BMCR 2019.08.43

New Visions of the Countryside of Roman Britain, Volume 3: Life and Death in the Countryside of Roman Britain. Britannia monography series, 31

, , , , , New Visions of the Countryside of Roman Britain, Volume 3: Life and Death in the Countryside of Roman Britain. Britannia monography series, 31. London: Society for the Promotion of Roman Studies, 2018. xviii, 419. ISBN 9780907764465 £32.40 (pb).

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

Of the 2-3 million people who lived in Roman Britain, it has been estimated that 80-90% lived in the countryside (p. 243). Yet our understanding of rural spaces is largely limited to military and villa contexts, and we know relatively little about the other people who lived and died in rural areas. The third book in the New Visions of the Countryside in Roman Britain series redresses that imbalance. The series is the result of a project by Cotswald Archaeology that draws on published archaeological evidence from traditional site reports and developer-funded excavations since 1990.1 The first volume defined eight regions and various settlement types in rural Roman Britain and the second addressed the rural economy. The third volume applies a regional approach to those who populated the countryside in life and death, as Fulford explains in the Introduction.

Chapter 2 (“Personal Appearance in the Countryside of Roman Britain”) presents a typological and geographical analysis of the distribution of objects that were associated with dress and personal display: brooches, bracelets, finger rings, hairpins and personal grooming equipment. Because of their abundance and prominence in scholarship, brooches dominate the analysis. Brindle finds regional differences in the use of these objects: notably, dress accessories were more common in the South and East, but they were rare at farmsteads and rural areas in the North and West, even when they were found at military sites and towns in those areas. This observation points to the conclusion that rural populations were not as integrated into ‘Roman’ styles, and they may have adhered to archaeologically-invisible ways of dressing. Chapter 2 stands out for being the most narrowly typological in focus, although the author does relate some of the observed patterns to changes in metal production and distribution, as well as to wider debates about ‘Romanization’ or Britain’s integration into the Roman market economy.

Chapter 3 (“Lifestyle and the Social Environment”) considers the heterogenous nature of lifestyles in domestic environments through evidence for eating and drinking, recreation, security, lighting, and literacy. Throughout the chapter, the approach is to consider the distribution of objects at different types of rural settlements and to assess the presence or absence of various features, including both structures and portable material culture. The chapter emphasizes inequalities in access to certain amenities and the diversity of lifestyles associated with nucleated communities and isolated dwellings. The authors give prominence to defended ‘small towns’ and nucleated roadside settlements where there is the most evidence for security, lighting, literacy, bathing and entertainment. From the limited evidence for literacy, it seems likely that Latin never fully replaced Celtic as the main language in the countryside, and the authors argue that bilingualism was more widespread than traditionally thought. The road network was of critical importance for the dissemination of Roman structures and material culture.

Chapter 4 (“The Social Context of Animals and Exploitation of Wild Resources”) investigates human-animal relationships through five avenues of inquiry: livestock farming, the social role of horses, companion animals, the introduction of new species, and the exploitation of wild animals. In all five sections, Allen notes the changes that can be documented in faunal assemblages between the late Iron Age and Roman periods, which he then relates to broader social, cultural and economic developments in the countryside. Changes in the size of cattle or horses, for example, may be related to their use as draft animals for arable farming. Meat processing and cleaver marks on cattle bones are interpreted as evidence for professional butchers in towns. The importation of non-native species like fallow deer and exotic birds corresponds to the establishment and use of parks, gardens, fish ponds, and formal gardens that were harnessed as a demonstration of wealth and social power. Overall, zooarchaeological evidence for many species in the countryside is sparse. The author respects the limits of what can be said in light of recovery biases, and the difficulties of identifying animal bones and dating the introduction of various species into Britain.

Chapter 5 (“Religion and the Rural Population”) addresses the ways in which archaeological evidence can contribute to our understanding of religion in the countryside, even if many aspects of ‘religious experience’ remain unknown. The identification of sacred sites is based on the morphological features of temples or ‘shrines’ (a catch-all term for sacred sites that are not temples), and the presence of certain types or quantities of associated material culture in unusual concentrations or structured deposits. After a review of religious practices in the Iron Age, the bulk of the chapter is divided into two main parts: the first reviews evidence for the morphology and distribution of Romano-Celtic temples, shrines, religious enclosures, and sacred spaces at different sites (farmsteads, villas, nucleated settlements, etc.). The second part explores votive assemblages, religious objects, and structured deposits from Romano-British sacred sites. The analysis focuses on geographic patterning and social context in a chronological framework, in order to link changes like the emergence of specialized shrines to socio-political developments. Certain patterns and regional differences are evident: in the North and West, there were few shrines or religious objects but more structured deposits, whereas the East had greater numbers of religious enclosures with architectural embellishment. The chapter closes with a brief review of Christianity, which was one among many cults in the late Roman countryside.

