BMCR 2021.03.24

The changing landscapes of Rome’s northern hinterland: the British School at Rome’s Tiber Valley Project

, , , , The changing landscapes of Rome's northern hinterland: the British School at Rome's Tiber Valley Project. Archaeopress Roman archaeology . Oxford: Archaeopress, 2020. Pp. xiv, 370. ISBN 9781789696158 £55.00.

After a public lecture by John Ward Perkins to the Royal Geographical Society on 6 February 1961, Ian Richmond was invited to comment. In an affectionate statement for his younger colleague—who like himself had been trained by Mortimer Wheeler—he concluded that the South Etruria survey was: ‘a wonderful example of the way in which archaeology unites the different sciences and wins from them a picture of a vanished world.’[1] What Ward Perkins attempted to convey, following the paradigmatic work of W.G. Hoskins’ The Making of the English Landscape (1955), was how archaeology might put the Italian countryside in all its many periods into a long historical narrative.[2] The South Etruria survey has set a benchmark for surveys of many Mediterranean regions. At the same time, it has provided a diachronic setting for the early history of Rome.

Ward Perkins never produced his version of Hoskins; this was left to Timothy Potter.[3] In hindsight, he failed to live up to the standards of his mentor, Mortimer Wheeler, who from the 1920s championed archaeology as a tool for creating a historical narrative as well as promoting people from the past. Ward Perkins also failed Wheeler on another score. Largely spearheaded by his wife, Tessa Verney Wheeler, the Wheelers’ archaeological projects were assiduously archived, enabling scholars to challenge their original conclusions.[4] It is only with this monograph, forty years after Ward Perkins’ early death, that the scale, breadth and detail of the South Etruria survey has become available. For this reason, this monograph—following an earlier volume, Bridging the Tiber[5]—must be welcomed. This said, for all its fascinating detail and discussion, its authors often appear trapped within Ward Perkins’ lingering shadow and have missed an opportunity to put people into South Etruria’s changing landscapes.


The volume opens with an introduction to the Tiber Valley Project, a British School at Rome programme between 1997-2004. ‘At its core was a project to re-evaluate the British School at Rome’s own South Etruria Survey…focusing not only on the evidence gathered by that project, but also on the broader archaeological and interpretative models which had developed subsequently’ (p.1). Chapter 2 by Witcher is a history of studies and project methodologies. This is an excellent contribution to understanding the archaeological significance of the data. Working with original records and collected materials, Witcher reviews site classifications, ceramic dating and processes of collection, squeezing every element of importance out of the original fieldwork. Vivid, diagrammatic illustrations serve to demonstrate the dramatically changing settlement evidence. Figure 2.36, echoing Potter’s earlier observations, illustrates the weighted average number of sherds per decade versus the number of settlement sites in the database (echoed by Fig. 4.33 depicting weighted finds of amphorae sherds). The first steep peak in the 7th and 6th centuries BC is followed by a trough until the next peak in the late 4th century BC, itself the basis for a massive summit in the late Republic and early Empire, before decline by stages to the later 7th century AD, after which was a Gibbonesque collapse about AD 680/700, and a miniscule reprise, less in scale than the illustrated later Bronze Age number of sherds, in the 9th and 10th centuries AD. Witcher offers critical pause for thought about this telling illustration. Using these same ceramics, he has devised a sequence of Figures 2.37 to 2.39 to review (1) the percentage change in the numbers of sites per period—emphasizing the burst of sites in the early Iron Age and a much shallower rise in the late Republic/early Imperial periods; (2) the percentage of sites abandoned at the transition between periods, emphasizing the modest desertion in the Orientalizing/Archaic period, and the late Republic to Middle Imperial periods; (3) the percentage of sites continuing in occupation from the previous period, which essentially depicts two bell curves—from the Archaic to the Mid Republican periods and from the late Republic through to c.1000 AD. Lastly, Figure 2.40 shows the newly founded sites per period. Here, the Archaic, Classical, Middle and Late Empire as well as the 9th-century periods have approximately only 20% or less new sites. Through the lens of this settlement process, the essential hallmark of the Tiber Valley Project, the historical narrative is pursued in Chapters 3 to 7.

Chapter 3 by Di Giuseppe describes the protohistoric to late Republican landscapes of the valley. Again, the analysis of the data is admirable. No less impressive are Witcher’s Chapter 4 on the early and mid-imperial landscapes (c. 50 BC – AD 250) and Helen Patterson’s three Chapters (5, 6 and 7) covering the late antique era, the late 6th to 7th centuries, and the 8th to 9th centuries.

This is a regional history of signal importance. Through the prism of the middle Tiber valley, new light is necessarily thrown on the emergence and transformation of the city of Rome from the Bronze Age up until c. AD 1000. The quality of the publication begets many historical questions, but it is the emphasis upon methodological issues that is central to this concluding volume—not least given the pioneering nature of Ward Perkins’ concept—and merit reflection.  This is the concern of the final chapter by Millett, ‘Retrospect and Prospect’.


This volume belongs to an era which began with the South Etruria survey in 1955 and led to field survey projects becoming an academic industry.[6] The essence as far as Ward Perkins was concerned was to identify sites to excavate.[7] The original project, though, owed its genesis as much to a lack of funding for fieldwork, making survey an economical means of obtaining a large amount of information without recourse to expensive post-excavation commitments. Taking nothing away from the method, it has in time pitted those who survey against those who excavate. This was never Ward Perkins’ intention and indeed he launched excavations in South Etruria, one of which—the domusculta at Santa Cornelia—has lasting importance for the evolution of Italian archaeology. This is the context, then, for Millett’s reflections.

