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The Chora of Metaponto 5: A Greek Farmhouse at Ponte Fabrizio

July 2016 (120.3)

Book Review

The Chora of Metaponto 5: A Greek Farmhouse at Ponte Fabrizio

By Elisa Lanza Catti, Keith Swift, and Joseph Coleman Carter. Pp. xxviii + 479, figs. 503, graphs 45, maps 43. University of Texas Press, Austin 2014. $75. ISBN 978-0-292-75864-3 (cloth).

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Long-term excavations and survey in both the asty and chora at Metaponto have provided scholars with the nearly unprecedented ability to compare life in a Greek city with contemporaneous habitation and burial in its associated rural area. Under the leadership of Joseph Coleman Carter, a multinational team of archaeologists has extensively surveyed the chora in order to fill a serious lacuna in our knowledge of both the agricultural life of the Greeks and the relationship of thriving rural areas to the urban center. The latest volume in the series of publications produced by the Texas and Italian team presents a Greek farmhouse, one of more than 300 identified by both survey and excavation. Previous publications included accounts of the survey itself, the nearby necropolis, and a Roman-era farmhouse (e.g., J.C. Carter, The Chora of Metaponto: The Necropoleis [Austin 1998]; J.C. Carter and A. Prieto, The Chora of Metaponto 3: Archaeological Survey, Bradano to Basento [Austin 2011]; the second has now been reviewed by S. Pope in this AJA fascicle).

The farmhouse under examination here was constructed in an area first inhabited in the Archaic period, although the majority of the remains presented in the volume, both architectural and artifactual, date to the fourth century B.C.E. The Late Classical period was a time in the life of the polis of Metaponto that witnessed a more widespread habitation on the land than had been the case in earlier centuries. This expansion was due to a refoundation of Metaponto in the fourth century, and the greater development of the chora was a consequence of that renewal of the civic core and its identity. The mudbrick-topped stone socles of the late classical farmhouse compare closely in their construction to that of houses around the Greek world, although the authors note that the urban residences of Metaponto of similar date appear to have been built in a more stable and perhaps more monumental construction with larger amounts of stone (103). That focus on more impressive architectural structure in urban dwellings is not atypical of late classical and Hellenistic houses, so Metaponto was not outside the norm. Seeming to lack a courtyard, the farmhouse at Ponte Fabrizio comprised six, or possibly seven, rooms. The paucity of small finds suggests to the excavators that the house was abandoned, and deposits of ritual material and bones further imply that the abandonment of the farmhouse was marked by ritual activity.

The volume opens with a preface, introduction, and overview (ch. 1), all quite valuable for orienting the reader to the historical, geographical, and cultural context of the farmhouse. Considerable effort is taken to locate the farmhouse within the modern scholarly exploration and publication of the urban center of Metaponto and its corresponding rural environs. The excavation of the farmhouse precedes the greater survey of the chora by one year, and thus its discovery seems to have served as the intellectual catalyst for the larger project. The investigators are to be commended for returning to the farmhouse, a site excavated more than 30 years previously, and to the study and publication of its architecture and assemblages in full detail; all legacy excavations should be so fortunate as to have such a dedicated team of scholars, as all too many excavated remains languish unpublished. While the careful reader will find some repetition in the several introductory sections, together they serve well to foreground the presentation and discussions that follow.

Chapters 2 and 3 lead the reader through the various rooms of the farmhouse and the assemblages recovered from them. The research team examined the material painstakingly and presents the pottery and other artifacts in collective terms in these chapters. The vessels are quantified carefully using counts of the surviving sherds as well as estimates of the vessels represented. Given that the farmhouse was admittedly, in the words of the excavators, “modest” (xvii) and had been abandoned, the assemblages of pottery and other artifacts are not large. In part 3 of the volume, each class of artifact is carefully analyzed and presented separately, with superb color photographs printed in the text and profiles printed at the same scale. While larger excavations cannot hope to replicate such a presentation, the present publication is a researcher’s dream, with the text and images appearing on the same page, thus obviating the need for flipping back and forth from the catalogue to images collected at the end of the volume.

Chapter 4 presents a discussion of the farmhouse’s plan and structure, with a virtual reconstruction of the building’s plan and elevation and two versions of the configuration of the roof. The images are again of the highest quality, with readable and convincing reconstructions and precise and detailed plans. In light of these qualities it will seem querulous of me to note that the scale of section drawings and the photographs of the walls is a tad small. The footprint of the farmhouse is quite similar in size but not in plan to contemporaneous houses on the Greek mainland, a fact not elaborated on here but one to be noted by anyone interested in domestic architecture, whether urban or rural, of the Late Classical period. The excavators were careful to recover remains, and they kept samples even of the humble roof tiles, thus enabling a detailed and convincing reconstruction of the roof, including the opaion tile in one room.

