The book title, From Constantine to Charlemagne: An Archaeology of Italy, AD 300-800, is a suitably clumsy starter. The first part implies a detailed narrative history framed between two great historical names: Constantine, as the first Roman Emperor to accept and promote Christianity and thereby to redirect and start the process of redefining the Roman Empire, and Charlemagne, as a devout Christian, but a foreign king who was crowned emperor at Rome in AD 800 and whose inclusion of an independent Rome in a restoration of unity in western Europe stimulated a renewal and dissemination of Roman culture and learning. Yet the second half of the title switches attention away from historical details and identifies instead a review of the physical evidence from the Italian peninsula in a 500-year span. This date range is suitably rounded, as is the wont of archaeologists, and almost, but not quite, fits with the chronologies of the individuals named (they were at least alive at the dates stated). The chapters that follow will, of course, extend before and after these set dates – seeking roots and following fortunes – since individual dates do not always define the people and landscapes around. The names, dates and actions of individuals and peoples in later antiquity and in the early Middle Ages indeed often form a rough, but not always accurate fit with the archaeologies of that past. To take one example, we can cite from a text such as the Liber Pontificalis (the Book of Pontiffs), comprising sets of biographies of popes compiled in Rome relatively close to the events described. In this quote, the source records the foundation or construction of the bishop’s church at Rome’s port of Ostia in the reign of Constantine under Pope Silvester:
This furnishes invaluable detail on the means to support the complex and its staff offered by both emperor and consul; it also informs on the equipping of the church interior – even commenting on the metal quality and content of the liturgical vessels, suggesting that the audience needed to recognize the investment. As detailed in Chapter 2, such early churches may be extant, if remodelled across time, and thus offer a structural tie-in to the documents. In this instance, the Constantinian basilica at Ostia does not survive above ground and even its location was long lost amongst the buried remains at the old port (in general on Ostia, see Meiggs 1973; Gallina Zevi & Claridge 1996). But a recent magnetometry survey in the southern zone of the city, an area only partially studied by earlier excavations, has remarkably identified the basilica’s plan and extent, covering 51.5 x 23 m and featuring an extensive western forecourt (Bauer & Heinzelmann 1999; Bauer et al. 2000. See fig. 14 below). With (thus far) only limited excavation trenches, the character of the church, apparently in a bad way in the seventh century – by when much of the old port city had been deserted after a later history troubled by Visigoths, Vandals, Ostrogoths plus malaria – is only slowly emerging. What is essential to note here, however, is the way that the archaeology is informed by the documents which reveal the basilica’s material and logistical wealth; but the archaeology informs the historians through details of dimensions, of build, flooring, structural fortunes, location (close to the south gate) and even its past – the basilica appears to have been imposed over a former, occupied insula block. And yet the archaeological finds from the church excavations may not be precise in terms of chronology of foundation, indicating a general date in the first half of the fourth century for example – hence the value of the texts, in providing both a context and names (although here no exact date is given in the Liber Pontificalis entry except in naming the consul; where dates do come they may often be a dedication date, that is, when the church was in service, but not necessarily when it was started, or even finished).