Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2001.02.01

Hans Sütterlin, Kastelen 2: Die Älteren Steinbauten in den Insulae 1 und 2 von Augusta Raurica. Forschungen in Augst 22.   Augst:  Römermuseum Augst, 1999.  Pp. 264.  ISBN 3-7151-0022-2.  

Reviewed by Birgitta Hoffmann (
Word count: 1216 words

Full excavation reports are the bread and butter of archaeological research and even though they can only rarely be credited with "thrilling" story lines, it is nevertheless welcome to see a thorough presentation of the excavation of Roman houses in the provinces.

The present volume is the second part of a four volume report on the excavations on the Kastelen plateau of the Roman Colonia of Augusta Raurica outside Basel in Northern Switzerland. Visitors familiar with the site will be aware of the challenges facing archaeologists here: the Roman settlement covers a very large area with very changeable topography. Most of the public buildings are on the comparatively flat high plateau in the upper town. This is bordered by the steep stream valley of the Violenbach and the equally steep drop towards the flood plain of the Ergolz. While the lower town, where amongst others the late Roman fortress and the early military complex are located, lies in the area between the Violenbach and the Rhine. The Kastelen promontory in between the upper and lower city with its steeps slopes on three sites appears like a small hill, which was defended as a refugium in the late-Roman period. Today this hill is dominated by the impressive structure of the Villa Clavel.

The excavations presented in this book took place in the grounds of the villa and recovered the well preserved remains of two Roman insulae, which were occupied from the first century AD to the late Roman period. As the sequence fell into four distinct periods the report was split between four editors, covering the timber period, the earlier stone buildings (the present volume), the later stone buildings and the late Roman hill-fortification.

The present volume starts by giving a detailed introduction to the complex's phasing and the stratigraphic sequence of the structures encountered, followed by a summary report of the buildings' histories.

The result is a report featuring as its central object the "non-representational" part of a substantial Roman house in the Germanic provinces. Although incomplete, the building stands out for a number of reasons. First, the preservation is notable: due to its location on the slope of the Violenbach, some of the walls survive to a height of 3m or more and include a window to a ground level room--surely a rarity north of the Alps.

The second reason is the features of the building itself. There is an excavated kitchen, a shop and, another rarity in Augst, a latrine with a water supply in a private residence. Extremely unusual is the fact that the owner of the residence had enough influence in second-century Augst to be able to close one of city's roads and add it to the domus' ground area, suggesting that we may have here one of the houses of the urban elite of this colonia.

The description of the features is divided into three parts: the structures in Insula I, the structures in the blocked Heidenlochstrasse and the area of Insula 2. In each case, a careful description of the stratigraphy encountered in all of the excavated areas and rooms is followed by a less detailed summary of the history of the buildings by phase and period.

The presentation then continues with an in-depth listing and discussion of the evidence used to date the features discussed, listing the datable pottery that will be discussed in more detail in the finds' report. The third part of this chapter is a detailed catalogue of the surviving walls, featuring excellent black and white photographs of each wall followed by a thorough description with information on location, structural relationships with other features, the building materials and techniques used and the wall's position within the phasing of the site.

The second chapter of the book is dedicated to the finds from the excavation, which are well cross-referenced to the structural description earlier. The material is limited to those finds which were found in closed archaeological contexts and can therefore contribute to the general phasing and dating of the site. This may make the material more manageable especially in view of the amount of work presented on the structures (and it has to be stressed that the author here follows standard practice for the publication of Swiss and German sites), but, as the remaining material is not checked by finds specialists, interesting finds or associations within the general material may have been missed.

The finds are presented by type, starting with pottery organized by vessel shape. The types are discussed with their implication for the date of the structures and, when possible, their likely place of manufacture. A detailed fabric description--as usual with German language publications--is absent. The standard points of reference are predominately other Augst pottery assemblages (especially the so-called theatre stratigraphy, an assemblage that was excavated only a few hundred metres away), with references to other Swiss sites if necessary, producing a coherent picture of the datable material in the context of the general picture from the city.

The non-pottery finds include a very small range of glass vessels, a fragmentary bone plaque decorated with little putti from a box and a copper alloy stud with the picture of a man, which may come from a military cingulum. The discussion of the finds is followed by a catalogue which is organised by datable context.

The third chapter of the book deals with the archaeo-botanical and -faunal remains from the site. Recourse to the other volumes of the set--something not really necessary for most of the book--becomes unfortunately unavoidable here as the general introduction and the methodology are dealt with only in volume 1 (the timber buildings), which I did not have to hand. This is a real drawback, as the study and the material presented otherwise stands out for its quality and its results, which culminate in the reconstruction of a high status diet in the house of Insula I. Both the bone and the fish reports include not only large remains but also material recovered after flotation of the soils surrounding the kitchen hearths and the floor levels in the "food shop." Both reports agree that the kitchen prepared high quality food, which bears out the other indicators of the wealth and the status of the owner, discussed in the section on the structures. Among many interesting findings are the comparatively high percentages of chicken and hare as well as the remains of whole mackerels (which were available only as imports from the Mediterranean). The remains of the shop are meticulously compared with other excavations in Augst where the sale of food stuffs is posited, and the results are even more convincing because of the caution displayed by all three experts.

The book is extremely richly illustrated and extensively cross-referenced. The text is meticulous in its presentation of the arguments and the documentation of these second century structures, and as a site report it is an excellent piece of work. If there is one criticism, it is the fact that it very often assumes that the reader has access to the other volumes of the series, which this reviewer did not. To researchers with a keen interest in the domestic architecture of the Roman provinces this volume presents a useful example of housing architecture in late first and early second century Germania superior.

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