BMCR 2013.11.43

Fields, Farms and Colonists: Intensive Field Survey and Early Roman Colonization in the Pontine Region, Central Italy (2 vols.). Groningen archaeological studies, 15

, Fields, Farms and Colonists: Intensive Field Survey and Early Roman Colonization in the Pontine Region, Central Italy (2 vols.). Groningen archaeological studies, 15. Eelde; Groningen: Barkhuis; Groningen University Library, 2011. xi, 487. ISBN9789077922934 $93.00 (pb).


Fields, Farms and Colonists is a solid contribution to the study of central Italian landscapes and early Roman Italy and will also be of interest to scholars whose interest lies in field survey and the data they produce. This is the PhD thesis of de Haas conducted at Groningen and integrates the work of three groups of surveys in the Pontine region: the Coastal Landscape around Antium and Satricum, the Pontine Marshes or Pontinia, and the Lepine Margins around Norba. These were all conducted under the umbrella of the Pontine Region Project (PRP) to understand settlement and land-use in this region from the Archaic to the Late Republican period (580-30 BC).

The book is in two volumes, the first of which contains the main body of the text. The second volume contains a site and ceramics catalogue for the Pontinia and Norba surveys. These are intended to be used with other publications of the PRP,1 and it should be noted that this is not the publication of the raw survey data which is planned for release by digital archive via DANS, but was not available at the time of this review. Two themes structure the main text: Chapters 2-6 and 11 discuss the potential of field walking data for regional comparison and are the main presentation of the survey results. Chapters 7-10 and 12 compare the evidence from several Roman colonisations through a series of micro-histories incorporating, textual, excavation and survey evidence.

The presentation of the data are in Chapters 3-5 with highly detailed and well-illustrated analyses of the intensive surveys each with a period-by-period breakdown. These include artefact distributions, site sizes and characteristics, assemblage composition, fragmentation and periodization. The chapters then conclude with a discussion of changing patterns of settlement and land-use. Unfortunately, there are no maps on which sites are labelled (although coordinates are present in the site catalogue in the second volume); this creates a disjuncture between the discussion of the assemblage composition and the site distributions. For example, it would have been interesting to see the spatial distribution of different functional elements of the assemblages.

Chapter 6 is the main comparison between the surveys within the volume, divided into three main areas. Firstly, a frank assessment of surveying conditions highlights that, even within a small study area, farming practices and topography have a noticeable effect on the archaeological assemblages collected. Secondly, a comparison of site assemblages demonstrates that there is a great deal of variation between the different survey areas. De Haas interprets trends with respect to changing local economies and the vitality of different local centres. Thirdly, on the basis that more off-site material equates to greater manuring and therefore intensive farming, de Haas compares land-use strategies of the surveyed sites, drawing heavily upon the models of Hayes to argue for different farming methods in the different regions.2 These are intriguing results although I would have preferred a greater focus on the significance of agricultural intensification in terms of demography and land tenure.3 The discussion is detailed and nuanced and the chapter is a good demonstration of the greater breadth of research questions (as well as answers) that can be asked of intensive field survey data compared to the more traditional dots-on-a-map. However, there is limited diachronic analysis or attempt to frame these interpretations within patterns seen more widely across central Italy. In part this seems a product of the small survey areas (just 10.9km 2), the need to aggregate data from different periods and some uncertainty as to just how representative the data are.

The second half of the book begins with in-depth discussions of the archaeological evidence for Antium and Satricum (Chapter 7), the area of Pontine Marshes along the via Appia, near Setia (Chapter 8) and Norba (Chapter 9). These are well-researched chapters with valuable bibliographies, especially for the collected excavation evidence. The presentation of the survey evidence is largely reduced to the number and distribution of surveyed sites by period with reference to different tile and pottery industries in the different locales and it feels somewhat sparse after the detail of the previous chapters. Although these chapters are concerned only with the archaic and Republican periods there are useful summaries of the imperial period in appendices for each chapter.

At Antium and Satricum de Haas interprets the evidence as demographic and economic decline in the rural hinterland in the early 5th century followed by a period of continuity. There is no evidence for the colonists of Satricum (385 BC) receiving plots of 2.5 iugera as has previously been claimed. However, in the mid-Republican period he interprets a growth in settlement numbers and a more dispersed settlement patterns as evidence of a growing population and more stable political situation. Finally, the late-Republican period sees further growth in settlement numbers and greater differentiation of site-types with clusters of villas developing along the coast and the marine terraces to the north of Antium, but not in the area close to the abandoned settlement of Satricum which De Haas also argues had less intensive land-use practices.

