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. After the Roman conquest of the region in the 3rd century B.C., Vagnari was linked to Rome by one of Italy’s main Roman roads, the Via Appia. Excavation and survey by Canadian, British and Italian universities since 2000 have furnished evidence for a large territory here that was acquired by the Roman emperor and transformed into imperial landholdings at some point in the early 1st century A.D. The estate consisted of a central village or vicus as the economic core of the estate, an associated cemetery, and a villa, possibly of the imperial estate manager or vilicus, on a hill (San Felice) overlooking the vicus.

This archaeological project, directed by Maureen Carroll, has the in-depth exploration of the agricultural and industrial vicus as its focus. Little of this settlement of the 1st-4th century A.D. had been explored before we began work here in 2012, with only the approximate dimensions and general building lines of the village being identified by geophysical prospection, survey and test-trenching conducted by Alastair and Carola Small (Edinburgh University). Therefore, 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). An exciting result of excavations in 2016 is the discovery of structural and material remains of an earlier Hellenistic settlement dating back to the 2nd century B.C. at the latest. This predecessor settlement, perhaps a villa, appears to have been taken over and adapted when the Roman imperial estate was created in the early 1st century A.D., and this allows us to explore settlement continuity and land management in the 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 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 (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 (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

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

To see what we excavated in 2015, and the media reaction, see

The British Academy

Society for the promotion of Roman Studies