Wednesday, June 30, 2021

The Early Iron Age Revival of the State, XXII: Roman Britain's Window Into the Sacred Spring

 The Roman Empire arrived in the United Kingdom in 43AD and left it in 408BC. These are relatively late and early dates compared with adjacent regions of northwestern Europe. I think we can probably argue that they are latest and earliest for some class of  normal Roman provinces that I haven't seen constructed but feel plausibly could be. It has a good claim to be the most economically backward province so integrated, in the northwest or absolutely. This makes the archaeological signal of the comparatively short-lived Roman occupation unusually easy to pick out.

As if that were not enough, modern Britain is quite a well-developed place, with a strong archaeological rescue requirement. This makes for a fast pace of construction in south-eastern Britain, and lots of archaeological work, published to an increasingly enormous "grey literature" available to British archaeologists. For all that archaeologists complain about the loss of sites and precious information to general construction and modern deep ploughing, we are in an unusually good, perhaps even uniquely good position to understand what happened when the Romans came. This may, or may not, give us some additional insight into the reordering of human life that I have dubbed the "Sacred Spring."  
I. Conquest and Temples

Claudius' decision to invade Britain in 43AD followed from an earlier, failed campaign by his predecessor, Caligula, who was overthrown in a coup in 41BC, shortly after calling off his invasion. It has been proposed that the political context demanded a victorious  campaign, and that Britain was not an ideal candidate for incorporation in the Roman Empire. While revolts against Roman rule, particularly in its earlier years, are hardy uncommon, the Boudiccan revolt of 60AD stands out in the sources, even if, due to the Jewish War of 68--72, it was not even the most serious anti-Roman rising of the decade. 

That being said, I have a hypothesis about the establishment of the Early Iron Age state that focusses on the creation of the institution of the "sanctuary," and which sees the third century collapse of the Roman  state as being due to the failure of this institution, perhaps, to return to the old explanation for the "Fall of Rome," due to the Christian challenge. 

It seems now abundantly clear that the beginnings of the Iron Age state really are linked to the spread of the public, central, urban temple, where animal sacrifices and associated augury were institutionalised. It might have been inspired by the enormous charisma of the Neo-Assyrian state, or the emergence of the late Theban temple state, but it is probably not going too far to say that it had an economic and fiscal component. Animal sales and butchery in nascent urban centres were mediated by the temple institution, which, in the earliest stages actually probably made sense.

According to this handy home-economical website, a 1200lb (skinned) steer will yield 490lbs boneless, trimmed beef, 150lbs fat trim, 110lbs bone. Out of curiosity, I found the offal yield (27lbs), at this awful, vintage Web2.0 website.  Quora says that the green cattle hide will weigh 100lb and yield somewhere between a third and a half of that for actual leather work. Particularly in a Jerusalem summer (or, it turns out, an Anthropocene Vancouver summer), this much meat would be far beyond a single household's ability to consume before it spoils, and raises all sorts of questions about going into business raising cattle. Having an institution like a temple mediate the risk by undertaking a "hecatomb" at  your expense, at least ensures that you can sell the cattle you have gathered for butchering. Thanks to Hans van der Wees, we have been given a glimpse into the emergence of the Athenian fiscal state from the temple institution, although incomparably the most famous such temple institution known from Antiquity is the Second Temple, where Jesus drove out the moneychangers in 33AD and where Paul was arrested in 57AD after causing an uproar in the Temple  in the course of a trip to Jerusalem to deliver the proceeds of a fundraising drive. Or, given our ongoing uncertainties over the historicity of the New Testament and the necessary hyper-alertness to literary constructs, we are dealing with one, doubled episode. Anyway, money, Temple. 

The Pauline episode comes only a decade before the war, and fifteen years before the destruction of the Second Temple. It is also a foundational event in the early history of Christianity --indeed, given the problems of reconstructing the history of early Christianity, conceivably the foundational event. (Why do no early Christian sources tell us the outcome of Peter's (and Paul's?) delayed trial in Rome, where a verdict of either innocence or martyrdom was handed down in 60?) 

