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L’artisanat dans les cités antiques de l’Algérie: Ier siècle avant notre ère–VIIe siècle après notre ère

L’artisanat dans les cités antiques de l’Algérie: Ier siècle avant notre ère–VIIe siècle après notre ère

By Touatia Amraoui (Archaeopress Roman Archaeology 26). Pp. xx + 425. Archaeopress, Oxford 2017. £50. ISBN 978-1-78491-667-1 (paper).

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When considering the subject of urban workshops and Roman North Africa, one thinks most readily of the attempts to bring archaeological evidence to bear on the debate over the position of the city within the broader economic systems of the ancient Mediterranean. In 2001, for example, amphora production at Leptiminus on the coastline of Tunisia and textile production at Thamugadi in inland Algeria provided case studies for Mattingly and Salmon’s edited volume Economies Beyond Agriculture in the Classical World (London). More recently, in his book Potestas Populi (Turnhout, Belgium 2012), Magalhães de Oliveira focused on the archaeological evidence for the world of urban work, drawing extensively on the fourth and fifth century ecclesiastical sources to examine the collective political action of the inhabitants of North Africa’s larger cities. His work is representative of a growing scholarly interest in the plebeian social milieu of the Roman empire’s urban centers, and of an attempt to modify the traditional elite-dominated model of the ancient city.

Amraoui’s contribution, examining the evidence for artisanal crafts in the urban settlements of Roman-period Algeria, emerges from a related but ultimately distinct research context. Her doctoral research, undertaken at the Université Lumière Lyon II under the direction of Jean-Pierre Brun (Collège de France) and Salim Drici (Université d’Alger II), owes its success to a collaboration between numerous archaeological research institutions. Her approach is exemplified by the Artifex project and engages considerably with debates emerging from recent studies of workshops and shops in the Vesuvian cities, such as Monteix’s Les lieux de métier: Boutiques et ateliers d'Herculanum (Rome 2011) and Flohr’s The World of the Fullo: Work, Economy, and Society in Roman Italy (Oxford 2013). These authors have attempted to use high-quality data from uniquely well-preserved sites to make inferences about the social position of workshop owners and artisans, based on the scale of individual workshops and on the size and affluence of the buildings in which they were housed. Amraoui aspires to apply a similar approach, drawing on the evidence of workshops to say something about the social position of the artisans, and studying their location and distribution within the urban landscape to determine the existence or absence of the artisanal quarters proposed by other scholars.

Transferring the field of investigation to this part of North Africa presents many challenges. Foremost is the extreme rarity of high-quality modern archaeological excavations and field surveys examining Algeria’s rich archaeological record. Due to the general lack of fieldwork in the decades following independence, Amraoui has been forced to rely chiefly on 19th- and 20th-century colonial investigations. While the great clearing operations that took place at a number of Roman-period towns in this context provided an understanding of the spatial layout of a number of key sites, notably Thamugadi, Castellum Tidditanorum, and Cuicul, they were also highly destructive. A concern to expose remains of “la belle epoque” often resulted in Late Antique or Early Medieval phases of construction being removed without concern for their historical importance. Notwithstanding the general enthusiasm for the period of Roman rule in North Africa held by the French colonizers, early excavators were highly selective in their inquiries, focusing primarily on large public monuments, military fortifications, mosaics, and Latin inscriptions. The surviving record of the archaeological remains uncovered is minimal, especially with regard to the evidence for artisanal crafts. Archival reports often lack adequate plans or photographs and sometimes even written explanation of what was discovered. Compounding problems of interpretation further is the fact that many of the artifacts are decontextualized. Whether surviving physically in museum collections or represented graphically in reports, known artifacts are often impossible to link up with their original findspots. As a result, the dating is often poor or nonexistent, the nature of production activities harder than normal to identify, and the architectural context of production rarely clear enough to make inferences about the social standing of workshop owners. Small light-wells of information are provided by the numerous epigraphic and literary references Amraoui incorporates throughout the text.

Ultimately, the data set is small. The catalogue is divided by Roman province to form the first three chapters. It includes 135 workshops belonging to just 25 urban and proto-urban sites and thus represents a small sample of the 100 or so places we might recognize in Algeria today as ancient urban agglomerations. The sites selected contain the remains of past settlements ranging from small hilltop settlements of about 10 ha to large coastal cities of more than 100 ha. Roughly 50% of these have been substantially overbuilt by modern settlement, making access to what remains either impossible or extremely difficult. Amraoui has made very good use of revisiting the few locations where previous excavations or clearance operations have left remains exposed, allowing her to confirm, embellish, or disprove the information in the archival reports. Important caveats exist with regard to reconstruction. Amraoui warns of how Timgad only received its first comprehensive plan after substantial reconstruction work had already taken place, making the interpretation of the location of internal doorways and thresholds problematic. One wonders if visits to some of the other green field urban sites could have yielded interesting evidence of craft production visible on the surface.

