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Der Gela-Survey: 3000 Jahre Siedlungsgeschichte in Sizilien

Der Gela-Survey: 3000 Jahre Siedlungsgeschichte in Sizilien

Edited by Johannes Bergemann. 3 vols. Vol. 1, Text. Pp. 228, figs. 19, Beilagen 2; vol. 2, Fundstellenkatalog. Pp. 298; vol. 3, Beilagen und Tafeln. Pp. 294, pls. 248. Biering & Brinkmann, Munich 2010. €248. ISBN 978-3-930609-57-4 (cloth).

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Gela is a name that conjures many images. As a term, it means “cold river” (fiumefreddo in Italian), and it is likely a word of Sikel origin. As a name for a territory, it brings to mind the “fields of Gela,” famous in antiquity for waves of grain blown by the wind. As the modern name of a Sicilian city, it evokes the industrial folly of the 1950s that ignored the aesthetic and environmental values of the landscape in favor of petroleum refineries and a now-dated sense of modernity. Gela was the proud origin of Gelon, who left his town to become the strongman of Syracuse and one of the tyrants fabled in the poems of Pindar. Under a new name, Terranova, the city was joined to its territory under a grand plan composed during the reign of Frederick II. Today, renamed for its ancient heritage (despite some initial debate over the identification), Gela is the ambiguous poster child of resistance to mafia-dominated politics.

The three volumes here represent the topographer’s ideal—the publication of a comprehensive cultural history of the region around ancient Gela by way of systematic survey. It takes head-on the bane of such fieldwork—scores of scrappy sherds and other finds that exhausted fieldworkers would prefer to rebury in the storeroom—and classifies and contextualizes them in terms of carefully presented statistics, distribution maps, documentary drawings, and photographs. The territory in question is actually that of the inland hill-town of Butera and only encompasses western portions of the current territory of the coastal city. There is a reason for this—whereas the eastern portions of the countryside around Gela have witnessed extensive transformation because of the petrochemical industry and heavy agricultural transformation for viticulture, the western portions remain less altered overall, and thus they present greater integrity in the archaeological record. Solely in geographic terms, the project could just have easily been called the “Butera Survey,” were it not that much of the motivation to see the transformation in the countryside over time comes from the desire to measure the impact of the creation of the Greek colony by settlers from Rhodes and Crete.

The project was conceived in the 1990s and carried out in the field between 2002 and 2006, and the full publication appears here as the first in the new series Göttinger Studien zur Mediterranean Archäologie just four years after the fieldwork was completed. This is lightning swift for most publications of field research, and particularly for a project as complex as this one. It demonstrates a singleness of purpose and dedication both to detail and comprehensive treatment of the subject in the best traditions of Teutonic scholarship, and it follows in the footsteps of pioneering research in the 1950s and 1960s by Dinu Adamesteanu and Piero Orlandini, who embarked on some of the first territorially based archaeological studies with the use of remote sensing (at the time, it was aerial photography) in Sicilian archaeology. Their earlier work remains “state-of-the-art” for the area east of Gela, and one should note also that in certain instances, access to the countryside was easier than it is now because of maintenance of roads and other rural infrastructure. The present study has identified 277 sites within a 200 km² area, and it incorporates the dissertation research of Congiu, who adds 26 sites to the 251 newly surveyed by the project.

The book positions the project within the constellation of field surveys that have been undertaken in Sicily since the 1980s around Himera, Heraclea Minoa, Morgantina, Troina, and the Gornalunga and Margi River valley complex, to name just a few. A full listing of surveys, along with a brief characterization of them (extensive or intensive), and the general chronological distribution of materials recovered is given in a table on pages 16–17 of the first volume in the context of a general review of methodology and the history of study in the region. The book does not include recent work in western Sicily in areas around Salemi, but it does represent a thorough summary of work prior to its own initiation. While reference is made to more general studies of field survey in the Mediterranean, it remains squarely within the context of the hard data at hand, and it does not lapse into theoretical discourse. Concentrations of ceramics and/or features are called “settlement” (Siedlungen) or simply “find-spots” (Fundstellen), when they are not further specified as cemeteries, sanctuaries, or quarries, and the project goes from there. The work was performed efficiently through a combination of extensive and intensive methods, with a four-person team that first made preliminary identifications of sites and a larger 10-person team that applied systematic fieldwalking in transects across the previously identified locations. There is little remote-sensing data, apart from aerial photographs and core sampling of geological features along the Mediterranean coastline.