In an impressive analysis of 15,579 rural burials from 1160 sites, Chapter 6 (“Death in the Countryside: Rural Burial Practices”) reviews the archaeologically-visible aspects of funerary practice: the treatment of the body; non-normative rites; the provision of grave furnishings and containers across regional and chronological parameters. The discussion of minority burial practices (i.e. decapitation, prone and flexed burials) is particularly interesting in light of common assumptions about ‘deviant’ burials in Roman Britain. Though such practices have similar distribution patterns in central England, there are identifiable variations: decapitated burials were mostly late Roman in date and found within cemeteries, whereas prone burials had a longer temporal span and also appeared outside formal cemetery contexts. Grave goods were not as common in Roman Britain as they were in Italy: approximately two-thirds of the burials in the study were not equipped with grave goods, and there was a general decline between the early and late Roman periods, when the percentage of graves with assemblages waned. The discussion of plant and animal remains in burials—whether they were offerings, fuel for a cremation pyre or the remains of a ritual meal—is one of the most innovative aspects of this volume. Too often ‘specialist’ studies are found only as an appendix, rather than considered alongside more visible aspects of funerary practice, and this chapter illustrates the benefits of integrating such data into broader syntheses.

The authors acknowledge problems with the dataset: the chronological resolution is fairly coarse, since only 13% of burials have radiocarbon dates, and the few datable objects are used to date entire burial groups. Another issue pertains to excavation and recovery strategies: burials have been recorded at only 33% of villa sites, where excavations tend to focus on the main buildings, rather than the associated property where isolated burials and formal cemeteries were most likely to be situated. No attempt to quantify the grave goods or analyze their positions was made on account of the differences in inter-site recording practices, which seems like a missed opportunity to further develop the discussion about cultural attitudes to the dead. These issues notwithstanding, a narrative of gradual change emerges: from traditional ‘invisible’ funerary rites towards formal deposits in defined burial zones or cemeteries that become larger over time, and towards inhumation instead of cremation. Such a narrative still allows for a degree of variation and heterogeneity across different regions and landscapes.

Turning from the burials to the human skeletal remains, Rohnbogner in Chapter 7 (“The Rural Population”) presents a paleopathological analysis of trauma and disease. In order to determine how rural life affected the wellbeing of those who lived and worked in the countryside, the author explores evidence for pathology, joint degradation, age-at-death, sex distribution, reported cases of enamel hypoplasia, and tuberculosis. The reader who is unfamiliar with paleopathology will appreciate the overview of various diseases, deficiencies and degeneration that can be observed on the skeleton (pp. 284- 287). Rohnbogner limited the initial dataset (of 5043 inhumation burials from 135 sites) to burials that were recorded after 1995 in the three largest regions (the Central Belt, South and East), for a total of 2717 burials from 102 sites. She then analyzed crude prevalence rates of pathology by age and sex as a percentage of the number of individuals affected by region, site type, and age category.

Attention to the relationship between burial context and paleopathology helped to elucidate a number of interesting trends. For example, decapitated individuals in the Central Belt area had higher rates of skeletal trauma, enamel hypoplasia and caries, which may suggest the lower social status of these individuals. Osteological evidence for malaria and higher levels of cribra orbitalia in the South region may reflect the migration of adult individuals born outside of Britain. The spread of infections like tuberculosis was more widespread than anticipated, especially in the South. Overall, the elevated frequency and variety of pathological lesions suggest that, compared to Iron Age populations, health declined in the countryside of Roman Britain. More surprisingly, Rohnbogner found that populations in the three study regions had higher rates of infections, metabolic disease, and joint degeneration than contemporary urban populations at Lankhills and Winchester. Through her analysis of bio-cultural stress, changes in diet, and rates of infection, Rohnbogner concludes that living in the country may not have led to better standards of health than living in towns, at least in the South, East and Central Belt regions.

This volume is well illustrated with 246 images and 35 tables, and it is almost entirely free from errors. Where the book is at its strongest is in the authors’ collective ability to elicit regional and chronological patterns from vast amounts of data, and to present a nuanced analysis of how life in the countryside changed over four hundred years. In the Roman period, rural life was heterogenous, with major differences and cultural divisions between the North/West and South/East regions. Regional diversity gradually broke down and there were increasing levels of “broad cultural conformity, as expressed by the built environment, material culture, religious behavior and burial practice, albeit still with considerable individuality” (p. 351).

This book establishes a new standard for the integration of environmental and osteological data into the study of the Roman countryside. Chapters 6 and 7 are, in this reviewer’s opinion, the most important contributions of the volume, not only because they situate the people of the countryside at the forefront of the investigation, but because they articulate a new way to synthesize data that will be invaluable for other areas of the ancient world.

Authors and Titles

Chapter 1: Introduction (Michael Fulford)
Chapter 2: Personal Appearance in the Countryside of Roman Britain (Tom Brindle)
Chapter 3: Lifestyle and the Social Environment (Alexander Smith, with Tom Brindle, Michael Fulford, and Lisa Lodwick)
Chapter 4: The Social Context of Animals and Exploitation of Wild Resources (Martyn Allen)
Chapter 5: Religion and the Rural Population (Alexander Smith with Martyn Allen, Tom Brindle and Lisa Lodwick)
Chapter 6: Death in the Countryside: Rural Burial Practices (Alexander Smith with Martyn Allen and Lisa Lodwick)
Chapter 7: The Rural Population (Anna Rohnbogner)
Chapter 8: Conclusions (Alexander Smith and Michael Fulford)


1. Data from the project is available online: “the Rural Settlement of Roman Britain: an online resource at the ADS Archaeology Data Service.