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Journal of Political Ecology:
Case Studies in History and Society
VOLUME 4 (1997)
Society in Roman North Africa: Studies in History and Archaeology,
by Brent D. Shaw. Collected Studies Series; Aldershot: Variorum, 1995.
xii, 271 pp.
Reviewed by Lea Stirling, Department of Classics, University of Manitoba
Environment and Society in Roman
North Africa is a collection of seven essays written by historian Brent
Shaw between 1976 and 1991. These essays focus on three issues pertaining
to the relationships between Romans and indigenous peoples in North Africa:
climatic change (or lack thereof) between Roman times and the present,
the role of the camel in an arid landscape, and systems of water management.
All of these topics have contemporary resonance and Shaw s insights are
useful in historical and modern contexts.
Shaw s opening essay, a description
of the state of archaeological research in North Africa in 1976, is an
interesting and thoughtful account. It was satisfying, for once, to read
a manifesto of this sort and realize that the nature of research has in
fact changed in the intervening twenty years. Shaw has two major observations.
First, he laments the separation of historical and archaeological research,
and exhorts historians to make more profitable use of archaeological data
in their research. He rightly observes that archaeological data are particularly
relevant to economic and agricultural history and points out how, even
so, very few historians make use of archaeological data even when writing
about these very topics. There are two observations to be made on this
point. Shaw s own work, as seen in this volume, sets an example for others
in his responsible use of archaeological sources (especially essays II,
V, VII). He is not alone; archaeological data of all sorts have become
much more standard as evidence in historical and economic accounts of
North Africa (and other regions of the Roman empire). D.J. Mattingly s
account of Roman Libya, for instance, creates an excellent synthesis of
material and literary evidence ( D.J. Mattingly 1995).
Shaw s second complaint is that
archaeologists devote too much attention to urban sites and ignore the
archaeology of the countryside. The latter, he argues correctly, has more
evidence pertaining to questions such as how agricultural prosperity was
achieved. In particular, he urges that archaeologists concentrate more
on field survey, the systematic collection and analysis of surface finds.
Field surveys provide broad evidence for the locations and nature of occupation
of a large territory (a river valley, for instance) over time, evidence
that cannot be obtained through any other method. With respect to field
survey, the archaeological profile of North Africa has changed notably
since 1976. Field survey is now an established component of Mediterranean
archaeology generally, and North Africa is no exception. Several important
survey projects have investigated or are now investigating rural landscapes
in North Africa, especially in Libya and Tunisia. The UNESCO Libyan Valleys
Survey (ULVS) of the 1980s, soon to be published in full, is one of the
most important, as the survey has mapped systems of walls, terraces, and
farms in selected sections of the Libyan predesert. This surface survey
was accompanied by select excavations and a full program of study of seeds,
bones, and ancient pollen samples; the latter will be crucial for studying
ancient environmental and climatic conditions. The results from ULVS are
very important for studying farming methods in a marginal environment.
Shaw himself makes use of preliminary reports from ULVS in his final essay
(VII). Other smaller scale Libyan projects are reported regularly in the
Journal of Libyan Studies. Another extensive and influential survey is
R.B. Hitchner s investigation of the olive producing Kasserine area of
southern Tunisia (e.g. R.B. Hitchner 1990). Again, by the time of his
final essay in 1991, Shaw has been able to make use of this information
as well. A Danish team has recently completed a survey of the Segermes
region of coastal Tunisia ( S. Dietz et al. 1995). Their findings include
several production sites. Urban and rural field survey led by D.J. Mattingly,
D. Stone, and N. Ben Lazreg at the coastal Tunisian city of Leptiminus
will yield important information about production and the interrelationships
of town and country ( N. Ben Lazreg and D.S. Mattingly 1992). Other archaeological
research possibly of interest to readers of the Journal of Political Ecology
includes D. Peacock s survey of kiln sites in coastal Tunisia (D. Peacock
et al. 1990) and joint Tunisian and French work on the coastline project
(for instance, M. Bonifay et al. 1992; F.R.Chelbi et al. 1995). A broad
survey of all types of current archaeological work in North Africa appeared
recently in the Journal of Roman Studies (Mattingly and Hitchner 1996).
Varied in their methods, objectives, and results, all the above-mentioned
projects provide new data that will be valuable to archaeologists and
After the introductory essay on
methods and evidence, the first main theme is Climate and Environment.
Shaw provides two papers arguing against the widely held view that there
has been significant climatic change in North Africa since Roman times.
