Roman archaeology and Romano-British studies today

Adam Rogers, author of The Archaeology of Roman Britain: Biography and Identity, discusses his research and his thoughts on the present and future of Roman and Romano-British archaeology.

Archaeology has to be one of the most challenging and exciting areas of study out there. It never ceases to amaze me how our knowledge and understanding of the past keeps on changing as new discoveries are made, new technologies are developed and employed in research and new theories are devised for interpretation. As in Physics, theoretical and practical elements of the discipline are crucial in equal measure and each assists the advancement of the other. This is no less the case in Roman archaeology and in studies of Roman Britain where new discoveries from developer-funded archaeology, the Portable Antiquities Scheme, research projects, amongst other sources, are constantly causing us to rethink the nature of life in Britain in Roman times. There is also a vast amount of excavated material and other data that is available for study or reappraisal and, in a way, we owe the people of Roman Britain immense gratitude for leaving such a rich resource to investigate.

Francis Haverfield, as Camden Professor of Ancient History at Oxford in the early twentieth century, was highly influential in the way he wrote about Roman Britain and its archaeology especially his work The Romanization of Roman Britain (1905). This work helped to shape the modern discipline and also considerable debate on its legacy and the move towards alternatives to the Romanisation framework. This lively debate serves to emphasise just how much we need to bear in mind when we make statements and interpretations on the past and attempt to tackle the vast wealth of material that’s out there to study. In particular most recently there have been post-colonial studies and increasingly critiques of post-colonialism arguing that it is equally ideological. My research has sought to combine what we think were the realities of Roman imperialism with an enhanced theoretical approach to interpreting archaeological material in order to assess localised perspectives and experiences. Such an approach opens up the potential of archaeology and, with such a large amount of material out there, there is something for anyone interested to take on.

One project that I am currently involved in is jointly run by the British Museum and the University of Leicester in the UK entitled ‘Crisis or Continuity? Hoarding in Iron Age and Roman Britain with special reference to the third century A.D.’ This project is studying the large number of coin hoards that have been found in Britain through excavation, chance and metal-detecting activity where the detectorists have been encouraged to report their findings via the Portable Antiquities Scheme. The PAS has resulted in a huge database not only of coins but many types of finds from all archaeological periods in Britain. This project is employing this data to explore the social context of coin hoarding, interpretations of which have tended to focus on historical narratives such as the need to hide wealth in times of economic or political instability or hostility. Taking a broader perspective, however, through combining coin hoard data with our knowledge of the use of other types of metal objects and material culture, and our understanding of settlements and life in Roman Britain, we can develop a more nuanced appraisal of the evidence. The project has proved to be highly rewarding in the way in which it has combined existing sources of data, new discoveries, technological advances in geophysical survey and developments in archaeological theory. As well as new excavations, such projects are an important way forward in Roman archaeology.

What first attracted you to this area of study?

It’s an exciting time to be in Roman archaeology with new discoveries being made, new technologies employed, stronger interaction with other areas of archaeology and the development of the theoretical side of the discipline especially through the Theoretical Roman Archaeology Conferences. I’ve been interested in history and archaeology for as long as I can remember and I think I eventually became most engrossed in Roman archaeology because of its unique complexity. This includes its attempt to understand both the interactions between different peoples across and beyond the Roman Empire in the past and the interactions between modern receptions of Rome and the Empire world-wide today. It seemed to me that there were limitless challenges that could be accepted and pursued in order to explore the archaeology of the Roman period and which placed it firmly within the archaeological discipline as a whole.

In your recent research, what has surprised or challenged you the most?

In my research I have learnt never to take anything for granted from the archaeological material. Revisiting old material I am always struck by the way in which new aspects that were not considered previously now pop up and demand attention. The material cannot speak for itself but it seems to have a frustrating habit of teasing us. It is this that makes archaeology such a fascinating research area and constantly evolving and progressing.

What are your three favorite books on Roman Britain?

One of my favourite books would have to be Martin Millett’s The Romanization of Britain: An Essay in Archaeological Interpretation (Cambridge University Press, 1990) for its interesting discussion and use of archaeological material. It also encouraged so much debate in the field of Romano-British studies and Roman archaeology more widely. Anthony Birley’s The Roman Government of Britain (Oxford University Press, 2005) is absolutely fascinating in the way in which it collates and discusses all the available evidence relating to the governing elite in Roman Britain and their lives and careers. It is an invaluable resource for researchers and students. Thirdly, though not a work on the Roman period, I would add Matthew Johnson’s An Archaeology of Capitalism (Blackwell, 1996). This is because of its innovative approach to archaeology and its reminder as to how much things changed through the course of the medieval and post-medieval periods and just how different the Roman period was. We need to consider this difference when we interpret Roman archaeology, categorise material and prioritise certain themes for study over others.

Adam Rogers is a Research Associate in the School of Archaeology and Ancient History at the University of Leicester, UK. He is author of Late Roman Towns in Britain (2011) and Water and Roman Urbanism (2013).

  • The Archaeology of Roman Britain

    Biography and Identity, 1st Edition

    By Adam Rogers

    Within the colonial history of the British Empire there are difficulties in reconstructing the lives of people that came from very different traditions of experience. The Archaeology of Roman Britain argues that a similar critical approach to the lives of people in Roman Britain needs to be…

    Hardback – 2014-10-27
    Routledge Studies in Archaeology