Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2015.01.06 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2015.01.06

Cristina Corsi, Frank Vermeulen (ed.), Ammaia I: The Survey. A Romano-Lusitanian Townscape Revealed. Archaeological Reports Ghent University (ARGU) 8.   Ghent:  Academia Press, 2012.  Pp. 192.  ISBN 9789038219578.  €45.00.  

Reviewed by Gijs Tol, University of Groningen (

Table of Contents

This volume can be considered a milestone in the study of Roman towns with modern survey techniques, and demonstrates the wide range of approaches available to the field.1 It presents the results of a programme of integrated non-destructive investigative techniques at the abandoned Roman town of Ammaia, situated in ancient Lusitania. This site functioned as the principal ‘open laboratory’ of the Radio-Past project, an exemplary interdepartmental and interdisciplinary venture, involving the universities of Evora (Portugal), Ghent (Belgium) and Ljubljana (Slovenia), the British School at Rome and three commercial partners.

The book is made up of three chapters that are divided into several subchapters. The first chapter introduces the project, discusses the historical and archaeological evidence for the site and considers its wider setting in the region. Ammaia was probably founded in the late 1st century BC, and must have been of modest importance considering the limited number of historical references and epigraphic finds related to the town. Earlier topographical surveys around the site revealed that it was founded in an area that is rich in stone and mineral resources (mainly granite, but also quartz and lead), some of which were already exploited in the Roman period.

The second chapter forms the core of the book and extensively discusses the various models and research techniques employed in the study of the town and its direct surroundings. These include large-scale geophysical prospection, geological and geomorphological surveys, the construction of a Digital Elevation Model, the study of historical and recent aerial photographs, and small-scale metal detection- and artefact surveys; high-resolution LIDAR data unfortunately was not available for the area under study. Due to favourable circumstances (good soil and field conditions, few recent disturbances) particularly comprehensive and eye-catching data regarding the layout of the town is collected by the geophysical surveys, which are discussed in great detail. Geomagnetic prospections inside the perimeter of the wall, carried out over an area of circa 18ha, succeeded in mapping large parts of the town plan. This plan appears to have included at least 44 insulae, of which the forum area occupied two, intersected by at least four cardines and eight or nine decumani. Recorded individual anomalies are described in more detail for each insula separately, but are generally not or very cautiously interpreted. Restricted parts of the site were investigated in more detail by more costly and time-consuming ground-penetrating radar and resistivity, or earth resistance, survey. The former method provides additional information regarding the structure and water management of the forum area, and some clues to the development of a residential area to its west. The results of the resistivity survey, covering only 1.5ha, correspond well to those of the gradiometer survey of the same area, although yielding finer detailed data, such as wall openings. Two paragraphs of this chapter are specifically concerned with exploring different ways of integrating and visualizing data from the various geophysical prospection techniques employed (II.5.E) and the integration of this data with all other geospatial data (such as excavations; II.5.H) available for the town.

The book’s final chapter concerns the interpretation and visualization of the data, which identify Ammaia as a small to medium-sized provincial town. With regard to the urban area there is now ample evidence for the existence of an orthogonal street grid, although the 44 insulae vary considerably in dimension. Most of the blocks appear to be taken up by simple houses, whereas especially among the two decumani several rows of small commercial establishments (tabernae) are recorded. On the other hand there is relatively little evidence for the presence of larger residences and—apart from the forum area and the adjacent baths—public structures. This picture contrasts with the canonical model for Roman towns on the Iberian peninsula and serves as a reminder that local adaptations to these models must have been common.

The next section focuses on the relationship between the town and its hinterland. Relatively detailed information is available for the road network and the water provisioning system. Interestingly, the different surveys undertaken as part of the Ammaia-project reveal the presence of areas of specialized activity like quarries, metal workshops, gardens, and cemeteries directly outside the town walls. The absence of survey data from areas further away from the town at the moment impedes assessing the mutual relationship between town and country and the broader impact of the foundation of the town on pre-existing settlement.

The last part of this chapter is dedicated to the building of an animated 3D-model for Early Imperial Ammaia, that is the result of close collaboration between archaeologists and technicians and mainly aimed to increase public understanding of the obtained results. The model itself is made available online, although its usefulness is at the moment limited. It does provide a number of videos of the reconstructed town as well as images of key elements, but, for example, does not incorporate the possibility to explore the town on you own. The book concludes with a summary of the principal results, a bibliography, acknowledgements and a list of authors. A foldout map, inserted at the back of the book, provides a detailed reconstruction of the town plan.

Apart from some minor comments—the structure of the book here and there leads to duplications in content (e.g., in chapters 1 and 2 on local geology and geomorphology)—this is a well-written and copiously illustrated study that will serve different audiences well. Specialists in archaeological remote sensing and geophysical prospection techniques, as well as those involved in archaeological data visualization will benefit from the detailed presentation of the technology. Scholars with a more general interest in Roman urban history will be interested in the carefully presented and interpreted results, although some sections may be a bit difficult to peruse. Despite the wealth of data it presents, this study also highlights several well-known limitations inherent to non-invasive approaches. For example, the interpretation of observed anomalies is often difficult and can probably only be solved by excavation. Moreover, although some statements on the transformation of the town can be made based on particularities in the town plan and the ground-penetrating radar data, the research above all results in a two- dimensional picture of the town, probably largely representing its extension during its peak in the 1st and early 2nd centuries AD. It is therefore unfortunate that another major non-invasive investigate technique —systematic field survey—has only been applied to a single area immediately east of the town wall. Although the relationship between surface archaeology and buried features observed in the geophysical surveys is certainly not a straightforward one—especially on urban sites as complex as Ammaia—the wider application of this method would certainly have allowed for more informed inferences about the overall chronology of the site, intensity of occupation over time and functional zoning.2

All the same, this does not at all diminish the overall value of this study, which will be an important reference work for both technicians and archaeologists involved in the study of Roman urban history.


1.   Cf. F. Vermeulen, G.-J. Burgers, S. Keay and C. Corsi (eds.). Urban landscape survey in Italy and the Mediterranean (Oxford, Oxbow Books, 2012) and M. Millett and P. Johnson (eds.) Archaeological Survey and the City (Oxford, Oxbow Books, 2013).
2.   Cf. G. Tol, T. de Haas, K. Armstrong and P. Attema. Minor centres in the Pontine Plain: the cases of Forum Appii and Ad Medias, Papers of the British School at Rome 82, pp. 109-134 (2014).

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