects modernization had in the prosperity of the island. She analyses how the maritime community dealt with risk at sea, putting the exaggerated divers’ problems in a wider perspective. She makes an inspired analysis of the women of Kalymnos, “women hard like men”. And she explores the perception of sponge fishing in art, literature and movies.


CV: Gelina Harlaftis, Director of the Institute of Mediterranean Studies of the Foundation of Research and Technology-Hellas (FORTH) since 2017, is Professor of Maritime History in the Department of History of the Ionian University. She graduated from the University of Athens and completed her graduate studies in the Universities of Cambridge (M.Phil.) and Oxford (D.Phil.). She was President of the International Maritime Economic History Αssociation (2004-8). In 2009 she was a Visiting Fellow at All Souls College, Oxford University, and in 2008 an Alfred D. Chandler, Jr., International Visiting Scholar in the Business History Program, Harvard Business School. She has published 25 books with English, Canadian and Greek publishing houses and more than 50 articles in edited volumes and international peer-reviewed journals.




Beneath the 12-Mile Reef: Archival curio of 20th century sponger culture


Hannah Hjerpe-Schroeder [Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia]


ABSTRACT: Despite its relatively mediocre box office pull and similarly average reviews, the 1953 feature film Beneath the 12-Mile Reef captures and preserves the unique social economy of Greek spongers in Tarpon Springs, Florida in a way that popular culture has long since forgotten. Embedded in this somewhat sensationalised Romeo and Juliet story, between a Greek sponger from Tarpon Springs and a white “Conch” girl from Key West, lies valuable cultural archival material including accurate depictions of contemporary sponging techniques and equipment, the inherent dangers of sponging aquaculture and employment, consequences of over-sponging, and the reality of anti-Greek sentiment in South Florida at the time. The third film to be shot in cutting edge CinemaScope format, Beneath the 12-Mile Reef was produced during the tenure of 20th Century Fox’s president, Spyros Skouras, a Greek immigrant. While critically overlooked for its “hackneyed and banal”[1] narrative progression, this film requires a closer analysis of its documentation of aquatic economy and Greek cultural community that, aside from two somewhat anachronistic sponge-markets in Key West and Tarpon Springs, have been lost in the production of artificial sponges.


CV: Hannah Hjerpe-Schroeder is a doctoral student at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. Her research focuses on the literature and culture of Caribbean island nations, and of the Caribbean diaspora. Having grown up in Key West, Florida and having received a master’s degree from Trinity College Dublin in Irish Literature, she has always had a keen fascination with the unique cultural productions of, and connections between, island nations.


[1] NY Times Review, 1953






Shallow-water sponge community restoration in the Florida Keys. A successful research-outreach partnership

Shelly L. Krueger, Florida Sea Grant, University of Florida IFAS Extension, Monroe County [Via video]


AbstractSponges are the dominant features of the nearshore hard-bottom habitats of the Florida Keys, where >60 sponge species provide ecosystem services and essential fish habitat. Unfortunately, a series of harmful cyanobacteria blooms in the early 1990s, 2007 and 2013 caused massive sponge die-offs, resulting in decimation of the sponge communities in Florida Bay. 22 of the 24 most common shallow-water sponge species experienced >90% mortality rate. Recovery is protracted because sponge larval duration is short (6-8 hours) and currents within Florida Bay do not transport larvae far from the parent sponges. To accelerate sponge recolonization in Florida Bay, a research-outreach partnership was created between the University of Florida, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and several non-profit organizations to scale-up community sponge restoration using local volunteers. Eight transplant species were propagated at four nurseries and nine research sites with the goal to restore >15,000 sponges in Florida Bay. Community involvement is an important component to engender stakeholder support, and increasingly, research grants are requiring an outreach component. Florida Sea Grant assists scientists to share their research with non-scientists and facilitate volunteer events to propagate and transplant >15,000 sponges for ecosystem restoration in Florida Bay.


CV: Shelly Krueger is the Florida Sea Grant agent for the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences in Monroe County, Florida and a PhD student at the University of Florida in the Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences to research sponge aquaculture. Shelly Krueger has a BS from the Georgia Institute of Technology and a MS from Savannah State University in Marine Sciences. Shelly was a 2009 Knauss Fellow and spent one year in Washington DC at the NOAA National Marine Fisheries Service and was a research technician III at the University of Georgia Marine Extension Shellfish Research Lab.




Prospecting for sponges: Philippine waters and the rise of economic zoology, 1881-1916


Anthony Medrano [History and South Asian Studies, Harvard University] [Via video]


ABSTRACT: In 1841, Richard Owen’s scientific naming of the Venus' flower basket (Euplectella aspergillum) made a place for the Philippines in the world of sponges, with Victorian collectors paying sizeable sums for prized specimens. But it was not until the end of the century that the archipelago’s sponge beds were effectively opened to the exploits of science and commerce. At the heart of this imperial opening was the rise of economic zoology and the Philippine work of two scientists: Casto de Elera (1852-1903) and Alvin Seale (1871-1958).

By charting the careers of de Elera and Seale between 1881 and 1916, this paper explains why these scientists and their pioneering sponge research were central to transforming Philippine waters in the age of economic zoology, and it shows how this ocean history laid the foundation for today’s pharmaceutical industry and biodiversity knowledge. Indeed, sponges (phylum Porifera) represent one of the world’s richest frontiers for biomedical research and development. But it is their unique ability to process organic matter into food for coral reefs that have rendered sponges essential to the production of the Coral Triangle, an ecological zone that includes the Philippines and is considered to be the planet’s greatest marine biological hotspot.


