Abuse or reuse? Public space in Late Antique Emerita

Osland, D.

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Osland, D. (2016). Abuse or reuse? Public space in Late Antique Emerita. American Journal of Archaeology, 120(1), 67–97.

architecture , late antiquity , roman period , topography

Throughout late antiquity, long after the collapse of the Roman administrative system, Augusta Emerita (Mérida, Spain) retained its role as a primary center for economic, political, religious, and social exchanges. However, the nature and the physical setting of many of those interactions changed significantly in this period. In particular, Emerita’s archaeological record from the fourth and fifth centuries confirms a trend away from the classical ideals that had contributed to the city’s early urban structure. This article argues that the sweeping urban changes experienced by the city are not just symptomatic of economic decline but that these changes should also be taken as important examples of the ongoing vitality of the Late Antique city center. As residents and officials encountered a new set of economic, political, religious, and social demands, they reshaped their urban environment to adapt to these new circumstances. The end result is most clearly distinguished in the remains of the late fifth-century city, but this post-Roman city has its roots in the Late Roman context of the fourth century.

Main finding
As business activity moved to private locations, and Christian Churches replaced the function of Roman forums and temples, the city’s public space deteriorated. Abandoned forums and monuments were reused for new buildings and houses, and the remaining materials were scavenged. The trend away from the classical ideals that helped create the city’s early urban structure is confirmed by the Late Antique phases of Emerita’s archaeological record. The dismantling and reuse of the traditional structures of the urban center in Emerita and the Late Antique Mediterranean at large is an illustration of the continuing vitality of the ancient city center. Residents and city officials chose to reshape their public and private urban environment as a method of adapting to new social, political, religious, and economic demands. ‘Post-Roman’ or ‘Visigothic’ Emerita evolved to become different from the ideal classical city, but it was an expression of Late Antique urbanism.

Description of method used in the article
The researcher(s) used comprehensive archaeological record of changes in the urban structure from the Roman period through the end of antiquity and beyond. Since the 1980s, dozens of sites within the walled perimeter have been excavated. These sites give detailed chronological evidence that can be used to reconstruct the city’s conditions throughout history. From the vast set of archaeological data available in Emerita, including careful excavation, publication records, and a large number of sites, the development of the Late Antique urban center can be traced relatively precisely.

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