A Review of Metaponto 4

This past month, I spent some time reading and reviewing Eremina Lapadula’s The Chora of Metaponto 4: The Late Roman Farmhouse at San Biagio. I’ve blogged about it already, but now I have a rough draft of the review ready for your consideration.

I’ve been thinking a good bit about how I write book reviews lately. I tell my students that there are three kinds of reviews with three kinds of theses, and the best reviews explain how a book works rather than what a book says.

1. This book is good because…
2. This is book is good, but…
3. This is not a good book because… 

In practice, however, I’ve found it more difficult to pull this off. The review below is probably my least successful effort. On the one hand, it’s reasonably thorough and critical. On the other hand, it is entirely unremarkable.

(On the third hand, it is also more or less done and off my plate before my summer work commences…)

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.


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.

Images of a Dream Archaeology

I was looking for a photograph to include with a little blurb on a talk that I am going to give at my alma mater, the University of Richmond.

I came across this photo that I took in the Ligurian Alps with my buddy Mike Fronda. I though it would work for that paper.

Dream Archaeology

The other option is this photo of the Early Christian basilica perched above the site of Nemea.


Modern and Ancient in Calabria

One of my favorite scholars of the ancient world and old graduate school crony, Mike Fronda, has a brilliant little piece in this fall’s McGill University’s Classical Studies Newsletter

Mike talks about his visit to the home town of his grandmother, Caulonia, in Calabria. This town fit into Mike’s recent research on the Italiote League as ancient Kaulonia was the capital of the league. Today, the site is mostly known for the foundations of a Doric Temple.

Mike’s short essay, however, focuses on the intersection of the ancient and the modern in the methods he used to search for his grandmother’s birth date. The essay deserves to be read in total here, but here’s a teaser:

Caulonia has a personal resonance for me: thousands of Cauloniesi emigrated to the US in the 1910s and 1920s, among them my grandmother Carmela Maiolo. I decided to visit the historic center to learn more about my origins. Around the central piazza, I found several placards memorializing the five days in 1945 when the townsfolk declared an independent, communist “Red Republic of Caulonia,” before allied forces suppressed the movement. At last I came to the civic registry office, where I was invited by the director to search  through the birth records, organized by decade, to find information on my ancestors.

Quickly we found entries for my great-grandparents and my grandmother’s seven siblings, but nothing on my grandmother, who was born (according to family lore) in 1902. I immediately began to develop theories: was my grandmother adopted? Did she lie about her name? Did she lie about her age? So I asked the director to look in the records for 1890-1899. She was skeptical and asked, “Does your grandmother have a grave?” “Yes,” I answered. “What is written on the stone?” “1902,” I answered. “So there,” she said. “But,” I explained, “when she died, no one in the family knew for sure when she was born.” The director looked dubious but relented, and within in minutes, we found the missing birth record in 1899!

As a scholar in ancient history, this experience struck me deeply. The director assumed that the tombstone inscription was an indisputable fact, and indeed ancient historians often put great faith in epigraphic evidence without considering that they are subject to the same distortions, inaccuracies and fabrications found in, for instance, literary sources.

Digital Pompeii and the Future of Archaeology

If you’re interested in archaeology and the digital future then this is the lecture for you. Prof. Eric Poehler will be speaking tomorrow at 6 pm in the East Asia Room of the Chester Fritz Library on the beautiful campus of the University of North Dakota. If you’re not in North Dakota, FEAR NOT, the digital future has you covered!

We are going to stream the lecture LIVE from this site here.  Please join us online if you can’t make it in person.

This talk is going to be so spectacular that we made the UND home page (everyone should click through to the UND link to show the power of my blog!!):


For you regular Archaeology of the Mediterranean World readers, this is probably a bit of a disappointing post. So, just to show you that I’m looking out for your leisure time reading, hop over to Teaching Thursday and check out a brilliant bonus post. My colleague Caroline Campbell has posted a particularly thoughtful series of reflections on her second year of teaching at the University. This is a follow-up to her first year reflections which she offered in the spring of 2010. Be sure to check out Teaching Thursday over the next few weeks as

Pompeii in the 21st Century Talk May 4

I am pretty excited to announce that Prof. Eric Poehler will visit campus on May 4th and give a talk entitled: “Pompeii in the 21st Century”.  The talk will be in the East Asia Room of the Chester Fritz Library at 6 pm in the evening.

