Vagnari is situated in the Basentello river valley, just east of the Apennines in Puglia (ancient Apulia), and about 12 km west of the Iron Age town of Botromagno (next to modern Gravina).
After the Roman conquest of south-east Italy in the early third century B.C., Rome had direct links to the region by one of its main roads, the Via Appia. Pre-Roman settlements, such as Botromagno, went into decline from this time, and its land may have been confiscated by the Romans. After the conquest, wealthy Romans of the senatorial class appropriated tracts of Apulian land, and emperors later followed suit, acquiring properties and developing imperial business assets here.
It is in this context that Vagnari is to be understood. Fieldwork and survey by Canadian and British universities here have furnished evidence for a large territory that was transformed in the early first century A.D. into imperial landholdings.
Epigraphic evidence, in the form of stamped roof tiles, provides clear evidence for ownership of this estate: the slaves who made the tiles were imperial slaves.
Since 2012, the University of Sheffield has been conducting excavations in a settlement (vicus) on the Roman imperial estate at Vagnari.
This vicus was at the heart of the estate, and it was its economic and administrative core. The investigations at Vagnari make a significant contribution to the understanding of the involvement of the Roman elite in the exploitation of the environment and the control over free and slave labour from the first century to third centuries A.D. The role of the vicus in manufacturing, exchange, and consumption is a focal point of our research, and we have retrieved clear evidence for a wide range of specialist crafts and industries practiced by the resident manpower. These include iron-working, lead processing, and the production of roof tiles and ceramics. Identifying agricultural practices and the sorts of productive vegetation cultivated at Vagnari also gives a better and more complete picture of the diverse assets of this imperial estate.
An exciting discovery in July and August 2015 was a large stone-built complex of the second century A.D. comprising a series of rooms which opened onto a cella vinaria, a wine fermentation and storage room. In this area, large circular plastered basins had been inserted into a thick mortar paving.
Each basin held a pitch-lined ceramic container (dolium defossum) with a rim diameter of over half a metre and a body diameter larger than a metre. Dolia were heavy and cumbersome, with a capacity of 1000 litres and more. They were buried up to their necks in the ground to keep the temperature of the wine constant and cool, a necessary measure in hot climate zones, as Pliny the Elder said (Natural History 14.27). Dolia could be used for many years, although they needed to be cleaned regularly, and even fumigated, to avoid contamination of the new wine with which they were filled. The Roman agrarian writer Columella (On Agriculture 12.18.5-7) recommended that dolia should be re-lined with pitch forty days prior to the grape harvest, and the tenth-century Geoponica (6.4), which drew on earlier Roman books on agricultural pursuits, advised the renewal of the pitch lining every year in July.
Such wine ‘cellars’, with anywhere between a dozen and forty or more dolia, are known on private farms elsewhere in Roman Italy and the Mediterranean, but at Vagnari the wine came from vineyards belonging to the empire’s greatest landowner. It is currently unknown how extensive the emperor’s vineyards were, and whether they were in the immediate vicinity of the vicus or on outlying tenant farms. Viticulture required not only considerable capital; it was also labour intensive, especially if it involved preparing new ground for vines, and it took several years before the first harvest could take place. According to Columella (On Agriculture 3.3.8), the standard size for a vineyard was 7 jugera (1.75 hectares), which is what a single slave vine-dresser could cope with. Cato (On Agriculture 11.1) recommended a slave staff of 16 for a vineyard of 100 jugera (25.2 hectares). We do not know how many labourers and specialists were involved in the tending of vineyards and the making of wine at Vagnari, but a workforce of adequate size, along with additional staff recruited ad hoc for the peak season of the harvest, certainly will have been maintained. We have yet to determine whether the wine at Vagnari was for the emperor’s consumption, or for sale or export to raise money for the imperial coffers, but the latter is more likely, given that a profitable return will have been expected on an estate whose primary function was to generate income for the emperor.
We have only explored a corner of the cella vinaria, and revealed three dolia thus far, and there is clearly more of the wine ‘cellar’ to uncover. We expect to find more dolia, probably arranged in regular rows, as in other wine storage areas of Roman date. Excavations in 2016 will clarify the extent of the storage room, the total number of dolia of the emperor’s wine, and the volumetric storage capacity of the structure. We also expect to find other facilities in the complex, such as a wine press and a tank for the pressed grape juice or must. In addition to the costs involved in the preparation of the land, the vines and their maintenance, and the relevant personnel, the buildings, the dolia, and the necessary presses also will have represented a considerable outlay of capital.
It remains to be determined how the rooms adjacent to the cella vinaria were used. Excavated fragments of white and grey marble slabs with traces of mortar on the underside suggests that this stone had been used for cladding of some kind, perhaps as a dado at the base of walls, and a concentration of glass panes at the foot of a wall implies that there were paned windows in the building. Both the marble cladding and the glass windows demonstrate that these rooms were well appointed, possibly because they were used also for domestic occupation, as a large deposit of household waste, including pottery, bone implements, and animal bones as the remains of meals, in a room east of the winery suggests.
Very surprisingly, one of the dolia at Vagnari contained two human skeletons.
It remains an intriguing and challenging question whether we are dealing with victims of a crime, who were hastily dumped in this wine vat, or some other irregular, and illegal, disposal of corpses within the settlement. At any rate, the dolium was clearly no longer in use when the skeletons were deposited in it, because the human remains, soil, broken tiles, and broken pieces from the top of the dolium were mixed together in the fill of the vessel.
This new evidence for viticulture, as well as the archaeobotanical remains revealing the cultivation and processing of cereal crops, shed light on the ancient landscape. All together, these strands of evidence shape our understanding of the diversity of the economy of the estate and the role of the vicus and its inhabitants in organising and managing work and income for the emperor.
For more information, annual reports, and application forms for the 2016 season, see the project website:
The excavations are directed by Maureen Carroll, Professor of Roman Archaeology at the University of Sheffield, in collaboration with the Soprintendenza per i Beni Archeologici della Puglia. The project has benefited from sponsorship by the British Academy, the Society for the Promotion of Roman Studies, and the University of Sheffield. Parallel excavations in the Roman cemetery at Vagnari are directed by Prof. Tracy Prowse, McMaster University.
For a synthesis of the initial work on the imperial estate, see:
A.M. Small (ed.) (2012), Vagnari. Il villaggio, l’artigianato, la proprietà imperiale. The village, the industries, the imperial property. Bari: Edipuglia
For reports on the recent Vagnari excavations, see:
M. Carroll (2014), Vagnari 2012: New Work in the vicus by the University of Sheffield, in A.M. Small (ed.), Beyond Vagnari. New Themes in the Study of Roman South Italy. Bari: Edipuglia, 79-88
M. Carroll and T. Prowse (2014), Exploring the vicus and the necropolis at the Roman Imperial estate at Vagnari (Comune di Gravina in Puglia, Provincia di Bari, Regione Puglia), Papers of the British School at Rome 82: 353-356
T. Prowse and M. Carroll (2015), Research at Vagnari (Comune di Gravina in Puglia, Provincia di Bari, Regione Puglia, Papers of the British School at Rome 83: 324-326
For research on death and burial and population mobility at Vagnari, see:
T. L. Prowse et al. (2010), Stable isotope and ancient DNA evidence for geographic origins at the site of Vagnari (2nd-4th centuries AD), Italy, in H. Eckhart (ed.), Roman Diasporas: Archaeological Approaches to Mobility and Diversity in the Roman Empire. Portsmouth, R.I.: Journal of Roman Archaeology, Supplement 78), 175-198