Skip to content
IUScholarWorks Journals
21.06.15 Gelichi/Olmo-Enciso (eds.), Mediterranean Landscapes in Post Antiquity

21.06.15 Gelichi/Olmo-Enciso (eds.), Mediterranean Landscapes in Post Antiquity

One of the great challenges in the archaeological exploration of past societies is the documentation of the lives of ordinary folks. Unlike the rich and powerful, those living at or near subsistence level do not normally produce the kind of conspicuous evidence that has been given centre stage in advancing our knowledge of the human past. The scholarly bias towards the notable is reflected in the widespread preference for the investigation of monumental settings, more often than not in urban contexts, through excavation. Somewhat ironically, and yet unsurprisingly, the countryside constitutes a microcosm of this broader approach. Recurrently, archaeological interest has been centred on the more obvious structures that puncture the rural landscape: in the geography under scrutiny, such structures range from the fora of Roman North Africa to the castle fortresses of the Nasrid kingdom in southern Spain. To challenge this monumental, often urban, and elite focus, its methods and resulting narratives, is the chief aim of Mediterranean Landscapes in Post Antiquity. New Frontiers and New Perspectives.

The cited examples illustrate the temporal and spatial contours adopted in this volume. The terminus ante quem is (roughly) the end of what is commonly termed the medieval period, the terminus post quem the Roman period, even if individual chapters explore materials from prehistoric to early modern times, and several straddle vast chronologies: the longue durée is explicitly highlighted by several contributors, while the long, yet curtailed timeframe is equated by the editors in their one-page introduction with a necessary "chronological selection", posited against "global" or "total" archaeology (iii). The geographical remit--the title's "Mediterranean"--is loosely defined in this introduction as "the home of classicism" (iii); elsewhere, it appears to denote countries that actually border the Mediterranean Sea (64). The twelve chapters present effectively a topographical arc that captures primarily landscapes located around the pond's northern sweep, moving east to west.

The journey begins in Greece, medieval and after (delineated by earlier, prehistoric and Graeco-Roman reminiscences: Bintliff, 1-6), before moving via the area that became known in late antiquity as the Diocese of Dacia in the central Balkans (and with a focus on early medieval fortifications, such as the Fortress of Ras: Ivanišević, Bugarski, 7-17), to northeastern Italy--or more precisely the Venetian lagoon and the particular fate of the religious settlement of Sant'Ilario in the later medieval period (Corrò, Moine, Primon, 18-37). From there, the itinerary takes a southern turn, first to the lower Bolognese plain (i.e. the semicircle that extends c. 30 km east, north and west from the city: Librenti, 38-63), and its diverse settlements and other structures in the late medieval and early modern period, before heading southwest to, nominally, "Emptyscapes", in the western parts of southern Tuscany and northern Lazio (concentrated on stretches near Roselle in the north and Veio in the south: Campana, 64-83). Leaving Italy behind, the next six stops are located in Spain, covering different (and some overlapping) areas, north to south. The Ebro Valley brings into sight the agrarian landscape around La Noguera, in the Rioja region, both Roman and medieval, from before and after the arrival of Christianity (López de Calle, Tudanca, Peña-Chocarro, Pérez Jordà, Moreno-García, 84-103). In a slight diversion from the geographic arc's anti-clockwise advance, central Iberia and the southern Castilian plateau come next, with the agrarian terraces around Visigothic Recópolis in focus (Olmo-Enciso, Castro Priego, Ruiz Zapata, Gil García, Galindo Pellicena, Checa-Herráiz, de la Torre-Verdejo, 104-128), before northwestern Iberia gets a further look-in (Quirós Castillo, Vigil-Escalera Guirado, 129-144), from the earliest medieval villages in Galicia at A Pousada (near Santiago de Compostela) to the contemporaneous seventh-century church foundations at such prominent places as Valcamino and La Solana (near Madrid). Halfway to the coast towards Byzantine Carthago Spartaria, the surburban and rural landscape of Visigothic Eio, the later Islamic Madinat Iyyuh--modern El Tolmo de Minateda--offers a multi-dimensional view of the early medieval landscape of southeastern Spain (Sarabia Bautista, Gutiérrez Lloret, Amorós Ruiz, 145-162), before the Iberian exploration ends in Granada, in two acts: first, pastures and meadows, drove roads and waterways, salt marshes and salt lakes in the Kingdom of Granada open a window on the late medieval landscape (Malpica Cuello, Villar Mañas, García García, García-Contreras Ruiz, 163-173); second, the Frailes-Velillos Valley, situated in Granada's mountainous Northwest, documents diverse human-landscape-interactions, from prehistoric rock shelters and caves via Roman imperial villas and late medieval Nasrid fortresses to zones of intensive, irrigated agriculture along the riverbanks in the pre-modern period, following the Castilian conquest in 1486 (García Porras, Mattei, Alonso Valladares, 174-184). The journey's terminus is reached across the sea in Morocco with the medieval western Maghreb, affording the only glimpse south of the pond in this volume, through the complex irrigated landscape supplying the agricultural hinterland of the city of Aġmāt Ūrīka in the high medieval period (Cressier, González Villaescusa, 185-199). Fascinating as these snapshots are individually, fuller (editorial and cross-chapter) engagement with, and explication of, the benefits of the championed temporal and spatial frames ("Post Antiquity" and "Mediterranean") would have substantiated their adoption.

