Exploring Connectivities in the Central Apennines between Late Antiquity and Early Middle Ages

→ Luigi Pinchetti


In the last decade, historians and archaeologists have been proposing new approaches to the Roman economy (e.g. Horden and Purcell’s “shifting webs”; Fibinger’s “bazar”), where local exchange is increasingly considered as a fundamental feature even in the “global” context of the Roman Empire.

In the research I am carrying on within the GraKo 1878, I suggest that this “local turn” can provide fresh outlooks not only to the understanding of Roman economic systems, but also to the study of the formation of early medieval agrarian landscapes. A conceptualization of Roman economy as one eminently based also on regional exchanges forces the archaeological research to concentrate on small-scale variations too, abandoning fruitless debates on “continuity vs. catastrophe”.

Figure 1: Aerial picture of the city centre of Isernia (adapted from Bing)

Aims and Research Question

This new perspective can be used to understand whether, in the Apennines, the economic role of towns was ever mimicked by non-urban sites. It is commonly thought that high-rank rural settlements, such monasteries or hillforts, became important economic centres, counterbalancing town’s loss of power. The study of a geographical unit hosting both a Roman municipium and an early medieval monastery primarily aims at showing the impact of socio-political transformations on settlement hierarchies. Efforts will be directed to grasp the nature and the function of central places in a period of growing political fragmentation. Secondly, placing urban and non-urban central places in the context of the regional economic networks aims at clarifying the role of different actors (aristocracy, clergy, and peasantry) in the organization of the early medieval agrarian economy.

  • What is an early medieval central place?
  • What role did towns have in the rural economy of the early middle ages? How did new “alternative centres” fit and transform Roman settlement hierarchies?
  • How does the network of local exchanges adapt to new socio-political equilibriums? How did rural population relate with the birth of new centres and the disappearance of existing ones?

How does the exploitation of the environment change in a global-scale and a local-scale economy?


Figure 2: Research Areas of the San Vincenzo survey (1980-1) and of the LERC survey (ongoing)


The research area has been set in the Upper Volturno Basin, a geographical unit in the Central Apennines hosting a Roman town and an early medieval monastery. The research will be based on the data collected from two archaeological surveys conducted in the Upper Volturno Basin: the San Vincenzo al Volturno project (SVV) and the Landscape of Early Roman Colonisation (LERC) project (see figure). The first, conducted in 1980-1 by Richard Hodges with the support of the British School at Rome, was a survey project in the terra of the monastery of San Vincenzo al Volturno, extending along the Volturno river and some of its western tributaries. The second survey project studied the territory surrounding the Roman colony of Aesernia, and it was recently concluded by Leiden University (2011-2015) under the direction of Tesse Stek.

Research Method

The identification of early medieval phases through survey data is traditionally a challenging matter. To face such expected obstacles, a sound methodology, based on the combined use of GIS approaches with pottery studies, has been adopted to have a comprehensive picture of the rural economy in the Upper Volturno Basin.

The first step of the research investigates intra-site economic complexity. In accordance with the necessity of integrating material and geographical approaches, two analyses have been considered important for this step of the research. On the one hand, the study of material assemblage diversity is an archaeological indicator of the consumption activities of a settlement. On the other, the analysis of the potential agricultural revenue of the land surrounding each settlement displays how remunerative could have been the agrarian work of each settlement.

The second phase of the research will be dedicated to the reconstruction of the economic networks linking the rural settlements in the Upper Volturno Basin during the first millennium AD. The proxies for this phase will be once again one borrowed from geographical research and material studies. On the one hand, the geographical proximity amongst sites will be used to integrate the settlements in a network of potential social links. On the other, the distribution of specific ceramic shapes will determine which sites shared the access to a same distribution system.

Contribution to the discipline

By bringing together the two sections of this research, attention will be given to micro-regional differences amongst the research area. Are settlements in proximity to Aesernia acting similarly to those in the terra of San Vincenzo? Or are environmental differences (plain, mountains, defended positions) more important in defining rural settlements’ economies? The outcomes will give new fundamental information on the local economy of a rural community in the Central Apennines was transformed after the fragmentation of the Roman Empire. Above all, the results will show whether alternative central places, as the monastery of San Vincenzo al Volturno, influenced the evolution of local rural economy in the same way of urban centres.

Such results will offer new tools to investigate periods of economic decline and open new perspectives to the study of the “collapse” or “crisis” of imperial economies. Understanding the reorganization of local economic networks and the economic role of non-state institutions in periods of political fragmentation are two critical features to fully comprehend the formation of a new economic system.


Supervisors: Prof. Dr. Sabine Schrenk, Prof. Dr. Michael Heinzelmann