BMCR 2005.05.05

Landscapes of Change. Rural Evolutions in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages

, Landscapes of change : rural evolutions in late antiquity and the early Middle Ages. Aldershot, Hants: Ashgate, 2004. 1 online resource. ISBN 9781351923484 $84.95.

Essay collections, that distinctive postmodern academic form of writing, often seem scattered and uncoordinated. Landscapes of Change is a happy exception. This volume assembles ten papers which actually deal with the same issue, rural settlement and land use, mostly in the western empire, from the fourth through seventh centuries (with a few excursions forward in time). Neil Christie, whose intelligent editorship such focus reveals, did not have to strive hard in his introduction (the eleventh chapter) to pinpoint the themes that weave together Landscapes of Change. He identifies the impact of History — politics, military activity, religious change — on rural life; the nature of rural economic output; the fate of the Roman villa; new settlement types and their raisons d’être. Naturally, even in such a disciplined collection lack of interdisciplinary communication amongst its authors leaves some traces: Helena Hamerow wonders in ch. 11 about the habitability of sunken-featured buildings in postclassical Britain, while Patrick Périn (ch. 9) pretty much demonstrates that across the channel, in northern France, such structures served as barns, storage, and workshops, not as houses. The two are in unwitting dialogue also on the subject of whether excavated sites represent only failed settlements. Yet, overall there is a wonderful coherence to this book, especially considering that in geographical terms it ranges widely, from the Balkans to Iberia, and from Northumbria to Libya.

Christie wants Landscapes of Change to be a companion volume for Towns in Transition, a similar compilation he edited in 1997. Unlike the earlier collection, this one calls attention to the neglected postclassical countryside as it emerges in recent archaeological surveys (or in reevaluated less recent ones). Christie notes (p. 30) that trends in late Roman urbanism deeply affected what he calls the (d)evolution of rural settlement, which justifies using Landscapes of Change as a pendentive to Towns in Transition. Indeed, the different settlement patterns in the late antique Maghrib, where Tunisian countrysides remained occupied even as Cyrenaican farmers retrenched, fortified their settlements, and moved to hilltops, seems to Anna Leone and David Mattingly (ch. 5) a result of access to urban markets. In Albania, likewise, the demise of coastal towns in the late sixth century led to a reorganization of inhabitation in the countryside, according to William Bowden and Richard Hodges’ reconstruction (ch. 7). The point of view advanced by Peregrine Horden and Nicholas Purcell in their Corrupting Sea (Oxford, 2000), whereby Mediterranean towns are mere “epiphenomena” of the ecologically-defined microregions whose history alone should engage us, is thus brushed aside.

This kind of indifference to the ecological dimensions of the transformations the authors of Landscapes of Change chronicle is a persistent feature of the book. Most contributors overlooked the importance of local geographies, despite the introduction’s promise to unveil what happened in postclassical marshes and woodlands (27). Périn considers late antique French villages “well adapted to the natural environment” (p. 266), and Alexandra Chavarría Arnau relates differences between villas on Iberia’s coast and those inland to “topography” as well as urbanization (p. 68). Paul Arthur, in a chapter on Italy’s rural landscapes remarkable for its southern focus, opens by observing how varied is the peninsula’s geography, hydrology, and climate (p. 103). But that is the extent of the authors’ sensitivity to environmental issues. In a book whose ultimate achievement is the demonstration of how diverse was the history of the rural landscape of the late antique Roman empire, it is odd that no-one went further, or took landscape seriously as the interaction of a coherent set of ecosystems, which is one of its normative definitions (advanced, for example, by E. Russell, People and the Land Through Time, New Haven, 1997)). Indeed, if regionalism is the lesson that readers are supposed to take away from Landscapes of Change, then careful consideration of each region’s “microecology” (to use Horden and Purcell’s terminology) would recommend itself. Some, at least, of the changes that Landscapes of Change ascribes to the new influence of Christianity, or military insecurity, or barbarian settlement, or shrinking markets, might instead be related to deforestation, or soil exhaustion, or climate shifts, or the introduction of new fauna in a particular region. More nuanced regional understandings of the decline and fall of the Roman empire, or of the transformation of the Roman world, require a solid grasp of each region’s environmental peculiarities, of how the landscape worked as an ecosystem, before it worked as an economy. Given the increasing prowess of palaeoecological tools and the greater integration of botanical and faunal analysis in archaeological work, past regional environments are much easier to know than they were until recently. It is thus a shame Landscapes of Change does not explore them.