Although urban settlements, like Aġmāt, impress themselves on some of the contributions, a concentration on rural areas is patent throughout, presenting diverse dimensions of human interaction with the landscape across a long millennium. The frustration over the countryside's marginalisation in some archaeological quarters, and the continued preference given to monumental structures, besides urban spaces, is palpable in several chapters. For example, López de Calle and colleagues observe that their chosen landscape "is part of what in Spanish is called 'el campo' (the countryside), a rather vague term that has attracted little research attention in Iberia due not only to prejudices but also to the little prospect to produce information" (86). In his study of the late medieval and early modern Bolognese plain, Librenti highlights "the exceptional cases in which regions paid commendable attention to abandoned villages"; after all, "(t)he question of the population in scattered rural buildings, despite being among the most characteristic features of rural settlements in the plain, has remained virtually ignored" (38). Tensions between the interests of institutions, organisations and funders on the one hand vis-à-vis what one author calls "a select band of forward-looking archaeologists and landscape investigators" (81) on the other are cited, too, in commenting on the demotion of "el campo" and landscape archaeology to the benefit of "the study of single sites defined mainly in monumental terms" (Quirós Castillo, Vigil-Escalera Guirado, 130). There is however no party-line here regarding a definition of landscape archaeology: notwithstanding the primary concern with non-urban space, the editors advocate "a very broad meaning", one that permits the inclusion of urban settlements in the concept of "landscape", while simultaneously emphasising "the need to qualify the concept of 'site' (and, conversely, that of 'off-site')" (iii).

This need is addressed variously in the volume. Some contributors make straightforward and approving use of both term and concept of "site", in a traditional sense: inter alia, Bintliff notes appreciatively that in his work on mainland Greece, "(t)he study of deserted Post-Medieval rural sites led to the possibility of mapping rural society" (3); López de Calle and colleagues happily refer to La Noguera as "a multi-period site" (86); Sarabia Bautista and colleagues productively employ the information from the excavations at "certain sites" around El Tolmo (145); and the research of García Porras and colleagues "has essentially focused on two sites" (174: castle and village, and necropolis). Others avoid the term (and concept) almost religiously: the ring-ditches discovered by Campana near Roselle through LiDAR-survey emerge, through comparison with the similar (and well-excavated and intensely studied) structures in nearby Cerveteri, as "a major and previously unsuspected funerary landscape"; Campana adds in conclusion that "neither micro-morphological evidence nor field-walking survey...presented any interpretable evidence of this kind of...long-lasting funerary landscape" (72-3, emphases added; cf. 74, note 27). In his project description, Campana advocates explicitly that the research goal "be less about 'sites' than about a populated landscape in the social, economic, and environmental context," noting furthermore the importance of finding "a new balance...between site and off-site archaeology" (66). It is indeed gratifying to see that here, as elsewhere, new technologies add significantly to our knowledge of what lies below the ground and, in consequence, of the human past. Notably though, Campana's chosen landscapes for remote sensing and related analyses stand in direct (locational) relation to known, and indeed major sites--most obviously Etruscan, Roman and medieval Rusellae, and Etruscan and Roman Veii: the selected transects are hardly isolated patches. Populating these spaces linguistically with "landscapes" in place of "sites" does not in itself make the identified remains "off-site"--unless a "site" is to be defined in strict relation to excavation. For me, it is precisely the discovery of several new structures--such as the likely Etruscan cemetery site, although still underground and not yet further explored--that constitute the most productive results from the "Emptyscapes"-project.

Exploring such discoveries further through forensic excavation must surely be one (albeit not only) goal. Indeed--and notwithstanding the uphill challenge that landscape archaeology still faces in some quarters--invasive archaeology has its place. Repeatedly, the volume's contributors point to the need for and benefit of excavation (e.g. 90, 168, 197). Thus, to explain early medieval (re)occupation patterns, Ivanišević and Bugarski "focus on this site has been excavated for three decades" (9), while for A Pousada, Quirós Castillo and Vigil-Escalera Guirado deplore that "(t)he limited extent of the excavation has hampered an in depth characterization of the site" (136); asking whether lime exploitation occurred in early medieval Loma Lencina, near El Tolmo, Sarabia Bautista and colleagues conclude that "without an excavation of the site, it is difficult to confirm whether it already existed during that period" (148, with 151); and exploring the question of social status and organisation that lurk behind the medieval Tuscan landscape, Campana comments that "the answer...could only come from excavation" (78). Without excavation, clarity on some of the fundamental aspects of human interaction with the landscape cannot be reached.