While the substance of the book is written in German, a two-page introduction by Panvini, Superintendent of Cultural and Environmental Resources for the Province of Caltanissetta of the Sicilian Regional government, and a six-page summary penned initially by Bergmann (the text is different from the six-page summation in German) offer good overviews in Italian of what the project has achieved. Only five pages constitute a bibliography (in reality a list of abbreviations for commonly cited publications), as most of the citations are included in the notes. Two foldout sheets are inserted in a pocket in the back cover of the first volume—a map derived from the current IGM of the territory between the Gela–Butera road and Falconara along the coast, and a second, equally large folded sheet that serves as a legend with a color-coded arrangement of site locations arrayed in terms of their chronology and consistency. A clear system of references to sites, finds, catalogue entries, and illustrations, some seemingly akin to check routing numbers, nonetheless makes it easy to pass from one volume to the other, and the three volumes as a whole are surprisingly easy to use.

The table of contents in the first volume outlines succinctly how topics have been arranged and which member of the research team has been responsible for them. The first 24 pages are dedicated to essays by Bergmann on the history of research and major historical questions that define the project. There is comparatively little discussion of geomorphology, although there is a good descriptive summary of the landscape, geology, agriculture, and the current climate. The 10 pages dedicated to methodological considerations focus on the limitations of visibility in the field. Anyone who goes to the area cannot help noting the impact of erosion on an almost treeless landscape, and the project takes on the thesis of Turco (“Il territorio di Gela,” Kokalos 45 [1999] 521–33)—that the coastline between Gela and Falconara has been altered significantly since antiquity—by performing a series of 13 geological core samples in 2006 that do show progressive silting but not so radical a transformation of the coastline that the results of survey work would be skewed. Forty-three pages are dedicated to finds (340,000 sherds, according to the publisher), which are organized by class of material and also keyed to historical chronology. Typological classification is supplemented by neutron activation analysis of certain finewares. As the publisher puts it in an advertisement, “Detailed chapters on major find categories (black glazed wares, amphorae, Terra sigillata) present the material for the first time in the context of local and regional chronologies.” The information is so detailed that the project can actually speak in terms of statistics, which are the basis of the volume’s historical interpretation.

By far the most pages in the first volume (72 pp.), however, are dedicated to historical interpretation of the places where finds were discovered. A thorough topographic description of the locations is followed by the articulation of the area’s socioeconomic geography and history into chapters on the prehistoric, colonial Greek/indigenous, Roman/Late Antique, and medieval settlement patterns and the area’s historical road system. As Panvini puts it in her introduction, this is fundamentally a work about the “antropizzazione” of the hinterland around Gela. This Italian word carries with it the connotation of transformation wrought on the landscape by the human presence, which is not fully borne by the German Siedlungsgeschichte or the English equivalent of “Settlement History.” While considerable work, not only by this survey but by a century and a half of field research from the time of Paolo Orsi, has delineated a vibrant human presence in Sicily in prehistoric and “protohistoric” times, it is the arrival of colonists from Rhodes and Crete, who founded the urban coastal center called Gela, according to specific cultural norms (Bergmann notes the close comparison between the arrangement of sanctuaries around the city center and Plato’s articulation of the ideal city in Laws 778c), that had the greatest impact on the hinterland.

The treatment of prehistoric sites is developed around well-known locations, including the Castelluccian Early Bronze Age village of Manfria and the large Iron Age centers of Monte Dessueri and Canallotti, as well as Monte Dessusino. A significant rise in rural population begins in the seventh century in concomitance with the foundation of Gela and jumps to 163 separate locations by the sixth century B.C.E. The authors make a good-faith estimate of the rural population in the survey area by calculating an average farm size of 35.5 ha and 15 people per km², which yields a figure of 2,250 for the survey area; the extension of that figure to the entire hinterland of Gela yields an approximate population of 22,500 during the Archaic and Classical periods. Topography, rather than a neat division of the landscape, seems to regulate the distribution of settlements, although this in itself does not preclude the concept of the kleros and the settlers as kleruchs. Several locations, including Castagnelle, Perciata Est, and Butera-Moddanesi quite possibly represent cult centers, and the theme of intervisibility that connects such locations makes up a good portion of this discussion. Important products of the hinterland are grain and quarry blocks, and the project confidently asserts that it has identified the principal quarries of Gela, much like the Latomie at Syracuse or the Cave di Cusa near Selinus. A rise in the number of sites to 171 for the fourth and early third centuries B.C.E. runs contrary to the thinking common since the 1958 Kokalos conference on Timoleon in Sicily that the arrival of the Corinthian general heralded a new era of prosperity and population growth on the island. Likewise, the Roman destruction of Gela following the First Punic War seems to have had a significant impact on settlement in the hinterland, where a limited number of sites (n=36) seems to control substantially larger properties (can we call these latifundia?). For the Imperial period, this seems to be the case with 59 sites of between 100 and 200 ha. A drop to 39 sites in the third century C.E. is a clear sign of crisis, while the subsequent rise to 127 sites from the early fourth through the seventh century C.E. shows the establishment of a new topographic and socioeconomic order that is characterized by borghi, or larger agricultural settlements, such as those known outside the survey area at Vito Soldano (Canicatti), Philosophiana (Mazzarino), and the famous Villa del Casale just outside Piazza Armerina. While the survey is not able to conclude much about the eighth century C.E., the authors utilize a class of coarse ware newly identified at the site of Rocchicella di Mineo (“Rocchicella Ware”) to identify sites datable to the ninth and tenth centuries C.E. As elsewhere in Sicily, the arrival of Arab settlers does not represent as much a disruption to the topographic and socioeconomic order as the reworking of Sicily under Frederick II, who created Terranova on the site of ancient Gela in 1233 C.E.

