Working for the Emperor: Archaeology on a Roman imperial estate in Italy

Working for the Emperor: Archaeology on a Roman imperial estate in Italy

With the successful acquisition of research funding from the British Academy, the Society for the Promotion of Roman Studies, and the Faculty of Arts and Humanities, this summer Professor Maureen Carroll and a team of specialists and students have been exploring a vast rural estate at Vagnari in Puglia (ancient Apulia) in south-east Italy. This estate generated revenues for the Roman emperors since the early first century AD.

The project is an inteArchaeology. Article 3. Vagnari. Image 1rdisciplinary and collaborative programme of archaeological research focusing on industrial, artisanal and agricultural production and the exploitation of human and natural resources in the estate’s central village. The team has been excavating and exploring the buildings and manufacturing provisions in the village, and analysing the excavated artefacts to gain insight into the socioeconomic complexities and conditions of working for the emperor. Tiles stamped with the names of the manufacturers indicate that the workforce included slaves. Significant in this region of traditional transhumance are the Roman inscriptions that refer to large flocks of the emperor’s sheep that were managed by his freed slaves. Local free-born and immigrant labourers and tenants also lived and worked on the estate.

Evidence for the production of ceramics, for metal-working and lead-smelting, and for glass manufacturing has been retrieved. In the coming months, scientific analysis of these materials will enable an informed assessment of the sourcing of raw materials for the estate and the economic implications of industry in Roman Italy. Understanding the consumption of imported commodities is another important aspect of the project, the pottery vessels thus far assembled already pointing to trade contacts with North Africa, Albania and other regions in Italy. Important evidence for agriculture has also been uncovered, the botanical remains indicating the intensive cultivation of bread wheat that possibly was exported to Rome itself to provide food for the urban poor on the corn dole. All these strands of evidence contribute to an understanding of elite involvement in the exploitation of the environment and control over labour, as well as the impact of the estate on the Apulian landscape.

In a parallel project directed by Professor Tracy Prowse of McMaster University in Canada, the excavation of the neighbouring Roman cemetery – established for the inhabitants of the village – is furnishing essential evidence for the life expectancy and health of the population. Stable isotope and DNA analysis of the skeletal remains demonstrate that up to 20 per cent of the people on the estate actually relocated to the area from regions as far away as North Africa and even East Asia.

The research in and around Vagnari is well on its way to making a significant and innovative contribution to an historical, social, and scientific understanding of life and death in a region that once was intimately connected to the capital of the Roman empire.

As part of an international workshop on the future development of collaborative projects exploring the sites, monuments and territories of the imperial estate, an afternoon of presentations and lectures by Professor Carroll, and her British and Canadian colleagues, will take place on Friday 15 November between 2.00pm–6.00pm, in the Humanities Research Institute. All interested colleagues and students are invited to attend. To find out more, contact Maureen Carroll on