Survey, too, holds its place--despite the editor's critical write-up (iii): praising the new technologies, geo-archaeological and paleo-environmental techniques, Gelichi and Olmo-Enciso state that these were essential "to overcome the impasse following the great era of the 'surveys'; an era which, as is known, has characterized much of the best landscape archeology (!) of the 70s, 80s and 90s"; they link this era furthermore to "the 'illusions' of processualism," and the reconstruction of "the spatial arrangement of settlements in large areas and over a long period." Nevertheless, the recent surveys by Malpica Cuello and colleagues in late medieval Granada significantly enriched their documentation of the local economy devoted to animal husbandry and salt production (164), while the surveys by Cressier and Villaescusa around Aġmāt helped to document the irrigation system (188); Sarabia Bautista and colleagues, too, draw on recent surveys to understand more fully the terraced landscape around Visigothic Loma Eugenia (151); and the chapter by Librenti describes, in his own words, "an archaeological survey of the rural population and the impact of transformations that it underwent," relying moreover on "a re-elaboration of the data provided by archaeological excavations and surveys of the Bolognese plain over the past thirty years" (38). Whatever the limitations of more traditional approaches to human interaction with the world around us, the new technologies that enabled a chunk of the work presented in this volume come with shortcomings too: LiDAR and Co. are not equipped to answer the deeper questions by themselves; they are, ultimately, means to an end, best used in targeted combination with other tools, despite the repeated and somehow redundant warm appreciation that these technologies attract in several chapters (regularly combined with, to my mind, unproductive concern with description of approach and perspective).

Besides their own deep questions that the "middle" ages broach (so explicitly Librenti: 59; also Quirós Castillo, Vigil-Escalera Guirado: 130), given the volume's chronological brief, the watersheds on either side of this period raise major issues alone. Take the thorny question of the so-called transition from the ancient to the medieval world. Several chapters explain their materials in contradistinction to a postulated Roman model--one that is as static as antiquated. Observing that "the collapse of the Late Roman system in the 5th century AD was a determinant event for the Mediterranean and European West," which "entailed a full transformation of the social models and...their projection onto the landscape," Olmo-Enciso and colleagues contend that "the new Iberian a direct reflection of the development of the new Early Medieval society," and especially of "the emergence of a new productive strategy and settlement pattern which replaced the villae-based system that predominated during the Roman period" (105; and, e.g., 132-133, 146, 158). Fair enough. But changes in productive strategies and settlement patterns occurred also within the Roman period; and seeming scarcity of villae never removes the "Roman"-label inthe Roman period--such as at Ligurian Luni. There is a further methodological problem: having criticised the city/monument/elite focus of classical archaeology, it is unclear how the products of this classical archaeology can constitute suitable comparanda, rather than the stilts for lop-sided comparison with landscape archaeology: by definition, the results cast an (unreliable) image of fundamental change and transformation. What if the point of comparison were with the suspected Roman republican and imperial increase in villages in, e.g., Italy's Cecina valley? And what if we fully acknowledged that there is no essential link between (archaeological) form and (socio-economic) content? Why, for instance, can slaves not live in villages (as slaves, e.g. in northwestern Iberia: 134; cf. the early-modern Foscari villa--without slaves (?): 34)? Citing Wickham's magisterial attempt at Framing the Early Middle Agesthat populates the post-Roman countryside with villages and (free) peasants cannot replace the analytical contextualisation and interpretation of one's own materials. Mutatis mutandis, an "economic system based on the extraction of surplus by the elite"(109), suggested by Olmo-Enciso and colleagues for Navalahija and Navalvillar, is well familiar to the Romanist, as are the kinds of social hierarchies evident at El Tolmo (where, moreover, Roman and post-Roman sites overlap): the socio-economic changes are postulated, not remotely sensed (152 and 158-9; see also 169 for Granada, and 198 for Aġmāt). More broadly, despite hopes to excavate 'the medieval peasant' (vel. sim; e.g. 86, 108; 130-8), the people (and social structures generally) are distant from the featured landscapes--a corollary of non-invasive approaches. The role of religion, although recurrently referenced, remains similarly afloat. Partly, this is due to the preliminary nature of several results (openly noted at, e.g., 119 and 147), and the extraordinary difficulty of making sense of the "confused heap of disparate data" (59) that the sources often constitute. But there is also little sign of engaging with each other's work, despite the original conference session that generated the volume, or to think the bigger issues through together. The presented materials, arising from impressive and important work, clearly speak to those issues, and deserve to be taken places.