Whatever we make of arguments over the historicity of early Christian texts, the temple in faraway Jerusalem, temples much close to the ostensible subject of this blog post were in trouble a bit closer to the date. "Sometime in 60 or 61," Boudica, Queen of the Iceni, led a rebel army to Colchester in Essex, a Roman colony, fortress, and provincial capital built on a former Iron Age site built on the ridge between the Colne and Roman rivers, just above the Colne's ample estuary, containing the largest temple in Roman Britain, the Templum Divi Claudii, "site of potentially the earliest stonework in Roman Britain." The Iceni expressed their opinion of it by besieging it, capturing it, thoroughly plundering it, and massacring everyone found on the site. 
II. Agriculture and Industry

Bird, ed., begins with Michael Fulford and Martyn Allen summarising the current state of knowledge of population and the dynamics of change over the Roman period. Surprisingly enough, we start with positing the southeast as a bit of backwater, with the main Roman invasion now seen as coming via the Solent and advancing into the southeast from Hampshire. Fulford and Allen do not commit to this, and obviously by the time that a provincial capital had been established in Essex, this had changed to some extent. Even so, at this point the evidence supports the premise that London was a new Roman establishment on a virgin site, built in emulation of Gallic trading centres at similar locations. With a larger geographic setting marked by a massive tidal marsh/floodplain below the city and forests on intractable clay soils above it, one can see why the locals had been happy to ford the Thames above London, or ferry across it, below. At the same time, the logic of a central distribution point linked to the sea by a tidal river, rapidly pushed London to prominence, even if the most economical methods of exploiting its immediate surroundings took some time to work out. 

Iron Age Britons were already as good at farming as they needed to be, in general. Casting forward a bit to later chapters, they already had a mix of leguminous and grain crops that coud be rotated at  need, and these crops mostly did not change during Roman occupation. Some finds of free-threshing bread grain remain rare enough that the experts are increasingly confident in calling them intrusions. Peas, vetch and Celtic beans were already known, although legumes were a Roman import. Rye is hardly noted before or after the Romans, and oat finds from the Roman period are rare enough that they still could be wild oats and not cultivated. Although if the Romans introduced cultivated oats alongside the Iron Age six-row barley, emmer wheat and spelt, it is significant because it points to crops being raised as fodder. This would fall  into line with archaeobotanical evidence for dedicated hay meadows being a Roman introduction. (A weed-pollen signal of a mid-summer grass  harvest.) Given the cost of enclosing hay fields to keep animals out of them, Roman hayfields indicate a robust and new market for, well, hay. 

With that in mind we can see that the basic agricultural substructure for supporting the resident population was already in place in 43AD. As an inveterate "low counter," I am pleased to report that, on the basis of a survey of increasingly comprehensive excavated evidence (3500 reports covering 2400 settlements in all English reporting regions), we see a steady increase (on the order of 100%) in settlement numbers from the late Iron Age to a peak in the mid-to-late 100s, with a decline thereafter, especially steep from the mid-to-late 300s. While both densification and the abandonment of settlements, particularly of ones in new locations that might be associated with Roman activity, need to be considered, the overall conclusion is that the population of Roman Britain rose to a level just below the Domesday Book total of 1.75--2.35 millions until about 200, after which it began to decline.

The upshot is the unsurprising conclusion that much of the Roman economy in Britain was devoted to the needs of Roman inhabitants, particularly the army. The chance for endogenous economic progress was lost after 200, and the post-400 period sees some very surprising losses, notably the disappearance of the vegetable-tanned leather industry for centuries.  

While this summary is at risk of including material from subsequent chapters on rural settlement in Surrey, Sussex and Kent, and on evidence for crop husbandy, horticulture and trade in plant resources, these chapters for the most part are either rather technical, or blend into the former, with the exception of Gill Campbell's interesting observation that evidence for brewing indicates that the Romans introduced the "Babylonian" method of  making beer in place of the traditional "Egyptian." (It has to to with the way that the malt is treated. )
Chris Green similarly singles out a spectacular Iron Age-era change to the nature of basal subsistence in northwestern Europe, albeit one that predates the Roman: the replacement of the old stationary quern for the rotary quern thanks to the development of iron tools for conveniently shaping this new and improved technology for grinding grain. 

