Online Review: Book

Saint-Bertrand-de-Comminges. Vol. 4, Le Macellum

115.4

By Georges Fabre and Jean-Louis Paillet. Pp. 272, figs. 321, pls. 6. Éditions de la Fédération Aquitania, Pessac 2009. €45. ISBN 978-2-910763-17-6 (cloth).

Specialized food markets—known as macella in ancient written sources and modern scholarly research—somehow remain an underrepresented building category in Roman archaeology. The detailed report on the excavations of the macellum at Saint-Bertrand-de-Comminges, France, ideally completes the limited published record on the topic. Appearing in the late third–early second century B.C.E. in Italy, the macellum was an enclosed market building devoted to the selling of costly foodstuffs, especially meat and fish. The idea of separate food markets may have found its origins in the Hellenistic East, where agoras specifically allocated to commercial activities appeared progressively from the fourth century B.C.E. onward. The general philosophy and spatial organization of commercial agoras likely triggered the development in the West of a specific type of enclosed food market. Centered on a courtyard surrounded by rows of shops sheltered behind colonnades, the macellum quickly acquired a fixed shape, responding to the need for hygiene, safety, and exclusiveness. Possibly present in Rome as early as the late third century B.C.E., macella quickly became a standard amenity in many cities of the western Mediterranean. From the second century C.E. onward, they were sometimes added to the already existing commercial infrastructure in the urban centers of the eastern Mediterranean.

The pioneering and still much-quoted study of De Ruyt (Macellum: Marché alimentaire des Romains [Louvain-la-Neuve 1983]) represented the first attempt to bring together the evidence available on Roman macella. Updated in 2000 with results from recent excavations (C. De Ruyt, “Exigences fonctionnelles et variété des interprétations dans l’architecture des macella du monde romain,” in E. Lo Cascio, ed., Mercati permanenti e mercati periodici nel mondo romano [Bari 2000] 177–86), De Ruyt’s study not only examined thoroughly the architectural layout of market buildings but also their equipment, function, and overall meaning within the broad commercial infrastructure present in ancient city centers. In the last decades, a few excavated macella were also the subject of more or less comprehensive excavation reports. The small macellum of Belo in Portugal (F. Didierjean, C. Ney, and J.L. Paillet, Belo. Vol. 3, Le Macellum [Madrid 1986]), the macellum of Gerasa in Jordan (A. Uscatescu and M. Martin-Bueno, “The Macellum of Gerasa (Jerash, Jordan): From a Market Place to an Industrial Area,” BASOR 307 [1997] 67–88), and the probable macellum of Ephesos (A. Pülz, Das sog. Lukasgrab in Ephesos: Ein Fallstudie zur Adaptation antiker Monumente in byzantinischer Zeit [Vienna 2010]) deserve to be mentioned. In the eastern Mediterranean, ongoing excavations at Thasos (Greece) and Sagalassos (Turkey) will undoubtedly enrich the corpus of available evidence within the next few years.

The final publication of the macellum of Saint-Bertrand-de-Comminges concludes a long excavation process started in 1913 and only completed in 1989. The time span of almost 20 years between the end of the excavations and the final publication allowed a thorough, methodical, and integrated reflection on the architectural remains, the stratigraphy, the chronology, and the restitution of the building’s original layout. One should in fact speak of a site rather than a building, for the various occupation levels and structures preceding the macellum, as well as the study of the later building phases following its abandonment, provide a unique archaeological and chronological cross-section of an area and its meaning for the city as a whole.

The monograph starts with a detailed overview of the different excavation and study campaigns undertaken within and around the building, which was first identified as a bathing complex or a civil basilica in 1913–1914. A particularly critical standpoint is taken toward the excavations led by Bernard Sapène between 1943 and 1951. This archaeologist uncovered the totality of the building and produced the majority of the data known on the macellum. Yet the numerous shortcomings of his excavation methodology, data processing, and archiving are exposed in an objective and methodical manner. This allowed a stronger scientific foundation for the research carried out between 1985 and 1989 by the two authors of the monograph, who rectified many of the previous hypotheses and identifications. This new study has resulted in a drastic review of the nature and chronology of the different building phases. The reexamination of the remnants of the stratigraphy by means of test soundings also has provided much better insight into the intermingled architectural structures, be they anterior to the macellum or the result of later alterations.

