Grow your own? Vineyards in Roman Britain
Grapes and wine were key parts of the Roman Mediterranean diet. We also know that they were imported to areas further afield such as Roman Britain, through the study of plant remains and ceramics. But is there any evidence that the imported goods were supplemented with local produce to quench the thirst of Romano-British people?
Grapes (Vitis vinifera L.) do not grow natively in Britain, although a single charred grape has been found from a Neolithic causewayed enclosure at Hambledon Hill (Jones and Legge 1987). Grape pips have been found in 61 ‘records’ (phases of individual archaeological sites) in Britain (Van der Veen et al. 2008). The majority of these records are from major towns such as London, York and Silchester, as well as military and rural sites. But individual grape pips only show that grapes were being eaten – they don’t tell us where they were produced.
The presence of Roman vineyards in Britain has long been suspected, based on a third century AD classical text (Probus 18.8). In AD 280, the Emperor Probus repealed a previous law of Domitian, allowing grapes to be grown in Britain, Gaul and Iberia. Legend has it that the first vineyards were constructed at the Vyne country house near Basingstoke, Hampshire. A probable eighteenth century bust of Probus was installed in the house (Witcher 2013). The house is just a few miles from the Roman civitas capital Calleva Atrebatum (Silchester), where grape pips have been recovered from excavations in Insula IX. Orchards of newly introduced fruits such as apple, cherry and plum were probably growing around Silchester, but no archaeological evidence has yet been found of vineyards.
However, archaeological evidence for vineyards is quite common from Northamptonshire and Cambridgeshire, to the north of London. Many of these sites have been uncovered recently by developer funded excavations, and full publications are not yet available. These sites typically have evidence for flat bottomed planting trenches (pastinatio), irrigation systems, postholes and grape pollen. It seems producing grapes and wine may have been big business in Mid Roman East Midlands!
Here’s a quick run down of some of the recent sites:
– Wollaston in the Nene Valley – flat bottomed trenches and grape pollen. Brown et al 2001.
– Persimmon Homes site at Grovebury Farm, Leighton Buzzard. Online news article August 2013.
– Tavistock Avenue, Ampthill – evidence for parallel bedding trenches and manuring. Brown et al 2010 archive report.
– North West Cambridge – wells, irrigation system and planting beds. Online news article March 2014.
References (not open access)
Jones, G & Legge, A. 1987. The grape (Vitis vinifera L.) in the Neolithic of Britain. Antiquity 61:452-5
Renfrew, J. 2003. Archaeology and the origins of wine production. Sandler et al. Wine: A scientific exploration.
Van der Veen, M. et al. 2008. New Plant Foods in Roman Britain – Dispersal and Social Access. Environmental Archaeology 13(1): 11-36.
Witcher, R. 2013. On Rome’s ecological contribution to British flora and fauna: landscape, legacy and identity. Landscape History 34(2): 5-26.