The Medieval Review 15.06.11

Saggioro, Fabio, ed. Nogara: Archeologia e storia di un villaggio medievale (scavi 2003-2008). Rome: Giorgio Bretschneider Editore, 2011. pp. xi, 372. $75.17 (hardback). ISBN: 9788876892615 (hardback).

Reviewed by:

Richard Hodges
The American University of Rome

Forty years ago in 1974 the journal Archeologia Medievale was first published as the periodical of record for a new discipline. [1] The following year a Tavola Rotonda discussed the first theoretical steps of this new discipline: organized by the Istituto Nazionale di Archeologia e Storia dell'Arte in collaboration with the British School at Rome and the L'École Française de Rome, historians made the major contributions with less confident vision statements by the pioneers of medieval archaeology in Italy. The cultural historian Michelangelo Cagiano de Azevado paid special tribute to the appearance of Archeologia Medievale ([uno] prezioso fiore) and traced the first steps of an insegnamento for the round table. [2] The debate that followed initially separated David Whitehouse's championing of the great potential of many methodologies from an archaeology serving historical needs promoted by Pierre Toubert and his impassioned colleagues. Geneviéve and Henri Bresc, pupils of Toubert, summarized the latter position clearly: l'archeologo deve essere in ogni momento lo storico, pieno e responsabile, del sito e dei problemi determinati con la scelta dello scavo. [3] Agreeing with both perspectives, in a powerful and far-seeing intervention, the new editor of Archeologia Medievale, Riccardo Francovich, brilliantly summarized the necessity for multi-disciplinary approaches to enlarge the prospects for understanding the Middle Ages: ...per sottolineare l'interrelazione fra ricerca storica e documentaria e l'intervento archeologico, rivendicando ai medievisti il ruolo di protagonisti della nostro disciplina...intendo riaffermare la necessità di fare dell'archeologia medievale un punto di incontro pluridisciplinare, su cui devono convergere con propria autonomia lo storico dell'insediamento e il ceramologo, il topografo e lo storico dell'economia, lo storico dell'architettura e l'archeologo classico, i quali, attraverso lo studio e il recupero dei resti materiali, sono interessati a riconstruire la genesi, la dinamica dei moda di vita, dei quadri ambientali, e dei rapporto di produzione di epoca post-classica nelle società preindustriale. [4] Forty years later, this volume dedicated to the Nogara research project on the Po plain illustrates achievements beyond, we may surmise, Francovich's imagination in 1975. As this handsome volume shows, immense strides have been made in understanding chronology, settlement patterning, environmental conditions and the changing character of material culture, especially medieval regional ceramic production.

The Nogara project owes its origins to another member of the pioneers of medieval archaeology in Italy, Gian Pietro Brogiolo. Brogiolo established the project with Fabio Saggioro; their reference point was the total archaeology using open area excavation techniques of medieval settlements designed by British archaeologists in the 1970s and 1980s at rural settlements like Raunds (Northamptonshire) and Wharram Percy (North Yorkshire). Credit must go, though, to Saggioro for delivering an interdisciplinary outcome to a complex archaeological endeavour in the waterlogged conditions of the Po plain between Mantua and Verona.

Starting in 2003, with intermittent field campaigns until 2008, this investigation has brought to light the well-preserved remains of a village (belonging to an adjacent castle), principally of ninth- to thirteenth-century date. This volume gives special privilege to the ninth- to tenth-century phases (phases 1-2), and the riverside dwellings associated with the documented castle constructed in the age of incastellamento.

The volume begins with a historical introduction, locating Nogara as a place between King Berengarius and the Benedictine monastery of Nonantola. Like so many histories of early Italian villages, it is extraordinarily detailed and yet, from this miscellany of textual sources, it is difficult to imagine the nature of the place. Who might have calculated the unprepossessing peasant buildings (in vernacular terms) and their associated out-houses alongside the major works to construct trackways and possibly manage the adjacent river Tartaro, providing a simple wooden quay? Saggioro cogently takes the reader through the archaeological phasing (aided and confirmed by dendrochronology), and later--in his concluding chapter--explains the fundamentals of Italy's earliest post-classical homesteads.

These underwhelming peasant buildings, now known from many parts of the peninsula, are, however, to be interpreted with care. The faunal and palaeobotanical data reveal a substantive household economy with a mixture of cattle, sheep and pigs and an emphasis upon legumes, that only with the increasing seigneurial administration of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries noticeably begins to include additional food resources from the wild birds and mammals that populate the plain. The material culture affirms this picture of an effective domestic economy, with loom weights having pride of place. Apart from these household accountrements, a considerable range of locally made cooking wares is complemented by imported soapstone from Alpine sources for specialized purposes. Imported glazed wares are also present. But it is the prolific numbers of metal items, the miscellany of small metal and bone objects, and, above all, the imported glassware (wine glasses and beakers) that betray the real measure of daily life in this community. These peasants belonged to a manorial regime but enjoyed some liberties within the emergent regional markets of north Italy during the later ninth and tenth centuries.

As Saggioro and his colleagues show, Nogara was hardly exceptional. Field surveys of the immediate region (described in certain detail) indicate the (predictable) rise and fall of Roman settlement regimes, followed by the growth of a medieval settlement system that, in some respects, much altered, underpins the present arrangement of sites. But it is the emergence of the mid ninth - to tenth-century village that commands Saggioro's interest. Like other villages from this period with simple peasant dwellings, especially from Tuscany, [5] the archaeology provides a rich conspectus that offers a complimentary perspective of the laconic textual observations of this period. Just as Francovich envisaged forty years ago, at Nogara and other similar Italian villages, the limitations of the architecture are counter-weighted against the effects of the first regional marketed medieval commodities. While coins are absent, the material evidence of these commodities is undeniable, throwing into relief the simple dwellings occupied by the community at this time.

This richly illustrated excavation report provides a compelling description of peasant life and its ecological conditions as the Middle Ages took shape towards the end of the first millennium. A well-executed excavation is cogently explained, and more importantly situated within the evidence for its economy and environment. The pioneers of medieval archaeology in Italy could have asked for no more. This exemplary investigation of a village lays bare how important the material evidence is, given how peremptory the documentary resources actually are. Saggioro and his colleagues should be heartily complimented for their diligence and above all for providing another, material chapter, for the making of the Middle Ages.



1. S. Gelichi, ed., Quarant'anni di archeologia medievale in Italia, Florence: All'Insegna del Giglio, 2014.

2. M. Cagiano de Azevedo, "L'insegnamento dell'archeologia medievale in Italia," in Tavola rotonda sulla archeologia medievale (Rome, Istituto Nazionale di Archeologia e Storia dell'Arte, 1976), 9-13, at 11.

3. G. & H. Bresc, "La pratica dell' archeologia medievale," in Tavola rotonda sulla archeologia medievale (Rome, Istituto Nazionale di Archeologia e Storia dell'Arte, 1976), 22-28, at 28.

4. R. Francovich and G. Vannini, "Intervento," in Tavola rotonda sulla archeologia medievale (Rome, Istituto Nazionale di Archeologia e Storia dell'Arte, 1976), 108-10.

5. B. Bianchi, "Building, Inhabiting and 'Perceiving' Private Houses in Early Medieval Italy," Arquelogía de la Arquitectura 9 (2012), 195-212.

Copyright (c) 2015 Richard Hodges

Give Now

ISSN: 1096-746X | Administrator Login