Skip to main content
European Commission logo print header

Urban Centres and Landscapes in Transition. The Mediterranean FarWest in Late Antiquity

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - MED-FARWEST (Urban Centres and Landscapes in Transition. The Mediterranean FarWest in Late Antiquity)

Reporting period: 2015-11-01 to 2017-10-31

We know much about the Roman world, about the cities and the monuments that mark the economic and political strength of the empire and the display and wealth of the elites. Also well known are the villas or rich country houses that oversaw key parts of the landscapes of Rome’s many provinces in the Mediterranean and European world. But none of these were constants and Rome’s vast empire, its infrastructures and modes of display and population control fell away from the 4th century AD, especially in the Western half of the Empire. This ‘decline and fall’ has long fascinated the public – and scholars – but our image remains only partial. My own specific MSCA project was titled: Urban Centres and Landscapes in Transition. The Mediterranean FarWest in Late Antiquity (MED-FARWEST). MED-FARWEST was designed to be a strongly innovative project that, focussing on territory located in the far west of the Roman Empire, namely the Iberian Peninsula, analysed two of the most interesting yet only partially understood phenomena of the crucial period of Late Antiquity (AD 300-700), namely: 1. the abandonment of some classical Roman cities and 2. the breakdown of the Roman rural world. When and how did these major changes occur and how did populations respond? Were these progressive or sudden changes and what factors were at play to explain variation?
My MED-FARWEST project applied a comprehensive multidisciplinary approach to these important archaeologico-historical issues, exploiting techniques developed especially in the sub-discipline of Landscape Archaeology, in which rural and urban worlds are analysed as a single unit, and thus as part of a single reality in transformation. Hispania forms an ideal ‘test-bed’ for the study given the results of new fieldwork, an availability of relevant sites (urban/rural), and recent published outputs. My academic host, the University of Leicester, offered highly relevant support in terms of specialists, research, equipment and infrastructure to generate data and results for this project. The aim was also to generate results, approaches and models valid or to be tested elsewhere in the area of the former Roman Empire, thus enabling better academic dialogue with other scholars exploring the period of Late Antiquity and also of the Early Middle Ages.
My project’s approach linked archaeological data to historical sources and geographic information in order to create a database for developing an innovative archaeological model based on Geographic Information Systems (GIS), Information and Communications Technologies (ICT) and digital techniques of image processing. Core to all this was working with both host and partner bodies to debate and develop techniques and to refine approaches, combined with new work in the field to explore relevant type-sites.
The Key Results were:
1. The identification of the key trends in urban change in the period AD 300-700 in the study zone, chiefly in terms of loss and/or transformation of classical public monuments.
2. Determining the rate of such urban structural changes. I addressed how some towns lost their roles and how sites with elements of continuity (at least in occupation) were characterized by poorer buildings, a reuse of spaces and materials and the insertion of graves – sometimes, even burial grounds – within former lived and working spaces.
3. Generating a deeper unders(ng of rural settlement changes, marked first by the breakdown of Roman uillae and of the system of potentes or magnates controlling large estates, to be replaced by smaller, scattered landholdings. Strikingly, the classic Roman model of rural settlement disappears just as the first villages, hamlets, farms and hilltop settlements appear in many zones of the Hispanic Peninsula.
4. Interpreting impacts on the physical landscape. Besides settlement changes, key has been recognition of changes in the economic sphere as well as in the environment. Thus a tendency to cattle raising and pastoralism in this period may connect with the so-called ‘Early Medieval Cold Episode’, which scholars set to between c. AD 450 and 950, and characterized by a drop in temperatures and a great aridity, which potentially damaged the environment and marked changes in economic strategy.
5. Modelling the economic and social factors at play. The economy remained based on land ownership after the establishment of the Visigoths, if on a reduced scale while relying on the personal dependence of peasants. From the late 5th century until the arrival of the Islamic forces, we can recognised the Church and the domini as the main holders of political and social power.
6. Establishing a model of evolution of the post-classical landscape across the Iberian Peninsula: from an (often precocious) urban decay to the emergence of diverse rural landscape expressions in terms of new types of settlements and farms, with the creation of reconfigured economies and landscape organization.

Dissemination of the results was of course core to the project, and many papers, publications and conferences were given. Of principal importance were the two workshops organised by MED-FARWEST project: (i) 'Interpreting Transformations of Landscapes and People in Late Antiquity I: The Mediterranean' and 'II: North-West Europe', held in Rome, from 10-11 October 2016, and in November 2016 at the University of Leicester. In addition I can note the presentation of papers on the project and my research Sweden, United Kingdom, Italy, Spain and Portugal and also the preparation of many academic articles (most now in press) and a monograph (this hopefully to be published in late 2018).
The noted multidisciplinary methodology, the articulation of theoretical approaches, and the exploration of a significant and yet underexplored study region combine to push this research of transformed urbanism and landscape in Late Antiquity to a new level. To this major modelling of interpretation can be added the creation of an extensive database (GIS) and the predictive models applicable to other areas. This legacy and its future utilization will generate new research directions and approaches across European contexts and, I hope, foster more scholarly dialogue. Indeed, the noted workshops/conferences (in Spain, UK, Italy and Portugal) provided an invaluable platform for starting this process of sharing ideas. Project excellence can be traced in:
- Developing and implementing efficient management strategies in those multidisciplinary groups, new techniques (assessing rural and urban landscapes simultaneously) for understanding our past (and consequently our present), and new research methodologies in computing techniques, like GIS.
- Creating networks, bonds, synergies and strengths within the UK academic world and the Mediterranean orbit, thanks especially to the three noted conferences organized by MED-FARWEST in Rome, Leicester and Evora.
- A final element of impact should be recognition, as a consequence of the MED-FARWEST Project, of how a great period of historic crisis can transform the built and socio-economic landscape; my study helps to recognise material consequences as well as human adaptations, and can show how, in general, people conceive of and respond to losses and challenges – all valid and relevant considerations for the current world economic crisis, offering potential lessons for us to learn from.
Foto of one of the archaeological sites analized by MEDFARWEST and its ceramic dispersion
One of the hilltop sites analyzed by MED-FARWEST in the NW Spain
MED-FARWEST archaeological survey
MED-FARWEST laboratory work