Other than that, we mainly learn that several local, French quern-making industries were displaced by the well-known "volcanic" rock of the middle Rhine, the ubiquitous, cheap quern stone of later European history, notwithstanding the fact that its dust made the flour grey. At some point in the future we will presumably have enough data about quern stone finds to build a more detailed picture of Roman overland transportation routes than we currently have, but for this area the one we have is already pretty good. Sorry, Dr. Green. Tile production (Ian Betts) is similarly tied to logistics, and shows some sign of regional industries, surprisingly enough considering that it can be produced anywhere. Tile production tailed off rapidly after the Third Century Crisis, but made a mild comeback in the last decades of Roman occupation, perhaps for not better reason that the need for repairs had become so pressing. 

Mark Maltby covers "The Exploitation of Animals and Their Contribution to Urban Food Supply in Roman Southern England." This is an area of archaeological exploration where we got off on the wrong foot, as early industry in preparing taphonomic samples overlooked the fact that small bones are lost to soil acidity faster than big ones, creating a bias towards large animal finds. We' compensate that now and can find the  expected patterns of increasing consumption of cattle and pigs, vis-a-vis sheep; which, apart from their usefulness for wool production, render less meat. Thanks to a strange comment from Pliny to the effect that the Britons had adopted the chicken, but did not eat it, excavators are particularly interested in evidence for poultry consumption in Roman Britain, but I do not recall that they have much interesting to say about it. 

Besides asserting with some confidence that cattle dominated butchery in settlements as well as towns, we have the interesting observation that the Roman occupation introduced specialised butchery, as evidenced by cleaver butchery marks supplanting knife. We are still waiting for isotope surveys that might tell us about how extensive the Roman cattle trade was. I will be particularly interested to see if Highland cattle show up in Londinium. The British taboo on horsemeat seems to go back to Roman times. There is some evidence for salting. 

Edward Biddulph gives us a survey of the Roman salt industry in the region. It developed from the Iron Age industry, and involved temporary works in the dry, upper salt marshes, where halophytic vegetation was burned to concentrate seawater brines, which were then used to steep the ashes, creating the highest-possible concentration brine for final extraction, a nice economy, although on only possible in the summer and early fall. Salt was distributed inland in some quantity in briquettage, but since this is not found far inland, it is likely that briquettage was used solely to support nearby secondary industries such as the well-attested glassmaking and presumed leather and soapmaking, perhaps in centres like Colchester, close to the works. Otherwise, salt was distributed in more finished ceramics, of which types may be identifiable. There are some interesting questions about where salt was produced upon which questions about rural settlement hang. In particular, we wonder if the well-established "villa" phenomena involved capturing subsidiary industries like saltmaking, with a particularly well-known villa site (Stanford Wharf) co-located with a salterie also having a military-grade road linking it with the road grid and its own estuarine quay. There was an industry in coastal Sussex, and also inland, although the details elude us because it did not leave any so blatant a remain as the "red hills" of Essex.

I have already given away the biggest surprise in Jackie Kelly and Quita Mould's "Leatherworking in South-Eastern Britain in the Roman Period" Iron Age Britons certainly didn't neglect animal hide, but settled for salt-cured skins and "pseudo-leather" that rotted quickly. The Romans needed leather for more sophisticated uses, from the famous military tent to hobnailed shoes. The former was a specialist (and pretty sad --leather is a vastly inferior tent making material to canvas) requirement albeit in large quantities, but the latter was one of the gifts of civilisation, and a great range of Roman shoes, some even marked with their sizes, have been recovered in Londinium and rural settlements. Between the extremes of tents and other military canvas-substitutes and dress shoes, there were an enormous range of leather manufactured goods available to Roman-era consumers from as early as the late-40s, that is, within years of the original Conquest and about as soon as there was a settlement at Londinium at all. In the initial stages it seems that cured hides were imported, but tanneries "must" have followed, there being some mild controversy about where and when, Roman tanneries not being particularly easy to detect archaeologically. 

