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The Chora of Metaponto 4: The Late Roman Farmhouse at San Biagio
January 2014 (118.1)
The Chora of Metaponto 4: The Late Roman Farmhouse at San Biagio
By Erminia Lapadula. Pp. xiv + 261, figs. 116, tables 15. University of Texas Press, Austin 2012. $75. ISBN 978-0-292-72877-6 (cloth).
The Chora of Metaponto 4: The Late Roman Farmhouse at San Biagio is a unique publication of a “mid-sized” farmhouse constructed in the mid second century C.E. and abandoned in the mid fourth century. The book is in many ways a model publication of an isolated rural site. The authors take pains not only to detail the excavated material and architecture but also to place the site in the regional context of South Italy and the Metapontino. While the excavations took place more than three decades ago, the appearance of the book is nevertheless a timely contribution to recent conversations about rural life in the Roman world, and Roman Italy in particular, and begins to fill the gap in our knowledge of Roman rural settlement below the level of elite villas or market towns. The authors reinforce the value of this work by explicitly locating the site in the context of a landscape defined by more than half a century of archaeological work in the Metapontino and Basilicata, including a regional survey (J. Coleman Carter and A. Prieto, eds., The Chora of Metaponto 3: Archaeological Field Survey, Bradano to Basento [Austin 2011]).
The first chapter of the book under review is a discussion of the region of Basilicata in Roman times, with particular attention to archaeological fieldwork conducted in the city of Metaponto and its chora. The excavations at the farmhouse of San Biagio is part of the long-term research in the countryside of Metaponto by the Institute of Classical Archaeology of the University of Texas. This work has revised previous ideas about an economically stagnant later Roman Metapontino and located the farmhouse within a landscape of “modest prosperity” (12). It appears that this was consistent with the development of the urban area of Metaponto. In sum, the scarcity of evidence for the economy of the region in the third century gave way to a vibrant fourth century in which Metaponto featured a basilica and a well-developed export port. This indicated that the city was deeply integrated within larger administrative and economic networks, and this integration may well account for the moderate prosperity of the region as well.
The second chapter focuses on the site of San Biagio and its farmhouse. The authors set out the method of excavation, the stratigraphy of the site, and the phasing of the building. The excavators used “modified Wheelerian” methods at San Biagio, and this was consistent, evidently, with other excavations in the region. After the short treatment on method, the chapter documents the results of work in each room of the building and includes brief summaries of the finds, architecture, and function.
Excavations uncovered three phases to the house, excluding earlier activity at the site revealed through deeper soundings. Revising the initial interpretation of the building phases published in a 1980 preliminary report (J.C. Carter, “Excavations in the Territory. Metaponto, 1980,” unpublished report), the authors argue that the basic plan of the building remained unchanged throughout its lifespan. The building featured 10 rooms with spaces identified as storerooms, a kitchen, cubicula, and, most notably, a small bath with hypocausts. Baths in buildings of this modest stature remain rare in Late Roman times and are usually associated with more monumental villas. The building saw some minor changes in a second phase dated to the end of the third or beginning of the fourth century, including the division of two of the rooms using the same basic construction techniques. The farmhouse was abandoned and collapsed in the mid fourth century, apparently in a single event. The abandonment does not appear to have been the result of fire or other dramatic event.
Considering the modest level of preservation at the site, the authors do a commendable job analyzing the basic architecture and construction. The walls, of which almost nothing remains, were made of either sun-dried mud or pisé (rammed earth), set on a base of sand, pebbles, and fragments of terracotta. It appears that some of the walls received a cover of plaster with red pigment. The small bath with a floor set atop a hypocaust had a limestone mosaic floor, but most rooms had rather more modest opus spicatum pavements. The small bath may have also featured glass windows. A brief but well-executed catalogue of building materials, with special attention to roof tiles, provides the evidence for an innovative digital model that recreates the roof of the structure. The model proposed represents a useful step forward and balances effectively between speculative and evidence-based reconstruction.
