Seminar LXXI: Villa Magna revisited

Paired burial inside the old portico (I think) at Villamagna

Paired burial inside the old portico (I think) at Villamagna. Always start posts like this with skeletons!

A while back now I blogged a paper that Caroline Goodson had given at the Institute of Historical Research in London about a site in Italy where she was working and where it seemed likely that they had found a room in which two Roman emperors had enjoyed a drink together and one later written about it. Caroline‘s been a friend and/or teacher of mine since I was still doctorising, so when she came to Oxford this term with an update I made sure I was there to hear. She presented it at the Medieval Archaeology seminar on 1st November 2010, and the title was simply “Excavations at Villa Magna”.

Portal of the church at Villamagna

Portal of the church at Villamagna – observe the many different sorts of stonework

They’ve come a long way since 2007, when they had basically uncovered the Roman villa and some confusing floors elsewhere on the site and just begun on the cemetery in front of the Church, from which in the end more than five hundred separate bodies have now come. They’re now therefore able to say, assuming that I can correctly interpret my notes and that I understood right when I wrote them, that the church, which is extremely mixed-up in its surviving fabric as the illustration above makes clear, goes back in some parts to a point somewhere between the fifth and sixth centuries and was being modified almost as soon as it was up and running. Similarly over the course of this period, what had been a portico to this villa that had a semi-industrial wine production centre elsewhere on the site briefly became the home to that production—probably using, as it turns out, the same dolia that the team had presumed stolen from the earlier location—but was very soon after emptied out again, after which the roof collapsed. The building was then partially cleared and huts built, inside the still-standing walls. These were in their turn demolished for what seems to have been fortification in the fifth-to-sixth centuries but the area, which stands close to the slowly-filling cemetery, was being used for settlement and burial again by the eighth-to-ninth centuries.

[Edit: the below image changed and various alterations made (and indicated) thanks to input from Dr Goodson herself!]

Site of the robbed-out dolia in the portico from above

Site of the robbed-out dolia in the portico from above

In the tenth century this place became a monastery, and a monastery whose charters have been published.1 This, for me, would be the interesting bit, except that the three founders of the monastery appear to have been Anagni citizens of no great importance, so guessing how they had got hold of this site, which had been an imperial villa and then a papal possession is utterly obscure. (In conversation afterwards with Caroline I decided that what I thought most probable was that these were vassals of the bishop of Anagni, who would probably have got the site from the papacy some time before, but since I have not actually seen the charters or read any of the literature this can only be the most arrant and careless hypothesis.2 Comparing these charters with those of Anagni, if any survive there, might prove interesting, all the same.) On the other hand, while the question of succession and foundation and patronage may be the most interesting bit for me, the excavators and team generally are probably more interested in the site as a whole, where the monastery lasts as a set of structures till about 1400 but which also has several other zones, including a late Antique building they’re identifying as a barracks, a later castle (inevitably) and of course the old villa. The latest report on their excellent website [has even more stuff in it, so, if] you want to know more, therefore, look at the site! Because what they are looking at here is succession, but of a slightly broader sort than the narrow who-controls-the-means-of-production way I would usually think; what we’ve got here is a succession to the ancient world, in which an imperial property becomes something like a modern French château, a fortress, a village, a monastery and then a village again.

The monastery site at Villa Magna uncovered

The monastery site at Villa Magna uncovered

This change of worlds was also brought out by a question of Lesley Abrams‘s at the very end, about the origins of goods showing up as finds evidence. Caroline said that there was Byzantine and North African material showing up until the seventh century, Sicilian and Constantinopolitan until 700, and thereafter the economy of the site seems to have gone almost completely local, making its own pottery, not even getting goods from Rome, and doesn’t really reconnect until 1296 when the monastery was suppressed. Chris Wickham (also present, unsurprisingly) has written about this kind of change as seen in pottery but an actual site with things you can see on it shows maybe even more clearly how small these places’ worlds, that had been pan-Imperial, quickly got, and how local any kind of power and influence must have been.3 Here, three unknown citizens from Anagni with a land-grant can become bigshots in a site where emperors once drank. It’s not quite the kind of ‘end of civilisation’ that Bryan Ward-Perkins (also present…) has written about, not least because here the buildings went on for a while in various configurations, but it’s a fairly major set of changes that this kind of study lets us put together as part of a bigger story.4


1. Published as, I learn from the project’s website’s full bibliography, C. D. Flascassovitti (ed.), Le Pergamene del Monastero di S. Pietro di Villamagna (976-1237) (Lecce 1994).

2. From that same bibliography I learn that, until this project’s report comes out, the works of reference would be M. De Meo, S. Pietro di Villamagna presso Anagni: una villa romana si trasforma in abbazia, Quaderni di architettura e restauro 2 (Rome 1998) and G. Giammaria (ed.), Villamagna, Monumenti di Anagni 3 (Anagni 1999). The team’s provisional reports can however be found here.

3. Chris’s point of view could be found, among other places, in his “Marx, Sherlock Holmes, and Late Roman Commerce” in Journal of Roman Studies Vol. 78 (London 1988), pp. 182-193, rev. in idem, Land and Power: studies in Italian and European social history, 400-1200 (London 1994), pp. 77-98.

4. Most obviously B. Ward-Perkins, The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization (Oxford 2005).

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2 responses to “Seminar LXXI: Villa Magna revisited

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention Seminar LXXI: Villa Magna revisited « A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe -- Topsy.com

  2. I can now add that the 976 foundation charter itself is apparently online here, though at the exact time I add this comment I can’t get the site to load. Further thanks due to Dr Goodson!

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