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Visualising Engineered Landscapes: an archaeological approach to unlock environmental resilience and sustainability in antiquity

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - VEiL (Visualising Engineered Landscapes: an archaeological approach to unlock environmental resilience and sustainability in antiquity)

Reporting period: 2015-07-20 to 2017-07-19

Land surveying and division were the first forms of large-scale landscape engineering performed by ancient societies. Centuriation, the iconic Roman systems of land platting into parcels assigned to settlers, which still characterises the rural landscapes of many Mediterranean countries, was undoubtedly the most complex and advanced among them. Despite its impact on contemporary land organisation, however, the principles underlying the design approach used by Roman land commissioners is still largely ambiguous. The VEiL project thus aimed to illuminate the process of landscape engineering undertaken in antiquity and contribute to the discipline of cultural landscape by providing new evidence to inform ongoing discussion. Using the territory surrounding the city of Aquileia as a case study, one of the largest cadastres deployed by Romans up to the 2nd century BC, the overarching objective (OB) of this project was to unlock the rationale underlying the processes of landscape engineering employed by the ancient surveyors. Moving from this overall aim, the project specifically intended to:
OB1. identify the land system components and their long-term endurance in the landscape or document their obliteration over the course of subsequent territorial transformations;
OB2. hypothesise the pressures responsible for altering through time land division elements and for obliterating them or, contrariwise, the reasons for the persistence of others; discover why the pressures impacted only portions of the territory and how the partition axes degraded;
OB3. realise the land division relationship with the primeval landscape and investigate how the original land environmental features may have determined the design of the planned grid;
OB4. analyse the elements that ensured the functioning of the land division system as seen as a complex infrastructure that aimed to optimise the settlement of colonists and the movement of goods and people;
OB5. enhance and customise the application of diverse fields of Computer vision for automated data collection, analysis, and management.
The project outcomes concurred to better understand the approach used by ancient land commissioners in assessing the ecosystem prior to tackling land engineering; established the cadastre module deployed at the case study area; illuminated the mechanism of survival or obliteration of cadastre components; and improved automated mapping of cultural landscape patterns and features.
The project integrated traditional archaeological research and fieldwork with sophisticated digital methods. These included Remote Sensing data processing and analysis, historical/modern map processing and inspection, and geo-spatial data management via a Geographic Information System (GIS) interfaced with a database.
VEiL trialled the identification of land division components employing a combination of automated detection of centurial elements (through pattern recognition procedures) with their visual detection and manual mapping. Identified cadastre features were then analysed to produce a theoretical centuriation model: the study employed geospatial tools to test the hypothetical cadastre modules, and refine the grid in areas of poor or non-existent evidence. Geo-morphological datasets, historical maps and hypothetical repetitive components were used in support. The achieved model was then tested through ground-truthing activities aimed at ascertaining its integrity.
Ground verification activities were undertaken with rigorous field mapping via field data recording technologies. Ground-truthing included both field survey and field-walking activities aiming at verifying features identified through remote sensing; ascertaining the presence of topographic/archaeological features in proximity of void areas of the hypothetic land division schema; verifying the presence of visible pottery scatters and mapping their density distribution and their variability.
As a result, the project enabled to identify, map and document the visible cadastre components that align to the orientation set for Aquileia from ancient surveyors. The analyses elucidated the type of the pressures responsible for altering –at a later stage– land division elements, thus illuminating the process of cadastre components’ degradation, as well as the phenomena at the basis of the persistence of other components. The research also enabled to verify the rationale underpinning the choice of the cadastre orientation.
The project, its activities and its accomplishments have been largely publicised across the project life span using crafted communication strategies aimed at making contact with the broadest possible audience, and targeting both the scientific and the broader community.
A project website was created to provide content and logistic information, suitable for both academic and general public. To exploit the communication power of social media, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram (plus a personal account of LinkedIn) accounts have been generated and managed. Outreach activities entailed the participation of the MC Fellow in initiatives such as visits to schools as MC Ambassador and training of young students through hands-on workshops, participation as speaker to Info-Day dedicated to the H2020 and Marie Curie Actions organised by Ca’ Foscari University and to the European Researchers Nights. Scientific dissemination has been pursued mainly via participation to major international conferences, through organisation of sessions, seminars and workshops, through provision of masterclasses and through submission of articles to international high IF peer-review journals and conference Proceedings.
The outcomes of VEiL project provide a new study basis for future research relative both to Aquileian centuriation and, more generally, engineered landscapes. (i) Against older models of cadastre mainly based on modern topographic maps observations, a new model -derived from a combination of the analysis of a variety of datasets and fieldwork- is proposed for the case study area. (ii) Literature rarely focuses on pre-centuriation landscape analysis: results of the project provide insights on the mechanisms of cadastre design and deployment that can be exported to other contexts. (iii) Previous scholarship has not taken into consideration mechanism of land division degradation: VEiL analysis has elucidated the nature of the pressures responsible for modifying or maintaining across time land division components, thus providing a new approach to the estimation of cadastre elements’ degradation/persistence phenomena. (iv) The research also enabled to verify the rationale underpinning the choice of the cadastre orientation that resulted to be the one that ensure the best drainage of surface and rain water toward the lagoon /sea. (v) Past scholarship on landscape patterning detection over remote sensing imagery has mainly focused on visual detection, with a limited expansion of (semi)automatic approaches to pattern identification, mainly based on standard classificatory rigid methods. VEiL amplified the capacity of automated detection of archaeological linear features and landscape engineering elements via advanced, customised pattern recognition methods. As a result, outcomes of this project will have an impact on future scientific discussion on engineered landscape and contribute to debates in cultural landscape preservation.