BMCR 2021.09.09

Recycling and reuse in the Roman economy

, , Recycling and reuse in the Roman economy. Oxford studies on the Roman economy. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2020. Pp. 512. ISBN 9780198860846. $130.00.


The hefty book under review is part of the Oxford Studies on the Roman Economy series and deals with a subject often neglected in discussions on Roman economy, reuse and recycling. Both are a constant in all human societies, but the extent and influence of reuse and recycling on the overall economic output of the Roman Empire has not been the focus of a concerted study before. As the topic is a specialisation within the wider field of Roman material studies, the volume tries to give archaeologists (both excavators and material specialists) an overview of the possibilities and problems as well as the advances made in the field in recent years.

The book is divided into five parts: the first is introductory; Part I gives an overview of commodities that remain (more or less) in the form of their first use; Part II summarizes commodities that are physically deconstructed; Part III looks at various case studies of recycling and reuse; and the last part is a summary and discussion of the possibilities of further research.

The introduction, written by Chloe Duckworth and Andrew Wilson, is relatively short and mainly concerned with describing = the creation of the present volume. As the recycling and reuse of different materials has generally been researched by different specialists according to material (and also fairly unevenly for the various materials discussed in this book), the aim was to pull the different disciplines together and discuss these practices across the various specialisms in order to facilitate cross-fertilisation on methodologies and come to a better understanding of the Roman economy as a whole.

In contrast, the following chapter, by Theodore Peña, may be described as the true introduction into the subject. In it, he tries to formulate basic concepts, define terms, and pose general questions on reuse and recycling. He points out that the nature of the evidence is—naturally—patchy and further hindered by the fact that cross-culturally, recycling activities were usually performed by those low on the social ladder, which are less likely to leave any records or be of interest to those persons in the higher echelons of society. Peña uses analogies to modern waste ‘production’ in less developed regions to approximate the amount of general waste produced per person per year (ca. 200 kg, of which 2/3 are organic, p. 20). He also offers a broad overview of the range of materials reused and recycled and the processes employed, which is an eye-opener in itself. This chapter is exceedingly useful not only by introducing the reader to the complexities and vagaries of the subject, but also because the authors of the following chapters refer to the concepts and definitions in it, making the book more integrated than many similar efforts.

Part I discusses commodities that are not physically deconstructed, and starts with a short chapter on textiles by John Peter Wild, asserting the ubiquity of reuse in textiles of all sorts in the Roman Empire, mostly by downcycling them. The next chapter, on papyrus, by Erja Salmenkivi, explains that the recycling of papyrus into book covers and cardboard-like painted covers for mummies is no proof that papyrus was very expensive, nor is the re-use of the blank side of a book roll for notes and drafts (which seems logical considering present habits of writing notes on used envelopes and such). She can demonstrate that new sheets of papyrus were not extremely expensive, but books were, because of the work of the scribe. The length of the following chapter on statuary and architectural elements, by Simon Barker, may be explained by the long-standing fascination of classical archaeologists with this subject. This has resulted in a number of similarly long-standing preconceptions, mainly revolving around the idea that the practice is a sign of decline in a culture. As Barker abundantly proves, the re-use and, above all, the reworking of statuary and architectural elements was often an even more skilled endeavour than fashioning them anew. It seems that the practice was an amalgam of changed visual habits, economic pragmatism, and the clearing away of dilapidated buildings. The last chapter in Part I, on amphorae (by Tom Brughmans and Alessandra Pecci), again shatters a long-held belief, namely that amphorae were used as transport containers for foodstuffs only once and may thus be used as proxies for the distribution of these foods. It is especially the reuse either for similar or other foodstuffs that is difficult to prove archaeologically and the authors urge a large-scale programme of residue analysis in order to quantify it. They then demonstrate a proof-of-concept model that uses computational simulation modelling in order to charter amphora reuse, proposing that the turnaround point where (most of) the amphorae were emptied and sent back were the larger sea-ports.

The second part of the volume is concerned with those commodities that are physically deconstructed to be refashioned, with the first contribution by Peter Bray revolving around copper alloy. The fact that copper alloys can be remolten almost indefinitely makes the determination of the ore source very difficult, but Bray notes the rising prevalence of gunmetal with a signature trace of antimony for Roman Britain from the late 1st century AD onwards. According to him, this indicates that—after an initial injection of brass and bronze into the newly acquired province—these two commodities must have been recycled by mixing them in a certain ratio to accomplish the dominance of gunmetal in later Roman Britain. In the second chapter of this part, Matthew Ponting uses the marker trace elements in silver coins to argue for certain sources of ore in the coin production of (groups of) emperors and connects their lead isotopes with the refining processes using lead.

