Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2017.12.25 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2017.12.25

Maaike Groot, Livestock for Sale: Animal Husbandry in a Roman Frontier Zone: The Case Study of the 'Civitas Batavorum'. Amsterdam Archaeological Studies, 24.   Amsterdam:  Amsterdam University Press, 2016.  Pp. vii, 254.  ISBN 9789462980808.  $124.00.  

Reviewed by Carolyn Willekes, Mount Royal University (

The work under review is part of an important branch of scholarship focusing on zooarchaeology in the ancient world. This field is receiving a growing amount of attention by scholars, however there is still often a disconnect between zooarchaeological data and more traditional approaches to studying the past. Groot shows how we can use zooarchaeology as a tool for identifying sociocultural and economic changes, and moreover, possible reasons for these developments. She studies how self-sufficient rural communities during the period of Roman occupation (12BC-AD 350) in the Civitas Batavorum (the Lower Rhine in the Dutch River area) responded to demand for agrarian products and further, the impact these demands had on agrarian strategies. The aim of the study is to use zooarchaeological data to find evidence for interactions between farmers and the consumers in both and urban and military context, in particular how these interactions led to developments in animal husbandry with regards to production and market consumption. To address these questions, Groot uses data related to species proportions, age and sex, skeletal elements, butchery, biometrics, and archaeobotany for the four primary domestic mammals: cattle, sheep/goats, horses, and pigs. The book is organized into eight thematic chapters that create a comprehensive analysis of the study data, creating a very coherent and readable piece of work.

Chapter One (Introduction) provides a systematic breakdown of the purpose and methods and gives a short synopsis of the topographical development of the Dutch River Area, as well as a short chronological description of the region in the Roman period; both of these components are helpful in familiarizing the reader with the region and its historical context. We are also given a clear and general overview of basic food production and supply. Finally, Groot provides a brief explanation of the evolution of a market economy.

Chapter Two (Archaeological Sites) details the selection criteria used to choose the 72 sites for the study. The author had two primary requirements: the presence of animal bones and data reports for these bones. The sites fall into one of four categories: rural, military, urban, and temple, with the rural sites further subdivided into villa sites. Thus, the sites occupy a variety of contexts and provide a relatively clear distinction between producer sites and consumer sites. The producer site is always a rural context, while the consumer sites are identified as military, urban, and temple. Groot is quick to acknowledge that the classification of a site is not always clear-cut and further, that some of the sites used in the study were difficult to categorize and the choice depended on availability of data. The study categorizes 46 sites as rural, 11 as military, 6 as urban-military, 4 as urban, and 5 as temple. Thus, the majority of the study sites belong to a rural context as producer sites (64%), with the remaining 36% belonging to the consumer category, of which the majority have a military context (65%).

In Chapter Three (Zoological Background), Groot discusses the zooarchaeological components of the study—species proportions, age and sex, skeletal elements, butchery, and biometrical analysis—in a manner that is relevant for both specialists as well as those who might be new to zooarchaeological study. Chapter Four (Methods) deals with how the methodological approaches apply to the data, region, or species in question and the potential pitfalls of each element.

Chapter Five (Rural Settlements: Animal Husbandry and Consumption) focuses on the rural production and exploitation of animals. She begins by providing an outline of farming practices in the Late Iron Age, which serves as a backdrop for understanding the evolution of agriculture during the Roman period with its shift from an agrarian subsistence economy to a market economy. When it comes to examining the evidence at hand the author clearly follows the methodological approaches outlined in the previous chapter. She concisely addresses the data from these rural sites, particularly concerning the changes in species proportions, the exploitation of each study species within the rural context and how this changes over time, and finally how the biometrical analysis of each species is indicative of changes in size throughout the Roman period. Chapter Six (Consumers: Urban, Military and Temple Sites) examines the patterns of animal consumption and exploitation in a non-rural context following a layout similar to the previous chapter.

Chapter Seven (Interaction between Producers and Consumers) aims to create a more comprehensive picture of animal production, consumption, and the relation between the two in the Dutch River Area. The detailed discussion at the end of the chapter is very useful for putting together this bigger picture, and moreover, how animal husbandry and exploitation practices changed from the Early to Late Roman periods as well as possible reasons for these shifts, which primarily seem to be connected to the establishment of Roman garrisons in the region. This placed a greater demand on the farmers for primary and secondary animal products, which in turn influenced the what animals were being raised. For example, the period of early Roman occupation sees an increase in sheep numbers. Groot suggests that this could be on account of their faster reproductive rate (in comparison to cattle), allowing enough surplus meat to fill a rapidly expanding market, while also meeting an increased demand for wool. This period likewise sees a size increase in cattle, which the author indicates could be related to the spread of imported cattle.

The final chapter (Final Thoughts) sums up Groot’s analysis of the data. She concludes that the introduction of Roman garrisons to the region had an immediate impact on the local agrarian economy. Not only did it influence the purpose of agriculture- supplying a market economy vs. a smaller subsistence economy, there was also a need to produce a substantially greater quantity of meat and animal products. The local response was to specialize: instead of farms practicing a form of subsistence mixed agriculture, they focused on producing specific products- wool, horses, etc. Farming methods also reflect these changes with more emphasis placed on intensive arable farming, which in turn affected the use of large livestock like cattle- they were needed for traction as well as food. An increase in horse breeding and size reflects the demand for cavalry mounts. Groot’s study of the Roman Dutch River Area thus provides an excellent example of how rural communities can adapt to socio-cultural and economic changes.

Groot’s well-written volume is illustrated throughout with diagrams and charts. She regularly points out any data irregularities, whether from a scarcity of physical remains, or a marked unevenness in species representations, while also providing possible reasons for the occurrences. Most significantly Groot shows how zooarchaeological data can contribute to a broader understanding of daily life by showing how this data can be used to reflect changes in animal husbandry, food supply, demand, and population (both size and demographic). For example, she uses analysis of butchery marks to explain where the animals are being slaughtered and by whom—more extensive butchery in towns where animals are intensively exploited to maximize potential food supply. Changes in butchery marks at rural sites corresponds with the arrival of the Romans, suggesting that military butchers introduced new techniques and new tools, with cleavers only appearing in the Middle Roman period. An increase in animal size suggests crossbreeding with imported livestock from elsewhere in the Roman world, indicating a growing trade network. With this book Groot shows clearly how we can use zooarchaeological data to look at socio-cultural and economic patterns. Food and secondary animal products were a necessity for life and as Groot indicates throughout this volume, changes in animal production practices are indicative of socio-cultural shifts. Herein lies the value of this work: it shows the many ways researchers can use zooarchaeological data, a source that has been relatively unexploited in Classical scholarship. One of the most impressive aspects of this volume is its usefulness for both specialists and non-specialists: it is written in a manner that is clear and succinct. This volume is a valuable addition to the growing body of zooarchaeological literature, while it also contributes to a better understanding of agriculture, economics, and life of the northern frontier of the Roman empire.

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