BMCR 2014.07.14

Rus Africum, Tome I; Rus Africum, Tome II

, , Rus Africum, Tome I. Le paysage rural antique autour de Dougga et Téboursouk: cartographie, relévés et chronologie des établissements. Bibliotheca archaeologica, 30​. Bari: Edipuglia, 2013. 415 pages. ISBN 9788872287033
, , , , Rus Africum, Tome II. Le paysage rural antique autour de Dougga: L'aqueduc Aïn Hammam-Thugga, cartographie et relevés. Bibliotheca archaeologica 34. Bari: Edipuglia, 2013. 300 pages. ISBN 9788872287286

The survey carried out between 1994 and 2000, and then again between 2008 and 2012, under the direction of Mariette De Vos and Mustapha Khanoussi and Samir Aounallah for, respectively, the University of Trento and the Tunisian Institut National du Patrimoine, is one of the most extensive carried out in North Africa, joining the surveys of the Libyan Valleys, Segermes, Kasserine, Leptiminus and Jerba in documenting the landscape of this vital part of the empire. It concerns the heartland of Africa Proconsularis, surveyed with modern criteria and documented with admirable method and precision. Further, the landscape itself is relatively intact, with the plans of many of the sites still visible on the ground, generally in the form of large orthostats and other blocks in situ. The publication of these 500-odd sites (in the first volume) and the 11.2km aqueduct (in the second) is thus of capital importance for our understanding of the rural history of Africa Proconsularis, and of Roman Africa of a whole. However, these volumes are strictly devoted to documentation: the first produces the catalogue of sites, without a word of commentary beyond what is found in the individual, succinct records for each, and the second, the whole of the available evidence for the aqueduct with the exception of the nymphaeum with which it terminated at Dougga. As such, any discussions of the conclusions from the survey will have to await the next volume (unless other data-filled volumes are in store), and this brief review will of necessity concentrate on the methodology of the presentation.

The first volume is set out in three main parts, and accompanied by a DVD that contains the photographs of each site. The first section is the catalogue of sites. Each record comprises a description of the position and of the remains, a summary of published inscriptions and the texts of any new ones (151 were recovered in all, including a second copy of the celebrated inscription of Aïn el Djemala (CIL VIII, 25943), the important dedication of the Civitas Mizigitanorum and the terminus of T. Statilius Taurus for one of the imperial estates in the region, and the relevant bibliography. The epigraphy is given rather short shrift: the new inscriptions are published without drawings or measurements or any discussion – perhaps they await a fuller treatment by Mustapha Khanoussi? At the end of each record there are (usually) two tables: the first summarizes the nature of finds (querns, presses, sarcophagi, inscriptions, etc., coded by letter), the second the dating of the material, broken down into 9 periods, from Prehistoric to Modern. This section is followed by a useful table of the names recorded, the bibliography, and an index of the sites, giving the page number on which they appear, the coordinates, and any relevant figures. There are then a very few pages of colour photographs. The next section contains the maps, with an elegant combination of contours and hill shading, on which the sites are positioned – these do not give us any idea of what was effectively walked, but perhaps that will be revealed in a subsequent volume. The final section of the printed book contains the collected plans of the sites. These are simply spectacular: beautiful surveys of standing stones, with wall lines interpolated and any particular finds indicated. It seems almost churlish, given their really outstanding quality, to criticize the fact that they are reproduced at a myriad of scales, with the apparent objective of fitting the drawing to the page rather than allowing visual comparison between drawings: anyone trying to work out how large a building is will have to translate the irrational scales of most of these plans.

The final component of the publication is the DVD, which simply holds a set of folders labeled with the number of each site, containing in their turn the relevant photographs: these are of uniformly high quality (although sometimes without photographic scales), and the format allows a generous illustration of the material. If one regrets the rather austere refusal to offer systematically an identification of the sites in the catalogue (‘farm’ ‘mausoleum’ ‘oppidum’), it may be assumed that this level of analysis will be undertaken in a subsequent volume.