The second chapter is devoted to the features and structures preceding the construction of the macellum. The description of the “dark layer” underpinning the complex is of highest interest. Dated to the Late Republican–early Augustan period, it contained remnants of possibly collective domestic and artisanal activity. The study of the older road network combined with the hypothesis of a loose forum boarium located in the area just to the south is seducing: the construction of the macellum two decades later in the late Augustan–early Tiberian period would signify the formalization and centralization of preexisting commercial activities.

The next chapter could be entitled “Mastering the Art of Architectural Description.” The authors separated cautiously the recording of in situ remains from their restitution. The description of the original building phase starts with the three exterior galleries and monumental entrances of the complex before concentrating on the courtyard and its mosaic floor and, finally, the shops. The peculiarities of Saint-Bertrand’s macellum (i.e., its oblong ground plan), the presence of external rows of shops opening onto the exterior galleries, and an axial sacellum, deserve to be underscored. The attention devoted to the implantation of the macellum with regard to its natural and architectural environment, as well as the examination of the progressive visual and organizational hierarchy of the different spaces and circulation patterns, illustrate the extremely well-thought-out composition of the building’s design. It was not only conceived from a utilitarian point of view, it also took into account visual and practical aspects. For instance, the progressive elevation of the different spaces from the outside to the center of the building, to protect the market from runoff water, is a well-known feature demonstrating the modernity of Saint-Bertrand’s Early Imperial macellum. The restitution of the elevations is made step-by-step, based on the exploitable fragments of supports, capitals, archivolts, and in situ remains. When two or more alternatives are present—for instance, for the cover of the southern exterior row of shops—they are equally founded and presented with the necessary criticism by the authors. The chronology of this first building phase, based on carefully analyzed stratigraphic deposits, is of uttermost interest: the presence of a fully constituted macellum in the early Tiberian period is rightly underscored and interpreted as a mark of prestige and as a major shift in the commercial practices already present in the city.

Chapters 4 and 5 are devoted to later building phases, which are far from being devoid of interest. Not having included this data on the later periods in the monograph would have been regrettable for the understanding of the area as a site. In the late first or early second century C.E., the complex was totally rebuilt. Despite the scarcity of in situ remains, the archaeologists could determine that, although the former foundation level was used, significant alterations were brought to the ground plan. To accommodate new shops, the width of the three former monumental entrances was reduced and the sacellum converted. By increasing the number of shops, the commercial character of the building was strengthened, demonstrating that, in the early second century C.E., the macellum may have been more necessary for the city than ever before. In the fourth century C.E., an elongated civil basilica succeeded to the macellum. Despite the great loss of information caused by the lack of interest in lower periods on the part of the early excavators, an oblong space possibly divided into three naves could be reconstructed. Accessible from the south, it related to a pi-shaped courtyard occupying the whole area to the south of the basilica, with an axial curia or temple located on the opposite side. The authors identified these buildings as a full-fledged tripartite block-forum.

The two annexes and six appendices of the volume are respectively intended to treat in detail material already dealt with in the main text as well as to present complementary (i.e., “supporting”) categories of evidence. Reading the detailed presentation of the test soundings in annex 1 can be avoided. Indeed, the presentation of the key elements of the stratigraphy in each of the chapters devoted to the description of the architectural remains is sufficient to evaluate the chronology proposed for the different building phases. Probably driven by the shortcomings of the early excavators, the authors provide in this first annex an abundantly and conveniently illustrated overview of the 74 test soundings carried out between 1985 and 1989. Each is described in detail and illustrated. The stratigraphy, the significant chronological information, and a scientific justification for each of them are presented. Even if this list of test soundings does not appear directly relevant to the reader, it still will prove useful to test in the future the hypotheses defended by the archaeologists. The second annex is devoted to the description of all stone artifacts retrieved from the excavations, accompanied by scaled manual drawings. The largest part of the corpus consists of architectural fragments, followed by “altar bases or pedestal fragments” (217–20)—for which the identification as altars seems less secure than assumed by the authors—and finally by fragments of stone mortars and vessels that could be relevant for the function of the complex.

