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The Changing Landscapes of Rome’s Northern Hinterland: The British School at Rome’s Tiber Valley Project

July 2021 (125.3)

Book Review

The Changing Landscapes of Rome’s Northern Hinterland: The British School at Rome’s Tiber Valley Project

By Helen Patterson, Robert Witcher, and Helga Di Giuseppe (Archaeopress Roman Archaeology 70). Oxford: Archaeopress 2020. Pp. 372. £55.00. ISBN 9781789696158 (paper).

Reviewed by

One of the most anticipated books in the archaeological panorama appears extremely well structured at a first sight, and with the clear intention of providing the reader a diachronic vision of the Tiber Valley. Just by reading the table of contents, in fact, one gets the idea that the volume will inform readers about the dramatic changes that this part of central Italy experienced between prehistory and the Early Medieval era. 

The territory of central Italy has always stood out for its careful and methodologically flawless research since, at least, the South Etruria Survey, the British School at Rome’s first investigation of the Tiber Valley north of Rome. Without doubt, that earlier survey represented the starting point for this subsequent project, also sponsored by the British School at Rome, which was conducted between 1997 and 2004 and involved a much more detailed portion of the Tiber Valley area. The results of the Tiber Valley Project are here collected and presented. The volume’s introduction offers a detailed scheme of the project, which was divided into three phases. Firstly, the project worked to collect and analyze all the original data retrieved during John Ward-Perkins’ hectic activities at the British School at Rome, as well as data from several other surveys conducted by the institution. All the information was inserted into a GIS system, while a general reassessment of the chronologies provided new fundamental perspectives for the sites and, overall, the changing landscapes of central Italy. Secondly, a systematic analysis of the material culture was undertaken, and that brought a series of momentous insights for specific classes of pottery and glass vessels. Finally, the project fostered development of new subsidiary projects that involved a focus on Roman towns in the middle Tiber Valley; Falerii Novi, Capena, Ocriculum, and Nepi are just a few of the urban centers that were researched. It appears clear that the new data set is not only beneficial but will change our overall understanding of the Roman suburbium—the central place par excellence of the classical Mediterranean. 

In chapter 2, Witcher describes the development of the South Etruria Survey and offers a reassessment of what used to be referred to as a “less-than-scholarly undertaking, a weekend hobby rather than a fully articulated research project” (66). Fundamentally, this part of the volume helps the reader navigate the development and analysis of the archaeological data set. It also introduces the successive chapters in which detailed analyses for specific periods are provided. 

The first to be evaluated is the protohistoric period (ch. 3). Here Di Giuseppe’s vast knowledge of the area and of the ceramics contributes to a better definition of landscape changes both in time and space. Starting from the Bronze Age, the author was able to differentiate the rise of protourban sites on the different sides of the Tiber river, as well as to detect moments of settlement explosions, as in the sixth century BCE. Her overview continues through the Classical to the Late Republican period, when substantial changes were recorded, a finding that differs from Timothy Potter’s influential earlier study (The Changing Landscape of South Etruria, Elek 1979). The overall reassessment of both rural and urban settlements shows a much more complex rise and fall of sites and occupation; cities continued to be focal points of the landscapes, with sanctuaries and their supporting artisanal districts surviving well into the Republican period. Moments of crisis were partially balanced with revivals, though they did not reach the same climax documented for the Archaic phase. The improvement of chronologies, especially for Black Gloss Ware, has shifted our picture of the discontinuous and erratic history of the settlements in the Republican period (97). 

Chapter 4 is entirely dedicated to the Early and Middle Empire landscapes of the middle Tiber Valley. Once again, Witcher provides an intense overview of what can be defined as a time of “both radical changes and deep-rooted continuity” (117) with the Republican period. The chronological split of the chapter responds to (and addresses) both historical events (such as the rise and consolidation of the empire) and changes in the production of fine wares (from Black Gloss to terra sigillata, and from terra sigillata to African Red Slip Ware). The analysis of the period is balanced between the rural and urban landscapes, providing a provocative array of evidence to question conventional assessments of a period of growth and stability. 

