“Big Data” and Food in Roman Britain

I’m currently involved in a project (known as the EngLaID Project http://englaid.com) which is investigating the long-term history of the English Landscape and English Identity covering the period from 1500BC – when the landscape was arguably first settled in a permanent way, to Doomsday Book c. AD1086. The project aims to use digital data created by English archaeologists, including data from Historic Environment Records (HERs), the Portable Antiquities Scheme (http://finds.org.uk ) and the National Mapping Project among other sources. My brief within this project is to investigate ceramics and food (to be submitted as a DPhil (PhD) thesis), hence my involvement with an outreach project about Roman food. I thought I’d use this opportunity to introduce my project and what I hope to be able to say about Roman food in England when it’s finished.

Although historically food has been a fairly marginal topic within Roman archaeology this situation has begun to change rapidly in recent decades, with more and more work focusing on food and the (fairly obvious) sources of evidence for it in the archaeological record. Much of this work, however, is focused on single find specialisms, such as pottery, animal bone, or charred plant remains; or on single scientific techniques such as the extraction of lipids (plant and animal fats) from Roman pottery. This is not to say that this kind of work is not important, it is very important and in fact is fundamental to my project, however, attempts to synthesize the results of these studies into a broader picture of what people in Roman Britain were eating and drinking have been rare. The exception which proves the rule here is Eating and Drinking in Roman Britain by Hilary Cool (2006), which is a thoroughly good read and recommended to anyone with an interest in Roman food.

This developing interest on the part of archaeologists in Roman food in Britain and the artefacts and ecofacts that provide the evidence for it has coincided, probably not accidently, with an explosion of data created through the implementation of protection for archaeological sites through the English planning system (PPG16). PPG16 was introduced in 1992 and stipulates that archaeological sites must be excavated before they are destroyed by development. In fact Cool is explicit in stating that her research has been stimulated by the results of these excavations, suggesting that the informed use of finds reports from such excavations can give us a much more refined view of food and drink in Roman Britain and drawing out subtle differences between the diets of, for example, the rural poor in the east midlands and the upper Thames Valley, or officers and men in Roman forts.

And this is the point at which my research comes in. What my project aims to do essentially is to apply the “Big Data” techniques developed in the context of the EngLaId project to investigate the different patterns of eating and drinking suggested by Cool. To that end I’ve gathered digital data generated during the course of developer funded excavation for two case studies, one on the Upper Thames Valley (see map) and one on the route of High Speed 1 (HS1) in Kent, with a third projected case study planned for East Anglia. The kind of data that I’ve been collecting includes contextual information (where artefacts were found and on what kind of site), pottery catalogues, animal bone and plant catalogues and information on other kinds of food related tools such as quernstones and knives. The data is stored in a filemaker database and mapped digitally using QGIS. There are huge problems with using this kind of data, most notably the fact that much of it was created in an era before the routine use of databases in British archaeology, meaning that there is lack of standardization in the way that data is recorded and consequently attempts to query the database tend to result in less than meaningful results. It is probably fair to say that cracking this problem of data standardization is the problem of my project, but if I can crack it then the result will hopefully be an even more nuanced understanding of eating and drinking in Roman Britain (among other periods), encompassing both national and regional patterns of consumption and production. I hope that I’ll be able to post some more concrete results in future blogs.

Fig. 1 Location of case studies 2

 

Fig. 1 Location of Case Studies

 

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