Unlike the annexes, the appendices are intended to provide extra information on various categories of material not directly treated in the chapters of the book. In appendix 1, the physical-chemical analysis of the Late Republican–early Augustan “dark layer” underpinning the building revealed that it was mainly composed of refuse, supporting the idea of large-scale domestic and/or artisanal activity taking place on the spot. The next appendices, dealing with coinage and pottery, seem intended as a mere support to date the stratigraphy. This is explained by the fact that most of the material was found in stratigraphic units related to the phases prior to or contemporary with the construction and the early use of the macellum, whereas much less evidence documenting the later phases of occupation was collected. Nevertheless, analysis of the pottery also allowed a few comments of a sociocultural nature. It appeared that the pottery presented a facies that, compared with other sites in the region, could reflect either a more culturally open local population or the early presence of a highly acculturated foreign group. This is also reflected by the short onomastic study carried out on graffiti presented in the fourth appendix. Even though such conclusions would make sense to explain the presence of a full-fledged Italo-Roman macellum so early in the region—the hypothesis of a foreign group of craftsmen involved in the construction of public buildings is indeed promoted—they seem to be based on a rather narrow corpus of material evidence that would gain to be compared with what was found in other locations of the city. The presentation, in appendix 5, of a fragmentary honorific statue and its written base—both found in the southern vestibule of the macellum—seems awkwardly rejected at the end of the book, whereas it may be highly significant for the funding and construction of the complex. The inscription, referring to a flamen, cannot be dated with certainty, although the early first century C.E. cannot be totally excluded. The last appendix, finally, collects the meager evidence on weights and measures. Unfortunately, the scarcity of stratigraphic contexts related to the period of use of the macellum makes impossible any attribution of this material to specific areas or activities taking place in the building. The remains of a tabula mensaria found in the surroundings of the city, however, are of uttermost interest, even if the item originates from elsewhere (e.g., from the forum). The few stone and metal weights, as well as probable butcher’s hooks, lack enough contextual information to be exploited in terms of functionality.

These various categories of “supporting” evidence awkwardly shunted to the annexes and appendices of the book illustrate the fundamental critique that can be addressed to this monograph: its focus remains desperately limited to architecture. This perspective can be qualified as both excellent and disappointing and is for a large part because of the state of the evidence itself, as well as to the numerous technical and interpretative blunders made by the first archaeologists at the site. As a matter of fact, the authors could not have done better without overinterpreting the material evidence. Excellent are the presentation of in situ architectural remains and the restitution of the original layout, as well as the refined analysis of the different building phases and their chronology, based on an exemplary examination of the stratigraphy and in situ remains. Yet, the book will strongly deceive scholars wishing to study macella as a functional concept. Despite its quality, the monograph remains nothing more than the isolated publication of an excavation site. One regrets the absence of a more contextual approach, as was the case for the excellent publication of the macellum of Belo (Didierjean et al. 1986), to which the architect Paillet, one of the two authors of the presently reviewed monograph, has also contributed. A longer comment on the possible function and, above all, on the raison d’etre of a full-fledged Roman macellum built in southwestern Gaul is unfortunately missing. It is always relevant—especially at such an early period—to reflect on the sudden appearance of such a fully constituted specialized market. Beyond its meaning for the commercial infrastructure within the city, the apparent import of a genuinely “Italo-Roman” building type should be questioned. The absence of a broad-ranging comparison of St. Bertrand’s macellum with the continuously growing corpus of macella in the western provinces is regrettable.

Julian Richard
Catholic University of Leuven, Faculty of Arts
Blijde Inkomststraat 21—Bus 3314
3000 Leuven
Belgium
julian.richard@arts.kuleuven.be

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1154.Richard

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