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.
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.