sehepunkte 17 (2017), Nr. 11

Daniele Malfitana / Michel Bonifay (a cura di): La ceramica africana nella Sicilia romana

Proof of the progress made on the studies on Roman pottery during the last decades is the transition from a perspective focused on the typological classification of a particular type (fine wares and amphorae have been the most popular), and the identification of the production centres of a given area, to a new one that takes into account a global analysis of the ceramic contexts. This new perspective better answers the needs created by the research on economic history of Rome in which archaeology (especially the possibilities of quantification and comparison offered by the archaeological evidence) holds an important position. [1] This book fits in the current context of the methodological and theoretical renovation that sees material culture as a fundamental aspect to understand the processes of production, distribution and consumption that define the nature and evolution of any economic system. At first glance the title seems to have a very limited aim: La ceramica africana nella Sicilia romana and that is indeed the specific aim of the book: to study from a complementary approach (typological-chronological, archaeological and archaeometric), the presence of several pottery types of North African origin in Sicily. Nevertheless this study is the starting point for a deeper analysis of the patterns of distribution and consumption that explain the circulation of a wide range of wares and agricultural produce in the central Mediterranean between the I and VII centuries AD. The importance of the island as cultural crossroads makes that the study of the evidence collected transcend the limits of a mere catalogue of ceramic wares, allowing the discussion of wider historical topics.

The work is split into two volumes. The first one includes a total of seven chapters. The first two can be considered as introductory, as they are used to introduce the project (Chapter 1) and to discuss the current trends on the research on Roman pottery on the island (Chapter 2). The core of the volume is chapter 3 and the chapters that follow. Chapter 3 collects a series of ceramic contexts from 115 archaeological sites that have been carefully chosen because their stratigraphy is reliable. This inventory includes very different situations that have been chosen because of the diversity of the social and economic situation: big cities and smaller urban agglomerations, villae, shipwrecks... Archaeological sites are described following a strict outline: introduction of the site, status of the issue and study of the contexts. The characteristics and general composition of the ensemble, as well as the specific position of the African wares in each site are studied in each of these sections. It follows a chronology and a discussion on the supply network. They also mention the wares that have been selected for an archaeometric analysis. The study of each archaeological context is independent but they have been grouped in several areas (ten), which includes the underwater finds. The analysis includes all types of ware: fine, common and cooking, amphorae and lamps. The statistics are accompanied on some occasions with a brief comment or comparison with other local and imported productions.

This organization of the content favours the analysis and global interpretation of the evidence obtained in the stratigraphic sequence, without artificially splitting the types of wares, and taking into consideration the way in which every archaeological level has been formed as a key element to understanding the creation of the pottery contexts.

The following chapters discuss several archaeological and historical aspects, from the most particular ones (such as the pottery) to more general ones (the interpretative role as proxy-data). Here are included an "Étude archéologique et archéométrique intégrée" of all pottery categories (Chapter 4, 273-351; 543 samples of different pottery wares have been analysed), an "Analyse micro-régionale de la diffusion des céramiques africaines en Sicile" (Chapter 5, 353-401) and some final considerations: (Chapter 6, 403-439). As could only be the case, these chapters benefit from the development of archaeological research in North Africa during the last decades, led and inspired by Michel Bonifay. The considerations held in these chapters should be understood, hence, in the context of the global improvement in our knowledge on the structures of production and distribution of African foodstuffs and as the extension of the debate that was collected in previously published works. [2]

The organization of volume 2, in a way complements the analysis developed in the first one. On another hand there are also several annexes that deal with very specific questions. The content of some of these annexes only applies partially to the content of the monograph. The first of them offers an inventory that evaluates North African wares, ordered by typology. Following the approach of a previous monograph (Bonifay 2004) [3], the aim is not to do a general typology or a dictionary of pottery. In every type there is a revision of all the available information (chronology, origin, typological criteria), of some of the wares available that, because of its distribution are particularly relevant to the study of stratigraphy in many coastal areas of the western and central Mediterranean. The information is summarised on a record that combines an image with a short text. This way the current status of the research is presented in a way that becomes a useful reference tool.