The discussion of the Pontine marshes is most notable for the striking relationship between the draining of the marsh and its rapid occupation in the mid-Republican period. De Haas considers that this may be evidence of state-organised colonisation, due to the large-scale investment needed in both infrastructure and drainage, which was not explicitly linked to the foundation of an urban colony.

In the discussion of Norba and its hinterland, de Haas tracks the abandonment of an archaic hilltop site – Caracupa Valvisciolo in favour of the plateau of Norba in the 5th century. The viewshed analysis employed is somewhat superficial and simply equates line-of-sight with control and domination.4 Rural settlement appears to follow the dominant settlement in this region until the late Republic, during which Norba was destroyed and site numbers decline.

A comparison of these case studies follows in Chapter 10, which, although short, draws out the distinctions between colonisation of the 5th and 4th centuries. The former primarily involved creating new central places (Norba and Antium) but not large demographic changes, whereas the latter was more strongly linked with land allotment and the movement and expansion of rural populations (Pontine Marshes).

The two concluding chapters mirror the two halves of the book, with the first (Chapter 11) an argument for small intensive surveys and the second a new narrative for the colonisation of the Pontine region. Through the volume de Haas has convincingly demonstrated the inherent variability of survey data and the significant contribution that can be made if these data are collected in detail. The discussions of land-use are a prime example of how archaeologists can move beyond just counting sites. However, these are arguments for ever more intensive survey techniques. They do not really address the critiques on how to explore areas of hundreds or thousands of square kilometres, nor do they explain how intensive surveys can be used to qualify the results of extensive surveys already undertaken. This is partly evident through the final chapter (Chapter 12) that presents a new narrative and discussion of the colonisation of the Pontine region. The survey evidence is used to describe changes in rural settlement density in relation to the various centres but, due to the poor chronological resolution, this is necessarily a broad-brush description. The most important parts of this discussion are the disjuncture between colonisation events and growths in rural population and the variability in forms of colonisation. Colonies did not immediately result in dramatic changes to the rural landscape in terms of new sites and potentially cadastral systems, instead rural expansion could be centuries later and it is difficult for the two to be definitively linked. Witcher has argued persuasively that greater invention is required in survey projects, and this would seem to be a missed opportunity to foreground changes in land-use, rural consumption and identity as major factors of colonisation.5

At 12 chapters this is not a light volume, nor is it easy to dip into, with the writing long-winded at times; an index would have been useful in this respect, although the chapters are intelligently arranged. The figures are well presented in a standard format, but they often appear to be converted to greyscale from colour and in some cases it can be hard to distinguish between the different shades of grey. In the reviewer’s copy, many pages were out of order and six pages could not be located at all.. It is unfortunate that these errors were not picked up in proofs although they do not appear to interfere with any critical sections of the book.

Overall this book will be required reading for anyone researching early Roman landscapes and it is a useful exploration of what can be achieved with field walking data that will be useful for anyone planning a project, especially in Italy. Additionally, the discussion chapters provide a useful summary of the archaeological and historical evidence of the Pontine Region. However, one feels that there is unexploited scope here to frame this within broader themes of the history and archaeology of Roman Italy.


1. These are published in the journal Palaeohistoria.

2. P. Hayes. 1991. “Models for the distribution of pottery around former agricultural settlements”, in A. Schofield (ed.) Interpreting Artefact Scatters. Contributions to Ploughzone Archaeology. Oxford: 81-92.

3. e.g. E. Boserup. 1965. The Conditions of Agricultural Growth: The Economics of Agrarian Change under Population Pressure. London, and M. van der Veen and T. O’Connor. 1998, “The expansion of agricultural production in late Iron Age and Roman Britain” in J. Bayley (ed.), Science in Archaeology: An Agenda for the Future. London: 127-144.

4. contra D. Wheatley and M. Gillings. 2000. “Vision, perception and GIS: developing enriched approaches to the study of archaeological visibility”. In G.R. Lock (ed.), Beyond the map: archaeology and spatial technologies. Amsterdam: 1-27.

5. R. Witcher. 2006. “Broken pots and meaningless dots? Surveying the rural landscapes of Roman Italy”. Papers of the British School at Rome 74: 39-72.