Towards a Romano-British archaeology for the 21st century


Approaches to the study of Roman Britain have varied enormously over the years. By and large, and with rare exceptions, the antiquaries and early archaeologists were drawn from the upper class landed gentry and upper middle-class professionals. Their views of archaeology and the Roman Empire were inevitably shaped by the wider political and social milieu of the British Empire within which they lived (Freeman 1996; Hingley 1996, 2000; Scott 1993).

“The old theory of an age of despotism and decay has been overthrown, and the believer in human nature can now feel confident that, whatever their limitations, the men [sic] of the Empire wrought for the betterment and the happiness of the world.

Their efforts took two forms. They defended the frontiers against the barbarians and secured internal peace; they developed the civilization of the provinces during that peace… […] The long peace made possible the second and more lasting achievement of the Empire. The lands which the legions sheltered were not merely blessed with quiet. They were also given a civilization, and that civilization had time to take strong root.” (Haverfield 1923: 11, my parentheses).

The Roman occupation and administration of Britain and north-west Europe was thus regarded as a form of largely benign authoritarianism, perhaps seen as similar in many respects to the perceived moral obligation of the ‘white man’s burden’ (Brantlinger 2007; Hingley 2000; Kipling 1899). The growth of urbanism and civic society, long-distance metalled roads and communications, trade and commerce, a monetised economy, aqueducts, underfloor heating, sanitation and increased literacy were all viewed rather uncritically as self-evident benefits of the imperial system. This had strong contemporary resonances with members of the Victorian and Edwardian educated classes who themselves sought to promulgate ‘orderly and coherent culture’ (Haverfield 1923: 11) across the globe.

Unlike the development of the study of prehistory in Britain and especially in Europe; Roman archaeology was traditionally often seen as an adjunct to Classics, where archaeology was used mostly to support or refute Roman written sources. The accounts of Roman writers were generally given credence, however; and the various social, ethnic, political and textual biases and distortions often ignored or under-played. Tacitus’ Agricola was partly a work of hagiography for his father-in-law for example. These learned men (and it was usually men, with the exception of notable women such as Tessa Verney Wheeler, Kathleen Kenyon, Mary Kitson Clark and Dorothy Greene) were often from ex-military or civil service backgrounds and tended to focus on Romano-British urban sites, large Roman-style buildings such as villas and bathhouses, and the activities and sites of the Roman military. To some extent echoes of these views persist to this day across Europe, with the sometimes overly obsessive study of military sites and equipment and of Roman roads. Much paper has been produced and ink printed concerning fortifications of Hadrian’s Wall and the Limes on the Rhine and Danube for example. The typologies of artefacts such as samian pottery often seemed more important than the social context of the production, consumption and discard of such material culture. Research such as the Roman Rural Economy Project at Oxford portrays the Roman Empire almost in proto-capitalist terms as a rational economic market economy (Taylor 2013: 3).

The legacy of these often-implicit perspectives continues to affect how Roman Britain and especially northern Britain is viewed by many archaeologists (Robbins 1999; Webster 1999). Such approaches sometimes forget that the Romans were not proto-Victorians but were an Iron Age people too. Some may have had writing, roads and rectangular buildings but they were different in many respects to us today, not the least because of the ways in which seemingly irrational aspects of ritual and religious behaviour were prevalent throughout everyday life. We should also not let celebration of the many achievements of the Roman Empire lead us to disregard institutionalised slavery and the use of warfare and conquest as a means of economic growth.


One highly pertinent series of academic studies in the late 1970s and 1980s focused on post-colonial approaches – the social, cultural and political and economic processes and legacies of colonialism and imperialism, both from the perspective of colonised people and their lands but also investigating the effects of imperialism and colonisation on the colonisers too. Edward Said (1978, 1993), Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (1987) and Homi Bhabha (1994) are amongst the most influential of these writers and cultural critics. They have also been concerned with acculturation and hybridisation – the creation of ‘hybrid’, ‘creole’ or ‘syncretic’ cultures through what they see as active, two-way processes of social change. Colonising cultures are inevitably changed by the process of colonisation, and new cultural forms and identities emerge. The notion of subaltern voices is also important to many of these authors – the views of those who are systematically denied representation due to race and ethnicity, class and caste, gender, or economic and political hegemony by one dominant group or culture over another.

