Wednesday, July 27, 2016


Charlotte R. Potts, Religious Architecture in Latium and Etruria, c. 900-500 BC. Oxford monographs on classical archaeology. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2015. Pp. xxix, 178; 24 p. of plates. ISBN 9780198722076. $125.00.

Reviewed by J. Marilyn Evans, Swarthmore College (

Version at BMCR home site


This book, based on the author's 2011 doctoral thesis, offers a reassessment of the archaeological evidence for religious architecture in Etruria and Latium during the Iron Age and Archaic periods. On these grounds alone it will certainly be of interest to archaeologists and architectural historians of early central Italy. The special emphasis placed on the development of monumental religious architecture as a means of encouraging cross-cultural contact will also appeal to specialists interested in Mediterranean connectivity and urbanization. The value of the book lies primarily in the synthesis of an impressive amount of archaeological material in English, with an emphasis on the data recovered from the past fifty years or so of systematic excavation and study. The book's secondary value lies in the author's use of the archaeological evidence to challenge existing hypotheses concerning the identification of religious buildings and to propose new ways of understanding the role of monumentalization in the reconstruction of ancient societies. As such, it complements recent approaches to the study of monumentality in early central Italy that emphasize the role of technical innovation, social ideology, cultural practice and political strategy in the development of large-scale architecture.1

The book's narrative text is divided into two parts and consists of eight chapters augmented by maps, figures and tables. Part 1 (Chapters 2-4) traces the emergence and development of religious architecture and decoration in Etruria and Latium prior to 500 BCE. Part 2 (Chapters 5-7) considers this evidence in a broader architectural, religious and topographical context, and offers possible explanations for the emergence of a distinctive form of religious architecture. Following these chapters are an appendix, catalogue, bibliography, index and plates, which are useful supplements to the main text.

Chapter 1 introduces Potts' approach to the topic and lays out the organization of the study. Potts explains the need for a reassessment of the evidence for religious architecture, particularly in light of the significant contributions of the past few decades of archaeological investigation. A brief overview of the more significant discoveries highlights the wealth of data that have transformed our knowledge of Etruscan and Latial societies. It also serves to underscore a basic position Potts adopts in this book, that the material evidence recovered from cult sites must be contextualized with that recovered from settlements. In subsequent chapters these comparisons prove useful to highlight the ambiguity of the earliest residential and religious structures; this in turn places special significance on when, where and why distinctive forms of religious architecture emerge.

In Chapter 2, Potts reviews the evidence for the first religious structures, the so-called sacred huts, and questions the extent to which they can be identified archaeologically. The author challenges the method commonly applied to identify such huts, which relies mainly on the idea that topographic continuity indicates functional continuity. Thus, huts found beneath temples are often characterized as sacred. While Potts acknowledges this as an acceptable working hypothesis, she rightly stresses that artifacts are a more reliable indicator of ritual activity. A review of the material evidence for hut architecture reveals the difficulty of ascribing any singular function to these buildings. The size and function of huts vary considerably, with no evident correlation between the two, and the finds recovered within them are utilitarian items used for both domestic and religious practices. Only the huts at Satricum and Tarquinia stand out as possibly sacred since they are connected with contemporary votive deposits, but, as Potts points out, these structures were not visually or topographically distinct from the other huts in the compound. Taken together, these data reveal that there is no evident distinction between ritual and non-ritual buildings in western central Italy during the early Iron Age, and no unequivocal evidence for sacred huts.

In Chapter 3, Potts traces the emergence of a distinctive form of architecture for religious buildings during the seventh and sixth centuries BCE. The beginning of this period witnessed the replacement of huts with structures comprised of stone foundations and tile roofs, which eventually acquired regularized plans in three distinctive types. Initially, religious activities occurred in or near buildings with a variety of ground plans, though it more commonly occurred in association with small rectangular buildings with one or two rooms. By the beginning of the sixth century BCE, the monumental temple emerged as a distinctive architectural form, characterized by its elevated substructure (podium). Potts refines the criteria for distinguishing podia from other types of substructures (e.g., platforms and terraces) and adds that this feature was more widely implemented in the religious architecture of Latium before it became a common feature in Etruria. This conclusion will likely present a challenge to scholars who view the development of religious architecture primarily as an Etruscan innovation.

In Chapter 4, Potts considers the architectural adornment of shrines and temples during the seventh and sixth centuries. Ceramic roof tiles and architectural terracottas comprise the bulk of the evidence, and the latter are the focus of the study. The author observes regional distinctions in the use of architectural terracottas, and argues that Latium and Rome were leaders in the use of architectural decoration to distinguish specific buildings from other monuments. The author downplays the role of Greek influence on the gradual restriction of architectural terracottas to religious buildings, and views this development instead as a local phenomenon that operated in tandem with the emergence of monumental temples. Potts does not discount the role of Greece and the Near East entirely, however. An iconographic analysis of the terracottas reveals that the most common motifs belong to a generic set of designs (e.g., sphinxes, Gorgoneions and female heads), reflecting the adoption of a Mediterranean koine. In Chapter 7 the author suggests that this shared imagery reflects a shared patronage, and its value may have lain in being recognizable to visitors from disparate regions.

