Friday, 27 April 2012

From Monte Testaccio to Roman Britain – landscapes of food

Monte Testaccio in Rome

There are many ways to assess past landscapes from the view point of food production. One of the ways is indirect, looking at the vessels used in transporting, storing and circulating food stuffs. The Romans were not the first to move food long distances but their trade routes served all areas around the Mediterranean and provided the city of Rome with grain and other produce that kept the population of this first mega-city alive. One needed only to view the new miniseries of Mary Beard, Meet the Romans and see her sitting near the top of Monte Testaccio, the artificial mound of amphora sherds still standing south from the old centre of the city of Rome. This hill is a tangible evidence of the huge quantities of food that reached the river port of Rome. Due to a discussion I had last week in the coffee room I look at mortaria, a type of large bowl the Romans used widely and which are found in large quantities.

In May I am heading to a mortarium workshop in order to learn how to record and study this type of vessel. The wide distribution of mortaria in Britain contrasts with the few sherds we had from the Nepi survey. Another example of an Italian site with an incidence of an occurance of mortarium is Cetamura del Chianti (Hargis 2007). Even if mortaria were produced in the Mediterranean – most notably along the Syrian coast in the Middle East (see Heyes 1967) – they are relatively scarce in many areas. This either means that they were not needed or that something else was used as a replacement.

A mortarium from Warwickshire (photo from the Colehill online exhibition)

Mortaria as a vessel type represents a continuum from Etruscan and other earlier grinding vessels and pestles (see e.g. Hargis 2007 for the full story). They were being produced in Italy by the Roman brick yards and exported across the Roman Empire. They have been found in about ten shipwrecks as cargo, most commonly along the coast of Spain and France (based on Parker 1990). Many Roman mortaria bear stamps and thus much of the study of Roman mortaria has focused on the evidence they give instead of discussing the general vessel form. By the second century AD, mortaria production centred outside Italy. Apart from the important workshops in Syria mortaria were made also in Gaul but they were the most widespread in Britain.

Production centres (from

Lucy Cramp from the University of Bristol studied mortaria and their food residues in her PhD. She extracted and analyzed absorbed and surface residues from c. 600 Roman pot sherds via HTGC, GC/MS and GC-C-IRMS in order to reconstruct and compare culinary patterns. She found out that it was possible to distinguish different vessel groups based upon the organic residue data that showed that these vessels were used differently in antiquity. Her research also indicated continuity of food processing and consuption from the Iron Age into the Roman period despite the use of ‘Roman’ style material culture.

The analysis of GC-MS chromatograms of lipid extraction from mortarium samples and cooking vessels from Roman Britain was carried out by a research group Lucy Cramp made part of the discovery that even if the mortaria was introduced by the Romans they were used in Britain not to grind foodstuff for pounding and mixing commodities to make highly flavoured Roman sauces, rissoles and stews. Alternative, use as a dairying vessel has also been suggested. The rapid adoption of the vessel type at more rural and unromanised sites as well as more romanised urban and military sites has been explained to demonstrate the extent and speed of the transition from native to romanised diet. The samples included material from sites as varied as Fishbourne and Wroxeter and had comparative samples from Xanten in ancient Germania Inferior. Recently published results suggest that it was not the diet that changed. The British just applied a new method of preparing certain products. Plants were being ground in the vessels as well as cooked in the pot. These vessels also contained animal fats, including dairy products.

These results suggest that the distribution and use of mortaria in ancient Roman empire reflect different cultures of food making. In this way the distribution of ceramics reveals us the past landscapes of food production (c.f. ceramiscene in my earlier blog).


Hargis, M. 2007. A mortarium at Cetamura del Chianti in context at the Florida State University.
Hayes, J. W. 1967. North Syrian Mortaria. Hesperia 36, 337-347.
Parker, A. J. 1990. Ancient shipwrecks of the Mediterranean and the Roman Provinces. BAR International series 580.

Wednesday, 18 April 2012

Nothing beats the real thing

A very grey and rainy Easter resulted with a visit to the New Walk Museum in Leicester in order to take our son somewhere indoors where he could run around in an environment more interesting and inspiring than the nearest shopping centre. Apart from the usual displays the museum had two special exhibitions that made me think. Actually there are more special exhibitions on than these two but they are the ones that made me consider deeper questions. The first exhibition is the touring Hallaton treasure exhibition and the second a Gujarati Dress The World: Suits and Saris. I have mentioned the Hallaton treasure in my blog before and later made a brief comment on the arrival of the restored Roman helmet to the Market Harborough museum in my other weekly blog. Due to the number of local Leicestershire events related to this treasure it is likely that Hallaton is to feature in this blogs in the future as well.

