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Does this field trip make sense?

Halfway through the two week field trip, it is time to just very briefly make up a balance: how is it going, and does it actually make sense? First things first: so far, we have been able to do everything as scheduled: we visited Norba, Minturnae, Paestum, Grumentum, Venosa, Herdonia, Pietrabbondante, Saepinum, Juvanum and Alba Fucens. I have already taken 1000-something pictures of things that looked of relevance for the project (or for my understanding of these sites). I have not taken detailed notes on each site as there was no time to do this in a consistent way, but I have written reports of each day summarizing the most elementary observations.  In other words: I have gathered the data I thought I needed, and I spent a little bit of time thinking about what I saw.

So: what have I learnt so far? On the level of details: an awful lot. Particularly, you get, in the field a much better feeling of where you are in the urban landscape than when you are in the library. What seems flat in a book (or even on Google Earth) in reality turns out to be hilly. There is no way you can understand both the location and the preservation of the forum complex in Herdonia if you have not seen the way it is surrounded by two low hills (as happens to be the case in Alba Fucens as well, by the way). It is almost impossible to understand the internal cohesion of the complex until you see that many walls are built in the same techniques and with the same materials – while some are not. On this micro-scale level, the harvest of this trip is incredibly rich, and there is no doubt that many observations will – in some way or another – find their way to project publications.

On a higher level of abstraction, seeing so many sites in short succession of each other evokes an array of questions about Roman urbanism in general, and the role of tabernae in particular. For example, there is the role of the forum, which sometimes was surrounded by tabernae, and sometimes emphatically not. What is going on? I have my thoughts on this (as have some others), but the question seems to have become a bit more urgent through what I saw last week. Another issue concerns the tabernae related to atrium houses: how common was it, outside Pompeii, to have atrium houses with more than two tabernae? In many sites, even houses with two tabernae are rare. What is the economic implication?  Or is it rather a product of the size of houses in these cities?

I have not yet come across evidence that dramatically alters the picture I had in my mind – unfortunately, because in this phase of the project, that would be about the best thing that could happen. If there is any broad impression emerging then it is that at least in the Appennines, private investment in commercial space remained on a much smaller scale than in cities like Pompeii, Herculaneum and Ostia – and perhaps even on a smaller scale than I already expected. Public investment, however, may – at least in some cities – be a different matter.  There is a lot of work to do, still. First, let’s see what the coming week will add and/or change. So far, however, this adventure seems to make a good deal of sense.

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