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Regional Pathways to Complexity: Settlement and Land-Use Dynamics in Early Italy from the Bronze Age to the Republican Period

Regional Pathways to Complexity: Settlement and Land-Use Dynamics in Early Italy from the Bronze Age to the Republican Period

By Peter Attema, Gert Jan Burgers, and Martijn van Leusen (Amsterdam Archaeological Studies 15). Pp. 235, figs. 49, color pls. 31, tables 7. Amsterdam University Press, Amsterdam 2010. $69.95. ISBN 978-90-8964-276-9 (cloth).

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This volume represents a major landmark not only for the Regional Pathways to Complexity Project but also in Italian landscape research. The work has brought together two of the leading archaeology departments (Amsterdam and Groningen) of the Netherlands into an integrated project design that has been outstandingly effective in its implementation. One clear element of this success is the modern pattern of involvement of early-career researchers as well as the principal investigators in the development of ideas and results. It is a project that is also sensitively aware of relevant Italian research and of branches of anthropological theory that can be linked to the study of landscape.

The Regional Pathways to Complexity Project (1997–2001) focused on three central and southern Italian study regions between the Bronze Age and the Roman period, namely the Pontine region just south of Rome, the Salento Isthmus between Brindisi and Taranto, and the eastern coast of northern Calabria, focused on ancient Sibari or modern Francavilla Marittima. The considerable strength of the project was to bring these areas together into a comparative framework through the linkage of an environmentally reconstructed landscape with the social and political imprint on that landscape through the study of settlement. Italian archaeological research has been—until recently—substantially cemetery- and artifact-focused. Dutch research has played a significant role in redressing this gap by providing complementary pathways into the past. This volume represents a major and highly important statement of this enterprise.

Land evaluation is a central feature of Dutch research in the Mediterranean. Detailed land surveys drawing on soil science have been systematically employed to understand the potential of each contrasting landscape. The study of pollen (e.g., Lago Forano) has also been integral in assessing the time depth of modern patterns. In more recent work, including this volume, the study of modern patterns has been supplemented by ethnographic work and the study of historical maps. There has additionally been an important correction factor applied to the potentially static land use types from the inclusion of pastoralism in the overall equation, bringing a significant consideration of networks cross-cutting different landscapes into the picture. Issues of premodern transhumance are an ongoing debate, and it may be that new approaches such as isotopic studies of animal bones, only available from sealed excavation deposits, may be the way to add detail to this dimension.

A further central feature of the work has been intensive field survey integrated with GIS methodologies. Detailed procedures have been developed to limit the uncertainties and relative visibilities in the recovery of data, and the surveys reported here share the trend toward increasing intensity demonstrated in other modern surveys of the Mediterranean. The consequence is either an increasingly smaller area surveyed or substantially larger demands of manpower to achieve the same areal coverage required for the study of complex societies. A great advantage, in comparison with Greece, where similar intensities have been achieved, is the much more positive attitude of the Italian authorities toward excavation, which must remain a key parallel process to survey. Greek practitioners who argue otherwise are simply prisoners of the modern political necessity of their choice of study region. The excavations of Satricum, Muro Tenente, and Timpone della Motta, although not extensively reported in the volume, even if also undertaken by Dutch scholars, provide a considerable methodological advantage in these Italian case studies.

The study of pottery has been another key feature of the work. This supplements the Italian tradition, which has largely concentrated on intact fine wares often from funerary sources. The Dutch work has focused on the materials recovered in field survey, both to address issues of land use indicated by pottery spreads but also to address questions of production and distribution of coarse wares complementary to those equally important studies undertaken mostly by Italian scholars.

The modeling of these results in the volume remains mainly in the reflective processual tradition. The strongly natural landscape setting of complex societies affects all the interpretations. Techniques such as rank size, XTENT, and peer polity interaction are emphasized, albeit clearly aware of more postcolonial approaches. The latter awareness appears most clearly in the chapters on southern Italy, which play down the role of Greeks in defining the trajectories of “non-Greek” populations. A key worked example of entanglement (even if the term is not employed here) is that of the cemetery of L’Amastuola, where material forms of both Greek and indigenous coexisted. Similar views are expressed of the role of Roman power in the landscape, which often worked through preexisting power structures.

The final test of the project and its reporting in this volume is in the supraregional comparison. The authors admit, “we have not been able to incorporate Braudel’s short-term scale of human actions and the world of events” (177). The analysis necessarily remains at the broad structural and conjunctural level in Braudel’s terminology. In this respect, the project has provided excellent overviews of the trends of (1) differential centralization in the Bronze Age; (2) contrasting patterns of Greek and indigenous development, downplaying the Greeks as the driving forces by means of new evidence; and (3) the divergent impacts of Rome on the preexisting settlement systems. The conclusions emphasize diversity rather than single routes to complexity.

The volume is visually attractive, with excellent line diagrams, and it makes use of boxed summaries of key methodologies, arguments, and examples, providing quick access to salient issues. The text section is only black-and-white, but this does not detract from the pleasant appearance of the volume or the clarity of its expression, and may indeed enhance it. All the polychrome diagrams are housed at the end of the volume, no doubt sensibly placed there to save on production costs.

As with any well-organized and implemented research, further developments can be envisaged as new questions are raised when others are solved. The modestly represented conclusions underplay the important implications of the project, and it would have been interesting to have considered the full longue durée implications for later periods, particularly in light of powerful modern land-use and soil studies enshrined in the underlying methodologies. Archaeology has striking lessons for the present, and the volume perhaps missed a chance in highlighting this essential point.

Simon Stoddart
University of Cambridge
Cambridge CB2 3DZ
United Kingdom

Book Review of Regional Pathways to Complexity: Settlement and Land-Use Dynamics in Early Italy from the Bronze Age to the Republican Period, by Peter Attema, Gert Jan Burgers, and Martijn van Leusen

Reviewed by Simon Stoddart

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 118, No. 2 (April 2014)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1182.Stoddart

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