Online Review: Book

Drei Hanghäuser in Thugga: Maison des Trois Masques, Maison du Labyrinthe, Maison de Dionysios et d'Ulysse

Simon Ellis

112.2

By Rainer Stutz. Pp. 94, b&w figs. 14, b&w pls. 25, color pls. 11, maps 10. Philipp von Zabern, Mainz 2007. €65.50. ISBN 978-3-8053-3758-8 (cloth).

Roman Thugga (Dougga) is the best-known ruined city in modern Tunisia and one of the most visited sites in North Africa. A huge number of urban Roman houses are known from Tunisia, and although only three houses are included here, the significance of the site and the province make this an important book. The book is even more interesting to the specialist on houses since two of the houses are “nonstandard” and relations between different house types help us understand the residential fabric of the city. The title identifies all three houses as “Hanghäuser,” cut into the natural slope of the terrain. Thugga lies on a hilltop, lending itself to a spiraling street system that climbs to the summit. Although the term “Hanghäuser” has no classical epistemology, it is appropriate since the urban plan was adapted to the contours of the hill.

The project cleared fallen stones and cleaned floors first uncovered by French excavations in the first half of the 20th century. Little or no intrusive investigation of wall junctions seems to have been made nor was excavation undertaken. This makes it difficult to date and phase the houses. The majority of the structures are dated ca. 150 C.E. in association with the mosaics. Some eastern rooms of the House of Dionysos and Ulysses are ascribed to the first century B.C.E. and some to the later second century C.E.—later than the mosaics. Each existing structure is described, followed by an interpretative section, a reconstruction, phasing, and dates.

The House of the Three Masks has a T-shape plan in which the crossbar of the T (running north–south) is formed by two large square “pillared” rooms, on either side of two to three long east–west passageways comprising the vertical “leg” of the T. Another north–south passageway lies beyond the square pillared rooms across the top of the T, to the east. The disjointed nature of the remains, comprising just two large rooms plus the passages, suggests the incomplete plan of a larger complex. This might have been formed by further rooms at the west end of the main east–west passage, east of the north–south passage, and/or by some connection to the House of the Labyrinth to the north. The most remarkable feature of the house is the leg of the T, which seems to have been formed by a line of 10 rooms, perhaps between two terracing walls. Rooms in Roman houses are normally accessed individually from an external corridor. Such a long chain, in which each room is accessed from its predecessor, is unparalleled. These rooms had geometric mosaic floors and thus were more likely “public” or living rooms rather than storage or artisanal in function. The book unfortunately does not devote enough space to analysis of this extraordinary building, especially in relation to its neighboring structures.

The House of the Labyrinth consists of a range of rooms facing south around courtyard D/L, which overlooks the House of the Three Masks. Together, both houses stretch across an insula between two of the streets that follow the contours of the hill. While there is no evidence of stairs connecting the (lower) House of the Three Masks with the (upper) House of the Labyrinth, some form of a link would resolve the design elements of both structures. The entrance and reception courts of the House of the Three Masks could lead up to the House of the Labyrinth as a living area, in a Hanghaus arrangement known from the Palatine at Rome and the seashore at Herculaneum. The lack of stairs might be a result of incomplete excavation or covering over by the construction of the Byzantine City Wall that ran along the join between the two. Admittedly the rooms in the House of the Labyrinth are not luxurious, and the only significant mosaic, the eponymous labyrinth, does not impress. A small “fountain room” (C) linked to a cistern at the rear is the only other distinctive feature.

The House of Dionysos and Ulysses lies to the west of the House of the Labyrinth and has the plan of a small peristyle house with an entrance from the upper street to the north. Rooms I and L are easily identified as reception rooms; the former has a typical Seasons mosaic, in the latter is the mosaic of Dionysos. (The Ulysses mosaic comes from the peristyle.) Presumably the larger room L is termed an oecus because it has a more elaborate mosaic. Three rooms (G, K, M) had mosaics covering half their floor area, identifying them as cubicula. This identification is probably satisfactory, but it would be preferable to have pictures of the mosaics in a book that sets out so meticulously to describe the remains. The attribution of K and G as diurna as opposed to M as nocturnum (84) does not seem justified. A small apsidal lararium (E) under the north street is well preserved.

The description of the architecture is thorough. The discussion of mosaics is not so detailed, but the only major figured mosaics in the whole complex are those of Dionysios and Ulysses, and this book is more for architectural than mosaic specialists. A particular problem, given recent studies of domestic housing, is the application of Latin terms to designate the functions of some rooms. The most problematic example is the use of fauces to describe the entrance passageway (a) in the House of the Three Masks. This space is the start of a long passage and bears no relation to the architectural spaces of an Italianate house.

It would have been nice to see a more comprehensive appraisal of the whole group. Were these three distinct houses—one traditional in plan and two others of irregular design? Or was this one large Hanghaus with a small peristyle house “tucked in” alongside to make the “block”? By either interpretation this was a “mixed neighborhood,” and it is in the appreciation of the house in context rather than as an isolated architectural monument that analytical progress is to be made. This is a detailed study of interesting houses, and the author has provided an excellent record of the architecture. It would have been even stronger with additional social interpretation.

Simon Ellis
4878 Westmount Avenue
Westmount H3Y 1Y1
Quebec, Canada
s.ellis@uis.unesco.org

Book Review of Drei Hanghäuser in Thugga: Maison des Trois Masques, Maison du Labyrinthe, Maison de Dionysios et d’Ulysse, by Rainer Stutz
Reviewed by Simon Ellis
American Journal of Archaeology Volume 112, Number 2 (April 2008), published online at www.ajaonline.org/online-review-book/559
 DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1122.Ellis

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