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Vrbes extinctae: Archaeologies of Abandoned Classical Towns

Vrbes extinctae: Archaeologies of Abandoned Classical Towns

Edited by Neil Christie and Andrea Augenti. Pp. xx + 372, figs. 106. Ashgate Publishing, Burlington, Vt. 2012. $124.95. ISBN 978-0-7546-6562-5 (cloth).

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This edited volume derives in part from a 2006 conference at the University of Leicester that focused on the challenges and potential of archaeological research centered on “lost” and abandoned classical and Late Antique towns throughout Europe and the Mediterranean. These so-called vrbes extinctae are defined as once-prosperous urban centers that are each now “devoid of a major modern successor” (1) and that can be distinguished from other ancient urban sites where more continuous occupation places the ancient remains alongside or underneath extensive later developments. The fact that these towns were ultimately abandoned by all but small remnant populations leaves them with truncated stratigraphies that offer valuable opportunities for archaeological research into their development, layout, and eventual demise; it also provides fertile ground for the development and testing of new research questions and methodologies. The volume features 11 case studies, an extensive thematic introduction, and some short concluding remarks. The volume is copiously illustrated throughout and features 30 color plates.

The most extensive contribution, an introductory essay (1–44), is provided by Christie, one of the volume’s coeditors. This clearly defines and examines the challenges and potential provided by the archaeology of abandoned classical towns. While sites that are broadly in this category (e.g., Ostia, Pompeii, Leptis Magna, Palmyra, Jerash) are frequently viewed as classic examples of Roman urbanism, they cannot necessarily be taken as typical. Christie examines the range of research questions that have been or can be asked of these sites and concludes that one of the greatest values they provide is the opportunity to consider the development and use of domestic spaces—those portions of a site that are most frequently inaccessible and difficult to decipher within ancient cities that maintain large present-day populations. Questions of loss and “decline” are also considered, with Christie proposing four key contributing factors: warfare, natural events, economic marginalization, and state-level restructuring and “decay.” There is a tension here, as Christie attempts to balance an engagement with colonial and modern imperialist narratives of “decline and fall” with a desire to separate new perspectives that offer more nuanced understandings while maintaining a focus on the ends and “afterlives” of abandoned classical towns.

The bulk of the book is represented by 11 case studies drawn from all over the classical world. Most of these are well-known sites, but few have been explored in such detail within a single volume. Thanks to the volume’s strong theme, the juxtaposition of these sites offers new opportunities to compare and contrast. The first three case studies focus on urban sites in Italy: Augenti on the recent archaeological work at Classe (45–75), Vermeulen on recent work at Potentia (77–95), and Cirelli and Fentress with a reconsideration of Late Antique and Early Medieval Cosa (97–113). The next six case studies examine a wide range of Late Roman and/or Byzantine urban centers within the Mediterranean core: Cau on several towns (including Palma, Pollentia, and Sanisera, among others) in the Balearic Islands (115–44); Velásquez and Ripoll on the post-Roman Visigothic city of Recopolis (145–75); Sears and five coauthors on recent work (but before the 2011 Libyan revolution) at the UNESCO World Heritage site of Cyrene (177–205); Bowden and Hodges on new understandings from a long campaign of extensive excavation at Butrint (207–41); Sweetman on the often-overlooked Late Antique periods at Knossos and Sparta (243–73); and Arthur, summarizing the extensive post-Roman life of Phrygian Hierapolis (275–305). The final two case studies represent opposite extremes of former Roman territory: Baird on the drawn-out abandonment and limited intermittent reoccupations of Dura-Europos (307–29) and Fulford on the post-Roman continuity and Early Medieval abandonment of Silchester (331–51).