In one essay (II) he argues that osteological remains of certain mammals
(hippopotami, rhinoceroses), which have been used to argue for a significantly
wetter environment in the Maghrib s past, are in fact localized within
certain geographical pockets where specific and recognizable factors combined
to create a favorable microenvironment. Most of these species are attested
into the ninetieth century, and their demise is due more probably to human
agency than to climatic change. In the other essay (III), he attacks the
myth of significant climatic change on several more fronts. He explains
historiographic reasons why colonial powers such as the French preferred
to envisage a decline since Roman times. He evaluates such ancient literary
sources as exist for their testimony on the climate and agricultural prosperity
within Africa. He points out ninetieth century events, such as logging,
that accelerated aridity long after the Roman period was over. The strength
of these essays is the scrutiny of a wide variety of modern primary sources
including administrative documents and archaeological reports of the modern
colonial period. Moreover, sound historiographic analysis tempers his
reading of all sources and is clearly explained.
The next essay (IV) debunks another
popular myth about Roman Africa: the supposed Roman reintroduction of
the camel and that animal s alleged superiority for use in warfare and
agriculture. Again, the historiography is illuminating, and Shaw uses
a combination of ancient literary testimonia, archaeological data, ethnographic
evidence, and modern scientific findings to make his point. The multifaceted,
overall argument is convincing, although the archaeological evidence is
incomplete at best. When Shaw discusses the archaeological record, he
cites only prehistoric contexts where camel bones have been found and
does not name examples of archaeological sites of the early historical
period (679-80). Full archaeological continuity is not demonstrated, but
negative material evidence does not disprove his other arguments.
The final section of the volume
focuses on Water and Power. All three of these essays define aspects of
the contrast between consumptive urban water usage and productive rural
water usage, and work to move our eyes beyond the romantic dazzle of the
urban aqueducts to less glamorous but more agriculturally productive methods
of water management. Shaw also tackles the recurring opinion that Romans
introduced more advanced farming methods, vastly increasing the region
s agricultural prosperity during the Roman period. Essay V, Water and
Society in the Ancient Maghrib, has been very influential since its publication
in 1984. In it, Shaw begins by articulating the difference between consumptive
and productive water usage and discusses both the historiography and the
methodology of the issue (pp. 121-42). He then focuses primarily on productive
rural water systems: defining agricultural needs, describing how select
systems met these needs (pp. 142-50), and evaluating how Romans interacted
with this indigenous technology (pp. 151-67). He makes a persuasive case
that the methods of arid agriculture seen in the Maghrib predated Roman
arrival. In the final section, he explores how the exploitation of water
as a valuable commodity affected social structure and interactions (pp.
167-71). Shaw returns to the theme of water and society in essay VI, a
case study of the irrigation community of Lamasba.
The final essay (VII) returns to
the theme of consumptive and productive water use and takes a close look
at the role of aqueducts. Although the aqueducts seem to many modern viewers
to epitomize Roman pragmatism, in actual fact they were astronomically
expensive to construct, gave much of their supply to extravagant public
fountains and baths rather than productive uses, and in many cases significantly
postdate a city s main phases of expansion. This form of consumptive use
of water did not create the prosperity of a city or region, but instead
acted as a conspicuous symbol of the success a city had already achieved.
Despite its origin as a collection
of reprinted essays, this compendium forms a coherent volume. On the whole,
the essays work fairly well together, though there is a certain amount
of repetition within the articles and some odd sequences of information
resulting from the thematic rather than chronological arrangement of the
papers within the book. Where a conventional book would have an introduction
and a conclusion, this compendium commences with a brief new introduction
by Shaw (1994), followed by a manifesto on the types of archaeological
information available and the ways in which the historian can use such
information (essay I). The final essay (VI), which also happens to be
the most recent, works fairly well in place of a summary chapter, although
it does not touch much on the questions of climatic change or the so-called
introduction of the camel by the Romans. The essays remain in their original
and varied typesets, and retain their original pagination. There is not
new pagination for the book. An index has fortunately been provided, and
entries cite the essay number and page number for each reference.
Over two decades, Brent Shaw has
contributed enormously to our understanding of ancient North Africa and
the present volume will make his papers, many of them influential , more
accessible to students and to a wider audience.
Bonifay, M., A. Oueslati, R. Paskoff, H. Slim, and P. Trousset.
Chelbi, F., R. Paskoff, and P. Trousset.
Dietz, S., L. Ladjimi Sebai, and H. Ben Hassen, eds.
Hitchner, R. B.
Mattingly, D. J
Mattingly, D. J., and R. B. Hitchner.
Peacock, D. P. S., F. Bejaoui, and N. Ben Lazreg.