Leptiminus Archaeological Project, Tunisia: 1990-99

Surveyed olive groves in the hinterland of Leptiminus.

Leptiminus Archaeological Project
1990-99
John Humphrey, University of Michigan; Nejib Ben Lazreg, Institut National du Patrimoine; Hedi Slim, Institut National du Patrimoine; Lea Stirling, University of Manitoba; David Stone, University of Michigan; David Mattingly, University of Michigan and University of Leicester, Directots

The site of Leptiminus in Tunisia and its surrounding hinterland have been the objects of an ongoing, long-term collaborative research project involving the University of Michigan, the University of Manitoba, and the Institut National du Patrimoine, Tunisia. The region witnessed a process of urban foundation, growth, decline, and abandonment across a time span of 1,200 years (ca. 500 BC-AD 700), a process leaving significant traces in the archaeological record. Since 1990 the Leptiminus Archaeological Project, a joint Tunisian-American-Canadian project, has conducted a regional survey of the area together with several excavations (since 1999, the project has been run under the auspices of the University of Manitoba).

An important port town that flourished under Roman rule, Leptiminus exported numerous agricultural products (including olive oil and garum, a popular fermented fish sauce), large-scale transport amphoras, and African Red Slip ware (a fine tableware much in demand throughout the Mediterranean from the 2nd through 7th centuries AD). These commodities from Leptiminus were traded throughout the Roman empire: from Italy, Spain, Portugal, and Britain in the West, to Egypt, Palestine, and Syria in the East. Both survey and excavation have also uncovered evidence of earlier Punic occupation as well as later Vandal, Byzantine, and Arab settlements.

The Excavations
The Leptiminus excavations produced an impressive variety of buildings with distinct functions, including cemeteries, houses, bathing establishments, a kiln complex, and a possible fullonica (a building used for washing and dyeing wool).

The cemeteries, which span the 2nd through 6th centuries AD and contained approximately 150 skeletons, are currently under study and will provide a valuable database for understanding the health, longevity, and burial practices of the settlement’s ancient inhabitants.

A Roman bathhouse, covering an area of approximately 3,600 square meters, now ranks as one of the largest known in Roman North Africa. Excavations in 1992 revealed, under the floors of a heated room, courts and tunnels that were used by attendants to stoke the furnaces and fires. In the 6th century AD the bath complex was converted into an industrial area where large clay transport amphoras were produced. The archaeological remains also suggest that the building housed areas for metal and bone working, as well as butchery.

One excavated Roman house neatly traces the changing patterns of life in the eastern suburbs of the city. The building was transformed from a house with a fine mosaic of Venus in the triclinium (dining room), to an industrial area covered with ash, clay, and ceramic debris, to some kind of activity area that required the construction of a water channel, before finally, in the 5th and 6th centuries, being converted into a small cemetery.

Some of the most impressive finds from the Leptiminus excavations have come from a complex of seven Roman kilns. Although scholars have known for a long time that pottery made in North Africa was widely exported throughout the Roman empire, few African production sites have been closely studied. The Leptiminus kilns are among the first to be scientifically excavated and carefully published. Ranging in use from the 1st through the 3rd centuries AD, these kilns have yielded vast quantities of ceramics and misfired pots that will eventually shed light on patterns of both export markets and local consumption.

The Survey
Despite the rapid pace of development in the coastal region of Tunisia today, approximately 85% of the ancient town of Leptiminus remains under cultivation, and is thus ideally suited for archaeological survey. The town consists of approximately 1.5 square kilometers of gently rolling terrain planted with olive trees and bisected by two dry riverbeds (wadis). Remains of ancient structures, including more than 60 cisterns, an amphitheater, two baths, two aqueducts, and numerous walls, stand out among the olive trees. Preservation of these remains, however, is poor owing to reuse of building materials in nearby medieval and modern settlements.

The Leptiminus survey focused on three primary goals. The first was to map and record each structure discovered in the course of fieldwalking. The second was systematically to examine the surface of the olive orchards for traces of past human activity, from pottery fragments, iron slag, and pieces of millstones, to building materials such as roof tiles, mosaic tesserae, and marble floor paving. The last was to "see beneath the soil" with the aid of devices that measure the earth's magnetism and resistance to electric currents, thus suggesting the probable locations of buried structures. Each of these goals has formed part of the archaeological survey of ancient Leptiminus and has helped build a field-by-field picture of the townscape.

Survey results identified an urban grid plan, located the probable town center (forum) of Leptiminus, and drew a picture of a city that does not conform to most standard views of Roman urbanism. The spatial distribution of artifacts clearly distinguishes an inhabited “public center” from a "productive periphery" on the town's outskirts. The latter area contains a high concentration of artifacts associated with ceramic production and with the smelting and smithing of imported ores. This evidence contrasts with one dominant perception of classical cities: that they were places of residence and of commerce (but not of production) and that they depended heavily on the countryside for any such production of goods. Leptiminus seems instead to have faced two ways: out to the sea toward the Mediterranean markets, and in toward a hinterland that included many landlocked towns. Other port towns like Leptiminus dotted the North African coast in antiquity and probably performed similar roles, participating in a range of urban craft activities for consumers who lay in both directions. Although Leptiminus provides archaeologists with a rare opportunity to study one of these ports, the town itself was probably not particularly unique. Instead, it can stand as a representative of coastal settlements in the region that exported a range of manufactured goods and imported items for both agricultural tasks (iron ores and millstones) and luxury building (marble).

The Museum
A major component of the Leptiminus Archaeological Project involved the installation of a museum in the modern village of Lamta, on the site of the town's eastern baths. Completed in 1994, this museum now contains three galleries focusing on archaeological methods, discoveries at the site, and the Punic and Roman phases of Tunisia's history. The Tunisian Institute of Heritage took the lead in building the museum, while the Michigan team, headed by Jim Richerson and assisted by Dana Buck, a former exhibits preparator of the Kelsey Museum, designed the largest of the galleries. As one of four primarily educational museums in the country, it receives daily visits from groups of schoolchildren and tourists interested in Tunisia's classical history.