Exploring life and death on a Roman imperial estate at Vagnari, Puglia

BSR alumna and Professor of Roman Archaeology Maureen Carroll, and Associate Professor of Anthropology Tracy Prowse (McMaster) update us on one of the BSR’s associated projects, the Vagnari imperial estate. This summer two teams of researchers from the University of Sheffield and McMaster University continued their archaeological research on the Roman settlement and associated cemetery at Vagnari, located about 15 km northwest of the large Iron Age settlement at Botromagno (modern Gravina in Puglia).

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Map showing location of Vagnari in south-east Italy (Puglia). Map by M. Carroll.

Since the archaeological discovery in 2000 by Alastair and Carola Small of a vast Roman estate around Vagnari, the retrieval of ceramic roof tiles stamped with the name of an imperial slave has indicated that this estate and its central settlement (vicus) were the property of the Roman emperor himself.  Thanks to the excavations by the University of Sheffield from 2012 to 2018, it is now clear that the imperial settlement was developed at the very beginning of the first century AD, perhaps by Augustus, and that it enjoyed a significant burst of activity at this time. Excavations in the last two years have pushed the chronology of the site back to the second century BC, however, by revealing a late Republican settlement that may have been one of those established by Roman aristocrats and speculators expanding into Apulia after the Roman conquest of the region in the third century AD. This private landholding at Vagnari then entered imperial possession, perhaps through inheritance, in the early first century AD. Archaeological evidence points to the period between the late first and the mid-fourth century AD as the most active and productive phase of occupation in the vicus at Vagnari, with the late fourth century witnessing the decline and abandonment of the settlement.

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Excavating a pit filled with pottery of the Augustan period in the vicus. Photo by M. Carroll.

In preparation for the final publication of the vicus, an international team of specialists on the University of Sheffield project came together in Gravina in 2019 to conduct an analysis of specific finds complexes that are particularly informative and offer new perspectives. The focus of our work this summer and in the coming months is on the networks that were established to create and develop the imperial estate and the connectivity between this region and others in and beyond Italy. Artefactual and environmental remains were studied to investigate the supply of imported ceramics and decorative marbles, the mobility of animals in transhumance patterns, cereal cultivation strategies, and on-site industrial outputs. Imperial properties have been studied primarily on the basis of historical texts and inscriptions, but the high-resolution archaeological data at Vagnari enables us to take a broader and, at the same time, more nuanced approach to studying such estates. The carefully documented sequences of occupation and diagnostic material at Vagnari allows us to explore the profound changes in social and political contexts, human and animal mobility, and economic regimes in this region of southern Italy brought about by its annexation to the Roman state and its regional exploitation by the imperial elite. Work on the post-excavation analysis and publication of the research is ongoing currently at the University of York.

Work in the Roman cemetery at Vagnari began in 2002, and since that time excavations have uncovered over 150 burials dating between the first and fourth centuries AD. The burials in this cemetery provide an opportunity to understand what life was like on an imperial estate and how these people buried their dead. Fieldwork continued in July and August under the direction of Tracy Prowse (McMaster University, Canada), with the aim of continuing to reveal the extent of the cemetery to the West and South of previously excavated trenches.

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Plan of the cemetery with areas excavated in 2019 outlined in black. Plan F. Taccogna, courtesy of T. Prowse.

The large northern trench contained five alla cappuccina burials similar to those found in other Roman cemeteries. Four additional cappuccina burials were reinforced with hundreds of kilograms of stone and mortar surrounding the tile structure. This year we found three burials that appeared to have been intentionally disturbed in antiquity, one of which was re-used, indicated by disarticulated bones clustered at the end of the burial  and the presence of multiple individuals inside the same disturbed tomb.

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Photo of burial F352 with cluster of bones at the South end of the burial. Photo by T. Prowse.

In the smaller southern trench, we uncovered five cappuccina burials badly damaged by modern ploughing, but also found a number of young children and infants (less than a year old) who were intentionally buried adjacent to the tomb covers, bringing the total number of individuals recovered from this trench to eleven. Most of the burials in both areas of the cemetery contained a small number of modest grave goods, typically ceramic vessels, lamps, iron objects (e.g. blades, nails), and some items of personal adornment. Ongoing bioarchaeological analysis of the skeletal sample from the Vagnari cemetery is investigating diet, mobility, activity, and health of this rural Roman population.

Pottery work

Sorting and cataloguing vicus pottery (David Griffiths, Kelsey Madden, Sarah Hayes) at the Centro Operativo per l’Archeologia di Gravina in Puglia (Soprintendenza Archeologia, Belle Arti e Paessagio) in 2019. Photo by M. Carroll.

The Sheffield 2019 fieldwork was funded through research grants from the British Academy/Leverhulme Trust, the Rust Family Foundation, and the University of Sheffield. Participants included Sally Cann, Maureen Carroll, David Griffiths, Sarah Hayes, Caroline Jackson, Petrus Le Roux, Louis Olivier Lortie, Kelsey Madden, Giuseppe Montana, Jonathan Moulton, Rebecca Sgouros, Matthew Stirn, Angela Trentacoste, and David Wigg-Wolf.

The 2019 field season by McMaster University was funded, in part, through a research grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (#430-2017-00291). The 2019 excavation team included Liana Brent, Marissa Ledger, Franco Taccogna, and 22 undergraduate students from McMaster and other Canadian universities.

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Excavations in the Roman cemetery. Photo by T. Prowse.

Maureen Carroll (Professor of Roman Archaeology, University of York (since 2020); BSR Hugh Last Fellow 2015-16; BSR Balsdon Fellow 2007-8) and Tracy Prowse (Associate Professor of Anthropology, Department of Anthropology, McMaster University; director of excavations in the cemetery at Vagnari).