One of the information banners

The touring Hallaton exhibition was very bijou but it covered the essentials about the find. However, most of the exhibits were copies and at least for me thus they were a let-down – especially since I have visited the Market Harborough museum and seen the real ones. There is something appealing and alluring in the real objects that show signs of degradation and corrosion but have been preserved for the future generations. The small collection of original Iron Age and Roman coins were the centre piece of the exhibition and at least a professional could feel the charm of the original. Naturally, the display also had ‘shiny, precious’ objects so the primeval greed probably rose its head inside me when I saw them.

It is not that there was anything wrong with the reproductions. They were very good and an exceptionally good way to share this nationally important discovery with a wider audience than the one that can visit the local museum. In addition, the replica of the Roman helmet the visitors could try on was a real hit with the younger visitors. Even if it was heavy, I could not resist trying it on on my son.

Leicester as a truly multicultural town managed to present the different strands of its history at the same time in the museum. On one hand there was the exhibition on the distant Roman past shared with the continent and on the other a display of the shared modern history with the Asian subcontinent. I have previously been unsure how the city’s inhabitants of Gujarati origin feel about the attempts of inclusion and diversity by the Museum services but the Suits and Saris exhibition is one example that they are doing something right. I saw more visitors with saris than ever before in the museum and some of the fashion was truly dashing. The exhibition had a lot of Indian and Indian-inspired clothing to be tried on in a series of special changing booths so it was truly interactive. I am not convinced that the youngsters of Indian origin necessarily are interested in the original clothing from Gujarat collected in the 1980s when this museum’s collecting of Gujarati clothing begun with the sincere hope to introduce the youth of Gujarati origin their culture in the land of their forefathers. Nevertheless, the young gentlemen and misses can be assumed to be fashion-conscious and enjoy the fusion clothing on display. In this latter case it may be that the old original is not as appealing for the intended audience as in the Hallaton case. However, as a crowd pleaser it is effective.

Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Pub archaeology – why did it take this long?

Having known a lot of archaeologists from Norway to the US and from Canada to Estonia one thing that is common to most of them – not to count a few teetotallers - is the love of beer. And if not beer, then vodka or wine – in moderation, of course, as you would say to your GP. If you wonder about the teetotallers then I must say that, yes, they are more common than you expect. Not all of them are teetotallers because they had been drinking too much in the past but because of their religion or just not caring about the tipple.

However, in the UK pubs and drinking have traditionally been part of the make-up and social life of the whole country. Well, now with the rising prices social drinking may be more part of house parties and more beer is bought from the supermarket but people are still known to down a few pints.The annual TAG (Theoretical Archaeology Group conference) normally means that the local student union bar is to be dry after the conference.

With Time Team suffering from having been on air for such a long time and Mick Aston stepping down, the search is for a new archaeology programme that would catch that certain audience, consisting of blokes and middle aged couples sharing an interest, that likes to see the others doing the digging and exploring interesting sites. You can have ever so many attractive Bettanies waving their hands at Knossos but nothing beats the sight of hi-viz and JCB on a green field or park land.

Now Channel 5 (apparently with a helping hand from the History Channel) has sent the pottery expert Paul Blinkhorn and the comedian and presenter Rory McGrath to make Pub Dig. Yes, him from Time Team and him from the sporty panel shows and the plethora of three men in a boat or two programmes all over. The latter one has more hair than Tony Robinson and Paul Blinkhorn combined. Together they are a jolly combo and in the first episode were looking at the Tudor and maritime heritage in Chatham in Kent. The archaeology is presented in the familiar Time Team fashion with different trenches being disappointing and Dave or two revealing the foundations that present the most important finding of the day.

Just why this has not been done before is anybody’s guess since field archaeologist spend a lot of time in a pub and the production companies have managed to get through such inexplicably embarrassing archaeology programmes as Extreme Archaeology. Current Archaeology’s Carly Hilts lauded the presentation of responsible archaeology and the expertise of Paul Blinkhorn. One can only assume that the crew at the dig at the Command House must have got some free beer against all free publicity the pub got. As one TV critic said ‘that is their excuse’ to go around nice, historic pubs in England and down some pints on camera. I must be fair and admit that the search for the lost Elizabethan docks was quite interesting. The presentation of any excavation begins to be a bit tired in the TV but this series has the added bonus of seeing just how cheesy Paul and Rory will get!

