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Picenum and the Ager Gallicus at the Dawn of the Roman Conquest: Landscape Archaeology and Material Culture

July 2021 (125.3)

Book Review

Picenum and the Ager Gallicus at the Dawn of the Roman Conquest: Landscape Archaeology and Material Culture

Edited by Federica Boschi, Enrico Giorgi, and Frank Vermeulen. Oxford: Archaeopress 2020. Pp. 230. £42. ISBN 9781789696998 (paper).

Reviewed by

This book collects the proceedings of an eponymous conference held in Ravenna, 13–14 May 2019, under the joint auspices of the Universities of Bologna and Ghent. While the various contributions are diverse in their focus—covering excavations, architecture, field survey, geophysical prospection, ceramic studies, and aerial photography to name just a few topics—they are unified in their consideration of Adriatic central Italy from the fourth to second centuries BCE, the period of significant and lasting Roman expansion into the eastern Italian peninsula. This volume aims to bridge disciplinary, geographic, and methodological divides and bring attention to the exciting new research currently taking place and the further research potential that this region of Italy provides. With its temporal and evidentiary focus, this book should prove useful to specialists in the archaeology of first-millennium Italy and those interested in interdisciplinary regional synthesis, as well as those interested in Roman expansion. 

As the introduction notes, the conference was designed to bring together various specialists to begin an interdisciplinary research discourse around Picenum and the Ager Gallicus. The first chapter presents one model for how this type of integration might work, with Peter Attema’s discussion of regional data integration through the case study of the Roman Hinterland Project (RHP). As a framing piece for the rest of the volume, the chapter raises interesting potential research questions that could be asked through closer data integration and, in the RHP, provides one possible model for this synthesis (although the RHP’s methods for developing regional ceramic chronologies and site classifications across legacy data sets require further interrogation). In addition, the range of data presented in the following chapters suggests that eastern central Italy holds the potential for just this innovation across evidentiary divides. 

If archaeological synthesis is one key theme of this volume, Roman cultural and imperial expansion is another, picked up especially by the chapter contributed by Anna Gamberini, Paola Cossentino, and Sara Morsiani as well as that of Oscar Mei and Lorenzo Cariddi. Both chapters consider Roman penetration along the Adriatic coast through the lens of material studies, focusing especially on ceramics. While both acknowledge the complex relationships between material culture and cultural exchange, Rome, and especially the Rome presented by historical sources, plays a significant role in these exchanges. This relationship between Rome and Picenum is one of the tensions within the volume; while not consistent throughout, Roman cultural hegemony is at times taken as a presupposition. Romans are the agents of change while Picenes react to imported ideas, material, and people. As further research nuances these material studies, this reviewer is hopeful that a more expansive theoretical perspective is brought to considerations of these cultural exchanges and rich data sets. 

Moving from artifact to settlement, the chapters by Giorgi; Michele Silani; Andrea Gaucci; Vincenzo Baldoni, Stefano Finocchi, and Maria Raffaella Ciuccarelli; Vermeulen; Wieke de Neef; Roberto Perna; Giorgi, Francesco Pizzimenti, and Stephen Kay; Boschi et al.; and Vincenzo d’Ercole and Maria Georgia Di Antonio form the heart of the volume. Each represents a different approach to the study of settlements (both urban and rural). Without going into the details of each distinct paper—after all, the papers in this open access publication are easily available—a few themes emerge. 

From a methodological perspective, the use of nondestructive prospection methods such as remote sensing, geophysics, and aerial photography provides a wide range of data to be envied by archaeologists of this period. Rather than simply presenting the data in isolation, the papers—especially those by Boschi and Vermeulen—demonstrate how the integration of the remote sensing data with legacy data from pedestrian survey and excavation can craft a more holistic picture of settlement and cultural change. While middle-range theory is still needed to situate some of the archaeological observations derived from these interdisciplinary projects into their historical context and move away from text-dominant narratives, the sheer wealth of different data available underscores the research potential of Picenum. 

The methodologically sophisticated and interdisciplinary approach to rural data presented in this volume is also a promising development, as is the integration of urban and rural archaeological remains. To highlight two papers of particular note, Giorgi’s chapter on Suasa provides compelling evidence for a different model of urban formation than the one dominant in western central Italy, with settlement building from the countryside inward rather than from urban centers outward. De Neef’s chapter, examining the discontinuity of the Monte Franco site across the Picene–Roman transition, demonstrates the value of detailed interdisciplinary work within a microregion as well as the need to contextualize survey evidence for phenomena such as rural infill with different forms of evidence (in this case remote sensing and a call for excavation). Both papers speak to the need for more interdisciplinary work in rural Italy in order to break away from some of the universalizing narratives of success and decline present in discourse surrounding the Roman conquest and the countryside. 

Taken as a whole, perhaps the most notable and praiseworthy feature of this volume is its open access publication and the speed with which the conference papers were transformed into a published form (a little over a year from talks to text). There are signs of this quick transition; the text itself has its share of errors. However, as a synthetic field report in the form of multiple papers, capturing the state of research in the region in 2019, both the quick turnaround and ease of access suggest the need for a little forgiveness. The wealth of color illustrations (especially helpful when discussing ceramic wares and remote sensing) is also of great use to the reader. 

At a higher level, this quick turnaround also affects the reader’s learning experience. Further theoretical nuance might have enhanced some of the contributions here, bringing in, for example, relationships between material culture and cultural exchange, ancient historical accounts and archaeological remains, and that confounding word “romanization.” This caveat aside, however, the volume is a welcome model for future research and collaboration. More accessible and timely publication of archaeological data is of crucial importance (doubly so in this age of COVID-19). Hopefully this volume will lead to further interdisciplinary regional synthesis in Picenum, the Ager Gallicus, and beyond. 

J. Troy Samuels
Phillips Exeter Academy

Book Review of Picenum and the Ager Gallicus at the Dawn of the Roman Conquest: Landscape Archaeology and Material Culture, edited by Federica Boschi, Enrico Giorgi, and Frank Vermeulen
Reviewed by J. Troy Samuels
American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 125, No. 3 (July 2021)
Published online at
DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1253.Samuels

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