A Late Roman Farmhouse near Metaponto

This past week I’ve been reading Ermina Lapadula’s publication of the Late Roman Farmhouse at San Biagio near the ancient city of Metaponto in the Basilicata region of Italy. Excavated by a team of both Italians and a team from the University of Texas, the ten-room farmhouse was mid-sized (a villula) and of modest prosperity. It represents one of a rather small number of non-elite rural dwellings in Italy published in any detail and is consistent with recent work on Roman peasants in the Italian countryside

I’m preparing a formal review of this book for the American Journal of Archaeology, and I’ll post a preprint of that when it’s done. For now, however, I’ll give you some observations.

1. Tiles. Ten years ago, my buddy David Pettegrew published an article in the Journal of Mediterranean Archaeology on the farmhouses in the Classical period in Greece. One of the difficulties he faced in understanding what a farmhouse might look like in the surface record was how few excavated rural houses exist in Greece. The same observation, of course, could be made of almost any rural structure. He goes on to note that even excavated rural buildings do not seem to produce enough roof tiles to cover them. The reason for this is rather obvious; people strip abandoned buildings of their valuable tiles, and we confirmed this practice through some ethnographic parallels. It would seem that the San Biagio farmhouse likewise lost its tiles probably after a short period of abandonment. While the publication did not go into much detail regarding the post abandonment history of the building or any other matters of site formation, an attentive and interested reader can glean intriguing details about the site’s later history throughout the volume.

2. Reconstruction. One of the most interesting aspects of the book is a lovely digital reconstruction of the building supported by an appropriately detailed discussion. Unlike the older practice of hand-drawn architectural reconstruction (which were also included in this volume) – which were largely illustrative – new digital reconstructions often include discussions of how the process worked. I was particularly intrigued by the discussion of the roofing system used at San Biagio and it seems to coincide with what we found at our site of Pyla-Koutsopetria in Cyprus. Moreover, the digital reconstructions were gorgeous in resolution and detail. See Figure 2.28 below with a detail of the roof.

NewImage

3. Landscapes. One of the most useful things about this volume is that the same team who excavated the farmhouse had also conducted and published a larger regional survey from the region. As a result, they were able to locate this site within larger patterns of settlement and ascertain how deeply connected the regional economy was to larger Mediterranean networks of exchange. The mid-sized farmhouse is both typical for the region, which tended to lack the large villas typical of the 2nd-4th centuries in southern Italy. Economically, the villula was fairly integrated into the larger Mediterranean networks of exchange with ceramic material showing exchange with other parts of Italy, Spain, the Aegean, and North Africa (and even a few fragments of Late Roman 1 amphora from the Eastern Mediterranean). That being said, the authors suspect that the main economic activity at the farmhouse was animal husbandry and it was probably a “self-sufficient” rather than explicitly commercial farm. It would have been really fantastic had the authors brought a more sophisticated conceptualization of landscape (perhaps using Ingold’s idea of the taskscape) to their study of the villa and its environs. 

4. A Small Private Bath. It is striking that this rather modest farmhouse had a small private bath. Another buddy of mine, Dallas Deforest has recently completed a dissertation on baths and bathing in Late Antique Greece and I wonder whether there is evidence for such small private baths there. When we discover hypocaust tiles in the countryside during field survey (and this is exceedingly rare), we immediately expect them to derive from an elite residence. The presence of a small bath at a more modest site might temper our assumptions a bit.

5. Artifacts and Stratigraphy. The site was excavated stratigraphically and the volume includes a well-executed artifact catalogue. On the one hand, the catalogue is really nice. It is neither overblown to include every example of particular objects nor too spare to mine for comparanda (and the very nice assemblage of 3rd century material makes it a very appealing source for comparanda!). On the other hand, I remain frustrated by the separation of the objects from their archaeological context. I realize that this arrangement is a practical requirement for most archaeological publications and benefits both the treatment of the stratigraphy and the artifact, but it remains frustrating to have to flip back and forth between the two parts of the book. This will be the advantage of the next generation of digital archaeological publications which allow the reader to drill down into the data upon which the observations rest.