Here’s an abstract for his talk:

How does one ask a novel question about a site that has been studied, nearly continuously for over 250 years? How does one come to new realizations when almost all new excavation is not permitted? This is the challenge for Pompeian scholars in the 21st century, finding what the great minds of the past overlooked without being able to add large sets of new evidence. Paradoxically, a solution has been propelled by the moratorium on excavation into the areas still buried by ash of Vesuvius. Unable to discover new parts of the city, archaeologists turned to examine those parts already uncovered in both greater detail and in a wider context. They have found a goldmine of information about Roman urbanism and municipal administration generally as well as the particular (and peculiar) history of Pompeii’s development from the earliest, scant traces in the Bronze Age to its destruction in AD 79 and even beyond to the city’s rediscovery in the 18th and 19th centuries.

The resurgence in Pompeian studies in the last 20 years has not merely benefited from the birth of the information age, it has embraced it often at a deep methodological level. Pioneering works of the 1990s set the stage for a statistical approach to the vast and untapped urban dataset, driving a new paradigm in historical argument about the site. Since 2000, the explosion of personal computing power – especially in commercial statistical, database, and spatial tools – has expanded the ways we approach these questions from counting and cataloging aspects of the urban fabric to using the space of the city itself to derive new visualizations, new queries and new syntheses. The 2011 season of the Pompeii Quadriporticus Project will wholy replace the trowel, drawing board and tape measure with the iPad, photogrammetry, and Geographical Information Systems software. Within 10 years these tools will also put entire libraries of reference material at our fingertips while inside the ancient city, dissolving the the distinction between fieldwork and library work.


Professor Poehler teaches at the University of Massachusetts but has local roots. He did his undergraduate work at Bemidji State University before heading to the University of Chicago and then University of Virginia for his Ph.D.  I’ve had the pleasure of working with Eric at the site of Isthmia in Greece where he and a team from the University of Cincinnati are working to reconstruct the mysterious and confusing East Field.  He’s one of the up and coming stars in the field of Mediterranean Archaeology.

His visit to campus is sponsored by Department of History, the Cyprus Research Fund, and the Working Group in Digital and New Media.

Theory and Medieval Archaeology

I spent some time over spring break reading John Moreland’s Archaeology, Theory, and the Middle Ages (London 2010).  My book and music guru Kostis Kourelis tipped me off to it at the very moment when I was looking for a way to distract myself from more pressing research and grading concerns.

The book is a collection of some of his important articles that situated Medieval archaeology amidst recent theoretical developments in the field of archaeology more broadly.  Like many of these kinds of works, Moreland did not mean the book to be an encyclopedic treatment of all possible theoretical approaches, but instead a practical guide to some of the concerns that have influenced his own work.

The book lacks a single unifying thread, but does return to one idea frequently enough to make it stand out as an important conceptual foundation for many of the author’s arguments.  Moreland contrasted perspective that conceptualized the Early Middle Ages as the same or as different (anOther in some places in his text) to our world today.  While this might seem like a fairly simple conceptual problem to resolve (after all, all societies share elements with our society today and at the same time show marked differences), Moreland suggests that the struggle to deal with the sameness or difference in how we read the archaeological and textual evidence from the Early Medieval has both shaped the kinds of questions that we ask, but also the models that we have used to understand these societies.

Rather than review the book, I’ll offer some fragmentary observations on some of the major themes that Moreland addresses and return, when possible, to how these themes intersect with his idea of same/other

1. The Economy.  Moreland’s most interesting contributions appear in his discussion of the economy. Here he is able to isolate arguments rooted in idea that artifacts were once commodities and juxtapose them to scholars who have viewed Medieval artifacts as gifts and evidence for the gift economy.  The view of artifacts as commodities assumes on some basic level that the ancient economy was the same as ours; views of the Medieval economy rooted in gift exchange practices (following the work of M. Mauss) tends to understand the Medieval economy as functioning with fundamentally different assumptions to our own.