The second episode showed Paul being even more on the money and coming across as a true pottery expert. He truly outshines Rory who is supposed to be the main act but ends up to be a paid admirer to Paul’s genius. They call the programme Rory MacGrath’s Pub Dig but it is Paul’s more like it.

Current Archaeology web site has more information on the future pubs studied in the series and the third episode is about The Six Bells in St Albans, Hertfordshire. That pub is located inside the area of the Roman Verulamium. Roman urban archaeology and a proper pint – that sounds very good to me!

Thursday, 5 April 2012

Slimming is good – but for planning guidance?

In a week of granny tax, #cash4cameron, pastygate and empty petrol pumps the government seemed to get one thing relatively right and managed not to alienate people – and in this case their core constituency, the middle class and upper middle class affluent villagers in the Home Counties. The National Trust had been collecting names onto their petition and asked people to write to their MPs in order to ensure a better deal for British countryside and its protection than seemed to be the case in the new slim-lined planning framework. They were one of the most vocal parties opposing the wording of the draft guidance that had been circulated among different stakeholders as part of the consultation process. They seem to have been successful and in their press release after the publication of the new policy framework they called it “disaster averted”.

Greg Clark, the friendly face of government (Crown copyright)

Development archaeology had been following Planning Policy Guidance note 16 (PPG16) until last year when the Planning Policy Strategy for Historic Environment (PPS5) was published. However, the new National Planning Policy Framework published on March 27 ended 22 years of separate archaeological guidance within the British planning system. Many archaeologists had been expecting the worst since in the draft version the definition of “sustainable development” seemed to have been redefined from the previous guidance that emphasized the need to protect and use natural resources economically to a more economy-driven definition. After all, the coalition government, even if it promised to be the greenest ever, has lately been looking for growth in some form or shape more and more desperately.

The new national policy has been at least partly welcomed. As RESCUE says in its response: “the Government’s framework brings together what they consider to be the principle keystones of sustainable planning and development into a single integrated format. It should be gratifying for all who work within the heritage profession to note that, finally, the historic environment has taken its place at the top table alongside the natural environment, transportation, climate change and all the other central pillars that support sensible planning policy.”

In principle, if the historic environment is one of the core provisions of planning policy, this should be an advantage. Archaeologists can now argue that the existing historic environment planning advice services are within the core of the planning process and we as a profession could lobby for an effective network of statutory local authority teams made up of archaeologists, historic building specialists and landscape advisers. The framework clearly states that “local planning authorities should either maintain or have access to a historic environment record” and where appropriate prepare landscape character assessments. Despite this RESCUE thinks that the NPPF represents a weakened policy provision for the historic environment. The NPPF emphasizes the protection of designated features when the majority of British archaeological sites and historic structures are not such things. There are also terminological issues with “heritage assets”, “significance” and “advancing understanding”, inherited from the short-lived PPS5. RESCUE has stated that it cannot commit to this framework.

Dr Mike Heyworth , the Director of the Council of British Archaeology (CBA), on the other hand stated that the NPPF reflects a more balanced approach to sustainable development than the draft framework. In addition, the importance of the Local Plan is presented as the strategic envelope for neighbourhood planning. Nevertheless, he doubts if a year will be a sufficient time frame for local planning authorities to put their plans in place. Some people have also suggested that the slim national policy will mask the likely-to-be bloated local development plans and guidance notes. In addition, with the local government cuts and reductions in the numbers of archaeologists it is unclear if the safeguards will be – even for the designated archaeological sites – sufficiently robust. However, the new policy makes the Historic Environment Records a requirement, which may help the suffering services.

RESCUE and CBA as non-governmental organisations are in a more ‘objective’ place than English Heritage is as a governmental organisation. English Heritage believes that the level of protection will be the same as it was with the PPS5. Even if heritage will continue to play a central role in long-term sustainable growth, the present cuts give them concerns. Thus the organisation will monitor the implementation of the policy and see if it will be implemented swiftly at the local level with good quality local authority expertise widely present.

