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The Potenza Valley Survey (Marche, Italy): Settlement Dynamics and Changing Material Culture in an Adriatic Valley Between Iron Age and Late Antiquity

The Potenza Valley Survey (Marche, Italy): Settlement Dynamics and Changing Material Culture in an Adriatic Valley Between Iron Age and Late Antiquity

Edited by Frank Vermeulen, Dimitri Van Limbergen, Patrick Monsieur, and Devi Taelman (Academia Belgica, Studia Archeologica 1). Pp. 424. Editorial Service System, Rome 2017. €100. ISBN: 978-8-88444-163-8 (paper).

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The publication of a monograph on the topic of a Mediterranean survey is always an excellent opportunity for researchers to explore new comparative frameworks and understand how they may be incorporated into their own scholarship. This is particularly striking in the Italian peninsula, where many regional survey projects interact in space and time from north to south, taking valleys as case studies of human niches in a long-term perspective and using pre-Roman and Roman times as key markers for understanding human interactions with the physical setting and the beginnings of long-lasting transformations of the cultural environment. Well-known examples of landscape-oriented surveys have taken place in the Biferno, Tiber, Liri, Cecina, and Tappino Valleys, just to mention those nearby. Due to the long time required to gather, study, and synthesize data in regional survey projects, one must acknowledge the importance of publications such as this. Indeed, the Potenza survey started in 2000, and this “final monograph” was published in 2017. This means 16 years of methodological experimentation, data gathering, discussion, and elaboration of a historical narrative.

This book might interest a rather wide readership, as it is potentially useful to students interested in learning about the most useful methods to incorporate in studies of Mediterranean landscapes, despite the rather complex nature of some methods—such as large scale geophysics and geomorphological surveys—for beginners or small, ill-funded projects. It is definitely a stepping stone for all those who work in similar Italian or Mediterranean landscapes, who will be interested in the discussion of the social dynamics in the area from the first millennium B.C.E. to the Early Medieval period, when settlement pattern reverts to the Picene preference for defensive and protected hilltop sites inland.

The structure of the book follows a basic scheme in which methods, historical interpretation, and data catalogues follow a rational order. It sets out the data in a methodology chapter (ch. 2) that explains and discusses in detail the most important methods as well as their evolution over the years of project implementation. It might be interesting to reflect briefly about the methodological experimentation, which is of course indebted to general scientific advances in recent decades. Thus, the methods of the early 2000s are not the same cutting-edge ones employed in the last years of the project, such as the change from analog to digital photography, modeling landscapes with publicly available LiDAR data, and geophysical methods. The book comprehensively addresses this evolution in methods and focuses on the most innovative, and thus recent, results. A very useful decision by the editors was to include gray-shaded boxes with bibliographical references containing specific results for each methodological section.

Chapter 3 examines the environmental dynamics in the Potenza Valley during the Holocene through geological methods combined with historical and geographic research. Although the approach is complex in nature, the authors stress the connection of such research with specific archaeological problems related to water dynamics, such as the configuration of the coastal landscape around the Roman city of Potentia, the dynamics at the mouth of the Potenza River, and the water supply to inland Roman towns. Besides the research on water dynamics in the Potenza Valley, the in-depth geoarchaeological research has also been applied to some rural settlements, the Roman city of Trea, and Montarice, a central Bronze Age and Picene site for many centuries before the heyday of Roman colonization.

Chapter 4 considers the role of central places in the Potenza Valley from the first millennium B.C.E. until late Roman times, while chapter 5 addresses the population dynamics in the rural landscape, which aids in understanding the occupation of the environment beyond the main, and traditionally better-studied, central places. Indeed, debate on the rise of central places is common to long-term studies in the Mediterranean, and the situation has often been presented as an unchangeable reality in which premodern and modern settlement dynamics are rooted. One of the best examples is the nearby Biferno Valley, studied from a processual-annalistic point of view by Barker (A Mediterranean Valley [London and New York 1995]).

