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Unearthing a Mediterranean Valley: S. Marta, Tuscany

Cinigiano, Tuscany. Few places in the Mediterranean have been as comprehensively studied by archaeologists as this Tuscan commune. On the lower slopes of Monte Amiata, close to the Ombrone valley it is the Tuscany most visitors never see. Gloriously rural, rolling hills and dales, with new vineyards.

Archaeological field survey here a decade ago showed no settlement before the Romans. Then, a plethora of Roman sites appeared as everywhere in the Mediterranean. The Roman sites, though, mostly came on and off like traffic lights, then disappeared. At least that is the unique, gripping story found by Kim Bowes (University of Pennsylvania) and Trento University’s Emanuele Vaccaro’s ‘Roman Peasant Project’. Cinigiano is the first place in the Mediterranean where we have any sight of the Roman Empire’s silent majority, the 90% or so who were peasants. Ancient history till now has been in the hands of town-dwellers, the 10% (or less). Talk about ‘fake news’!

Now, I am visiting Emanuele’s new project (collaborating with Siena University’s Stefano Campana). He has unearthed two new elements to this unfolding story. Cinigiano’s first Roman villa has been uncovered in a valley bottom below the castle of Colle Massaro. This is no senatorial household. It evolved by small steps, with bath-houses and polychrome mosaics and muddled along into the 6th century. Long after the farms disappeared, the villa was deserted too.

Looking across the valley at the villa

Looking across the valley at the villa

The villa then has a later counterpart: just upslope is the church of Santa Marta. An 11th-century pieve, long since demolished, new excavations show much more. The little late antique church became a vaunting three-apsed 9th to 10th century basilica with associated metal workshops. Why here? We won’t know for sure till next year.


A lead pipe in the villa bath block being viewed by Kim Bowes and Emanuele Vaccaro

Santa Marta’s millennium in the spotlight ended when Cinigiano became a castello and remains so to this day. By contrast, this Mediterranean combination of villa and subsequent church has been absorbed into sun-drenched Tuscan cornfields.

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