Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2013.04.43 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2013.04.43

Ray Laurence, Roman Archaeology for Historians.   London; New York:  Routledge, 2012.  Pp. xiv, 192.  ISBN 9780415505925.  $35.95.  

Reviewed by S.E. Craver, St. Bonaventure University (


Ray Laurence’s Roman Archaeology for Historians aims to provide an overview of the ways in which Roman archaeology and archaeological theory can contribute to the study of Roman history. That is a tall order, because Roman archaeology signifies many disparate concepts and practices that have yet to be codified, not all of which are in agreement, and that coalesce only because they are relevant to a Roman historical context. Laurence’s tack is to organize most of the chapters around themes deemed important for ancient historians (e.g. military life, demography, Romanization) and discussed in light of evidence from physical remains. Some readers may find it limiting that the evidence most often comes from Roman Britain in these pages, and the archaeological tradition and academic milieu that are briefly described are British as well. But the book is not meant to serve—nor can it—as an introduction to Roman archaeology or its fundamentals (hence an index with “surfer’s ear” but without “stratigraphy”). The thirteenth book in a series from Routledge (“Approaching the Ancient World”), it is said to be intended for “students of ancient history” (p. ix, and jacket blurbs), but its level of discourse and rapid pace assume an advanced student, or even a more exclusive “readership composed of ancient historians” (p. 23).

In the first chapter (“Questions of Evidence”) Laurence demonstrates that textual sources should be evaluated with their contexts in mind, and uses the Gracchan land reforms as a case study in a succinct discussion about the pitfalls and rewards of combining textual and archaeological evidence. In this case, data from a field survey of the Tiber Valley suggest that the reports of Plutarch and Appian should be re-contextualized as accounts shaped largely by contemporary, rather than past, landscapes. And we find that re-contextualization is a two-way street, because archaeological material from Falerii Veteres can also be re-located “to a different textual context from that of the archaeologists’ interpretations” (p. 11). One seemingly minor point in this first chapter deserves magnification: Laurence distinguishes ideological camps between those who reject the use of evidence from outside the traditional boundaries of their disciplines and those who do not (p. 2). But the debate is not bifurcated, it is nuanced,1 and a wide spectrum of thought about how best to relate archaeological and historical research has thus been left un-illuminated.

Chapter Two (“Dialogues of Academic Difference: the Present Past of Roman Studies”) is a brief sketch of the development of Roman archaeology from the English perspective, and highlights the careers of Haverfield, Ashby, and Frederiksen. Laurence then goes on to describe the rise of the Theoretical Roman Archaeology Conference in the 1990s, whose continuing success indicates that theory is a thriving, but still separate, area of Roman archaeology.

Chapter Three (“From Topography to Archaeology: Revealing the Roman Forum”) shows how an archaeological approach can supplement what texts and standing remains alone can tell us about fora. The excavations of Boni and Gjerstad in the Forum Romanum are highlighted, along with the well-known work of Ammerman. Venturing into new territory, Laurence analyses inscriptions in the pavements of fora at Segobrica in Spain and at Terracina, suggesting that such inscriptions (others are attested from fora elsewhere) could have functionally divided these public spaces into squares, contrary to the Vitruvian ideation of a rectangle. The author’s call to conceive of a forum as a “written space” (p. 40), in which movement and activity were potentially affected by inscriptions and statue bases, should be heeded, even if he has mishandled the key inscription from Segobrica, which should not be reconstructed with the name ‘Proculus Spantamicus Lacus’ (p. 34), because, as the publishers of the inscription indicated (La[-c. 12/14-]us),2 and as Figure 3.5 (not so clearly) shows, there is a lacuna of 12-14 characters, which likely referenced either a second person, or the filiation followed by an administrative post, e.g. magistratus.

The fourth chapter (“From the City to the Country: Archaeological Excavation and Field Survey”) considers the relationship between city and countryside, revisiting the primitivist/modernist debate on the ancient economy and showing how archaeological evidence has been used to support various ideological positions. Laurence briefly examines the remains of the Villa of Livia at Prima Porta, the Villa Pisanella at Boscoreale, and a villa at the auditorium site north of Rome near the Via Flaminia, before turning to evidence from the Tiber Valley survey. Linking the remains from the three villas to the survey, he concludes that city and countryside constituted a single socio-economic system; and that is probably a tenable position, but one that has not been fully demonstrated here. Given the book’s intended audience and purpose, and its frequent reliance on field survey, one might have expected to find in this chapter a critical engagement with the longstanding methodological issues related to scale and chronology in survey data, which are mentioned only in passing (p. 55).

Chapter Five (“From Italy to the Provinces: Imperialism and Cultural Change”) seems to have a will of its own, for it neither reviews sites or excavations, nor does it treat any discrete body of evidence, archaeological or otherwise. It is, in effect, an annotated bibliography that traces, through the last quarter century, the evolution of the debate on the so-called Romanization of Britain, which is a recurring theme henceforth. Written very much in the manner of a response to a Ph.D.-examination question, the chapter covers, at a dizzying pace, macro-scale models of imperialism, theoretical models introduced by pre-historians, and the impact of post-colonial theory, among many other themes.

The sixth chapter (“The Archaeologists’ Roman Towns”) discusses how ancient cities were constantly remade through the agency of individual benefactors, and how recent scholarship on Roman urbanism has gone beyond the description of cities to identify patterns of human behavior in them, especially patterns of movement.

Chapter Seven (“Military and Civilian: Re-interpreting the Roman Fort at Vindolanda”) shows how archaeology has challenged the idea that space within Roman forts was used exclusively by the military, and has reexamined the relationship between forts and nearby vici. Laurence then returns to the theme of Romanization, briefly reviewing the epigraphic habit of Batavian auxiliaries, and discussing what a study of animal bones has revealed about the consumption patterns of meat at military and civilian sites in Britannia.

