‘Alastair Small (Rome Scholar 1965-7) began work near the small village of San Giovanni di Ruoti in Basilicata (ancient Lucania) in the 1970s with Robert Buck, and with the encouragement of Dinu Adamesteanu, the great superintendent of the region. The local historian Gerardo Salinardi had drawn attention to the potential of the site, then accessible only by mule. The excavation from 1977 to 1984 revealed a stunning villa site, occupying a beautiful position looking down the Valley of the Fiumara di Avigliano, towards the ever receding hills.
The site produced splendid late Roman mosaic floors (now in the museum at Muro Lucano), and had its own bath building. It was on two floors, with a large absidal building, and perhaps the most significant aspect is its continuity. There appears to have been an early phase which began around the time of Augustus and continued just into the third century, but when the villa sparks back into life in around 300 it continues into the mid-seventh century.
Life was not entirely ordered – the disused areas show extraordinary amounts of rubbish and animal remains – but at the same time, San Giovanni di Ruoti remained connected, especially to Adriatic trade.
Alastair returned earlier this month to San Giovanni for the presentation of a synthesis of the excavation, produced with Francesco Tarlano. The volume, La villa romana e tardoantica di San Giovanni di Ruoti (Basilicata). Una sintesi (published superbly by Pisani Teodosio Edizioni) is a sharp, clear and well-illustrated account of this important villa site, summarising work published in the more imposing Phoenix supplements which experts will know (two more volumes are due).
I was privileged to be part of the event, and it was yet another illustration of the passion Italians have for their heritage. Alastair and Carola Small, indefatigable as ever, were at the heart of everything – a tour round the site with an eager audience, talks in the evening in a packed hall; and many memories. This was a dig which had engaged a community, and archive photos of the 1970s team were eagerly scrutinized for friends and relatives. Some of the Canadian team came too – husband and wife Eric Haldenby and Rosemary Aicher, who met at Ruoti, and Joann Freed who worked on the pottery. Luisa Troiano, who had moved to America in the 1960s, and whose generosity made the whole project possible, gave a gracious speech and was cheered to the rafters. Everything was managed impeccably by Felice Faraone, whose idea it had all been.
The following day, Alastair, Carola and I travelled to Muro Lucano to see the mosaics and the other treasures of this super museum, directed by Salvatore Pagliuca, who has created a little gem, with a stunning sixth-century grave from Baragiano to gladden my heart.
I stayed in the aptly named and very lovely Dimora di Bacco, where Luigi Nardiello and Giuseppina Matturro were bringing in the vintage from their vineyard. Much in Basilicata has not changed, and perhaps in particular its capacity to run at a different pace from the rest of Italy, just as in antiquity its cultural activity outlasted northern neighbours. Recently, it has been in the news for its acceptance of large numbers of migrants (in late Antiquity it was the Lombards of course). It scores extraordinarily highly in tourist satisfaction, but is far less visited than other parts of Italy; and San Giovanni di Ruoti is in need of attention – it must either be restored properly or backfilled. Basilicata goes its own way, but investment is needed.
This story can be multiplied almost endlessly – a small town, well excavated by a super team, with huge local enthusiasm, and revealing unknown treasures. It is what makes Italian archaeology so very remarkable – it is not just a scientific process, it is also a way in which discovering the past makes new memories, creates new communities, and refocuses older ones. This story stands for the many times I have encountered the impact of archaeology in Italy, and in this instance, much is owed to the BSR’s great friend Alastair Small, for whom the affection in this local community was palpable. Bravo Alastair!’
Christopher Smith (BSR Director)