Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2019.12.11 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2019.12.11

Stéphane Martin (ed.), Rural Granaries in Northern Gaul (6th century BCE-4th century CE): From Archaeology to Economic History. Radboud Studies in Humanities, Volume 8.   Leiden:  Brill, 2019.  Pp. xi, 182.  ISBN 9789004389038.  €83,00.  

Reviewed by John F. Drinkwater, University of Nottingham (

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As its editor explains in his Introduction, after years of neglect ancient grain storage, the subject of this short collection of papers, has recently become a lively issue. It lacks drama but is massively important since without the systematic production, collection, conservation and distribution of foodstuffs we would all still be hunter-gatherers.

Its core is Bossard’s Chapter 4, on agricultural storage in northern France during the pre-Roman Iron Age (sixth to late-first century BC). In a clear and methodical fashion, taking into account the most recent archaeological excavations and data, and providing a range of excellent distribution-maps and illustrations, he reviews 4,623 structures over 583 sites. He identifies a wide range of storage facilities, the most frequent being the overground wooden ‘loft’ granary, raised on piles. There are, however, local variations such as simple underground silos and elaborate wood-lined cellars. Bossard notes that we cannot be sure if these contained only cereals, or how their contents were stored, but his main point is that storage-patterns changed in response to contemporary socio-economic conditions. In the early period in Picardy and the Seine-basin, for example, concentrations of silos and raised granaries in or near aristocratic rural residences suggest a centralisation of power and wealth. Likewise, in the third and second centuries BC there was a decline in the number of such installations, which Bossard explains as the transfer of storage to the rapidly developing oppida and so an indication of another form of socio-economic centralisation and control.

In Chapter 5 Ferdière continues the story into the Roman period. He notes a predominance of raised, overground granaries, continued from the late Iron Age, but observes that the Roman were larger and stone-built. He identifies three main types, ‘buttressed’, ‘aisled’ and ‘tower’. Focusing on the first two of these, he maps their varied distribution throughout Gaul, with a pronounced concentration in the north. Ferdière then turns to a question not directly addressed by Bossard, that of the capacity of granaries. This is important since the amount of staple grain that can be stockpiled for seed, immediate use, as an emergency store and to pay taxes or trade (cf. p. 100) is crucial in determining the socio-political strength and complexity of any pre-industrial society.

Capacity, in fact, is the main theme of the volume, which begins with Blöck attempting to calculate the capacities of villa-granaries in Upper Germany. He uses medieval and early modern records to propose that grain was stored loose and spread relatively thinly. If we assume that the horrea of Roman villas had only one storey, their capacity was much lower than has been thought previously. Acceptance of an upper storey would significantly increase this volume, though this involves discounting the unknown (because there is no clear archaeological evidence of the species grown) variable of weight; and the lower storey could have been used for other purposes. Despite a lack of evidence for crop-varieties, quantity of seed sown, and yield per seed, Blöck hazards figures for the cultivated areas needed to fill two villa-granaries in south-west Germany and Switzerland: of 303-460 ha and 695-1016 ha respectively. He notes that these are large, but not implausible, and might represent the produce of more than one villa.

Likewise, in Chapters 3 and 6 Martin proposes a model for the capacities of Roman granaries in general and uses it to address an historical issue in a particular area. Ranging wider than Blöck, he examines rural granaries in northern Gaul from the Iron Age into the Roman period, considering a variety of forms, from underground silos to complex buildings, and taking into account recent thinking on, for example, the need for space to turn grain to keep it sweet and, notwithstanding such care, the likely rates of wastage. He applies the resulting figures to the Batavian countryside in the Roman period and on this basis questions the recent proposition that this countryside, conventionally considered unsuitable for arable farming, produced surplus cereals that could be passed on to the army and towns. This proposition is based on the changing — larger and more Roman — architecture of Batavian rural granaries from the late-first century BC. Martin argues that, though there was some such change, this was not a general phenomenon and should not be taken as indicating any great overall increase in storage space necessitated by significant new surpluses. Martin’s explanation for larger and grander storage buildings at some sites is that these resulted from socio-political, not economic, developments. Contemporary, and sometimes even associated with, new nucleated, ditched settlements, they suggest greater centralisation of Batavian life. They could have been built to store the growing personal wealth-in-kind of the rich, derived from their own land and/or that of dependants, while, by their monumentality, also advertising the power of their owners. They may therefore signal the end of the special tax-arrangements that the Empire had with the Batavi and the taking-up by their aristocracy of the responsibilities and lifestyle of civitas-based decuriones.