In addition to the catalogue, three chapters assemble a large amount of information on the processing of food products (milling grain, baking bread, producing olive oil, wine, garum, and salted meat), on textiles (manufacture, dyeing, and cleaning), and on the production of craft objects using kilns and furnaces (ceramics, glass, and metals). There is a huge amount of data assembled under these headings, including typologies of workshop elements and tools, as well as ethnographic examples of certain crafts. Amraoui’s examination of museum collections allows her to reveal the presence of craft activities in certain towns, and to note some of the specific techniques employed. In each case it is made clear, with discussion of comparisons from other parts of North Africa or regions north of the Mediterranean, which forms of evidence and types of finds are present on the Algerian sites, as well as those that are absent.

The information is presented in an orderly fashion and attests to the thorough examination of excavation reports and archives Amraoui has conducted, separating fact from fiction in the fragmentary and sometimes idiosyncratic accounts left by excavators now long passed on. The quantitative information resulting from assembling the catalogue is presented mostly in tabular form rather than in explanatory maps and figures. The summary statements and conclusions about the quantity and quality of the evidence are often sobering. A number of possible workshops have their function reinterpreted, sometimes removing the argument for artisanal presence entirely. One example is the putative dyers’ workshop at Cuicul, which Amraoui now argues convincingly to have been private baths. Examination of the evidence for dyeing facilities reduces the number of known workshops to a single probable case, while the famously debated fullonicae are clearly attested at only two sites: Thamugadi and Castellum Tidditanorum. In many cases a plea for more and higher quality excavation follows; in others the need is made clear for chemical analyses to be carried out, to help understand, for example, the provenance of certain raw and semi-finished materials.

In two chapters dedicated to synthetic argumentation at the end of the book, Amraoui reaches her best in her refutation of certain long-standing interpretative models connected with North African urban production. In the first (ch. 7), the author examines the distribution of workshops within the urban landscape. She considers and rejects previous interpretations regarding the existence of artisanal quarters in various towns and cities of Roman North Africa, most firmly in the case of Thamugadi, where she significantly reduces the number of fullonicae recorded. She considers the weight of the surviving evidence to suggest that many artisans did not reside in their workshops but rented them from wealthier citizens (340, 363). The argument, though plausible, is impossible to prove and requires a larger sample size. In the second (ch. 8), she analyzes the position of artisans and workshop owners within the urban economy. Drawing on the work of Flohr at Pompeii, Amraoui dissociates fullonicae at Thamugadi from an organized chain of large-scale textile production supplying the nearby legionary camp at Lambaesis, or exporting to the far shores of the Mediterranean. Observing a similar frequency of fullonicae at the low-order settlement of Castellum Tidditanorum, she rejects Flohr’s idea of a luxury service being offered to the elite inhabitants of Pompeii. Rather, she argues that such workshops were common in Roman towns, primarily providing a laundry service to the majority of local inhabitants (377–78). Amraoui also takes issue with the same author regarding the possibility of using stone threshold typology to differentiate between premises used for production only and those also used for commercial purposes (367).

In summary, Amraoui’s main achievement is to assemble and evaluate the evidence for the spectrum of different ancient crafts, hitherto scattered widely throughout multiple publications, archives, and museum collections. As her supervisors remark in their highly supportive preface, by making clear the current foundation of evidence and what still survives in the museums, she manages to draw a line under more than a century of previous research and provide the point of departure for future study of artisanal crafts in this region. This alone will make the reworked version of the thesis published here essential reading for anyone engaging with the issues of craft production and the economic organization of Roman-period North Africa for a long time to come. While Amraoui has found it impossible to escape the severe limitations of this data set, she has made an important contribution to current debates concerning ancient urban production.

Matthew S. Hobson
School of Archaeology and Ancient History
University of Leicester

Book Review of L’artisanat dans les cités antiques de l’Algérie: Ier siècle avant notre ère–VIIe siècle après notre ère, by Touatia Amraoui
Reviewed by Matthew S. Hobson
American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 124, No. 1 (January 2020)
Published online at
DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1241.Hobson

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