Each of the sites offers its own unique story, in terms of chronological development and demise but also in terms of the history of exploration and interpretation. The long-standing narrative of Late Antique moral decadence and decline leading to the collapse of classical civilization has led some of these sites to be viewed as prime examples of former glory and the devastating effects of misplaced values and poor state management. This perspective has, thankfully, been challenged in recent decades, and the research presented in this volume’s papers has revealed that many of the sites continued to function in variable (but certainly smaller-scale) ways following the traditional dates of abandonment. In many respects, the sites discussed have never truly been abandoned or lost but were subject to changing forms of use, commemoration, and significance that continue today. The work of modern archaeologists and heritage managers, and the presence of local or nearby inhabitants and visitors, breathes new life into these sites. This fact, along with the increasing recognition that these sites can no longer be considered to have an official and unambiguous ending date, underscores the very challenges and opportunities that Christie outlines within his introductory essay.

The only real disappointing contribution to this volume is Augenti’s concluding remarks (353–57). This is simply too short and fails to rise to the challenge of drawing out comparisons and contrasts among the various case studies. As an example, the case studies each provide a particular story of urban abandonment, when large-scale developments and occupation slowed down and eventually ceased; with the geographic and temporal scope provided by these case studies, Augenti could have explored differences in the urban abandonment process across regions and time periods. Considering the six-year gap between the initial conference and the volume’s publication, it would be expected for this concluding chapter to have a more detailed and tighter integration of material drawn from the rest of the volume. Despite these limitations, Augenti deserves credit for vigorously challenging the serious and continuing problem of “old and established scholarly attitude[s], [that] frequently condition the very nature of the archaeological data” (354) and for arguing that archaeologists of the Classical and Late Antique periods need to engage more widely with medieval and post-medieval specialists to gain deeper understandings of sites beyond their “glory days.”

Throughout the volume, the many figures are clear and useful. As with all printed representations of geophysical survey, much of the detail and real value of this remote sensing methodology is sometimes lost, but the use of high contrast in grayscale images (e.g., fig. 1.8: Caistor St. Edmund) and color (e.g., fig. 3.3: Potentia) helps to highlight the most significant features. One image (fig. 4.4: an excavation plan from Cosa) features an erroneous caption, stating that this represents a sixth-century phase, when it is actually of the 10th century; thankfully, this error is noted and corrected in my copy by a paper erratum slip inserted by the publisher. A final note on the volume’s presentation of illustrations must be made: throughout the text, 30 figures are represented by a small thumbnail image located within the page corners. At first this was disorienting and disappointing, as these are probably the volume’s most important figures. These thumbnails, however, indicate that these figures are also included within the excellent color plates section (a fact only indicated within the “List of Illustrations” header [xv]). Overall, this is an elegant and innovative solution to the common problem of plates that are disjointed from their relevant text, allowing readers to get an immediate sense for the image while indicating that a better version can be viewed elsewhere in the volume.

This volume joins an extensive and still-growing body of literature on classical and Late Antique urbanism, as well as considerations of “decline and fall” within the later Roman empire. It breaks significant new ground by combining these two areas of research within a single volume and by developing and maintaining a strong theme of new ideas related to the challenges and potential of archaeological research focused on the development, abandonment, and later activities of former urban centers. The included case studies offer something for specialists and students of nearly every region of classical and Late Antique archaeology, from Italy to the Near East, North Africa, Spain, Greece, Albania, and Britain. As with most academic books published today, the volume is unfortunately unlikely to fit many student budgets, but it is a must-buy for academic libraries wherever teaching and research include consideration of classical urbanism, Roman and Byzantine archaeology, and the historical and archaeological study of Late Antique to Medieval transitions. The volume offers much for students and scholars within classics, ancient history, and archaeology, and it is hoped that it will also attract readers from specialized areas beyond the Roman period, as medievalists and post-medievalists may be able to provide the energy, expertise, and new research questions that will allow for the fullest understanding of what has happened to former classical towns during and after their eventual abandonment.

Darrell J. Rohl
History and Archaeology
Canterbury Christ Church University
Canterbury, Kent CT1 1QU
United Kingdom

Book Review of Vrbes extinctae: Archaeologies of Abandoned Classical Towns, edited by Neil Christie and Andrea Augenti

Reviewed by Darrell J. Rohl

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 118, No. 4 (October 2014)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1184.Rohl

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