Via dei Pilastri at Alba Fucens

Moving beyond Pompeii and Ostia

This project, essentially, always was about understanding developments in Pompeii and Ostia in a broader historical context. For this, it is obviously crucial to map, as precisely as possible, local developments in the two main urban sites of Roman Italy, and at the same time invest in understanding what is going on elsewhere as well. That ‘elsewhere’ is, on the one hand, and inevitably, the city of Rome itself, which will be approached mainly through excavation reports, textual evidence, and the third century AD forma urbis Romae, a marble plan that has been fragmentarily preserved. On the other hand, that ‘elsewhere’ is all those other cities of Roman Italy, which often have only been excavated to a very limited extent (and, sometimes, have been proverbially badly published, or not at all), but which are indispensable if you want to understand whether phenomena and developments in and around the Roman metropolis and in the Bay of Naples region were widespread and common throughout the peninsula.

The hypothesis to be tested

The expectation, a priori, is that this is not necessarily the case: the extreme urbanism at Rome and Ostia is, of course, unlikely to have been paralleled in the much smaller urban settlements of the Apennines, but it has to be remembered that the bay of Naples was extremely urbanized as well, and that a city like Pompeii, on the eve of its destruction, belonged to the larger, and wealthier, cities of Roman Italy. Many cities in Roman Italy had a much smaller local consumer market, which is likely to have had an impact on investment strategies. Yet at the same time it is possible that, under influence of what was happening in the larger urban communities, local elites started to invest in commercial space on a scale bigger than before. The question thus is: in which contexts were the tabernae of these cities built, and how does this develop through time? The starting hypothesis is that most was happening on a much smaller scale.

However, like any hypothesis, this one needs to be tested by throwing data at it, but as resources and time are not unlimited, one needs to think a bit harder about how to approach the evidence, and how to select the sites to be included; one cannot afford to spend endless amounts of time and money to visit every possibly relevant site again and again. Given the projects focus on commercial landscapes, it makes sense to prioritize sites where more is known than just a couple of individual monuments, and where at least one street, or part of it has been excavated, or a forum square with shops. This limits the number of sites, but it still leaves the project with a larger number of sites than can easily be analyzed in the field.

Going to the field

Obviously, there is a lot you can do, without going to all these places – on my desk is a pile of books with the results of excavations in many of the smaller urban settlements of Roman Italy: Cosa, Paestum, Alba Fucens (picture), Herdonia, and many others. This helps, but some questions do need to be analyzed in the field, and the project needs good quality pictures that are not always available – because many of these remains have never been studied this way. The choice that has been made is to start from central Italy – the region that is closest to Pompeii and Ostia, and see how far one can get.

Next week, the first field trip starts. There is a long list of sites on the provisional program, mainly in central and southern Italy. As it always is a challenge to do things precisely the way you planned them, I am not giving the program beforehand, but we start from Rome, then move southward along the coast, and northward through the Appennines, before finishing in coastal Tuscany. The ‘hitlist’ includes sites like Minturnae, Grumentum, Saepinum, Alba Fucens, Lucus Feroniae, Cosa and quite some more. It is the intention that random updates from the field will emerge through this site.

Methodological Challenges

One crucial methodological question for the project in general is to which extent the remains of tabernae outside Pompeii and Ostia  are actually able to reveal aspects of their building history. This strongly depends on their reconstruction history: remains that have been heavily reconstructed after excavation are much more difficult to understand in this respect than those of which you can be certain that they are (mostly) Roman, but it is very hard to judge this from behind a Dutch desk. The field trip is going to provide unequivocal answers about the chronological possibilities of the evidence from all these sites.

A second question that is going to play a role in this fieldwork trip is to which extent it is possible to understand the position of excavated remains of tabernae within the urban landscape, most of which is still hidden underneath the ground. In many sites, there is a strong heart-of-town-bias: the best excavated parts of these cities are generally the fora and the areas immediately around them – the places where the large monumental buildings are in which classical archaeologists traditionally were most interested. This means that it is much harder to see what is happening elsewhere in these partially excavated cities. Can this problem be solved? Perhaps, by carefully looking at the urban landscape, some clues can be found.

To be sure, lots of other things will come up in situ. Perhaps the biggest challenge of all is to record the observations and ideas as effectively as possible, and to take the necessary time also to think about what you are seeing when you are seeing it. Even if it is thirty degrees Celsius, and your bottle of water is empty.