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Uplands of Ancient Sicily and Calabria: The Archaeology of Landscape Ritual

Uplands of Ancient Sicily and Calabria: The Archaeology of Landscape Ritual

Edited by Matthew Fitzjohn. Pp. 237, b&w figs. 76, tables 12. Accorordia Research Institute, London 2007. £36. ISBN 978-1873415-32-0 (paper).

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Edited volumes such as this, while they sometimes represent a less than cohesive whole, offer specialists a venue for reporting on current projects and serve as a resource for referencing work in comparable areas. Such volumes are thus essential modes of communication for professionals and advanced students.

It is particularly encouraging to find a publication that focuses on upland regions of Sicily and Calabria because these regions have been traditionally overlooked in lieu of coastal areas. While people like Paolo Orsi initiated a shift a century ago, it has only been in recent years that inland areas and indigenous sites have begun to receive the attention they deserve. Systematic survey (as has been developing in recent decades in the Aegean) is essential for our understanding of Sicily and southern Italy. The projects included in this volume represent many of the current survey activities in these areas. Projects located in eastern Sicily are filling in important holes in our understanding of that landscape, while the Salemi project focuses on the somewhat neglected western part of the island.

With only one essay on Calabria, the Sicilian landscape is the primary focus of this publication. Here, the Troina Project dominates, comprising nearly half the total number of pages. The papers associated with the Troina Project, however, present a high standard of scholarship. The focus on methodology in many of the chapters provides a valuable contribution to future projects throughout the archaeological world. This is particularly true of the chapter by Ayala and Fitzjohn, in which they take an objective look at survey methodology and use GIS to map places of potential erosion. Their study is thought provoking, contributes to ongoing discussions of “recovery theory,” and is applicable to the field of archaeology at large. The inclusion of resource studies is also refreshing. The Troina Project does an especially good job of presenting regional resources in the chapter by Ashley et al. The authors present an especially thorough study of the lithic and faunal remains. The Bova Marina Project and the Salemi Project also make efforts in this direction. Both attempt to identify clay sources, and the Bova Marina Project looks at resources as an essential ingredient for settlement in the Classical period.

The authors of the chapter on the Gornalunga and Margi Valleys Survey synthesize the work of numerous contributors. This project, like several others, assigns much of the work to graduate students. What is so admirable about the Gornalunga and Margi Valley Surveys is the systematic way in which the directors have divided the project, apparently applying a clear research design that segments and delegates the landscape within the project. Moreover, the project maintains direction from a central source that facilitates the interpretation and communication of results. Walker also offers quality work by thoroughly treating the historical record in her analysis of the Troina Valley during the Medieval period. In addition, Fitzjohn’s ethnographic exercise offers a good opportunity to reconsider our biases with respect to the relationship between individuals and the landscape. Fitzjohn interviewed several modern inhabitants of the Troina Valley and discovered that they had diverse notions of identity and perceived boundaries within the landscape. Differences in perception may be attributed to things such as an individual’s profession, house location, habits, or priorities. With this in mind, Fitzjohn challenges us to reconsider our assumptions that the inhabitants of ancient landscapes perceived their surroundings in common.

Several individual chapters offer a mixture of valuable information and problematic assertions when authors occasionally reach conclusions using limited supporting evidence. Tanasi’s presentation of the “tubes” found at Polizzello is interesting, for example. His argument, which exposes Polizzello as a site receiving foreign goods and ideas, is compelling; his conclusion that these foreign contacts place Polizzello as the central settlement in the region is, however, less convincing.

As is the case with many edited volumes, the time between the dates when the articles were written and the date of publication is rather long; this is problematic. For example, the articles by Kolb et al. only reference publications dating to 2003 or earlier. Changes in our understanding of this region have been great in recent years; interpretations of the sites have changed, as has the dating of some of the indigenous pottery. These changes may require augmentation of some interpretations and chronology presented by Kolb’s team.

There are also places where this book seems to be inaccurate, out of date, or it presents interpretations as facts with which regional experts might not agree. The articles referring to the excavations at Via Cappasanta provide one example. The conclusions are reached from a rather small assemblage of ceramics, from a single small trench, and are hard to support. The suggestion that the secondary depositions found in this one trench lends credence to the identification of Salemi as ancient Haikyai is particularly problematic. The evidence simply is insufficient to support the assertion. The identification of Salemi as a major fourth-century B.C.E. commercial and residential center also lacks sufficient proof. Perhaps continued research will provide the evidence to support these interpretations.

Another problematic area lies in using lithics alone, particularly obsidian, as a chronological indicator. The use of obsidian scatters as representative of a Neolithic site by the Bova Marina Project may be an unwise practice. The authors of the Gornalunga and Margi Valleys Survey are also tempted to assign lithic scatters to prehistoric eras but acknowledge the inability to assign them to a specific culture without the presence of ceramics. Granted, typologies of worked lithics can be useful in this respect, especially if we heed warnings about technologies used over long periods of time (e.g., Pettitt’s article [61, 64]). In fact, as Fitzjohn and Ayala note, lithics, especially obsidian, may be found in both prehistoric and historic contexts.

Several authors articulate the challenges inherent in survey. For some, it is erosion and land use (Troina); for others, it is harsh terrain (Bova Marina). For others, it is modern military activities (Gornalunga and Margi Valleys). In all cases, portions of the landscape are inaccessible, and the authors bring this to our attention so that we may attempt to factor in a margin of error with respect to their results. I suspect that many of these authors would agree that fortune plays a certain role in our profession. The most informative finds may be located 20 m from the trenches we dig, between our transects, or in inaccessible areas. It is important, however, that we are reminded of this margin of error; it keeps us from assuming that our interpretations correspond to some absolute truth about the ancient world. The work performed in these projects, however, brings us closer to a true understanding of the human experience in past civilizations. I commend those who have objectively looked at the evidence or questioned their own methodologies. May we emulate this practice in the pursuit of good scholarship.

Jeanette M. Cooper
28450 Avion Circle
Castaic, California 91384

Book Review of Uplands of Ancient Sicily and Calabria: The Archaeology of Landscape Ritual, edited by Matthew Fitzjohn

Reviewed by Jeanette M. Cooper

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 113, No. 4 (October 2009)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1134.Cooper

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