Millett recognizes the importance of Ward Perkins’ legacy, as well as Potter’s important synthesis and forensic excavations. Millett also recognizes the problem with field survey data—dating surface scatters from ceramics (and lithics). Dating ceramics has often been based upon a pyramid scheme of historically dated sites as opposed to dated kilns. Indeed, while pottery-producing sites are described in the volume (p.183; Table 4.7), their chronologies are mostly relative as opposed to absolute. Then, as Millett recognizes, cultural consumption strategies determine the distribution of ceramics. For example, Patterson points out (p. 271) that changes in household baking in the early Middle Ages certainly affected the nature of the ceramic assemblage. No less importantly, ceramic consumption is connected to cultural attitudes to diet and dining.

Consequently, modelling demography on survey evidence based on surface ceramic remains, as Witcher boldly does for the region in the late Republican and early Imperial periods, and using this to interpret the historical process of land management should give us pause for reflection. It is as fraught with proxy concepts as the textual sources that have shaped the interpretation of macro as well as the micro histories.

Now the prospects for regional surveys have altered in recent times beyond our wildest imaginations. First, the potential of accurate radio-carbon dating has gone through revolutionary changes in the past fifteen years. Excavated sites and all their material culture can be confidently ascribed to one to two generations with some standard deviation. Second, the science of analyzing material remains—ceramics, palaeobotanical, faunal and environmental materials—has similarly been revolutionized. This, then, raises a key issue: why did the Tiber Valley Project not excavate select sites and, using these new tools, reassess the legacy data? This would not only have informed the broad historical paradigm, but also brought the lives of people into the story.

The recent Roman Peasant Project in Tuscany, based upon systematic field survey and geophysical survey data of specific sites, has tellingly revealed how misleading the surface scatters can be.[8] No archaeologist will be surprised by this. This is not in any way to deride the necessary process of contextualizing a region using all manner of remote and surface surveying techniques. But only by excavation will complex site processes be understood. Still further only by excavation will the social and economic data make sense. This is the totality of archaeological research which Millett calls for. What he fails to grasp is the paradigmatic implications of this approach. In the Tuscan case study (cited by him [p. 306] and by Witcher [p.163]), the boom-bust macro pattern of the late Republic and early Empire closely resembles that in the middle Tiber valley. But the excavated material evidence indicates the likelihood of ‘sites’ which were seasonally (as opposed to permanently) occupied by peasants engaged in agrarian strategies. Further, in this Tuscan context, the excavated material diversity points to marked consumption and often high standards of living that undermine the canonical picture of a slave-owning society pivoted around villas, properties of townspeople. Peasants, it can be plausibly argued on the basis of the archaeological evidence, negotiated the tension between consumption and exchange strategies as they responded to top-down taxation and elite pressures. This became a discontinuous but important constant of peasant life as is evident in the archaeology of the later 7th century and still more apparent in archaeological terms (as of Marc Bloch’s first feudal age) after c. AD 850.[9] To be fair, Witcher considers a more reflexive rural society but, due to the nature of his data set, he found himself tied to an extant historical paradigm, its genesis based on the reportage of a few contemporary ancient authors.

To conclude, this monograph, like its predecessor, must be welcomed. Any detailed analysis of old data is certain to enrich our historical perspective. This said, the age of field survey for field survey’s sake should surely end here and be the basis for critical strategies that also include selective excavation coupled with comprehensive material studies in order to bring people fully into the narrative of the past as actors alongside the historical figures who until now have shaped this early historical archaeology.[10] The dialectic between those who made history and those denied it, thanks to the amazing advances in archaeological methodologies since Ward Perkins started the South Etruria survey, now provide the prospect of re-thinking not just the history of Rome’s hinterland, but also of its people over three extraordinary millennia.


[1] Ian Richmond, “Discussion.” In J.B. Ward-Perkins, “Etruscan Towns, Roman Roads and Medieval Villages: The Historical Geography of Southern Etruria”, The Geographical Journal 128 (1962), 389-405 at 404.

[2] Christopher Smith, “J.B.Ward-Perkins, the BSR and the Landscape Tradition in Post-War Italian Archaeology”, Papers of the British School at Rome 86 (2018) 271-92 at 277.

[3] T.W.Potter, The Changing Landscape of South Etruria, London (1979).

[4] Jacquetta Hawkes, Adventurer in Archaeology. The Biography of Sir Mortimer Wheeler, London (1982), 144-95.

[5] Helen Patterson, Bridging the Tiber: approaches to regional archaeology in the Middle Tiber Valley, London (2004).

[6] Smith, ibid., 283.

[7] Smith, ibid., 283.

[8] K. Bowes (ed.) The Roman Peasant Project 2009-2014: Excavating the Roman Rural Poor, Philadelphia, 2021.

[9] Richard Hodges, “The primitivism of the early Medieval peasant in Italy?” in J. A. Quiros Castillo (ed.), Social inequality in Early Medieval Europe, Turnhout (2020), 165-74.

[10] P. Attema & G. Schörner, “Introduction. Comparative Issues in the Archaeology of the Roman Rural Landscape”, in P. Attema & G. Schörner. (eds.) Site Classification between Survey, Excavation and Historical Categories, Portsmouth, RT (2012), 7-10; G. Schörner, “Comparing surface, topsoil and subsurface ceramic assemblages: the case of Il Monte, San Gimignano”, in P. Attema and G. Schörner. (eds.) Comparative Issues in the Archaeology of the Roman Rural Landscape. Site Classification between Survey, Excavation and Historical Categories. Portsmouth, RI (2012), 31-41.