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Volubilis après Rome: Les fouilles UCL/INSAP, 2000–2005

Volubilis après Rome: Les fouilles UCL/INSAP, 2000–2005

Edited by Elizabeth Fentress and Hassan Limane (Arts and Archaeology of the Islamic World 11). Leiden: Brill 2019. Pp. xvi + 446. €139. ISBN 978-90-04-37149-1 (cloth).

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Volubilis après Rome (VAR) is the publication of the results of the 2000–2005 seasons of the Anglo-Moroccan archaeological project at the ancient and medieval city of Volubilis, known in Arabic as Walīlā. This ancient city with origins in the Early Iron Age probably reached its peak, in terms of population and wealth, during the third century CE. Limane and Fentress, supported by the University College London (UCL) and the Institut National des Sciences de l’Archéologie et du Patrimoine (INSAP), set out an ambitious agenda to explore the largely overlooked period of the city’s Early Medieval occupation. Early excavators at Volubilis favored the Roman city, but, as with many early Mediterranean excavations, the periods before Roman rule (the so-called Mauretanian period) and after the third century CE (and particularly the Islamic period) were largely neglected. Indeed, Limane and Fentress organize a deep understanding of a Walīlā that was clearly abandoned sometime in the beginning of the fifth century, reoccupied sometime in the second half of the sixth century CE, and flourished until the ninth century, even serving as home to Morocco’s first king, Idris I. VAR reveals a previously overlooked chapter in the city’s history and, as such, is the most important publication about Volubilis in the last 50 years, substantially advancing our understanding of the city and the fate of Mauretania Tingitana after Rome.

The book is organized into four parts, moving from broad perspectives to granular resolution: (1) objectives and methods, (2) synthetic chapters, (3) the excavations, and (4) a presentation of different types of evidence. In the first part, the project’s directors—and the book’s editors—lay out the objectives of the mission, the methods, and the organization of the publication. The next chapter, by Gaetano Palumbo, explains the conservation plan for site interventions in the midst of a push by the Moroccan administration for the site to become a more accessible and robust cultural resource.

The second part is a synthesis of the evidence divided into three periods: the Roman buildings, the end of the Roman city, and the medieval city. The two articles on the Roman-era city review some well-trod ground but review the evidence diachronically with an eye toward continuity with other periods. Mark Wilson Jones examines Volubilis’ famous basilica, confronting a lack of clarity on its precise date, but noting an interesting persistence of Punic styles in its capitals. Susan Walker revisits the Maison de Vénus. She makes a case for a fourth-century CE occupation of the house with owners who had an interest in the region’s Mauretanian origins and enough wealth for elaborate mosaics and elite domestic habits. Thus, she argues against the traditional belief of a rapidly declining city after the departure of Roman administration in the third century.

The section of part 2 dedicated to the eventual abandonment and the hiatus of occupation from the first quarter of the fifth century to the second half of the sixth will, in my opinion, be the most cited part of VAR. In the first chapter, Mustapha Atki quantifies different Late Antique pottery types and finds an abundance of evidence for the fourth and early fifth centuries, but a general lack of certain ceramics for the later fifth and early sixth centuries. In a similar vein, Fentress combines stratigraphic analysis, numismatic evidence, and early accounts of the destruction of the site in the second chapter to argue that Volubilis was abandoned after an earthquake around 425 CE. Diverging somewhat from Walker’s hypothesis of a still prosperous Volubilis throughout the fourth century CE, Fentress speculates (59) that a truly healthy city may well have rebounded from the earthquake, as the coastal city of Sabratha had done after an earthquake in 365 CE.

The heart of the book is the part that addresses the reoccupation of the city from the second half of the sixth century onward. Scholars will find Amira K. Bennison and Limane’s chapter about the appearance of Volubilis in Arabic texts a treasure trove. Table 2.2, in particular, clearly presents the various medieval authors who wrote about Volubilis. Medieval scholars will appreciate Fentress’ beautifully illustrated chapter (the reconstructions deserve particular mention) synthesizing the evidence excavated from Sectors B and D into a narrative about the pre-Islamic and Islamic Middle Ages in Volubilis.