While it is clear that Moreland favors an approach that takes into account the potential for a kind of gift economy, he makes the important observation that the gift economy might account for practices of exchange, but does not necessary inform how we understand production in the Middle Ages. It is possible for us, of course, to imagine production practices that undermine the value of goods as commodities (for example, monastic production regimens that separate the value of work from product… or, for example, my blog), but scholars have not necessarily explored the place or even existence of this way of viewing and organizing production.

I’ll offer very small observation here from my recent trip to Italy.  While in Aquileia and Grado on the Adriatic coast, I was able to check out first hand mosaic inscriptions on the floors of churches which noted the precise size of the mosaic panel given by an individual donor.  These inscriptions depended on a clear understanding of the cost of production by the audience as well as the economic position of the donor as panels that commemorate large gifts (sometimes over 100 square Roman feet) sat next to more modest gifts.  In the most simple way, these mosaic donations were gifts and represented parts of the Christian spiritual economy; on the other hand, they drew their meaning and significance, in part, from the audience’s understanding of the realities of the household economy and production.

2. Religion. Much of Moreland’s creative study of the Medieval economy – both in Northern Europe and in Italy – develops from his interest in religion in the archaeological record. Again, the notion of same and other emerge as central to how scholars have conceptualized the sacred landscapes. A tendency to isolate religious institutions from the mainstream of economic and social life belies the influence of modern ideas of the sacred. Moreland recommends that we not only attempt to understand religion as an important economic and social engine in the Early Middle Ages, but also as central to the biography of objects that constitute our evidentiary base. For example, Moreland suggests that churches and church land played a key role in the shift in settlement patterns in the Italian countryside of the 6th-8th century A.D. (p. 116-158).  I really liked his efforts to understand the large scale economic impact of churches across the Italian countryside and it will almost certainly inform my own recent speculations on the place of churches in the transformations of Greek landscape at around the same time. Elsewhere he shows how the history of objects like the numerous 8th century “Saxon” crosses set up across England can only be understood in the context of the English Reformation when so many of them were destroyed (p. 255-275).

3. Ethnicity. The emphasis on connections between religion, the settlement, and the economy is refreshing in a book on the Early Medieval West.  Chapters on ethnicity are not. While I understand why any archaeologist of the Medieval West (or the Medieval East, for that matter) has to delve into the issues of ethnicity and identity, I find that this debate has become fairly stagnant in recent years. Most scholars, it would seem to me, understand ethnicity as something that was performed, not intrinsic in an individual’s cultural DNA. Moreland makes these points well with good evidence. The real issue remains, of course, whether people in the ancient and Medieval worlds viewed their ethnicity in such an ironic way.  (My jaundiced view of discussions of ethnicity is undoubtedly the product of recent debates in my community…). Its a useful first step to recognize identity and ethnicity as performed, but this does not render ethnicity as any less an authentic force in pre-modern social relations.  Again, the notions of same and other are vital here.  In our irony-filled modern world, performance can too easily become a watchword for displays of social power laid bare by the critical eye of the subversive scholar.  The functioning of performative actions in pre-modern times, however, lack this etic count-point to frame their authenticity and legitimize their authority.  So, how did it work?

4. Continuity or Change. The elephant in any room where scholars come to discuss the Early Medieval and Late Ancient world. Moreland points out that these issues develop from long-standing periodization practices that exert a massive and relentless influence on the types of questions that we ask of our material. As Moreland points out, the emergence of the discipline of Late Antiquity, despite its name, has helped to challenge our need to reflect on continuity and change in the past.  At the same time, the need to identify the origins of our own society has pressed us to reflect on the historical limits of sameness and otherness.

Moreland’s book is a pretty nice point of departure for a consideration of theory and archaeology in the Early Middle Ages.  While many of the articles are a bit dated, his massive updating of the notes on the articles allows them both to remain important historical artifacts and contribute to more recent iterations of the same debates.

