Roman Imperial Estate at Vagnari (Italy)

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Vagnari is situated in a valley of the Basentello river, just east of the Apennine mountains in Puglia (ancient Apulia) in south-east Italy. The eastern-most part of Apulia was inhabited by an Italic people known as the Peuceti and their territory was an independent, wealthy, and culturally important political entity from at least the 6th century B.C., with a major settlement at Botromagno, about 20 km east of Vagnari. After the Roman conquest of Apulia in the late 4th century B.C., one of Italy’s main Roman roads, the Via Appia, connected the region to Rome itself. The site of Vagnari was identified through geophysical prospection, survey and test-trenching conducted by Alastair and Carola Small (Edinburgh University) in 2000. Excavation and survey since then have furnished evidence for a large rural territory surrounding Vagnari that was acquired as an imperial estate by the Roman emperor in the 1st century A.D. The estate consisted of a central village, or vicus, as the economic and administrative core of the estate and an associated cemetery, both at Vagnari.

The archaeological project, directed by Maureen Carroll since 2012, has the in-depth exploration of the agricultural and industrial vicus at Vagnari as its focus. Our main objectives have been to investigate the buildings, the economy, and the role of slave and free labour in the vicus, with a particular focus on public and private facilities and industrial and agricultural production (including lead smelting and wine making). In the last two excavation seasons, new and exciting evidence has been retrieved for a considerably older settlement of at least the 2nd century B.C. at Vagnari that enables us to explore the interaction between the indigenous population and the Roman state following the subjugation of Apulia. With this new discovery, we can address a range of vital questions regarding the changes in population and land use at Vagnari over a period of at least 500 years, hoping to understand the Iron Age and pre-Roman occupation of the territory and the profound impact of the Roman conquest on the culture, society, and economy of the inhabitants of this annexed region.

Parallel to this project, Tracy Prowse from McMaster University (Canada) is continuing her investigations in the neighbouring Roman cemetery where those who lived and died in the vicus were buried. By combining archaeological as well as palaeoanthropological evidence, the potential for significantly advancing our understanding of the living and working conditions and health of a rural population in Roman imperial Italy is considerable.

Very few imperial properties in Italy have been the object of detailed and systematic archaeological investigation. The multidisciplinary research at this site is important to understand the role of a Roman imperial estate in the regional and extra-regional economy of Italy; elite involvement in the exploitation of the environment and control over labour; the contribution of a nucleated imperial property to cultural and economic change in Apulia; and the nature, origins, and social complexity of the population on the estate. The results obtained in this investigation may serve as a model for future studies on other imperial landholdings that are only poorly understood or investigated.

We thank the British School at Rome, the Soprintendenza Archeologica della Puglia, the British Academy, the Society for the Promotion of Roman Studies, and the University of Sheffield for generous support of the project over the last few years.

We also thank the many specialists and students who contribute to the success of the project, and Dr. Mario de Gemmis Pellicciari for kind permission to excavate on his land.

For the most recent reports, see:

M. Carroll (2016), Vagnari. Is this the winery of Rome’s greatest landowner?, Current World Archaeology 76: 30-33

M. Carroll (2014), Vagnari 2012: New Work in the vicus by the University of Sheffield, in A.M. Small (ed.), Beyond Vagnari. New Themes in the Study of Roman South Italy. Bari, Edipuglia, 79-88

M. Carroll and T. Prowse (2016) Research at the Roman Imperial Estate at Vagnari, Puglia (Comune di Gravina in Puglia, Provincia di Bari, Regione Puglia), Papers of the British School at Rome 84: 333-336

M. Carroll and T. Prowse (2014), Exploring the vicus and the necropolis at the Roman Imperial estate at Vagnari (Comune di Gravina in Puglia, Provincia di Bari, Regione Puglia), Papers of the British School at Rome 82: 353-356

T. Prowse and M. Carroll (2015), Research at Vagnari (Comune di Gravina in Puglia, Provincia di Bari, Regione Puglia), Papers of the British School at Rome 83: 324-326

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