The third part is a summary of the various excavations and other interventions, beginning with Kimberly M. Brown’s description of the geophysical survey of four broad Sectors (A–D) spanning the southern half of the site, but focusing primarily on Sector B near the Oued Khoumane and Sector D on the southwest slopes of the old city. Fentress then succinctly presents the periodization and phasing created by the team (119). Period I covers all vestiges of construction prior to the sixth century CE. The authors are principally interested in Period II (ca. 550 CE to ca. 825 CE), which they divide into two subphases: IIA and IIB. Period IIB begins with the arrival of Idris I in 779 CE and is thus an inflection point for the site and for the interpretation by the volume’s authors. The site is again abandoned in the early ninth century and Period III represents renewed occupation, generally dated to the second half of the ninth and 10th centuries CE. Period IV coincides with the period of the Marinid Sultanate of the Maghrib from the 12th to the 14th century CE.

In Sector D, just west of the ninth-century walls, Ali Aït Kaci describes the excavation of four small house-like buildings with enclosures built at the beginning of the eighth century, that are then replaced with different buildings from Period IIA to Period IIB over the course of the century. Fentress infers the population density of Medieval Walīlā from the nature of the excavated area of Sector D, arriving at 290 people per ha and a population of 4,000 to 5,000 (82). In general, the authors illuminate a vibrant Period II city with administration, houses, farms, and extensive necropoleis. In Sector B, near the river, Helen Dawson, Fentress, Guy Hunt, Limane, and Tarik Moujoud expertly describe the excavation of an elaborate complex largely dated to Period IIB, replete with a courtyard, domestic spaces, baths, storage, and workshops, with only limited occupation before the eighth century CE. In a chapter on carbon-14 dating and Bayesian statistics, Dorian Q. Fuller does not definitely arrive at a link between the building phase in Sector B and the advent of the Idrisid period (779 CE), and although I agree that we should view the arrival of Idris I as an important moment in the site’s history, Fuller’s sound approach reminds the reader that linking historical events with the archaeological record is never a simple matter.

The fourth and final part of the book presents the evidence in granular resolution supporting the text’s broader perspectives. In a labor of staggering scale and detail, Victoria Amorós Ruiz and Abdallah Fili present every type of ceramic object found in the excavations, from cooking devices and utilitarian vessels to transport amphoras and decorated fine wares. Among other things, they establish a cultural and trade link between Iberian populations and the city and then detect occupation patterns through assemblages, even identifying a possible ascetic living in Sector D during Phase IV (292). Hafsa El Hassani describes the glass objects found at the site and provides a first effort at distinguishing between local production and imports, such as trade beads. Fatima-Zohra El Harrif, in a chapter on the numismatic evidence, casts Volubilis in a broader economic context through the presence of Umayyad coins from Damascus and paints a vibrant picture of local political figures unattested in medieval texts. Ruth Pelling’s work on the archaeobotanical remains reveals the plant economy of the Sectors B and D, highlighting possible evidence for textile production using flax seeds and safflower and the use of chaff as fuel, feed, and temper in domestic quarters. Anthony King’s faunal analysis shows consistent adherence to Islamic dietary restrictions throughout the Medieval period, but notes a shift from cattle to sheep and goat meat from Period IIA to Period IIB, which might graft onto Berber and Arab preferences.

Volubilis après Rome will certainly be essential reading for scholars working at the city. As Aomar Akerraz notes in his preface, the volume lays the groundwork for new research on the transition between the ancient and medieval periods in Volubilis and on the beginnings of Islam in Morocco. In doing so, VAR illuminates an inclusive vision of the legacy of Rome, one that is not exclusively Indo-European, by highlighting how modern North African peoples are as much the inheritors of Rome’s legacy as the people of southern Europe. Moreover, VAR is a concerted effort to introduce new methods to the study of Volubilis by providing some of the first archaeobotanical and faunal analyses, radiocarbon dating, and more socioeconomic approaches to glass and ceramic findings at the site. Perhaps the volume’s most important contribution is the path it illustrates for other archaeological projects to diversify the body of individuals with agency in how the story is told. The scholars who crafted this excellent publication represent—at my count—five different nations, and at least half of them are Moroccan. If archaeology is going to rectify the sins of its past, more volumes such as this are needed.

Jared T. Benton
Old Dominion University

Book Review of Volubilis après Rome: Les fouilles UCL/INSAP, 2000–2005, edited by Elizabeth Fentress and Hassan Limane
Reviewed by Jared T. Benton
American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 125, No. 4 (October 2021)
Published online at
DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1254.Benton

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