The second volume is dedicated entirely to the catalogue of sites. Everything is put in its proper place through complete descriptions that are coordinated with the illustrations in the third volume. Sites are identified in historical-cultural terms, and they are given GPS references. Ceramics are presented in typological array both in tabular form and statistical histograms. There is an interpretive statement and a listing of prior bibliography where it exists for all 277 locations. Standard chronological categories are populated with identifiable forms, although most of what one finds in the field is not precisely identifiable. Flipping through the pages brings out the repetitive standardization of the catalogue entries, but this is clearly a reference work.

The third volume is divided into 48 figures and 246 plates. The first group includes four 1:20,000 maps showing the progression of coastal sedimentation followed by the profiles of core samples that support them. Two pages show color images of tiles and coins that bear identifiable stamps, and 24 pages bear full-scale section drawings of Ionic cups, skyphoi, bowls, lamps, terra sigillata ceramics, louteria, and other identifiable vessel types, which is a useful quick reference for finds that one encounters everywhere in Sicily. Four pages present particularly interesting historic maps of the area from the time of Al-Idrisi (1134 C.E.) to Bourbon property maps and an early IGM (1879). Fifteen versions of the current IGM base map are then shown, with the locations of sites identified by survey. The sites are identified in terms of chronology (first all together, then by period) and functional character (e.g., sanctuary, farm, quarry), and they are placed in relation to historical roads. The usefulness of this work goes well beyond the study of the hinterland of Gela, as it provides a quick reference for finds that one encounters everywhere in Sicily.

The project has benefited from substantial support from the Fritz Thyssen Foundation of Cologne, Germany, and the publisher has spared no expense in producing a first-rate volume that will last as long as any book can. Between the sober blue cloth covers of each volume, the text and images are printed on archival-quality gloss paper. The production is a tour-de-force of graphic design and photography and is well worth the price. Text is arranged in double columns with copious notes (1,765 in vol. 1), which occupy at least half a column in places where finds are discussed. The font, though small, is eminently readable, and it has appeal for its clarity. Inevitably, there are a few typographic errors (e.g., the American city “Ann Arbour” and the English word “Arcaic”), but they do not detract from the elegance and accuracy of the publication overall. Color plates are a luxury that many publications simply cannot afford, especially for fragments of ceramic and other finds, which appear cosmetically impeccable in photographs that have been carefully regulated for intelligibility. Specific site photographs are coordinated with color panoramas, some of them taken from the air. The heavy saturation of these images does not quite convey the sun-swept (brullo) character of the area, but they are very legible, and one can actually see crop marks in the fields. Overall, the layout is attractive, and it encourages one to jump between the volumes of text, catalogue entries, and illustrations.

This book is useful well beyond the limits of the study area and the principal historical-topographic questions regarding the hinterland of ancient Gela that the project addresses. It gives pride of place to those finds that do not make it into the catalogues of specific archaeological sites but that are copious under foot when one descends into the field, and it seems unlikely that any other comprehensive survey so well produced will appear any time soon.

Brian E. McConnell
Florida Atlantic University

Book Review of Der Gela-Survey: 3000 Jahre Siedlungsgeschichte in Sizilien, edited by Johannes Bergemann

Reviewed by Brian E. McConnell

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 119, No. 4 (October 2015)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1194.McConnell

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