These approaches have been effectively utilised by archaeologists in North America, Australasia, Asia and Africa to examine the impact of colonial societies upon indigenous communities, how colonists were themselves changed by these encounters, and how slavery and racism were legitimated or resisted through material culture and architecture. Such ideas have also proved attractive to those studying the Roman Empire, and the complex social changes and creation of new hybrid identities that followed the Roman conquest of north-west Europe and Britain.

Some more traditional archaeologists had proposed that Rome encouraged the indigenous elites in Britain to adopt the material culture, practices and customs of Roman culture, along with Roman administrative institutions and a Latinised language (e.g. Frere 1987; Haverfield 1923). Through processes of emulation, the ‘trickle-down’ of material culture and acceptance of the self-evident benefits of Roman rule and culture, the whole of Roman Britain gradually adopted a new identity to greater or lesser degrees. Authors such as Vinogradoff (1911) and Reece (1988) disagreed, arguing that for many Roman culture remained a ‘veneer’ over existing native beliefs and practices, and only the social elites ever really became fully ‘Romanised’ as they had the most to gain politically and economically by doing so.

Millett (1990) suggested that the conquered population actively participated in this process of Romanisation, as the Roman conquest offered some opportunities for individual social advancement outside of previous social hierarchies. Provincial elites also deliberately adopted Roman cultural trappings to distinguish themselves from others in society and perpetuate their own power and authority, and this was emulated by those in lower social positions. Hingley (1997b, 2005) disagreed, and suggested that native Britons adopted ‘Roman’ items and practices as part of their own complex social relations, and to make their own informed statements about personal power and identity. There was also opposition and resistance to Roman rule and Roman cultural hegemony, both overt but also more subtle and expressed through material culture and social practice. Different British social groups and different regions would have all reacted in highly diverse and complex ways, and Roman culture and artefacts allowed them to create new identities.

Many authors have now stressed that the emergence of regional Romano-British and Gallo-Roman cultures and the creation of new languages, material culture forms and social identities was a result of complex and dynamic two-way processes (e.g. Creighton 2005; Grahame 1998; Mattingly 2006; Revell 2008; Taylor 2013; Webster 2001; Woolf 1995, 1998). These arguments move beyond simplistic notions of ‘native’ and ‘Roman’, ‘conqueror’ and ‘colonised’. Indigenous British elites did not adopt Roman material culture and practices simply to remain in position or gain social advantages, merely as a mask or ‘veneer’. Similarly, people within communities did not simply ape their conquerors or their own leaders but made a series of choices, some unconscious but others deliberate and knowledgeable. There was of course imperial might and control, taxation and a degree of cultural hegemony (Forcey 1997; Given 2004; Hanson 1997). But there was also cultural resistance to Roman culture and social practices, and these were also re-interpreted and negotiated to form novel identities and ways of living. ‘Roman’ soldiers, administrators, merchants and colonists settled and/or married in Britain, and some of them became influenced by the communities they were living amongst. Some indigenous religious beliefs and ritual practices remained the same, native and Roman deities and practices merged, and new forms of belief and practice were adopted or emerged (Webster 1997b).

In Britain, highly diverse Iron Age societies were conquered by a Roman military that was ethnically diverse, and a hybrid series of regional Romano-British communities gradually developed as a result, incorporating different elements from indigenous groups and colonising peoples. This affected language, identity, material culture, agricultural and industrial practices, ritual and religion.

Towards a new regional synthesis

During the period of c. 15 years that the northern frontier extended through Derbyshire, north Nottinghamshire and South Yorkshire, there would have been extremely complex two-way social, economic, political and military interactions taking place along the border. There would probably have been Roman diplomatic missions to meet and bribe local leaders, mapping and spying expeditions, and small-scale military raids for punitive reasons after raids, theft or livestock rustling, or to back allied factions. Simultaneously, members of indigenous communities would have been trying to manipulate Roman forces to further their own interests, drawing them into their own internal politics; and there may well have been pro- and anti-Roman factions. There may have been official gifts and trade in both directions, and sexual relationships between Roman troops and locals – officially tolerated, illicit and passionate, or violent and abusive. Early Roman artefacts in South Yorkshire might have included the Aucissa-type brooch of c. AD 40–60 found at Scabba Wood (Merrony et al. 2017: 52, 55, fig. 30), and a mica-rich dish of the later 1st century AD found at the base of a waterhole at Potteric Carr (Daniel 2017: 17), though the latter were also found in Flavian and later contexts in Doncaster (P. Buckland pers. comm). It is interesting to speculate if such objects were diplomatic or personal gifts, dowries, loot from raids, or items stolen from Roman stations.