I have already addressed Jeremy Hodgkinson's chapter on the iron industry and in particular the Wealden industry. The discovery of tiles marked as belonging to the Classis Britannicus  at large and complex ironmaking sites in the eastern Weald has long established that the "Fleet of Britain" ran its own British Steel for the first two centuries of the occupation, with its disappearance after that part of the longstanding evidence taht something went seriously wrong in the Empire around 250. (Not that we need more!) Beyond that, continuing investigation shows many Wealden sites, many small and seasonal, such that we can imagine summer hunting camps where hunters would spent the summer chasing deer and making iron billets (If that's the right word for what were likely to have been unconsolidated masses of metal) to be taken down to the town in the fall and sold to a smith. Much of the iron produced, was produced at a small number of high productivity sites. The Wealden industry already existed before the Romans, expanded rapidly under Roman occupation, and then, bizarrely, disappeared in the sub-Roman centuries after the mid-400s. 

Looking at industrial activity in the towns, there is quite a bit of evidence. Londinium was an obvious place for industry, since the Romans had little use of the clay soils above the city except as productive woodland. Iron, nonferrous metallurgy, and pottery were already important pre-Roman industries that flourished around Roman London, although that being said, archaeologists do love their pots, and anyone who wants to hear about local Roman ceramic industries can check out Louise Rayner's overview. I was more struck by Justine Bailey's review of nonferrous metallurgy, because apart from brass, bronze and pewter, this covers bullion. Apparently Iron Age Britons had been perfectly happy with gold-silver-lead amalgams that the Romans took pains to separate into high-purity silver, gold and lead. Bayley reviews the cupellation process and discusses what appear to be widely-distributed coin mold blanks for making large quantities of bronze coins, as well as more sophisticated ones for late-Empire industrial-scale coin "forging." 

Taken together, there is unexceptionable evidence of a distinctly colonial economy in which traditional domestic industries are changed mainly for the benefit of Roman occupiers and did not survive the end of the Empire.  Given the c. 200 timing, which is traditionally seen as simply cutting garrison forces off from  imported goods that were provided mainly to maintain Romanitas, the story might be a bit more complicated for Britain. The army and the Roman civil structure remained, and consumed, and it is mainly the subsidised import of goods such as wine and olive oil that ceased. Perhaps there was a milder economic crisis than our sources deign to record? 

With the actual withdrawal of the army, a somewhat drawn-out process beginning a good half-century before the 408 final cutoff, the archaeological evidence is for a spectacular collapse. If the current state of the evidence holds up, we can place the Roman Empire firmly in the camp of those guilty of the "development of underdevelopment," and compare the Britain of 408 with the India of 1947. 

During the Imperial period, we have some interesting evidence (butchery, leatherworking), that the beef industry was the primary locus of Roman interference with the traditional economy. If we are going to draw a line between events in Britain in 60/61 and Palestine in 68/72, the fact that the British did not continue revolting against Roman temples would be evidence that, in the late 00s, the public sanctuary/sacrifice institution is only in danger in economic busts. 

That said, if the final crisis of the Iron Age social economy is the triumph of Christianity seen as  primarily a protest movement against it. In that case, the steady and dramatic growth of the sect is an indication of growing problems, just not in Britain. Eastern Mediterranean society could only move past the Iron Age when it developed alternative institutions. I would be surprised if Roman British society had reached anything like that stage of development in 61, 200, 350 or 408. They couldn't even make good shoes on their own!

(It's hard to take a picture of a heatwave, although there are lots of pictures of Vancouverites out and about in the heat, because we don't have a lot of central a/c in this city. But I was just up in Kamloops, which is even hotter, but which has near-universal a/c. So the picture is the same as for the pandemic: Empty, echoing streets as an entire city hides indoors. Scary. Or, given that the fifty degree heat is hitting the old and vulnerable, dangerous.)

No comments:

Post a Comment