Chapter Eight (“Peopling the Roman Past: Do the Dead Tell Tales?”) and Chapter Nine (“Plants, Animals and Diet”) are two brief but successful chapters, because they show how archaeological evidence applies to a discrete set of historical questions, and they engage directly with the methodological issues involved in such an application. In the former chapter, Laurence discusses the nature of osteo-archaeological evidence, the presuppositions of those who work with it, and what it can contribute to our knowledge of health, demography, and migration. Chapter Nine introduces Jashemski’s work on Pompeian gardens, and then shows, among other things, how the study of animal bones can shed light upon variations in meat consumption across the Roman Empire, the import of exotic animals for games, the ritualistic deposition of animals, and the dietary variations between urban and rural dwellers.

The tenth chapter (“Looking in Museums: Discovering Artefacts”) is about encountering artifacts in museums, and along with a brief discussion of funerary imagery from Roman Britain in Chapter Eight (which carries forward a theme introduced in Chapter Five) it is as close as the book comes to the ambit of art history. Laurence laments that objects in museums lie dormant and out of context, that they cannot be touched, and that their presentation strives most for visual appeal. He moves on to the breastfeeding “Dea Nutrix” figurine that graces the book’s cover, drawing an evocative comparison with the so-called “Tellus relief” from the Ara Pacis Augustae, and showing that the interpretation of an object is often constrained by its presentation in the archaeological literature.

The final chapter (“End Piece: a Post-Archaeology Age?”) is an epilogue, which considers the role of archaeology in society and its relationship with ancient history. Laurence advises that archaeology may cease to matter, unless it can appeal to younger audiences, perhaps using on-line social networks. He also characterizes the selective use of archaeological research by historians as “hybridization”—not the same as a “single-tracked” approach (p. 163), but an intermingling that nonetheless productively disrupts the boundaries between the two disciplines. This chapter is followed by the book’s ample bibliography and index.

Regrettably, the book is rife with errors; many are irksome distractions, but some interfere directly with the author’s communication, while others are misleading.3 Its readability is further diminished by passages that are unclear (e.g. the phases of paving in the Forum Romanum, pp. 32-33; Mattingly’s critique of Millett’s work, p. 71; the local and global nature of the Roman city, pp. 80-81). Partly a matter of structure, partly of style, the objectives of many discussions are unrefined, often leaving the reader with the burden of making connections, and feeling as though the author is following a broken trail instead of a plotted course. This has also likely effected the mild schizophrenia from which the book occasionally suffers: usually it is content to discuss how archaeological evidence can shed light on historical questions, but sometimes it tries to answer the questions (Ch. 4), and at other times it is difficult to identify any concrete questions at all (Ch. 6). The book is also somewhat fickle with regard to its audience, for while “space syntax” is explained at length (pp. 90-92), “GIS” (p. 55), “resistivity” (p. 9), and “field walking” (p. 9) appear without any introduction or explanation. There is some repetition among the chapters, inevitably so because many of them are informed by the debate about the Romanization of Britain. This does, however, have the salutary effect of suggesting that an excellent place from which to study an empire is its periphery.

These matters aside, I have learned from this book—more from its restless forays than its conclusions—just as I have from what Laurence has written elsewhere; and its strengths are those that characterize the author’s work in general: an energetic engagement with an unusually wide range of topics, drawing upon timely and relevant scholarship. A reviewer’s criticisms will also prove easier to dismiss than the important point that Laurence has made. He has shown that Roman historians cannot afford to ignore Roman archaeology, and he clearly desires integration between two disciplines whose boundaries tend to isolate particular forms of evidence as proprietary stock. But it should be remembered that there is an important difference between crossing a boundary and erasing it. For while there may be no true methodological purists on either side,4 and while historians and archaeologists may be looking for the same, bigger picture, they have learned, however, that they cannot ask the same questions. The very different types of evidence that they use preclude it. This does not give license to ignore relevant evidence, whatever its nature; but perhaps it does give reason to believe that something more than tradition and territoriality has determined the trajectories of these two separate disciplines, which continue to develop by scrutinizing the interpretative limits of textual and material evidence respectively and with increasing sophistication.


1.   See the various opinions and approaches in E.W. Sauer (ed.), Archaeology and Ancient History: Breaking Down the Boundaries (London and New York: 2004).
2.   J.M. Abascal, G. Alföldy, and R. Cebrián, “La inscripción con letras de bronce y otros documentos epigráficos del foro de Segobriga,” Archivo Español de Arqueología 74 (2001) 117-130.
3.   The book has been very poorly copy-edited, if at all. There are multitudinous grammatical and typographical errors, and many inconsistencies in abbreviation, punctuation, and capitalization. The most egregious factual errors are: the Republican Comitium in Rome was not the senate house (p. 27). Figure 3.4 represents a section from Gjerstad’s excavation at the Equus Domitiani, not his earlier excavations at the Comitium (p. 28). The Stabian Baths at Pompeii were constructed before the settlement of Sullan veterans, contrary to Figure 6.2 (p. 78). The statue in Figure 6.7 (p. 87), contrary to the caption, cannot be located in Figure 6.4, because it comes from the monumental nymphaeum well north of the so-called Gate of Plancia Magna at Perge, which is beyond the purview of the plan shown. In Figure 6.4 (p. 84) the entrance to the baths at Perge is mislabeled as a nymphaeum, while the nymphaeum, to the south, is unlabeled.
4.   See E.W. Sauer, “The disunited subject: human history’s split into ‘history’ and ‘archaeology’,” in E.W. Sauer (ed.), Archaeology and Ancient History: Breaking Down the Boundaries (London and New York: 2004) 17-45. ​

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