CVAnthony Medrano is a Ziff Environmental Fellow at Harvard University. His research looks at the transregional movement of people, biota, ideas, and practices in the 19th and 20th centuries. He draws on environmental history and the history of science to recast Asia in the modern period. His current book project examines the “ocean” in Indian Ocean history and explains why fish and the people who studied them were central to the emergence of modern Asia. His second and ongoing project explores how insects shaped Indian Ocean history. He completed his PhD in History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2017.






On the status of Spongia officinalis, the sponge by definition, and implications for conservation. A review (…once upon a time…)


Roberto Pronzato and Renata Manconi [Università di Genova]


ABSTRACTSpongia officinalis is, and will remain, the oldest nominal species of the phylum Porifera being the only still valid among those originally described by Linnaeus in 1758. As for the biogeographic pattern of this bath sponge, records are known at the global scale, but the real geographic range of this species is probably restricted to the Mediterranean Sea. Over 570 taxa have been described under the genus Spongia, but only 41 species are surely valid. An irreversible depletion of Mediterranean bath sponge banks due to the synergy of over-fishing and diseases has brought several populations on the brink of extinction, since the mid-80 of the twentieth century. S. officinalis have undergone a major population decline. Since 1999 the situation has evolved dramatically and some of the few populations for which sure historical data are available are definitely extinct in the Mediterranean. This could be considered the beginning of a final catastrophe. Mariculture techniques allow at present to perform in situ culture of sponges to face, theoretically, such population depletion. For Spongia officinalis, only the 'domestic' variety could survive, by farming, the wild populations.




The hidden divers: Sponge harvesting in the archaeological record of the Mediterranean basin


Emilio Rodríguez-Álvarez [School of Anthropology, University of Arizona]


ABSTRACT: The aim of this study is to enhance the visibility of divers in the archaeological records of the ancient cultures of the Mediterranean. Direct evidence of diving in antiquity is rather scarce, and this has contributed to hide their presence in the scholarship, failing to recognise the important roles divers played in their communities. Although references to divers and the use of sponges have been preserved in several texts, no attempts have been made to correlate these narratives with the archaeological record.


This research intends to transcend these limitations by applying a new theoretical framework derived from the principles of Middle Range Theory and Behavioural Archaeology. Their respective emphases on the importance of the ethnographic record and experimental archaeology have allowed to reinterpret and correlate several artefacts to the work of divers in antiquity. The indirect evidence of their work, for example, in the use of sponges in arts, medicine or personal hygiene, points out at an extensive use of this commodity that had to be provided by divers. This is the first step to a more accurate understanding of the important role divers and sponges, as a commodity, played in the trade and economy of the Mediterranean in antiquity.


CV: Emilio Rodríguez-Álvarez is a PhD candidate in Mediterranean Archaeology at the University of Arizona. He has studied in the University of Santiago de Compostela (Spain) and University of Reading (UK) prior to his doctorate program in the United States. After being accepted in the American School of Classical Studies at Athens he lived two years in Greece doing research for his dissertation on ceramics and developing a research methodology for assessing low visibility social actors in the archaeological record. His research interests include ceramology, social class in archaeology, archaeological theory, and maritime landscapes.


More information on publications in




Sponges versus foams: Nature and human artefact 


Axel Thallemer [National University of Singapore]


Natural sponges have been used as tools by humans and even animals since long times. Design has evolved as purpose-driven form giving from hand axe to computer mouse and beyond by bettering tools for progress of mankind. Industrial design – opposite to styling – can be based on research through natural sciences. Looking at paragons in nature, here marine soft sponges, can lead by heuristic in analogy to new microstructures and by the help of additive-generative fabrication to hard or soft “metamaterials”.


Innovation today most likely starts from specifically designing “new” [instead of existing] materials made to fit to their prospective application while taking their respective manufacturing technologies, ecological and economical context into account. This can yield lightweight structures for conserving resource and energy in aerospace and mobility applications or scaffolds for biomedical purposes. Representational heuristics exemplify the ideation of new lattice structures from natural sponges from the Caribbean, Mediterranean, Philippines to artificial soft and hard foams. Semi-finished products are juxtaposed to functional components with differentiated internal structures. The latter are showing a microstructural architecture through interdependence of structure and processing as well as resulting properties and performance. A visual exploration in purposefully designed materials versus solid matter.


CV: Prof. Dipl.-Ing.(Univ.) Axel Thallemer is Full Professor with tenure at National University of Singapore and Deputy Head of Research for Industrial Design. In his fifteen years of employment by industry he designed at research and development center of Porsche, followed by founding and being Head of Festo Corporate Design, afterwards freelance consulting in industrial context. Previous professorships were in Munich, Hamburg and Austria (Dean and Chair of Industrial Design at Linz University, scientifically repositioning under the brand “scionic®”), currently there are some 16 additional visiting professorships and circa 35 patents. Life Fellow of The RSA in London, founded 1754 and i/IDSA, ICED/IEEE as well as ICoRD reviewer.






In addition to the main conference programme, we also have the following associated events:


FILM SHOW: A film showing of sponge-related films, to be shown at the island’s open air cinema on the evening of Friday 18 May. Kindly hosted by the Hydra Cinema Club.


SHADOW THEATRE SHOW: A performance of “Karaghiozis sfoungaras” [Karaghiozis the Sponge Diver], by eminent shadow theatre practitioner Jason Melissinos of Athens.



AN EVENING CONCERT: An evening meal and a musical performance by the SOAS Rebetiko Band [School of Oriental and African Studies, London] on Saturday 19 May. The programme will include items related to the history of the Greek sponge-fishing industry.



For all inquiries regarding the conference, please write to




Conference chair: William Clarence-Smith [SOAS, University of London]


Conference organiser: Ed Emery [SOAS, University of London]



ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS: We are grateful to the Mayor and Municipality of Hydra for their support in the organisation of this conference. And also to Lakis Christidis and the Hydra Cinema Club.