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Archaeological excavations of small rural settlements in Central Italy were virtually non-existent until the mid-1980s, in spite of the fact that they represented the most commonly found type of site in field surveys. In the course of the Cecina Valley Project, hundreds of these settlements were located in the western part of the territory of the Etruscan and Roman city of Volaterrae. When two of them were thoroughly excavated, they revealed a much more complex picture of small scale farming than previously imagined. On the one hand, the structural evidence showed a high degree of conservatism, with pre-Roman vernacular architecture surviving long into the Imperial period; also, the environmental record was consistent with sustainable mixed farming practices integrated by woodland hunting and gathering activities. On the other, an extremely remarkable range of artifacts was recovered which in any other context would be defined as prestige items, including a bronze statuette, an imitation Egyptian scarab, several decorated metal clasps, finger rings and coins. These were present at both farm sites and covered the entire chronological range of occupation of the sites. So, in some ways the excavation results suggested a classic peasant society, substantially unaffected by the many macro-historical changes that accompanied the Roman conquest, the end of the Republic and the collapse of the Western Roman Empire. But, at the same time, the commonly held assumption that Roman peasants barely managed subsistence was also radically called into question.

The ability to place the results from the two small settlement within their broader subregional context allows the creation of some interesting hypotheses about the rural peasantry in the countryside of Volaterrae and, more generally, of Northern Etruria. In line with recent historical and archaeological work on post-conquest central Italy, it can be posited that internal displacement and enslavement of non-Romans were less ubiquitous than generally asserted. Furthermore, a possible connection can be seen between peasant conservatism and urban elite conservatism, perhaps suggesting a symbiotic more than a purely exploitative link between the two groups. Finally (and perhaps most debatably) a link can be conjectured between conservative stewardship of agricultural and woodland resources and the continued production of a small amount of surplus. Falsifying the Malthusian theorem that rural populations would grow until the maximum carrying capacity of the landscape was reached, a more stable model can be suggested, in which a buffer is carefully preserved to compensate for bad years and other unfavorable conjunctures. The excavations in the Cecina Valley may be said to open more problems than they conclusively solve, but more exciting work on other comparable sites seems to be poised to make a significant change in the way in which peasant society was understood in Roman studies.

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