Patrick Degryse’s analysis of glass tries to match trace elements geographically to sands and shows that while most of the primary glass production must indeed have been situated in the Eastern Mediterranean, about 5% was produced in the Western Mediterranean and 20% in the vicinity of Alexandria. According to him, only about 25 % of glass shows trace elements consistent with recycling. Chloë Duckworth’s paper argues against the latter percentage and asserts that we miss most of the recycled glass when searching for glass with ‘mixed’ trace elements because glassmakers would have known (by the colour) to mix ‘like with like’, that is, batches of raw glass with cullet that had similar trace elements – which makes it invisible in analysis. She uses a large amount of samples collected from studies analysing glass from all over the Roman world to demonstrate that there is an increasing complexity of chemical compositions in glass in the long term, which is consistent with a large amount of glass recycling—albeit of varying intensity—through time and space. The recycling chain she reconstructs shows downcycling, with vessel glass being most likely to contain a large amount of ‘raw’ glass while windows, jewellery, and glass tesserae mainly consisted of recycled glass.

The third part of the volume is a collection of several case studies of specific sites, regions, and manners of reuse. The first of these, by Alessandro Sebastiani and Thomas J. Derrick, describes a recycling site at Spolverino on the Tyrrhenian coast, in use over the course of four centuries. The building housed a bone workshop and lead, iron, and glass were remolten in various rooms, with a possible limekiln near the building. The more than 12kg glass cullet as well as the fragments of iron and lead found here indicate that this was a central hub of recycling for the whole region. The authors speculate that after the Antonine plague, the economy of the region diversified, with a growing role for recycling filled by the site. Beth Munro’s contribution gives an overview of recycling in villas in (mainly) Italy and the western provinces. She establishes two broad phases (3rd-4th c. / 5th-6th c. AD) and two overall reasons for recycling on villa sites: cost-avoiding recycling used for a reconstruction or new build on site versus profit-driven recycling for use off-site. This demonstrates that looking at recycling in a broader chronological and geographic range, but a very specific site type, is a viable method to enable the recognition of patterns. These demonstrate that at least some of the recycling operations were not desperate measures rooted in poverty but successful enterprises repurposing available materials.

In a similar vein, the following chapter by Robin Fleming proves that the skills necessary to reuse building material competently were rapidly but unevenly declining in Roman Britain during Late Antiquity, with stone buildings often still demonstrating one technique, but not another—the most widespread lack being the use of mortar, as the production of lime was both complex to organise and expensive. Fleming thus nicely turns the fixation of Roman archaeologists with reuse as a sign of Gibbon-ish ‘decline and fall’ on its head, demonstrating that it instead is a sign of a flourishing culture of stone building. The disappearance of this cultural knowledge leads to a general decline in stone building as a marker of state and upper-class buildings. The last chapter in this part studies 4th-5th c. AD personal decorative objects such as bracelets of various styles and brooches and belt fittings in the Quoit style. Ellen Swift shows that most of these artefacts were used over a very long period and often heavily moderated to extend the use period. Her interpretation of the evidence is that the underlying cause for this behaviour was mainly economical, with both the supply of metal and the technology necessary to melt and work new elements from old pieces very likely being in decline during that period. However, she can show that there also was a cultural element in this manner of reuse, with different explanations for artefacts reused in their original form and those heavily moderated. This illustrates that there could be different strategies of reuse even within the relatively narrow period and region discussed in her study.

The last part of the book, written by the editors and five discussants, attempts to draw general conclusions as well as indicate possible avenues for future research. The authors maintain (and this reviewer agrees) that the present book is demonstrates that there are many ways and means to study recycling and reuse, of which the scientific methods present specific challenges and advantages, the most important of which is that they make recycling and reuse more visible and thus enable a better quantification of the practice. In addition to the ubiquity of recycling and reuse, the studies also indicate that most of it was highly organised, with specialists assigned to many of the various steps, contradicting an assumption that it was a sign of crisis and decline. The studies in this book are proof that recycling and reuse were not passive reactions to economic change but fundamentally important strategies of the Roman economy.

The present volume brilliantly succeeds in its chosen aims of summarizing the—often very innovative and eye-opening—newest research and pointing out new research possibilities, and will surely become a starting point for future research. It is to be hoped that in the future more scholars will see reuse and recycling as normal economic activities occurring throughout history and will use the opportunities offered by new scientific methods, the use of large datasets as well as computational modelling. The book is adequately illustrated with clear maps and well-reproduced photographs, as well as very well edited.