Roman Imperial Estate at Vagnari, University of Sheffield Excavations 2016

Vagnari is situated just east of the Apennine mountains in Puglia (ancient Apulia), about 12 km west of the Iron Age town of Botromagno (near modern Gravina in Puglia). After the Roman conquest of south-east Italy in the third century B.C., Rome had direct links to the region by the Via Appia, a major overland route. Indigenous settlements appear to have gone into decline from this time, and in the following period wealthy Romans of the senatorial class appropriated tracts of Apulian land. It is in this context that Vagnari is to be understood.

Epigraphic evidence, in the form of stamped roof tiles, provides clear evidence for ownership of the estate at Vagnari: those who made the tiles were slaves of the Roman emperor. But it has always been uncertain whether the area around Vagnari had truly been devoid of settlement between the Roman conquest and the acquisition of landholdings by the Roman emperor in the early 1st century A.D.

Since 2012, the University of Sheffield has been conducting excavations in the settlement (vicus) on the Roman imperial estate, the economic and administrative core of the estate. A wide range of cereal crops were grown and processed on the estate, and specialist industries practiced by the resident manpower included iron-working, lead processing, and the tile-making, with a peak in production in the 2nd century A.D. The exciting discovery in 2015 of a winery containing enormous ceramic wine vats with a capacity of 1000 litres and more indicates that vineyards also had been planted in the landscape.

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This summer, in July and August 2016, our excavations produced exciting and brand new evidence for occupation of much earlier date. We discovered a building whose floors, walls, and storage pits can be dated to the Hellenistic period, to the 2nd century B.C. at the latest. The structural and in situ artefactual evidence in 2016 demonstrates beyond doubt that there was a predecessor settlement here, perhaps a villa, which was taken over and adapted when the imperial estate was established in the early 1st century A.D. This indicates that the region was not depopulated or empty after the Roman conquest, although it remains to be clarified who actually built and inhabited the Hellenistic settlement.

Excavations in 2016 also suggest that in the first half of the 1st century A.D., when the owner became the emperor, the Roman buildings in this part of the vicus were well appointed and perhaps chiefly residential in nature, as suggested by marble slabs used to pave floors or walls and by large glass window panes. We will be pursuing the evidence for a possible change in status of the vicus, from a settlement of elevated status of some kind in the 1st century A.D. to a village that intensified its focus on industrial and agricultural production in the 2nd century.


The excavations in the vicus are carried out by the University of Sheffield and directed by Maureen Carroll, in collaboration with the Soprintendenza per i Beni Archeologici della Puglia and the British School at Rome. The project has benefited from sponsorship from the British Academy, the Society for the Promotion of Roman Studies, and the University of Sheffield. Student bursaries in 2016 were generously provided by The Alumni Foundation, Your Global Sheffield, and Erasmus. Dr. Mario de Gemmis-Pellicciari, the landowner at Vagnari, kindly has facilitated our work here.

For more information, see the project website:
http://www.sheffield.ac.uk/archaeology/research/vagnari

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