Institute for Archaeologists (IfA) as our professional institute finds a lot of good in the new framework but is very concerned about the continued emphasis on economic growth and the preference for development unless its adverse effects ‘significantly and demonstrably’ overweigh the benefits. They also hope that the new guidance and further government response will make the local government to support sufficient professional historic environment advice services. Of all archaeological organisations BAJR Federation had not commented on the NPPF during the week of its publication on its news page although there is a thread on their discussion board based on the repeats of selected sound bites from the government and the IfA.

When reading the new document it is painfully clear that all emphasis is on development. Its overarching title is Achieving sustainable development and the minister in charge declares that “Development means growth”. The government concludes that “our historic environment – buildings, landscapes, towns and villages – can better be cherished if their spirit of place thrives, rather than withers”.

Although one of the roles of the sustainable planning system is to protect and enhance the historic environment, at the same time the government tries to create more jobs as it wants to increase biodiversity, improve design of built environment and improve the conditions where people live, work, travel and take leisure. This is very much inspirational and motivational speech and the reality will be revealed with the future implementation. It is worth noting than when there is no Local Plan in place the planning permission will generally be granted unless there are significant adverse effects to the population, social thread and natural and historic environment. Special policies suggest which areas should not be developed and these include “designated heritage assets” (unless the benefits overweight the losses).

The NPPF has about two pages on historic environment and the finer reading of the wordings, partly copied from the PPS5, is quite surreal and the government comes across as confused. The framework states that Local Plans should recognise the nature of heritage assets as an irreplaceable resource and conserve them in a manner appropriate to their significance. However, "local planning authorities should not permit loss of the whole or part of a heritage asset without taking all reasonable steps to ensure the new development will proceed after the loss has occurred". Does this mean that the lost asset has to be reconstructed after the loss or that the building works have to continue despite such a loss (and the developer must not be prosecuted)? The section suffers from the simultaneous will to develop and preserve; many paragraphs require multiple readings in order to ascertain if the sites will be totally protected or developed on the basis of this framework. The paragraph 133 is especially tricky since it seems to imply that if a heritage area cannot be used, marketed or managed by a charity and a more beneficial use can be found the loss will be accepted – no matter if it is a designated area or not.

The government is also setting the environment for the development of Stonehenge and new buildings in Liverpool by stating that “local planning authorities should look for opportunities for new development within Conservation Areas and World Heritage Sites and within the setting of heritage assets to enhance or better reveal their significance”. If read cynically this section suggests that ultimately no conservation area is safe. Yes, it facilitates repairs and technical improvements but suggests that the areas can be endlessly scrutinized and fragmented under possible bad management. Together with the spirit of the paragraph 133, Stonehenge could be demolished to build a motorway if the use will be deemed more beneficial and the benefits outweigh the loss. Luckily, Stonehenge creates tourism revenue and most world-class sites can serve as pasture if nothing else. However, the wordings give way to possible tugging and towing and some very cynical interpretations.

The communities are advised to engage in the planning process through the local development plans and are invited to find opportunities for enabling development. This wording does not really empower local communities since the authority who has the right to make judgements of significance and importance and the possible adverse effect to local communities has been left undefined and thus is unlikely to be local although the framework introduces local referendums. The neighboroughood plans are to be drawn up by the parish councils, which will mean that they will end up creating wordy documents the NPPF tries to avoid. In the glossary and in the planning process description the framework mentions the neighbourhood forums, which as unelected stakeholders will in the worst cases provide an arena for the powerful or the loudest. Traditionally communities tend to be against high-speed rail networks and large new towns and in the face of the reality the coalition government clearly tries to enforce positivity. One assumes from between the lines that ultimately the government will define the ‘sustainable development’ and impose the development opportunities onto the communities. On the positive side all things need to be improved eventually and it is healthy to try to look for development opportunities in order to avoid future disputes. Furthermore, archaeology needs development in order to sustain employment and well-excavated sites improve our knowledge of our history. Sadly, we all know that very few people dream of an industrial site, a new estate or travellers’ site as their new neighbour.

It is clear that the assessment of significance and importance of any heritage asset will require further guidance in the future. In other countries with stronger heritage laws there is usually a classification system in place that creates the framework for defining the truly significant sites that should not be developed and those that will be studied to a sufficient degree before any development. This future guidance will clearly be wordier than the policy framework, which suggests that this new publication only creates more paperwork at the lower levels of the food chain.