The authors dedicate the bulk of the book to the careful analysis and presentation of the materials discovered over the course of excavations, and this work generally complements the regional and landscape approach to understanding the site. Chapter 3 discusses the material dating to the Neolithic to the Roman Republican period, prior to the extant architecture at the site. While this material was largely derived from secondary or residual contexts, it provides important evidence for early activity in the vicinity of the farmhouse. The handful of Neolithic sherds speaks to the early activity at the site, owing perhaps to the presence of a spring, and this fits into the larger structure of decentralized Neolithic settlement in the Metapontino. The material from the Classical period includes an impressive assemblage of worn architectural terracottas from the nearby sanctuary dedicated to Artemis and Zeus and located upslope from the farmhouse at San Biagio on the Vanella. The sanctuary was destroyed in the Roman period, and its architectural fragments were reused in structures across the area, including an earlier farmhouse near the sanctuary itself. Other material from the time before the construction of the farmhouse includes amphoras and fine wares more likely to be residual material from earlier activities in the region. One of the strengths of this publication is the integration of residual and spoliated material from the excavation with data collected from various surveys and excavations in the region in order to provide a better understanding of regional activities in the Metapontino.
Chapters 4 and 5 document the material directly associated with the farmhouse itself. There is some effort to quantify the material to illustrate the relative frequency of the wares present. The absence of any clear statement on the artifact sampling strategy limits the persuasiveness of the quantitative attempts, but it nevertheless offers a basis for comparison between various periods. The remaining chapters present nicely organized and illustrated catalogues of major wares found at the site. There is some discussion of the moderate quantity of imported utility, cooking, and fine wares produced locally or originating in the Aegean basin and North Africa. Recent research into Italian glass manufacture in the Roman period suggests that some of the glass may have originated at any number of recently studied southern Italian workshops (e.g., Pozzuoli, Villa Literno, Cuma), and this material likely represents the vitality of regional trade. Evidence for local, regional, and Mediterranean-wide exchange suggests that the site was not only moderately prosperous but also integrated into larger trans-Mediterranean networks of exchange. Nicely arranged tables present the chronology and origins of the most common wares. Chapter 5 extends this analysis to furnishings, utilitarian artifacts, and a well-preserved cache of coins found in the hypocaust.
Chapter 6 provides the results of scientific study of material from the site, including archaeozoology, archaeometry, and ceramic fabric analyses. The results from this chapter are largely inconclusive. The archaeozoological data suggests that the residents of the site practiced animal husbandry of sheep and goats, pigs, and poultry and indicates that in the fourth century, the residents enjoyed a diverse diet with substantial amounts of animal protein. The analysis of metal and glass objects might have fit better into the catalogue of artifacts, since the material analyses presented add little to the more traditional approaches presented in the artifact catalogues (e.g., the X-ray fluorescence study of the glass). This does not, however, take away from the value of publishing the composition of glass, pigments, and other material from the site.
The conclusion is perhaps the most rewarding section of the book. The authors demonstrate that while Basilicata witnessed a decline in the number of small- and medium-sized sites (so-called villulae) in the third and fourth centuries, the presence of buildings such as the San Biagio farmhouse indicates that the Metapontino did not experience a similar decline, perhaps because of the absence of large villas. From an architectural perspective, the authors argue that the farmhouse itself fit into a longstanding pattern of rural buildings in the region that lack atria. These relatively modest structures probably depended on animal husbandry and were largely self-sufficient, but nevertheless participated in both the regional and transregional economy.
This book is a timely contribution to the growing interest in the archaeology of rural Italy and the Late Roman countryside. The careful location of the architecture and finds in a regional context ensures that this small site will significantly impact how we understand Late Antique economy, settlement, and society.
Department of History
University of North Dakota
Grand Forks, North Dakota 58202
Book Review of The Chora of Metaponto 4: The Late Roman Farmhouse at San Biagio, by Erminia Lapadula
Reviewed by William Caraher
American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 118, No. 1 (January 2014)
Published online at www.ajaonline.org/book-review/1739