Patterson, in chapters 5–7, scrutinizes the Late Roman period and the Early Middle Ages. This historical moment was central in archaeological debates, and the possibility of reassessing previous works presented a welcome opportunity. New occupation phases now appear that could not be recognized as ceramic sequences at the time of the South Etruria Survey, or in the subsequent synthesis by Potter. Analysis of the middle Tiber Valley clarifies settlement patterns, changing economies, and overall transformations of the landscape. The chapter accurately identifies the well-known problems of recognizing Late Antique and Early Medieval evidence from field surveys, as structures and material culture became more and more evanescent; while at the same time, though the analysis of written sources may suggest later dates for the founding of medieval castles and settlements, the author rightly confirms that only extensive archaeological research can reveal earlier phases and occupations, highlighting the risk of underestimating this kind of evidence in the general reassessment of the period. In this panoply of critical issues and general limitations in the data set, Patterson was able to lay out new models and interpretations. The emergence of the Church as a fresh economic and social agent in late antiquity details a crucial role in the organization of the landscape, at least from the fourth century CE. The analysis of pottery confirms the Rome-Carthage supply axis for the capital city and its immediate hinterland, albeit other areas such as south Italy and the eastern Mediterranean appear as cosuppliers. The rich panorama of settlements and infrastructures (towns, villas, churches, pagi, roads, bishoprics, and river ports) are all well described in their transformations into the Medieval period. Marked by the fluctuating movements of different Germanic people, this moment is characterized by political instability and scarce supplies from international markets. Hence, the rise of regional productions offset the declining routes from Sicily, South Italy, and overseas. The end of the sixth century CE marks the definitive passage to the Middle Ages with a general reshaping of settlement networks and the rise of new categories of sites, such as castles, the domuscultae, and the subsequent creation of the papal territorium

The volume ends with a chapter by Martin Millett illustrating the advancements of the Tiber Valley Project, together with all of its achievements and new interpretations; at the same time, the chapter places the volume as both a conclusive milestone for a longtime project and as a starting point for new, challenging contributions in the future. 

To conclude, this volume offers readers innovative narratives for the territory north of Rome, an area crucial to understanding the overall diachronic changes that involved central Italy between the Bronze Age and the Early Medieval period. The authors succeed in offering a groundbreaking overview, perfectly supported by the analysis of fieldwalking activities and material culture studies, and achieve their two main objectives: first, they reassess the South Etruria Survey, showing the scientific methodology and intricate narratives that such an ambitious and challenging project has presented over the past decades. The task was magnificently managed, showing mastery of the literature produced at least in the last fifty years. By doing this, the authors restore the South Etruria Survey to its proper place as a meaningful and methodologically valid milestone in understanding the wider territory around Rome. Second, by providing a wealth of new data and meticulous interpretations of sites and pottery classes, the authors take readers on a journey to discover how the profound changes associated with the transformation from a set of nucleated villages into the metropolis of the classical Mediterranean were reflected in its surrounding landscape. Tracking through time the rise and fall of settlements, the transformations in economies, and the different choices for supply sources, the authors provide a detailed analysis of demography, economy, social organization, and agricultural production. Without doubt the volume represents a fundamental breakthrough for all of those interested in researching the history of Rome, as well as the developments of settlements and economies in the classical Mediterranean. 

Alessandro Sebastiani
Department of Classics
University at Buffalo, State University of New York

Book Review of The Changing Landscapes of Rome’s Northern Hinterland: The British School at Rome’s Tiber Valley Projectby Helen Patterson, Robert Witcher, and Helga Di Giuseppe
Reviewed by Alessandro Sebastiani
American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 125, No. 3 (July 2021)
Published online at
DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1253.Sebastiani

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