It continues with an archaeological and archaeometric analysis of a collection of samples of amphorae from Sicilian origin and a brief analysis on the import of African pottery in the island of Malta.

The most important part of the second volume are the tables that summarise the quantitative (587-649) and archaeometric (651-736; the origin of the indicators is mentioned here) aspects; there is also a general inventory of the sites (737-847). This inventory is, in a way, the summary of the whole work and the basis for the analysis of the distribution of African pottery in the island, as all the typologies are mentioned (as well as their origin). It is worth mentioning the fact that in the section dedicated to the analysis of the distribution several criteria are used (number of fragments, minimum number of pieces) that allow an efficient comparison in the archaeological research undertaken in the Mediterranean, even if there are some problems, which sets it in the current discussion about the methodology of quantification. Perhaps the evidence presented in these tables would have had a bigger heuristic value if they would have included a longer comment to the proportion of each individual type of African wares in every archaeological site in respect to the other wares. These are mentioned occasionally, especially in the case of fine wares, in some of the contexts studied in the first volume, but there is no attempt of a systematic quantification, that would have helped to understand, or reconsider, the role of the African products and agricultural produce in Sicily. It is obvious that, in any case, a general quantification and systematic approach would have been impossible, given the characteristics of some of the sites that are used in the study. The definition of phases of commercialisation, routes of distribution and time period categorisation of the diffusion of types of wares between the Republic and the end of Antiquity allows the reconstruction of not only a better view of the position of the island in the global context but also of its evolution over different time periods.

It is, without doubt, a work that gives a wide and detailed vision of the processes related to distribution and consumption in Roman Sicily. On the other hand, this vision goes further than the Sicilian area and allows going deeper in the understanding of the way that African foodstuffs and products were distributed in the Mediterranean. These are not the only valuable facts. The analysis of the evidence allows for reflections about the general networks of exchange and the mechanisms (economic, administrative and fiscal) that generated and allowed them to exist. It is therefore, an ambitious and rigorous reflection on essential aspects of the Roman economy and also on the modalities and the evolution of the interprovincial and regional interdependence of the imperial period. Ultimately, the work is a fundamental contribution to the debate on the nature and functioning of an empire that was organised around a cultural and historical space as complex as the mare nostrum, starting from one of its most important regions.


[1] Alan K. Bowman / Andrew I. Wilson (eds.): Quantifying the Roman Economy. Methods and Problems, Oxford 2009.

[2] Michel Bonifay: Études sur la céramique romaine tardive d'Afrique (= BAR International Series; 1301), Oxford 2004; Michel Bonifay: Africa: Patterns of Consumption in Coastal Regions Versus Inland Regions. The Ceramic Evidence (300-700 A.D.), in: Luke Lavan (ed.): Local Economies? Production and Exchange of Inland Regions in Late Antiquity (= Late Antique Archaeology; 10), Leiden 2013, 529-566; Michel Bonifay / André Tchernia: Les réseaux de la céramique africaine (Ier-Ve siècles), in: Simon J. Keay (ed.): Rome, Portus and the Mediterranean, London 2012, 315-333.

[3] Michel Bonifay: Études sur la céramique romaine tardive d'Afrique (= BAR International Series; 1301), Oxford 2004.

Rezension über:

Daniele Malfitana / Michel Bonifay (a cura di): La ceramica africana nella Sicilia romana (= Testo e Tavole; Tomo 1 / 2), Catania: IBAM, Consiglio nazionale delle ricerche Istituto per i beni archeologici e monumentali 2016, 2 Bde., 496 + 352 S., 131 fig., ISBN 978-88-89375-13-6

Rezension von:
Victor Revilla Calvo
Departamento de Historia, Universidad de Barcelona
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Victor Revilla Calvo: Rezension von: Daniele Malfitana / Michel Bonifay (a cura di): La ceramica africana nella Sicilia romana, Catania: IBAM, Consiglio nazionale delle ricerche Istituto per i beni archeologici e monumentali 2016, in: sehepunkte 17 (2017), Nr. 11 [15.11.2017], URL:

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