Mountains Come First

As Fernando Braudel begins his history of the Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II:

Mountains come first: The Mediterranean is by definition a landlocked sea. But beyond this we must distinguish between the kinds of land that surround and confine it.  It is, above all, a sea ringed by mountains. This outstanding fact and its many consequences have received too little attention in the past from historians.

The mountains crashing into the sea outside of Trieste:


We spent our last days in Italy in the city of Genoa and on Saturday spent some time hiking in the rugged country to the south of the city.  Here high mountains really do come down to the sea illustrating Braudel’s famous observation that in Italy “mountains come first”.  The photos here are from the Val Polcevera.








The Basilicas of Ravenna

A colleague emails me last night and noted that most of the mosaics in Ravenna have undergone significant restoration and conservation work.  Some of the earliest efforts to restore the mosaics and architecture date to the 18th century (and this discounts much earlier work that sought less to conserve older decoration and more to beautify the space of worship) and continues today.  As a result, like historians reading a text or archaeologist reading data, we should always be skeptical of what we see in front of us.

The churches of Ravenna, then, often serve to provide impressions of the architecture, decoration, and organization of the past. In the two better-preserved (and conserved!) basilica  style churches are particularly valuable spaces for contemplating the processional character of the Early Christian liturgy.  Marble colonnades separate narrow aisles from the main processional axes of these buildings.



At St. Apollinare Nuovo (above), female and male saints depart from the port city of Classis and from the palace at Ravenna respectively.



These processing saints follow the course of the liturgical processions toward the eastern apse and terminate at the virgin and Christ outside the sanctuary area of the church.





The processional mosaics are best visible from the aisles as was the main processional movement of the early liturgy. In contrast, the colonnades obscured the eastern destination of these processional rituals emphasizing the movement toward the east (and toward salvation) perhaps even more than its ultimate goal.

While we do not know exactly what adorned the eastern end of St. Apollinare Nuovo as the eastern end of that building has seen significant modification, we have a better idea of the eastern end of its sister church St. Apollinare in Ravenna’s port city of Classis.  The colonnade of the nave separates narrow aisles from the broad central bay and simultaneously directs the viewer’s gaze to the east and obscures a clear view of the sanctuary.



Here a massive cross floats above the head of the saint on the half dome of the eastern apse:


Angles holding pennants inscribed with the sanctus (Holy, Holy, Holy in Greek!) stand guard on either side of the main apse and ensure that key phrases in the liturgy echo always in the church.


In the 7th century, the imperial family, arranged in processional order themselves, joined the vigil at the eastern end of the nave.


The Centrally Planned Buildings of Ravenna

It was pretty exciting finally to visit Ravenna!  I can hardly believe that I wrote a dissertation on Early Christian basilicas without having spent time in this Adriatic city.  But I did, and I guess I can justifying by saying that the basilica style churches are hardly the star of the show in this one-time imperial city.

Centrally planned buildings are the order of the day in Ravenna.

Centrally planned buildings still standing in the city date from 4th to 6th centuries. The most modest, perhaps, is the cruciform (so-called) mausoleum of Galla Placcidia which probably dates to the early or middle 5th century:


It is adorned with spectacular mosaics:


Centrally planned mausolea were common in throughout the Roman period and continued into the 6th century at Ravenna with the spectacular mausoleum of Theoderic, the Gothic king:


The best known centrally planned buildings in Ravenna are related to Christian ritual.  It’s possible that parts of the famous Neonian or Orthodox baptistery date to the 4th century and the mosaics likely date to the late 5th.  The building is an octagon surrounding a similarly shaped font.




The nearly contemporary Arian baptistery shares a similar plan (although the outer shell has been lost) and decorative program:



The most spectacular of the centrally planned building is the 6th century church of San Vitale.  The building is another octagon with an important group of 6th century mosaics preserved in its eastern end.  The interplay between the outer octagon and inner, domed core frames dynamic perspectives both on the central space and the sacred eastern end.





Of course, Ravenna also had its share of basilicas, but more on them tomorrow…