Beyond the already known Roman cities, the authors highlight recent research on the Bronze–Iron Age site of Montarice, already presented in chapter 3 as one of the main foci of the Potenza Valley survey. The other three main Bronze–Iron Age sites located well inland also provide interesting case studies from both methodological and historical viewpoints, full of suggestions for anyone aiming to work on ill-preserved, pre-Roman sites in mountainous environments—something I predict as the future of Mediterranean archaeology as the valley and coastal plains research niches become almost fully exploited.

Despite parallel tracks of research on central places and rural history during the 16 years of fieldwork, the editors dissociated them in this book due to differences in the specific methods used and the results obtained. The many methods applied to central places make them a palimpsest of noninvasive methodologies. Rural sites on the other hand are becoming a testing ground for a more experimental approach in which artifactual intrasite and off-site data are analyzed. The approach sketched in chapter 5 is shared by many other survey projects in Italy and is related to the informative conference “Fields, Sherds and Scholars” (V. Stissi, A. Meens, and M. Nazou [Athens, 2017]).

Monsieur oversees chapter 6, which is dedicated to the material culture retrieved from the many years of intensive surveying. Only the “most important, diagnostic and peculiar materials” (158) are presented. Without further comparison with other regional assemblages, it is rather a preliminary pottery report, useful in any case thanks to a thorough analysis of chronological assemblages by experts (seven authors contribute to this chapter, with recent Ph.D. dissertations written by members of the Ghent University team constituting much of the research). The results make it possible in some cases to establish trends in pottery consumption and production over more than a millennium. As this chapter identifies the most relevant materials and long-term trade dynamics (from the Greek world to Byzantine times), it draws attention to certain types of pottery ranging from Bronze Age impasto sherds to Late Imperial wares, including a remarkable quantity of amphoras that reflect the productive and consumptive roles of the Potenza Valley. Moreover, chapter 6 includes an innovative study of marble in the Potenza Valley. In addition to the aim of this chapter to explain the material culture history of the valley as a whole, the previous and following chapters have a site-based chronological focus to explain the settlement pattern evolution.

As chapter 7 (site catalogue) and chapter 8 (plates) are logically related to the parts of the text discussed above, I would like to focus here on the concluding chapter 9. It was written by Vermuelen to summarize the historical dynamics of the valley, highlighting aspects that have already been presented either in the main text of the present monograph or in the Potenza survey’s prior publications. In addition to mentioning the conclusions drawn from the survey data, the scientific explanation of environmental issues, and the material culture and historical understanding of the area, this chapter summarizes human history in the valley. It constructs a solid narrative, which might look weaker for historical periods with meager data compared with the “high-resolution” of the Roman-period datasets, but is not. In my understanding, “the rise of warrior ideology” (381) in ancient society is crucial to explaining central places, trade, elite burials, and early Mediterranean trade, but it does not overshadow the complex processes of implementation of social control over populations both in central places and in the rural landscape, nor does it obscure how rural settlement patterns and central places related to one another under the light of “warrior ideology.” The role of Roman colonization is, as in many places, one of the main phases of this long-term evolution and indeed is in some cases still present today in post-Roman occupational dynamics. For the period of the Roman republic (fourth to first centuries B.C.E.), one of the main elements to highlight is the multifaceted nature of Roman colonization, as many other studies in Italy currently show.

As stated at the beginning of this review, monographs of long-term survey projects are always welcome, especially when these are high-quality presentations with careful explanation of what I like to call the chaîne opératoire of historical knowledge—the processes from methodological planning to writing of historical narratives.

Jesús García Sánchez
Faculty of Archaeology
Leiden University

Book Review of The Potenza Valley Survey (Marche, Italy): Settlement Dynamics and Changing Material Culture in an Adriatic Valley Between Iron Age and Late Antiquity, edited by Frank Vermeulen, Dimitri Van Limbergen, Patrick Monsieur, and Devi Taelman

Reviewed by Jesús García Sánchez

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 122, No. 4 (October 2018)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1224.sanchez

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