6 Comments

  1. Christos G. Makrypoulias March 12, 2013 at 8:47 am

    Roof tiles seem to me to be one of the most important, least-studied finds in any project (at least in Greece). When I was in the Western Achaia survey (more like a tourist than a serious participant, mind you!), there was a buddy of mine from university who was interested in tiles, mainly because it was such an under-studied field (he is the one who went on to study the Sicyon survey roof tiles). Still, I think a lot remains to be done on the subject, if archaeologists here ever stop obsessing over artifacts that look good in a museum’s showcase.

    Reply

  2. I looked at the tiles from the BSR’s excavation at the villa site at Forum Novum, trying to tie them into wider patterns from the South Etruria Survey. There is a lot that one can extract from tiles & brick more generally, but they certainly suffer from an image problem.

    Reply

  3. When you are next in Corinth, I’d like to show you some pics of an excavation done by a really excellent archaeologist in the 25th Ephoria. An even more modest farmhouse on the way to Korakou. No bath, tiled olive press room, vats not pithoi and a really small storage vessel. The main building had a semi-basement with the floor covered with the roof tiles on top of which was collapsed mud brick superstructure in which was the stone lintel and jambs of the door to the upper storey (part of the flight of steps preserved). What I found staggering was i) there was NO indication on the surface that the site existed – it was found only after foundation trenched had been cut and ii) the was N0 pottery except for a few fragments and a single small complete lekythos like vessel. On the basis of these scraps, I thought it was 6th / 7th century.

    Tiles were surprisingly expensive to buy. If you move or abandon, you take them with you or somebody else recycled. I am currently working on a hypothesis that the 80% living at or close to subsistence level possessed little or no pottery. Metal was more economical for cooking, and wood served for drinking and serving. Bins for storage. Fine wares? Very superior income group – professor rather than grad student ware. Some of the best evidence for possessions of the lower income groups comes from early Colonial America probate inventories. Pewter plates, iron cooking vessels – pottery begins to appear in probate documents of those with 10-25x the value of the poorest group and even they did not have porcelain. No glass, no sppons, no chair and often no table. This kind of data would give you and David headaches all over again.

    Reply

    1. Guy,

      Maybe!

      But it’s also surprising close to what David argued in his JMA piece 10 years ago now. Survey sucks at finding every site, but if we look hard enough we are likely to see enough sites to reconstruct some idea of settlement (provided taking the entire Corinthia down 2 m isn’t on the table). What some of the arguments for very few surface finds seem to suggest is that we need to continue to increase the level of survey intensity to find traces of habitation…

      Of couse, we can always ask the question: where do all the tiles eventually end up?

      Bill

      Reply

      1. That was a great article.The field had vines so there had only been scratch ploughing. The millstone was about 10 cms under the surface. My point is more along the lines that we need to try the hypotheses we formulate after survey by excavation. This is notoriously hard to do here. Recent work has overturned the “no MH in NVAS” idea – it was covered by Neolithic erosion layers. The “Almost no Mycenean in Corinthia” has also been quashed. The Mycenean area of Corinth is expanding daily (literally) along the line of the road widening project. There now seems to be more Myc/ha in the Corinthia than in the Argive plain. Apparently they are now producing MH gold which is apparently very significant.

        I have also been thinking about David’s visibility argument vs the Mannoni and Mannoni enrichment argument hence the “who had pottery” line I have been taking. I have always found the M&M fascinating and while I like David’s proposal, he has not won me over.

      2. Guy,

        Survey is never good at “proving” absence. It’s good at proving presence.

        I agree the excavating to ground truth survey is best practice. It’s a luxury that we enjoyed at our site on Cyprus and we both confirmed what we saw on the survey and avoid some egregious errors!

        Bill

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