The high quality of the excavation and documentation of the remains allows the authors to contextualize the farmhouse in the rural economy of the Metapontine chora. This analysis is aided by the extensive surveys conducted by the same team in the area; as noted above, many other farmhouse sites provide the researchers with considerable comparanda for situating the Ponte Fabrizio farmhouse in its rural and regional setting. Notable is the inclusion of the non-Greek indigenous cultures of the southern Italic peninsula in the discussion. Significant fragments of pithoi were recovered from the storerooms of the farmhouse, evidence of on-site storage of the produce from the farmstead. This material could provide the foundation for a fuller study of strategies of storage throughout the Metapontine region and thus prove valuable in providing insight into the relationship between asty and chora.

Throughout much of the volume the researchers focus on the evidence for domestic cult at the farmhouse. A remarkable terracotta plaque depicting a goddess or her priestess was accompanied by miniature vessels and kantharoi (118). These were located at one time in a room of the farmhouse but were recovered from both inside and outside the house due to the erosion of the hillside after the abandonment of the building. The finds are seen as an assemblage belonging to religious worship at the farmhouse and, if Carter is correct, are directly connected to the act of abandonment of the site. Given the ephemeral nature of domestic cult, as rightly noted by Carter, these finds, if correctly interpreted, provide considerable insight into the ritual actions of the Greek residents not just during but also at the end of residence in the building.

Rounding out the volume is a presentation and analysis of the floral and faunal remains recovered from the excavations (pt. 2). The accounting of the material, pollen, seeds, bones, and shells can be favorably compared to the careful publication and analysis of archaeobotanical and faunal remains at other household sites, such as the kapeleio at Hellenistic Krania and the houses at New Halos in Thessaly (E. Margaritis, “The Kapeleio at Hellenistic Krania: Food Consumption, Disposal, and the Use of Space,” Hesperia 83 [2014] 103–21; H.R. Reinders and W. Prummel, eds., Housing in New Halos: A Hellenistic Town in Thessaly, Greece [Lisse 2003]). While the number of sites where such materials have been both recovered and published is still somewhat small, it is rapidly growing, as attested by the University of Michigan’s current excavations at Olynthos. The more we see of the careful publication modeled here, the more useful such data sets will become as comparanda.

Of special note in this regard are the marine mollusks, evidenced by their shells found at the farmhouse and once the remains of someone’s supper. The importation both of these sea creatures and, in the earlier phase of habitation, of transport amphoras and their contents to the site speaks of the vibrancy and perhaps the wealth of the Metapontine rural economy. The amphoras, including Chian examples, found in the earlier levels of the farmhouse site originated in the eastern Mediterranean and reflect the widespread trade that moved goods throughout the Mediterranean and into the hinterland. While both the farmhouse and its assemblages were deemed modest by the excavators, the residents were able to afford these imported and, in the case of the mollusks, highly perishable luxuries. Perhaps we need to rethink what we label modest in light of both the artifactual and the floral and faunal remains.

In conclusion, while the present volume is neither light reading nor an overview of the Metapontine countryside, in conjunction with its sister publications it provides food for thought and fodder for future study. At Metaponto, city and countryside can be studied side by side, a situation not paralleled everywhere in the Greek world. Due to extensive surveys in the chora, similar studies comparable to those at Metaponto can be conducted at both Himera and Gela on Sicily (V. Alliata, ed., Himera 3: Prospezione archeologica nel territorio [Rome 1988]; J. Bergemann, ed., Der Gela-Survey: 3000 Jahre Siedlungsgeschichte in Sizilien [Munich 2010]). One hopes that the present volume and its related studies will inspire further explorations of urban and rural areas together and, in its careful recounting of the remains, result in future publications of this high quality.

Barbara Tsakirgis
Department of Classical Studies
Vanderbilt University

Book Review of The Chora of Metaponto 5: A Greek Farmhouse at Ponte Fabrizio, by Elisa Lanza Catti, Keith Swift, and Joseph Coleman Carter

Reviewed by Barbara Tsakirgis

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 120, No. 3 (July 2016)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1203.Tsakirgis

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