All of the contributors to Landscapes of Change are archaeologists, so it is not surprising that archaeological methodology gets thoroughly debated in the volume. Christie notes that “landscape archaeology is not an exact science or discipline” (p. 4), and its inexactitudes receive attention throughout. Guy Sanders probably goes furthest in this regard (ch. 6). In his discussion of south Greek (mostly Corinthian) rural evidence, Sanders points out how the assumptions and cultural constructs of earlier scholars shaped a “catastrophist” account of settlement and economic activity that now seems untenable, especially in light of many artifacts’ re-dating. Similar erroneous readings of the pottery supply are deconstructed in Leone and Mattingly’s chapter about Maghribi contexts. As a matter of fact, much of the confusion stems from the visibility and (apparent) datability of African Red Slip wares, whose sherds become the survey archaeologist’s crutch. As in the Peloponnesus, so in Bulgaria the interruption of imported pottery use did not imply the abandonment of sites. In the case of Bulgaria, as Andrew Poulter argues (ch. 8), the end of occupation in villas (another very visible artifact) was accompanied by the increased use of wood after the fifth century; this pattern renders identifying rural constructions arduous but does not signify settlement ended. Ken Dark makes a parallel point about fifth- and sixth-century Britain (ch. 10). There, fourth-century villas had been grand statements of élite identity and political affiliation, as Sarah Scott reveals (ch.2). The recycling of such villas after 400 as economic units, rather than cultural statements, left material traces it would be reductive to see as “barbarization” even if they do not resemble classical villas. Cumulatively, then, Landscapes of Change makes a convincing case for more careful and sympathetic readings of the traditional signs of decline and fall in the material record. Its authors show how the methods and outlooks of their predecessors often clouded their views of the late Roman past.

Beyond that, Landscapes of Change also calls for a reevaluation of the relationship between written and material evidence from late antiquity. Compared to some recent pugnacious statements of the primacy of archaeological data for the period, like Riccardo Francovich and Richard Hodges’ From Villa to Village (London, 2003), it is an understated, moderate call (the latter’s view that Italian villages pre-date the Carolingians does not correspond to Arthur’s reconstruction in ch. 4). Sanders shows how twentieth-century scholars’ cult of the text led to imagining that late antique Corinthian rubble resulted from earthquakes that never shook Corinth (p. 171); Bowden and Hodges chastise Communist-era Albanian archaeologists for taking a “passive role” in defining the nation’s history (p. 205). In his introduction, Christie suggests one rationale for the choice of landscapes surveyed in his collection, namely their underdocumentation (compared to Syria, Egypt, and the eastern empire in general, p. 3). This is also why the archaeological record is so crucial to the “Dark Ages,” to the period before the ninth century when “usable numbers” of written sources emerge, revealing a busy agrarian world (p. 5-6). However muted is its claim, Landscapes of Change plausibly presents archaeology as the best window into a time and place (actually a collection of regions, as we have seen, mostly in the western empire) when the written record is inadequate to raise, let alone to answer, questions about agricultural production.

If this book proves archaeology to be most useful for understanding rural change in late antiquity, it also proves how the contemporary discipline of late antique archaeology is enmeshed in modernity. Périn notes the close correlation between the French republic’s recent “grands travaux,” mostly in the north, and the explosion of archaeological opportunities in the past quarter century (p. 256), while both the Chunnel and new highways have advanced our knowledge of early Anglo-Saxon rural settlement, according to Hamerow (p. 312). Intimacy between the modern state and archaeological research in Albania is the leitmotif to Bowden and Hodges’ analysis. The modern nation state, then, seems to fashion our understanding of postclassical countrysides (and perhaps even our presuppositions, if there is a whiff of nationalism in the insistence that post-built structures in France are indigenous and Gallic, not Germanic, p. 272-5). Scott’s comparison of fourth-century villas in Italy and Britain is, after all, unlike most of the other chapters in its willingness to cross modern national boundaries. Leone and Mattingly, it is true, also compress evidence from late antique landscapes that today lie in several North African states, and thus are the least “national” in outlook of all this volume’s contributors; but they are not dealing with “Europe.” For, while Landscapes of Change respects national categories, it also delimits late antique rural landscapes in a manner that espouses Europe as the European Union nowadays envisions it. The volume omits late antique landscapes from the eastern empire (or its Asian provinces), on account of the different postclassical histories those landscapes are supposed to have experienced (p. 2). The EU-friendly past evoked in Landscapes of Change is thus modern in its double acceptance of the nation state as a framework for analysis and of the transnational European Union to define the field of inquiry.

Regardless, Landscapes of Change is a book of rare excellence. Without inflicting the sense of disorientation that collective books usually inspire when read cover-to-cover, it teaches a vast amount about postclassical economies and societies. It offers up-to-date syntheses of fresh archaeological data, much of it hard for non-specialists to reach at all. It sheds considerable light on vital and neglected matters of rural land use and settlement, becoming thereby a precious point of reference. This rich collection confirms how marvelously complex, and how regionally diverse, was the transition form classical to medieval times.