Online Review: Book

San Giovenale: Results of Excavations Conducted by the Swedish Institute of Classical Studies at Rome and the Soprintendenza alle Antichità dell’Etruria Meridionale. Area F East. Huts and Houses on the Acropolis

112.1

By Lars Karlsson. Pp. 174, b&w figs. 298, color figs. 3, pls. 22, tables 2, foldout plans 4. Svenska Institutet i Rom, Stockholm 2006. ISBN 91-7042-172-27 (paper).

Scholars of Etruscan architecture are often a frustrated lot. Evidence is virtually always highly fragmentary, compromised by the nature of the perishable materials used in antiquity, and even when available, it is often inadequately published. As a result, the efforts of those seeking to understand the physical spaces of the Etruscan world can be forgiven for seeming like a group peeking through dozens of keyholes, trying to draw a cogent picture from a maddeningly fragmented body of evidence.

Karlsson’s volume will likely be of interest to a rather limited audience, but will certainly be cheerfully welcomed. Much of the architecture studied here has appeared in earlier publications, but this volume represents the first time that the architecture of Area F East of San Giovenale has been presented within the scope of a more detailed examination of the archaeological context of the area.

Such a comprehensive report from the author is itself unusual. Karlsson did not excavate the area in question and only undertook the study of the material in 1994. The present volume reflects not only a comprehensive study of the material but also a testament to his skill at navigating the often complex and quirky aspects of excavation archives of materials and data left in storage since the conclusion of work in this area from 1961 through 1965.

As such, the volume begins with a brief overview of the history of the San Giovenale excavations and continues with a detailed presentation of the architectural elements, stratigraphy, and small finds from the various building phases within Area F East. No element of evidence goes unconsidered, and even fragments of daub from the various walls of these structures are carefully catalogued and presented for scrutiny. However, what is lacking here is some illustration of the Area F architecture in relation to the rest of the site. As a result, even as strong as the presentation is, a scholar interested in the question of the overall community’s form must cobble this volume together with others in the publication series. This, however, is not a significant objection but simply a barely audible sigh over a missed opportunity.

Karlsson’s treatment of the chronological development of the Area F East architecture underscores the importance of this material to our understanding of the evolution from light framed huts of the Etruscan Iron Age into the rectolinear architecture of the seventh and sixth centuries. While this area’s evidence for prehistoric curvilinear architecture is somewhat fragmentary, the confusing traces of foundation trenches and postholes at least provide enough evidence of domestic architecture to reconstruct their general form. However, it is Karlsson’s Period II House 1, datable to between 675 and 625 B.C.E., that represents a significant shift in architectural sensibility. This house, roughly 11.0 x 5.8 m with two interior chambers, also preserves a low curbing of river stones in one of its rooms. It is this detail, along with the absence of terracotta roofing tiles, that encourages Karlsson to reconstruct the domestic space of this building in a manner similar to that of Cerveteri’s Tomb of the Thatched Hut, a burial only slightly earlier than this building.

It is here, however, that the thoroughness of the volume’s contextual presentation seems at odds with the conclusions regarding Period II House 1. Karlsson’s contention that this building, rather modest in its scale, was the domicile of San Giovenale’s aristocratic elite seems inconsistent with the mundane, locally manufactured artifacts of the household. Moreover, the notion that the low stone paving of Room II served as a platform for reclining, symposiastic banqueting seems both architecturally and chronologically implausible. Karlsson is right to point out that examples of domestic architecture of the early Etruscan elite are rare, yet this fact makes his neglect of one of the most important of these examples, the opulent and roughly contemporary residence from Poggio Civitate, all the more puzzling. Poggio Civitate’s OC1/Residence, a building almost five times larger than Phase II House 1, preserves traces of an ornamented terracotta roof, a substantial banquet service of local and imported wares, elegantly carved bone, antler, and ivory furniture fittings, gold and silver jewelry, and bronze cauldrons, all of which seem consistent with what we might expect of the domestic environment of Etruria’s seventh-century B.C.E. social elite—yet the author is strangely silent on this issue.

Karlsson’s subsequent treatment of Period III reflects the technological changes of Etruscan architecture throughout the seventh century B.C.E. It is here that we see yet another example of apparent synoicism of architectural space, like that of Acquarossa and possibly Poggio Civitate’s Archaic period phase, where separate and functionally distinct elements are drawn into a single complex, the organization of which suggests to the author the presence of an orthogonal street plan. While the evidence on this point is somewhat thin, the possibility of such social organization within the community of San Giovenale as early as the late seventh century is remarkable.

Even so, a volume as meticulously constructed from archival data as this can be forgiven for a few interpretive reaches. For three decades, the materials of San Giovenale’s Area F East lay dormant, hidden within 300 wooden storage boxes in the basement of the Swedish Institute in Rome. Rather than allow this window in to San Giovenale’s architectural development to remain closed, Karlsson has chosen to shoulder the burden of its organization and presentation. This is no small task under the best of conditions, but to do so with materials excavated 30 years before the author even began his work is an achievement to be celebrated.

Anthony Tuck
Department of Classics
529 Herter Hall
University of Massachusetts
Amherst, Massachusetts 01003
atuck@classics.umass.edu

Book Review of San Giovenale: Results of Excavations Conducted by the Swedish Institute of Classical Studies at Rome and the Soprintendenza alle Antichità dell’Etruria Meridionale, by Lars Karlsson
Reviewed by Anthony Tuck
American Journal of Archaeology Volume 112, Number 1 (January 2008), published online at www.ajaonline.org/online-review-book/544
DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1121.Tuck

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