BMCR 2020.12.05

Before/after: transformation, change, and abandonment in the Roman and late antique Mediterranean

, , , , Before/after: transformation, change, and abandonment in the Roman and late antique Mediterranean. Oxford: Archaeopress, 2020. Pp. 126. ISBN 9781789695991. £30.00.

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

This volume is the result of a workshop that took place at the Theoretical Roman Archaeology Conference (TRAC) in Rome in 2016. All texts revolve around phenomena of complete or partial abandonment of objects, settlements, sanctuaries, or larger landscape units, but apart from that they cover an extremely broad spectrum.

Joan Oller Guzmán begins with a revision of the thesis that Roman Spain went through a profound crisis in the 3rd century AD, with exemplary reference to the Layetania interior. For several urban and rural sites, he examines as many physical and functional characteristics as possible that can provide information about continuity, discontinuity and phases of abandonment. Based on this, he sees the spatial units under consideration characterized by continuity as a whole and by adaptations in detail. This leads him to the conclusion that the observed local processes may be interpreted as symptoms of a broader socio-economic transition to the epoch of Late Antiquity, but not as part of a crisis, let alone a decline.

Another generally assumed connection with the crisis of the 3rd century AD is refuted by Dario Nappo in his discussion of Myos Hormos/Quseir al-Qadim. He shows that this Red Sea port was abandoned more than a century before the key stages of the crisis, and so eliminates the possibility of a causal connection between crisis and abandonment. Instead, he proposes an economic-geographical reorganization of the hubs in the Red Sea, with the Nile canal established under Trajan and the development of the port of Klysma as further elements within this process.

Tyler V. Franconi traces the multifactorial mixture of climate, hydrology, and politics which shaped the abandonment and relocation of settlements along the Rhine from the 3rd century AD onwards. Even though such human-environment interactions are often only referred to, but not substantiated, the author succeeds in presenting an impressive and coherent account of the many pivotal points and factors to be reckoned with in the gradual transformation of such a large and complex space as the Rhine area.

Alessandra Esposito focuses on the phenomenon of intentional deposits of ceremonial headdresses in the southeast of Roman Britain. She examines four exemplary find-contexts for which she works out local small-scale processes case by case. Within the argument, a relatively thin layer of findings and spatial conditions meets a high proportion of interpretation. Nevertheless it becomes clear what different conditions and consequences abandonment can have—and how much we are therefore called upon to assure ourselves of the particular circumstances and hermeneutical limits of each individual case.

Giorgos Papantoniou links the decline of many extra-urban sanctuaries of Cyprus during the Roman imperial period to a concomitant process of political unification: i.e. the original coexistence of city-kingdoms gave way to a much more coherent political unity in Roman times. This shift made the previous frontier sanctuaries obsolete in favour of the larger urban sanctuaries. A side look at smaller-scale changes within the consecration of statues and temple architecture in the Cypriot sanctuaries makes a convincing contribution to the thesis of a gradual and systemic loss of relevance.

Like Guzmán and Nappo, Athanasios K. Vionis aims to revise a thesis prevailing in previous scholarship, now focusing on the transformation of the eastern Mediterranean between Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages. On the basis of selected archaeological settlements, he not only discusses reasons but also develops several hermeneutical and historical distinctions that ought to be considered for a better-founded approach to such transformation processes. In contrast to the previous contributions, the author includes the question of the historical perception of abandonment: for example, he distinguishes between the different effects and visibility of such processes for urban and rural dwellers, considers the possibility that monumentality has gradually been reinterpreted, and addresses the inevitability of encountering traces of the past when living in partially abandoned places.

In the last contribution, Marco Cavalieri deals with the Late Antique and Early Medieval development of the Roman villa of Aiano. Based on the results of recent excavations, he brings out the micro-processes that took place there from the end of the 5th to the beginning of the 7th century, both in terms of changes that the built structures underwent and patterns of craftsmanship that established themselves among the ruins of the villa. By doing so, the author opens up an intriguing perspective on the active dealing with and appropriation of abandoned spaces.

The recognizable disparity of the contributions is not limited to the spatial and temporal diversity and the extent of their examination areas, but also concerns their methodological and theoretical profile. This applies first and foremost to the basic understandings of causality that underlies abandonment: some authors try to trace it back to clearly defined factors, whereas others understand it as an inextricable complexity (e.g. Nappo, Papantoniou vs. Franconi, Vionis); some authors insist on understanding causes within as localized a context as possible, while others search for more structural reasons applicable to more than one single case (e.g. Esposito vs. Franconi; Papantoniou takes an interesting intermediate position by observing a historical shift from a micro-regional to an island-wide causality). Occasionally, questions regarding the historical perception of and responses to abandoned places is included as well (mainly by Vionis and Calivieri). In general, there is a strong tendency throughout the volume to understand the processes that led to abandonment in as attenuated a form as possible: almost consistently, the authors try to avoid speaking of crisis and disruption and to emphasize that only gradual changes between two basically equivalent stages took place. In the end, however, the decision between ‘weak’ and ‘strong’ transitions often remains a dogmatic one. While our possibilities of registering uniformities and changes are becoming increasingly refined, a fundamental problem of archaeological interpretation remains: Which criteria allow us to reliably differentiate between ongoing adjustments and more comprehensive caesuras; and how should we relate such transitions to historical self-perceptions?

The range of contributions in this volume perfectly reflects the status quo of scholarship on abandonment in the Graeco-Roman Mediterranean. This, along with the individual contributions to their respective single research areas, is the great value of the book.

Authors and titles

Joan Oller Guzmán—Crisis or Transformation: the Effects of the ‘Third Century Crisis’ in the Layetania Interior. An Example from the Hispania Citerior Tarraconensis
Dario Nappo—The Abandonment of Myos Hormos
Tyler V. Franconi—Hydrological Change and Settlement Dislocation along the Later Roman Rhine
Alessandra Esposito—Abandoned but not forgotten. Dynamics of Authority Negotiation in the British Sacred Landscape
Giorgos Papantoniou—Contesting Sacred Landscapes: Continuity and Abandonment in Roman Cyprus
Athanasios K. Vionis—Abandonment and Revival between Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages: Facts and Fiction
Marco Cavalieri—Investigating Transformations through Archaeological Records in the Heart of Tuscany. The Roman Villa at Aiano between Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages (4th-7th c. AD)