The impact of the invasion of the north on indigenous peoples in Yorkshire is unknown. Even for people with first or second-hand knowledge of the Roman army, the march of legions through their land must have had profound social and psychological impacts. Any armed resistance would have been crushed, warriors killed or executed, and any captives sold into slavery; but to date there is no archaeological evidence for any widespread destruction of buildings and enclosures at this time, an AD 70–71 ‘scorched earth’ horizon. It may be that the acculturation that had occurred along the frontier in the past in the South Yorkshire area meant there was little appetite for overt resistance to overwhelming Roman military might, and in any case, there were few sites capable of withstanding serious assault by troops. Even where there was no resistance, however, it is likely that livestock would have been ‘appropriated’ or killed; and stored or standing crops stolen or burnt. This after all was a common feature of 18th and 19th century colonial situations in Africa, Asia, North America and Australasia. Turf would have been stripped from pastures to help build fort ramparts and causeways of roads, and many woods and copses would have been cut down for the prodigious quantities of timber required to construct forts and bridges and provide fuel for military ovens, kilns and smithies (Hanson 1978; Reece 1997). This probably violated local rights of tenure and deprived indigenous communities of these resources for many years, if not permanently.

Many Roman troops were drawn from far-flung regions of the Roman Empire (q.v. Swan 1992, 2009) – memorial stones from Templeborough in South Yorkshire record the cohors IV Gallorum (May 1922: 127), and the remains of the shield found at Doncaster may also be of Gallic origin (Buckland 1978: 260). Tiles found at Templeborough and Doncaster were stamped Legio IX Hispania but need not have reflected the presence of a garrison drawn from this legion (Buckland 1986: 12). The bronze Stannington Diploma (Buckland 1986: 38-40, fig. 23; Hunter 1819: 18-20) was presented in AD 124 to a discharged auxiliary soldier from the 1st cohort of Sunuci, a tribe thought to have inhabited the Roman province of Germania Inferior between the rivers Meuse and Ruhr. These non-Italian men would have had their own social, military and unit cultures, and potentially quite different dynamics with local people. Some Roman soldiers, particularly those of more senior rank, brought their own families, servants and slaves to live with them, sometimes within the walls of the forts (Allison 2006: 18-19; James 2001: 83, 2002: 42-3; van Driel-Murray 1995: 9-10). Others would have found mistresses and wives in Britain when they arrived – one of the inscriptions at Templeborough recorded a woman from the Dobunni (May 1922: 130), a tribe thought to have inhabited the Upper Severn area of south-west England and parts of Wales. Her widower husband Excingus was probably from southern Gaul. The administrators, colonists, merchants, freedmen and slaves were similarly have been drawn from many parts of the empire and would have had correspondingly varied identities, beliefs and social practices.

Initial native responses to the Roman occupation after AD 71 might have included confusion, anger and fear, even various forms of social and cultural resistance (Hingley 1997b); but the occupation also brought the potential to construct or renegotiate new identities for individuals and communities, perhaps circumventing previous social structures and any restrictive communal conventions. For some people, smaller social networks centred less on lineages or tribal identities and more on individual households might have become more important over time. For others, traditional kinship links and allegiances probably remained important. Stresses and opportunities created by the Roman occupation might have crosscut existing ties and social obligations. These would have been far more complex than the rather generic categories of ‘villa owners’ and ‘farmers’ that used to feature in discussions of Romano-British people, and more recent work has highlighted more complicated changes (q.v. Hill 2001; Reece 1988; Smith et al. 2018).

