Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2007.05.41

Maurizio Buora, Luca Villa, Goti nell'arco alpino orientale. Archeologia di Frontiera 5.   Udine:  Società Friulana di Archeologia, 2006.  Pp. 184.  ISBN 88-88018-45-X.  €20.00.  



Reviewed by Michael Kulikowski, University of Tennessee-Knoxville (mkulikow@utk.edu)
Word count: 935 words

One usually knows what one is getting with continental exhibition catalogues like this: perfunctory historical overviews, glorious photographs, colourful introductions to unfamiliar sites, and a theoretical perspective so archaic as to be impervious to criticism. Each of these elements is present and correct here. Those with some modest interest in the late antique archaeology of northeastern Italy, Alpine Austria, and western Slovenia, will find things to spark further inquiry here, and research libraries will want the volume, if only to provide researchers with access to very full bibliographies that point towards specialist and, especially for Slovenia, obscure site reports. Those expecting revelations, or even much insight into Ostrogothic rule in northern Italy, Noricum and Pannonia, will find none.

Claudio Azzara and Massimo Dissaderi offer the requisite historical overviews, one on the Goths in northern Italy, the other on the region between the Alps, Danube and Adriatic. Both combine an entirely familiar narrative, ostensibly based on Procopius and Agathias, but largely borrowed from Herwig Wolfram, with a firm belief in the archaeological underpinnings of their migration narratives. A similarly superficial survey of the archaeological evidence closes the volume in the shape of Luca Villa's "Le tracce della presenza gota nell'Italia nord-orientale." But such perfunctory surveys are the price of admission to this sort of catalogue, and this one contains a number of more useful essays.

Maurizio Buora's survey of skulls showing signs of childhood cranial deformation is a helpful update of earlier surveys, and the information on the burials at Frauenberg (Austria) will be new to anyone not keeping up with specialist publications on early medieval funerary archaeology. Rather amusingly, given that cranial deformation is more definitively alien to Roman provincial practice than is any variation on the fibula-belt buckle combination, Buora's article is by no means dogmatic about the ethnic identity of his subjects. Would that the same could be said for the two articles, by Elena Maria Menotti and Marco Sannazaro, on the little known cemetery of Sacca di Goito near Mantua. The site lies on the strategic route of the via Postumia in northern Italy, one that leads from the Alps straight down into the north Italian plain. Three tombs from the site are singled out for study on the basis of their artefacts, which are assumed to document the precise ethnicity of the dead persons. The archaeological context gives no clue as to date, but the assumption that brooch-forms are always and everywhere diagnostic of a wearer's ethnicity allow the authors to state definitively that we have at Sacca di Goito the remains not of an Ostrogothic garrison or settlement but rather a group of Goths and/or Alans who arrived with Alaric in ca. 401. It is perhaps somewhat ironic that a volume so alert to Viennese ethnogenesis theory and the contingency of historical ethnicities should hew so rigidly to the kind of ethnic ascription of artefacts -- associated with the works of Joachim Werner and Volker Bierbrauer, the latter quoted compulsively here -- which even conservative German archaeologists are beginning to find embarassingly lacking in nuance. Regardless, the Sacca di Goito finds are well-illustrated here, and interested readers can track down the full publications and draw their own conclusions. Similar methodological reservations hardly have the chance to obtrude in reading Slavko Ciglenecki's lightning survey of Ostrogothic settlements in Slovenia -- nearly all of this will be new to most readers, illustrating just how many fortified sites from the fifth and sixth centuries are known in the Slovenian Alpine passes. Whoever garrisoned these sites in practice -- and nothing here demonstrates an 'Ostrogothic' military presence in any meaningful way -- we appear to have more evidence for late ancient deployment in the eastern Alps than one might expect for an area so comprehensively fought over in the Middle Ages.

Ciglenecki's tantalizing survey will mostly serve to send the interested reader back to the original site reports. Much the best articles in the volume, however, are Franz Glaser's latest introduction to the astonishing site of Hemmaberg and Ermanno Arslan's catalogue of the Ostrogothic coinage of the museum at Udine. At Hemmaberg, a hill rising near the already known late antique cemetery of Globasnitz, the remains of a highly involved ecclesiastical complex have been uncovered, dating in all likelihood to the sixth century. This consisted of not one, but two, simultaneously constructed basilicas, each with a full complement of all the necessary liturgical spaces. The decorations were produced by the same, probably itinerant, craftsmen, and the excavators presume that we have here an example of rival Arian and orthodox communities forced to cohabit in peace under Theodorician rule. Too much is made of very sparse funerary deposits, but the dating of the buildings seems secure and it is hard to make sense of duplicated baptismal facilities except in terms of rival Christian communities. Although the site is hardly unknown, having been brought to a broad non-specialist audience by a preliminary publication in Antiquité tardive 4, this is the best short introduction to the site yet published.

Arslan's careful catalogue of the Ostrogothic coins in the museum of Udine is alone enough to justify the modest cost of this volume from the perspective of any major research library. Good black-and-white photographs illustrate coins noted but not illustrated in Metlich's essential Coinage of Ostrogothic Italy (2004). Preceded by a useful, if familiar, survey of minting practices in Gothic Italy, it is the images that numismatists will want to see, not least that of the recently discovered solidus issued by Athalaric in the name of Justinian and illustrated on the cover of this inexpensive, and generally worthwhile, volume.

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