As an archaeobotanist, I study plant remains from archaeological sites, usually seeds, cereal grains, fruit stones and leaves.
A part of my research focuses on how diets changed from the Late Iron Age to the Roman periods in Britain. Did the prehistoric inhabitants adopt new fruits and flavourings before they became part of the Roman empire in AD43? Were new foods restricted to the military and urban elite, or did rural dwellers also liven up their diets?
There is a large body of archaeobotanical data from Roman Britain, from 100,000s of litres of soil carefully sieved from archaeological sites over the last century. A recent research paper by Marijke Van der Veen et al. has pulled together all of the available data on plant foods from archaeological digs to show that around 50 new foods were introduced, some of which were very popular and consumed in rural sites (celery, coriander and dill), some were very rare (date, olive), and some continued to be cultivated after Roman rule had ended in AD410 (apple, pear, plum).
Yet this fascinating evidence does not seem to be reaching anyone who isn’t an archaeologist. A recent paper by Robert Witcher has shown that ideas of which plants (and animals) were Roman Introductions is well established in Britain, drawing on plant-lore, etymology, classical authors and ecology. Todays episode of BBC Radio4s Gardeners’ Question Time highlighted the different ideas about what is a Roman Introduction in horticulture and archaeobotany. In a discussion taking place at Chedworth Roman villa, several plants were identified as having been cultivated by the Romans in Britain (thyme, mint, basil, bay, hyssop, plum, apple, pear, damson). The Romans were also said to have bought new cereals with them, continued to have cultivated the old cereals (spelt and rye) and to have farmed with the mouldboard plough and double-handed scythe. Meanwhile, roman soldiers introduced Roman nettle, which they beat themselves with to keep warm.
Overall, around 30% of this is ‘correct’ based on archaeobotanical data. Yet as Witcher argues, the different types of knowledge on Roman introductions should be used to debate modern concerns over landscape, identity and ecology (alien species). As an archaeobotanist, I shouldn’t be telling people what is and what isn’t correct about aspects of our botanical heritage, but taking part in wider debates using different types of evidence.
The important point is that archaeobotanists need to get better at talking to gardeners, botanists, and everyone else about what we do know about the use of plants in the past, because it’s pretty interesting. The academic papers i’ve mentioned here are all published in journals where online access is restricted to universities, or available for around £40 a piece. The conference papers given were probably given at academic conferences. Individual archaeobotanical reports are published within books that are only available in university libraries our in journals barred by pay-walls. The archaeobotanical computer database is open-access, published in the Internet Archaeology journal, but is out of date, and not that clear to the non-specialist with plants listed by Latin name.
As a small way to approach this problem, I am going to write a series of blog posts about the archaeological evidence for ‘Roman Introductions’ to Britain. First will be the Roman Nettle – Urtica pulilifera – widely claimed as a Roman introduction, making it onto the wikipedia page for Roman Britain, but what’s the evidence?
Preston, C., Pearman, D., & Hall, A. (2004). Archaeophytes in Britain. Botanical Journal of the Linnean Society, 145, 257–294.
Tomlinson, P., & Hall, A. R. (1996). Review of archaeological evidence for food plants from the British Isles (ABCD). Internet Archaeology, 1.
Van der Veen, M., Livarda, A., & Hill, A. (2008). New plant foods in Roman Britain — dispersal and social access. Environmental Archaeology, 13(1), 11–36
Witcher, R. (2013). On Rome’s ecological contribution to British flora and fauna: landscape, legacy and identity. Landscape History, 34(2), 5–26.