In South Yorkshire, many hand-made wares in traditional fabrics and essentially Iron Age styles probably continued to be locally produced into the 2nd century AD (C. Cumberpatch and R. Leary pers. comms.). This has interesting implications for discussions of acculturation and ‘Romanisation’. Did this reflect a relative lack of pre-Roman pottery use amongst most households, and this lack of interest in Roman products when these initially became available; or was it even some form of subconscious or explicit cultural resistance? It is interesting that this is one part of Britain that was almost aceramic during the early medieval period too.

The widespread adoption of Roman pottery did not take place until the early to mid-2nd century AD, although its use was often still limited on many rural settlements. There was a predominance of jars in most Romano-British ceramic assemblages, followed by bowls and dishes. Deep bowls may have been used for stews (Leary, Williams et al. 2008). Sooting is often found on the outside of the vessels, which is typical of many Romano-British rural sites (e.g. Cool 2006; Evans 1993; Robbins 2000). This suggests that pottery continued to be used mainly for cooking and storing food, although greyware bowl forms may have gradually replaced any wooden vessels used for eating. Sooting was often most pronounced on pot rims, suggesting that the bases of vessels were imbedded in ash accumulated within hearths (Cool 2006: 39). Some Iron Age traditions of food preparation and consumption therefore seem to have continued in rural areas. The use of platters, plates, cups, flagons, beakers and other items of Roman-style material culture for the presentation and consumption of food seem to have been confined mostly to Templeborough, Doncaster and a few more ‘Romanised’ settlements. Yet other quite profound changes in diet and drinking might have left little tangible evidence.

One notable social change was the appearance of numeracy and literacy, though the extent of this is unclear, and the latter at least was probably rare in the countryside. Some people might have been capable of little more than marking and reading their own names, but this nevertheless could have had important implications for notions of self-identity and how people were perceived by others. There is some interesting evidence for this, aside from the inscriptions on the Templeborough funerary monuments, the Doncaster altar and the Stannington Diploma. At Templeborough, lead weights from the ‘Commandant’s House’ carried numbers in the form of units of the libra commercial standard (May 1922: 76-9, plate xviii), and at Doncaster graffito on pottery included personal names of Latin and Celtic derivation (Buckland and Magilton 1986: 115, fig. 27; Leary, Williams et al. 2008: 65). Seal-boxes and a copper-alloy stylus have also been identified (Cool 2008b: 142; Lloyd Morgan 1986: 87, fig. 19.8). Two samian inkwells were excavated at 8–10 High Street in Doncaster, and still had traces of ink within them (Ward and Dickinson 2008: 186).

The Magnesian Limestone belt of West and South Yorkshire and parts of Nottinghamshire include some unusual settlement forms, such as the enclosure at Scratta Wood with stone-built roundhouses built onto or actually keyed into the enclosure wall (Challis and Harding 1975, 94; White 1966, n.d.), more reminiscent of northern enclosures in Cumbria and Northumberland. The area around Edlington, Cadeby and Sprotbrough also had several similar stone-walled enclosures which differed in many respects to most Romano-British settlements on the Sherwood Sandstone and Coal Measures areas. This area has also produced a concentration of coin Roman hoards and finds of Iron Age and Roman metalwork items such as brooches, cosmetic grinders, wine strainers and other relatively ‘Romanised’ or higher-status items; which might suggest some slightly different social practices or even identities. Whatever the reasons behind the deposition of individual objects or hoards, their presence in such large numbers must be explained. Peter Robinson of Doncaster Museum and Art Gallery has proposed (pers. comm.) that the Cadeby-Edlington-Sprotbrough area was used to settle discharged military veterans from the Roman army, and this is one avenue of research that could be pursued in future.

The organisation and form of Romano-British communities and settlements in the late 4th century and early 5th century AD is still largely unknown. They faced many difficulties from widespread political, economic and climate changes. The eventual arrival of Anglo-Saxon and then Scandinavian individuals, communities and material culture would have presented further challenges for culture and identity. The apparent resilience and accommodation by these communities in the face of so many transformations, however, may have some lessons for us today.

Figure 4. Late Romano-British Parchment Ware vessel, probably from the Crambeck kilns in North Yorkshire (source: author, courtesy Doncaster Museum and Art Gallery).