Review – Life and Death in the Countryside of Roman Britain

2 mins read
By Alexander Smith, Martyn Allen, Tom Brindle, Michael Fulford, Lisa Lodwick, and Anna Rohnbogner

Society for the Promotion of Roman Studies, £32.40
ISBN 978-0907764465
Review by John Manley

This is the third and final volume in the New Visions of the Countryside of Roman Britain series, whose geographical scope is England and Wales. The latest volume, like its companions, focuses on the people who lived in the countryside, probably accounting for some 90% of the population of Roman Britain. By concentrating on the majority of poorer rural dwellers, the text offers a contrast to the elite occupants of grand countryside villas. This volume attempts a social archaeology of rural lives.

The cover carries an artist’s reconstruction of an early Roman cemetery at Strood Hall in Essex. The image is of a typical roundhouse of Iron Age ancestry, with, a little way from it, a group of people standing around a burning cremation pyre. It is a sombre scene, but one that could easily be a depiction of a funeral in the late Iron Age. Yet this image is a reconstruction of life and death in the early Romano- British countryside. Seemingly little has changed, but appearances are deceptive.

The text comprises six principal chapters, book-ended by an introduction and conclusion. The first chapter considers the appearance of rural dwellers. The distribution of brooches from excavated farms illustrates a clear bias towards the south and east of the province, and a relative paucity in the north and west. This suggests that the manner of fastening clothes, and indeed dressing, was recognisably different in these respective areas during the Roman period. Next comes an appraisal of lifestyle and the social environment. The authors conclude that over large areas, apart from a gradual tendency towards the adoption of rectangular structures, many aspects of rural lifestyles remained unaltered, presumably still incorporating traditional social practices. In discussing the social contexts of animals, Martyn Allen remarks on the increase in older cattle during the Roman period, indicating a growing need for traction. Social attitudes to cattle probably changed more dramatically. The social wealth represented by young cattle in the Iron Age declined, replaced by a more economic emphasis.

The fourth chapter considers religion. Here, an overarching synthesis proves impossible, given the evidence for the huge amount of difference in matters of religious expression. All aspects of rural life were probably entangled in a variety of ritual or religious observances, many drawing on pre-conquest traditions. The following chapter on death and burial underlines the same extensive variability. Burial rites across the province are characterised by extreme diversity and rapidly changing practices. Formal interment was probably not the normative rite for large sections of the population.

The final chapter draws conclusions about rural health from osteological data. It is a rather depressing read. In comparison with the preceding Iron Age, and with Romano- British urban adults, there is a considerable decline in rural health, involving increased evidence for pathological lesions and a higher rate of infections, metabolic disease, and joint degeneration.

In the pages of this book, and preceding volumes, one major observation concerns the complex heterogeneity of communities across the Romano-British countryside. It was not possible to correlate any named ‘tribes’ or civitates with the distribution of archaeological data. No neat and geographically discrete cultural packages could be identified. It is, of course, possible that expressions of local cultural homogeneity were practised in media that would not survive archaeologically. Another significant observation confirms a considerable north-west/south-east divide in Roman Britain. The rural populations in the former seem to have had very few connections with those living in forts, the occasional villa, towns, or roadside settlements. Those in the latter area witnessed the emergence of greater social inequality between the rural poor and the super-rich in elite countryside villas. The concluding paragraph of the book encourages sober reflection on the lived colonial experience of Roman Britain. For many of the population – that is, the rural dwellers – the increasingly unfavourable impact of Roman rule must have resulted in countless individual episodes of oppression, hardship, ill-health, and death.

This review appeared in CA 347.

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