Ferdière, in turn, proposes another capacity-model, based on finds at 148 sites and assuming two-storey granaries containing piled grain. He presents a table and graphs showing: 1) very few small (c. 10 m3) granaries ; 2) a substantial proportion (30.5%) of medium-sized (c. 10-50m3); a majority (57.5%) of largish (c. 50-200m3) ones; and again a very few really big ones (c. 240m3), with just a handful at c. 260 m3 and above. Bemoaning the lack of evidence about Roman granary-use in both texts and archaeology and, like Blöck, seeking answers in more modern literature, he moves to the tricky question as to whether greater storage capacity in the Roman period indicates greater cereal-yields or only an increase in the land under cultivation. He notes the problems involved in answering this, which include those of correct identification of structures as granaries as well as the type of cereal being grown and the manner of its storage. He tentatively proposes that yields were rising even before the Roman conquest and were further stimulated by the need to feed new towns and military bases and the opportunity to sell grain into markets.

It is clear that the all-important calculation of capacities is bedevilled with so many unknown variables that each researcher can present different figures. As a result, the reader cannot be sure what to believe, and this uncertainty is increased by the fact that, as early as Chapter 2, Salido directly questions the very utility of modelling granary-capacity. On top of the problem of identifying archaeological structures as granaries, we do not know for sure: the extent to which ‘granaries’ were used for storing produce other than grain; the species of cereals grown; the form of the grains brought in for storage (in the ear or threshed?); the manner of storage (loose, in sacks or bins?); the efficiency of storage in preserving the crop; and the extent to which grain was held locally or transported further afield. He urges that what is needed is more qualitative, not quantitative, studies, integrating available archaeobotanical data. It is not surprising that Reddé’s Conclusion is no prescriptive Bilanz or even a neutral Zusammenfassung but, referring to issues raised in previous chapters and raising new problems, amounts to another appraisal of changes in cereal production and distribution from the Iron Age into the Roman period. To this end Reddé produces his own range of comparative, not absolute, sizes for selected Roman military, urban and rural granaries, based simply on their surface area. He uses this to demonstrate that military granaries are always much larger than even the largest rural, villa-based, structures. He then notes that the largest Iron-Age rural granaries are not much different in size from those of Roman villas, and proposes that there may have been a tendency to exaggerate the increase in size of the Roman and, so, of Gallo-Roman productivity. He accepts that the need to feed the troops engaged in campaigning in Germany caused an unprecedented demand for Gallic grain in the Augustan period, but argues that it is unrealistic to suppose that this sparked an immediate rise in production in the north. Instead, there were probably forced requisitions over a much wider area. On the other hand, he argues that the large rural granaries now being found in High Imperial Gaul should not be interpreted as permanent collection-points for the Rhine army. He ends by suggesting that the large northern Gallic granaries of this later period do not necessarily indicate a rise in production. Those close to the frontier may have been for military purposes; those further away may have been for storing the produce of more than one estate. We should never consider granaries in isolation but, however difficult this may be, always try to set them in their wider context.

The book is frequently a stiff read, but is always thought-provoking and is appealing in its frankness: the work-in-progress of a group of scholars with a common interest in an important and newly active field, who think differently but who are prepared to engage in reciprocal criticism. It has an extensive bibliography and two useful indices, and is linked (by ‘cat.’) to an online table and bibliography: HAL However, with reference to its sub-title, and that of Reddé’s Conclusion, honest ‘Archaeology’ has yet to lead to concrete ‘Economic History’. In particular, to my disappointment, there is nothing on foodstuff-storage in the later Empire, when growing and more effective taxation-in-kind must have necessitated extensive storage facilities. But this absence is due to lack of evidence, not the inattention of contributors. As with the Iron-Age oppida, it is likely that Late Roman storage was urban, not rural.

Table of Contents

Introduction, Stéphane Martin, pp. 1-10
Chapter 1, Lars Blöck: A model for calculating the capacities of horrea and agricultural areas of Gallo-Roman villas in the province of Germania Superior, pp. 13-22.
Chapter 2, Javier Salido Domínguez: Is it possible to quantify the Roman agrarian economy? In favour of quantitative scepticism, pp. 23-32.
Chapter 3, Stéphane Martin: Calculating the storage capacities of granaries: a tentative model, pp. 33-47.
Chapter 4, Stanilas Bossard: Évolution du stockage agricole dans le moitié septentrionale de la France à l’âge du fer, pp. 51-72.
Chapter 5, Alain Ferdière, with Véronique Zech-Matterne and Pierre Ouzoulias: De nouvelles formes de stockage à l’époque romaine en Gaule: quels changements, avec quel(s) moteur(s)?, pp. 73-105.
Chapter 6, Stéphane Martin: Storage in a non-villa landscape: the Batavian countryside, pp. 106-27.
Conclusion, M. Reddé: Des greniers ruraux aux greniers militaires et urbains. Les enjeux historiques d’une enquête archéologique, pp. 128-44.
Bibliography, 145-77.
Index of ancient sources and inscriptions, 178-9.
Index of place names, 180-2.

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