BMCR 2021.02.06

The role of zooarchaeology in the study of the western Roman Empire

, The role of zooarchaeology in the study of the western Roman Empire. JRA supplementary series, 107. Portsmouth: Journal of Roman Archaeology, 2019. Pp. 168. ISBN 9780999458617 $87.00.

[The Table of Contents is listed below.]

As evinced by its numerous publications, the field of animal studies is growing apace in the study of Greek and Roman antiquity. In general the source material of these studies tends to fall into two distinct groups. The first tends to rely mainly on texts and iconographic sources such as vase or wall paintings and stelai. Some of these studies focus on a particular animal or group of animals and others on the social implications of human-animal interaction. The second group comes out of the rising field of zooarchaeology, where the faunal remains of a site or area are given the attention which excavators prior to the 1970s routinely denied them. As Maltby (p. 16) points out, however, cooperation and synthesis among experts such as zoologists, botanists, numismatists, epigraphers, et al., is far too rare. Rarer still is a work incorporating a full integration of the evidence to be gleaned from the labors of such experts and that resulting from the work of those traditionally called philologists. One hopes that this is the future of the field of animal studies. To give a concrete example, would not commentaries on texts as diverse as the Moretum, Apicius, or the feast of Trimalchio benefit from knowledge of faunal assemblages contemporary with the authors in question? And would not those who study faunal remains not benefit from seeing their finds against the evidence to be found in ancient literary texts? This volume is representative of a first step in this direction.

The first two essays by Allen and Maltby, respectively, do an excellent job of laying out the current state of the extent to which zooarchaeology has helped improve our knowledge of various aspects of Romano-British studies. Maltby, in particular, emphasizes that zooarchaeology has moved from simply being dry lists reported in an appendix to a field which is fully integrated into archeological reports.

King demonstrates the impressive cultural information that can be teased out of a careful examination of faunal remains to give us a better sense of which animals (e.g. cattle, sheep, pig) were more preferred in an area. Coupled with information such as climate and topography, this helps us better understand variations between areas. Roman Britain thus can become less a homogeneous province and more an aggregate of distinct parts possessing differing customs. Deschler-Erb and Groot take this one step further, using faunal remains from Switzerland and the Netherlands to investigate how armies were supplied their meat (by local trade vs. home grown for example), and to what extent the location of an army installation factored into these pragmatic issues. MacKinnon uses pork vs. beef consumption to investigate the degree to which certain areas became Romanized. Local suppliers, after all, had to adapt to the preferences of their new neighbors.

Mazzorin and Minniti study a subject inherently of interest to the average classicist, namely the zooarchaeological evidence for animal trade based on the evidence from the Roman Colosseum. Not only is the subject matter common fodder for Latin and Roman Civilization courses at any level, but these authors are at pains to cite many literary sources alongside the osteological evidence, teaching us, for example, that the first reference to an ostrich in the arena is in Plautus (Persa 198-99). The number of animals mentioned and the find sites of their bones make fascinating reading. One does miss any reference to Donald Kyle’s theories that dead animals from the arena were distributed to plebeian Romans.[1]

Miller et al. demonstrate the precision of zooarchaeology in their study of how and when the fallow deer was imported into England, how it might be imported whole or in butchered parts, and the use of these parts in things like magic and medicine. Hesse offers an example of what zooarchaeology can offer when excavation is meticulous and limited to a small area. Such detailed work, revealing things as small as egg shell fragments, can provide evidence of sacrifices carried out in a Roman household. Corbino et al. study the assemblage of thousands of animal bones from an Etruscan well that was in use for centuries, leading to an inquiry of whether Mithraism was practiced there. The last essay of the group studies bones and remains from several sites to indicate a shift in the purposes of feasts as Britain transitioned from Roman times to the Iron Age, an excellent example of how the field has moved from mere lists and numbers to integrating the zooarchaeological finds into a broader picture of a culture and area.

The book is rather technical in parts and, with notable exceptions, does not integrate archaeological data with evidence from ancient texts. It often seems to have a target audience of other zooarchaeologists. For example, many are heavily data driven. One contribution is just over twelve pages in length and about 5.5 pages of this consists of charts and tables. The non-specialist will encounter abbreviations such as NISP, and LSI long before a contributor mercifully defines them for the layperson. Other terms are familiar to specialists such as anatomists (“unfused epiphyses”; “distal metapodial”) or data analysts (*=p<005; Mann–Whitney U test). Such specificity, coupled with the book’s hefty price, will probably confine it to the bookshelves of research libraries and specialists. Others can profit from studying individual chapters. We have mentioned the contributions of Mazzorin and Minniti above. A scholar of Caesar, Tacitus, or the Roman army, for example, could find the piece by Deschler-Erb and Groot of use, even though the texts of Caesar and Tacitus are not cited in the article.

Thus the book is exactly what it purports to be, a focused study of different approaches and subjects that provides a “snapshot in time” that helps zooarchaeology “step out of its own shadow” and contribute to the wider field of Roman archaeology (p. 9). It is a notable step forward in producing such a fusion and, one hopes, a prelude to the time when the works of philologists and zooarchaeologists are routinely and equally citing each other and writing in a style that is accessible by either discipline.

Table of Contents

Martyn G. Allen, Zooarchaeology and the study of the Western Roman Empire: prologue and acknowledgements (p. 7-10)
Mark Maltby, From the appendix to integration? A review of the contribution of zooarchaeology to Romano-British studies since 1970 (p. 11-36)
Anthon C. King, Regional factors in the production and consumption of cattle, sheep, goats and pigs in Roman Britain (p. 37-52)
Sabine Deschler-Erb and Maaike Groot, Think global act local: regionalism and the supply of meat to the Roman army (p. 53-72)
Michael MacKinnon, Harvested pigs and hated prey: ‘Romanization’ and zooarchaeological trends in the Mediterranean region (p. 73-84)
Jacopo De Grossi Mazzorin and Claudia Minniti, The exploitation and mobility of exotic animals: zooarchaeological evidence from Rome (p. 85-100)
Holly Miller, Naomi Sykes, and Christopher Ward, Diana and her deer: the movement of mythology and medicine (p.101-12)
Rachel Hesse, The tell-tale hearth: burnt offerings and private sacrifice in Pompeii (p. 113-32)
Chiara Corbino, Ornella Fonzo, and Nancy T. de Grummond, What’s in the well? A zooarchaeological perspective on possible ritual activities at Cetamura del Chianti (p. 166-44)
Martyn G. Allen, Feasting and social change across the Iron Age/Romano-British transition (p. 145-68).


[1] Kyle, Donald G. “Animal Spectacles in Ancient Rome: Meat and Meaning.” Nikephoros , vol. 7, 1994, pp. 181-205.