Roads have always been addressed as formidable channels through which people, goods, news, ideas and cultures are transferred. They indeed constitute the ‘circulatory system’ of entities such as regions, states, or continents. They are means through which social, economic and cultural patterns are conveyed, and through which languages, traditions, religions, habits, fashions, musical practices and material culture are transmitted.
Medieval road networks have been studied mainly in their devotional meaning as pilgrimage routes. Innumerable publications investigated these aspects and highlighted the role played by these medieval ‘highways’ in building up the European cultural identity. The plethorical literature on the pilgrimage routes to Santiago de Compostela is a shining example of that. This approach has been central in setting up networks of cultural institutions and in disseminating research outuputs (mainly through websites, such as http://www.saintjamesway.eu/ and http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/669 for the S. James Way, http://www.viefrancigene.org/en/, http://www.tastingeurope.com/routes/francigena and http://www.rivistaviafrancigena.it/en/ for the Francigena Way, to name but a few).
Most publications adopt an historical perspective rooted in the research of Johan Plesner, first published in 1938. This methodology was refined with the book of Thomas Szabó in 1992, and the works of Tiziano Mannoni (1983, 1992) highly contributed to a more structured archaeological-topographical approach.
Since the end of the 20th century, archaeologists and surveyors have given so much interest to ancient communication systems that the term ‘Archaeology of Roads’ has come into use. Ancient road networks have been studied from the technological point of view, as instruments of control and military domination, or as channels for trades and exchange, but a problematized approach was still missing.
More recently, the increasing influence of landscape theory in archaeology has triggered a revolution in research on communication networks. International scholarship has embraced a concept of landscape that bridges methodological barriers and regional differences, creating an adaptive analytical framework (Snead, Erickson and Darling 2009, 3).
In this approach, the ‘context’ is the theoretical framework where material and cultural elements merge to create the holistic dimension of our analysis. The latter is then focussed on cultural landscapes, conceived as the palimpsest where history and environment interrelate. Communication networks are the threads of the web that connects places. Trails, paths, and roads trigger interaction and generate social, economic and political trends.
Thanks to a renewed approach to landscape archaeology, a huge amount of archaeological data can be reprocessed to be part of a broader debate. Intensive prospections supported by remote sensing, GIS processing and predictive modelling allows the collection of heterogeneous archaeological evidence, whose interpretation emphasizes the physical and temporal context at multiple topographical and chronological scales.
Cristina Corsi is lecturer and adjunct professor in Archaeology at the University of Cassino (Italy). Senior Marie-Skłodowska Curie fellow (Senior Researcher), she was visiting researcher at the Portuguese University of Évora from 2007 to 2013. She coordinated and participated in large international projects, among which the European project “Radio-Past” on the application of non-destructive techniques to study complex archaeological sites (www.radiopast.eu).