The volume and DVD thus contain everything that it was possible to document about these sites except, perhaps, the individual forms of the ceramics recovered, or their number. However, these will very likely form part of subsequent publications. How well does the structure work? Here there are of course some doubts. Because all the figures are at the end of the book, one has to keep one placeholder in the descriptions, another on the relevant map, another in the figures, while with a computer one looks at the pictures. This is rather inconvenient, but not insuperable, and the only worry is that the DVD, within 10 years or less, will no longer be a very easy medium from which to retrieve the photographs. But of course what the material cries out for is a web-based GIS presentation. As all of this material is already incorporated in a GIS, one hopes that such a presentation is planned in the future. There are still obstacles for such websites, particularly the sustainability of any given software, but with the new generation of African surveys now published it would be vital to create a platform onto which the information from all of them can be stored, allowing for comparison and analysis on a far greater scale that has heretofore been possible.

There are also some strange omissions, – no plans or photographs of site 549, the municipium of Agbia, transformed into a Byzantine fortress (and described by Pringle, who is missing in the bibliography for the site), or of 550, the site of Aunobaris, from which come 5 inscriptions, or any description or illustration of sites 551-555 (all urban, with the exception of the Fossa regia). Many sites do not appear to have chronologies and are absent from the table of dated sites, in spite of having the usual furniture of presses, orthostats, inscriptions and walls in opus africanum. In general, the plentiful inscriptions or the well-described building techniques are not used for dating the sites, for example site 599, which is listed on the table as only Byzantine, despite its Roman inscriptions with the formula DMS (in Africa generally later than AD 200) and the remains of the farm built into its walls. The prehistoric and Islamic periods are also very, very broad: it matters if the prehistoric evidence is Paleolithic or Neolithic or Iron Age, and it matters whether the Islamic material is Aghlabid or Fatimid or Hafsid: neither determination requires much effort.

The second volume, on the aqueduct, is if anything even more lavish in its presentation of the material remains. A very brief presentation of what we know about the aqueduct (its date, its geological situation, its building technique, its flow and its slope) is followed by a catalogue of the individual elements of it remaining in the landscape, including cisterns, access shafts, aqueduct bridges and, preciously, the new evidence for a pressure siphon over one of the bridges. The aqueduct had been studied by Carton in 1897, and where he noticed a feature his work is quoted in full. The bulk of the book, however, is devoted to De Vos’ photographs, many in colour, which occupy some 229 pages. These are mostly lovely, treating both details and landscapes, and one is grateful to the publisher’s generosity while being somewhat perplexed at their quantity.

What does it all add up to? This is hard to know: the absence of analysis in either volume leaves these terrific plans and photographs open to all sorts of interpretations, which we generally expect of the archaeologists involved in a project. Granted that some preliminary essays appeared in the exhibition catalogue of 2000,1 there is no explanation at the beginning of the first volume as to the choices made by the authors, or their project for the multi-volume publication of the project. The avoidance of attributing meaning or historical context to the results goes as far as the omission of the text of the dedication of the aqueduct which led to Dougga from the fons [M]occolitanus by the proconsul of Africa, Marcus Aurelius Zeno, in AD 187, or the plan of the nymphaeum that it ornamented. 2 Even the captions on the photographs leave unexplained gaps: is the photograph on p. 277 of a candle lit in the space where the specus meets the cistern a votive offering to the eponymous saint of the specus, Lalla Makhola? 3 If so, why not let the reader know? These issues will probably be resolved in a subsequent volume, for which this publication is simply a step (albeit a giant one) towards a thorough analysis of the history of this fascinating landscape. ​


1. M. De Vos, Rus Africum . Terra acqua olio nell’Africa settentrionale. Scavo e ricognizione nei dintorni di Dougga (Alto Tell tunisino), Trento, 2000.

2. AE 2000 (2003), 1726: see the discussion by Louis Maurin in M. Khanoussi and L. Maurin, Dougga, fragments d’histoire, Bordeaux, 2000, p. 102-109, and A. Beschaouch, ‘Epigraphie et Ethnographie d’une fête populaire de Dougga en Tunisie. À la dédicace de l’aqueduc de Thugga en Afrique Romaine’, CRAI 2000, 1173-1181); the inscription decorated the nymphaeum published by J.-P. Golvin and M. Khanoussi , Dougga, Études d’architecture religieuse. Les sanctuaires des Victoires de Caracalla, de “Pluton”et de Caelestis, Bordeaux, 2005, 35.

3. Beschaouch, op. cit.