In Chapter 5, Potts evaluates the archaeological evidence for altars and cult statues, and questions the role these structures played in the construction of monumental temples. Temples, altars and cult statues are widely regarded as integral components of late republican and imperial cult sites, and the author is particularly interested in determining whether this "canonical trinity" (p. 65) can be recognized archaeologically in Iron Age and archaic central Italy. What emerges from an overview of the material evidence is the wide-ranging appearance of cult sites in the pre-republican period. Altars appear both in association with religious buildings and as standalone structures, and, of those altars built near temples, the proportion, orientation and location are divergent. Potts uses these data to conclude that altars and temples were not conceived as physically and conceptually integrated units. The absence of any convincing evidence for cult statues reinforces this idea, and, perhaps more significantly, challenges the assumption that temples were built to house them.

In Chapter 6, Potts considers the physical setting of monumental temples, both in relation to the landscape and to other features (e.g., votive deposits and roads), and argues that their placement was designed to facilitate external contact and interaction. The author focuses on the functional role of temples as meeting places for religious and commercial activity. Potts deemphasizes the connection between monumentalization and urbanization, presenting an alternative to the traditional typology that classifies temples and sanctuaries in relation to urban areas. In so doing, Potts builds upon recent work in republican central Italy, where scholars are seeking other models to explain the development of cult sites.2 The author's conclusions are compelling and in alignment with current approaches to archaic central Italy which characterize the region as open and outward-looking. However, these arguments would have benefited from a more direct engagement with the models Potts seeks to replace, particularly those which interpret cult sites in connection with topographical, political and territorial boundaries (e.g., Fran├žois de Polignac, Alessandro Zifferero and Ingrid E.M. Edlund-Berry).

In Chapter 7, Potts expounds upon the theme of cross-cultural interaction as she aims to answer this question: why did archaic communities decide to invest considerable resources in the construction of monumental temples as opposed to other forms of architecture? The author applies the concept of connectivity to explain the material evidence from a local context and argues that the construction of temples allowed settlements in Tyrrhenian Italy to participate in a wider network of cross-cultural interaction. A broad overview of the earliest temples across the Mediterranean reveals that temples emerged as a distinctive form of architecture in locations favorable to trade and religious tourism in the late seventh and early sixth centuries BCE. In western central Italy, a preexisting relationship between monumentalization and economic activity seems to have contributed to the monumental construction of temples. This may explain the corresponding decline in courtyard complexes (e.g., Poggio Civitate) and increasing investment in religious buildings. Temples, by the sixth century BCE, were recognized as a Mediterranean-wide locus of interaction and were constructed in monumental form by agents desirous of external contact. Potts perceives the nature of this interaction through a rather positive lens: temples are meeting places that encourage peer-polity interaction, and these interactions may have "prompted…collaboration for mutual benefit" (p. 117). While this reviewer finds it useful to explain architectural innovation as a product of such benign relationships, a more careful consideration of the kinds of rivalries that may have played a role in monumentalization would lead to a more thorough and satisfying conclusion about the nature of early sanctuaries.

In Chapter 8, Potts restates the arguments made throughout the book and explains their significance for our understanding of ancient architecture and society. In particular, the author contextualizes her study within broader debates about the character of archaic Rome, suggesting that it was an outward-looking city and a willing, if not leading, participant in Mediterranean-wide networks.

This book is a welcome contribution to the archaeology of early central Italy. The conclusions drawn here will certainly fuel the discussion about Rome's place in the archaic Mediterranean, the relationship between monumentalization and urbanization, and architectural traditions in western central Italy. The book offers a synthesis of a wide range of archaeological material from religious contexts, which will be useful for considering alongside the settlement and funerary data. Readers will not find this overview comprehensive: the author includes in her analysis and catalogue only "the most commonly cited examples of early religious architecture" (p. 125). This approach allows Potts to call into question the unreliable criteria used to identify early religious buildings and to stress in her conclusions the lack of distinction between ritual and non-ritual spaces in Iron Age contexts. This leaves as an open question how archaeologists should understand the nature of these early settlements. By the author's own admission (p. 123), there is one curious omission from the text's main narrative: the archaic temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus in Rome. Potts explains in an appendix her reasons for excluding the temple from the study, citing the lack of definitive evidence regarding its appearance. Her justification is valid, insofar as it allows the author to identify broad patterns from a wide-ranging body of archaeological evidence, but in places some discussion of the temple seems warranted, particularly the sixth chapter concerning ritual topographies.


1.   M. L. Thomas, G. E. Meyers and I. E. M. Edlund-Berry (eds.), Monumentality in Etruscan and Early Roman Architecture: Ideology and Innovation (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2012), BMCR 2013.03.11.
2.   For instance, N. T. de Grummond and I. Edlund-Berry (eds.), The Archaeology of Sanctuaries and Ritual in Etruria, JRA Supplementary series, 81 (Portsmouth, RI: Journal of Roman Archaeology, 2011), BMCR 2012.04.42; T. Stek, Cult Places and Cultural Change in Republican Italy (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2009), BMCR 2011.04.25.

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