Review – Agriculture and Industry in South-Eastern Roman Britain

2 mins read
Edited by David Bird
Oxbow Books, £40.00
ISBN 978-1785703195
Review John Manley

This book of 17 papers provides a significant overview of our current understanding of agriculture and industry in south-eastern Roman Britain. It opens with a summarising chapter drawn from the New Visions of the Countryside of Roman Britain project, followed by a scene-setting contribution on the environment. There then follow geographical contributions on Kent, Sussex, and Surrey. The remainder of the book switches to chapters that deal with particular material topics, such as faunal remains, salt, or tiles. There is a wealth of information in the volume, which will provide readers with a one-stop synopsis of the subject and plenty of references that can subsequently be followed up.

So what are some of the themes that emerge from the various contributions? What must be a pervading undercurrent arrives in the very first chapter. The first century of official Roman presence encouraged significant change in agricultural practices, but from the mid-2nd century onwards there was a decline in the number of farms and villas. The only prosperous villas in the 4th century appear to lie in the west of the province. The real problem is how to explain this alteration, particularly marked in the south-east, and its specific implications for agriculture and industry.

A fundamental difficulty is our lack of information on the economic organisation of agriculture. We have only one document from Roman London about land-ownership. In Kent, a large percentage of early Roman sites were occupied in the Late Iron Age, and the overall pattern of settlement after AD 43 is still an indigenous one. Significant questions are raised about the 2nd-century decline in farming settlements. Is this the result of real population decline or a relocation of people to villa estates or nucleated settlements? Whatever the answer, it clearly has crucial implications for agriculture. In Sussex and Surrey, some Roman farms also originated in the Iron Age. In Surrey, around AD 200, there appear to be radical changes taking place in rural settlement patterns, hinting at a genuine decline in activity as one possible explanation.

In the chapters devoted to materials, there are some fascinating insights. Corn-drying ovens appear in numbers on an almost industrial scale, but only in the 3rd and 4th centuries. Why? And what does that signify? The Worms Heath (Surrey) quarry for quern stones was directly or indirectly operated by the Gallo-Roman industry of Normandy. What does this actually mean in terms of who was on the ground, quarrying, supervising, transporting, exchanging, or selling these heavy objects? Who ran the salt industry? It appears that there was a variety of people engaged in production of salt – some locals, some of those running villa estates, some official personnel, and in the 4th century conceivably the early Church was involved. The prominence of specialist bathhouse tilers from Sussex is interesting. Some of their innovations in tile types only appear in Roman Britain. Did teams of Sussex tilers travel widely with their products in the province?One omission, and an understandable one, is that there is little overt discussion of the social, political, economic, and demographic factors underlying the development, stagnation, change, and collapse of agriculture and industry in the Roman southeast. However difficult in evidential terms, it would have been useful to see a chapter imagining how agriculture and industry were affected by different official policies; by cultural diversity; and by, for example, changing attitudes to coinage and commerce. A reader could easily think from this book that in the world of south-eastern Roman Britain, agriculture and industry were subject to the same economic motivations and pressures as they are in modernity. Another minor caveat is the occasional simplistic elision of Roman artefacts with Roman lifestyles. Personal quibbles apart, the book is a testament to the considerable endeavours of all its contributors. It deserves to be widely read as an overview, and returned to frequently as a source of reference.

This review was published in CA 331.

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