I’ve blogged before on this site about my ongoing PhD research into “Big Data” and evidence for Roman food recovered during developer-funded archaeological work in England, as part of the EngLaId Project based at the University of Oxford, and I thought I’d post a quick update now, as I’ve recently come into possession of an amazing new data-set courtesy of Museum of London Archaeology (Mola) and the excellent archaeologists who work there, including particularly Karen Stewart.
I think it’s fair to say that the database produced by developer-funded archaeological work in England is still an under-used resource, particularly in academia and the reasons for this are no doubt varied and complex. There is no space in a short blog to go into these reasons in depth; however, I think that among the main reasons is the fragmented nature of the sector, with many different organisations carrying out the work, and particularly the reliance on freelance specialists to carry out much of the finds specialist work upon which our knowledge of eating and drinking in the past relies. One consequence of this fragmentation is the great diversity of ways in which digital data is stored and managed, with specialists often tailoring their finds databases to the needs of individual projects.
At Mola though, things are a little different. Again the reasons may be complex and, I suspect, relate to the scale and complexity of the organisation, but at Mola all finds, and indeed context data is stored in a single database that includes information on all of the different finds recovered from at least 11,000 sites, some of which were excavated as long ago as 1915. The result is an incredibly flexible tool for research, which has already been used to do some fantastic work on food, including a study of the fishing industry and fish consumption in medieval London (Orton et al. 2014), which makes use of anatomical data and detailed chronological information to link changes in the nature of commercial fishing to changes in the anatomical elements present in deposits of cod remains.
The data that I’ve extracted from the Mola database relates to the period between 1500BC and AD1086 (the period covered by the EngLaId project) which covers the long period between the first wide spread permanent settlement and the origins of the modern settlement pattern. These data falls into four main categories: context data, ceramics, animal bones and charred plant remains and the idea is to plot changes in these data, both chronologically and spatially using GIS and to see (among other things) whether data analysed on this scale changes our understanding of Roman food consumption and particularly what was carried over from the Iron Age and what continued into the early medieval period. I haven’t yet crunched the numbers in a sufficiently detailed way to report on my analysis – but when I have I’ll be posting another blog on Food For Thought to let everybody know how it went. Hopefully, the results will be interesting!
Figure 1: Distribution of Mola Sites
Orton, D C, Morris, J, Locker, A, and Barrett, J H, 2014 Fish for the city: meta analysis of archaeological cod remains and the growth of London’s northern trade, Antiquity, 88, 516-30.