Research network sheds new light on drinking and eating habits in the Roman world

The landmark 50th issue of the journal Internet Archaeology is featuring pioneering research that is investigating new ways of analysing millions of Roman artefacts associated with the consumption of food and drink.

Current knowledge of everyday consumption practices for the majority living in the Roman Empire remains uneven, however, and little is known about how, where and with whom most people ate their meals, or what aspects of this social practice might have conveyed a universal sense of shared behaviour.

The ‘Big Data on the Roman Table’ (BDRT) research network, which is led by Professor Penelope Allison from the University of Leicester’s School of Archaeology and Ancient History and Professor Martin Pitts from the University of Exeter, has explored theoretical and technological approaches to analysing the large amount of available artefactual data from the Roman world, so that social behaviour associated with food-consumption practices can indeed be investigated.

The network, funded by the Arts & Humanities Research Council (AHRC), has focused on the first to second centuries CE – the period in which Roman ways of life and material culture were established across the Roman Empire.

Millions of artefacts associated with eating and drinking have been recorded by archaeologists since the eighteenth century and are the main ‘big data’ component from the Roman world.

With fresh analytical approaches to this data archaeologists will be able to shed new light on how food and drink was consumed during the Roman period, where these activities took place, how these social practices varied across different contexts and reflected different cultural preferences, and how they changed over time.

Professor Allison said: “The processes explored by this network can change the ways archaeologists and the public think about the value of material culture, and particularly ceramics, for understanding social behaviour in the past.”

The network drew on several substantial artefact datasets, many encompassing both legacy data (i.e. non-digital data from old excavations) and data from recent excavations, such as those from the abandoned first-century CE Italian urban site of Pompeii, well-preserved or extensive military sites in the NW provinces (e.g. Nijmegen, Vindolanda, and sites on the Antonine Wall in Scotland), and large assemblages from other urban sites which are the product of more typical archaeological site formation processes (e.g. London and Colchester in Britain, Libarna in northern Italy, and cities in the East).

Between 2015 and 2016 the international BDRT research network developed interdisciplinary, quantitative and qualitative approaches for analysing the material-cultural evidence for social relations around food and drink.

Two workshops were held, at the University of Leicester (September 2015) and the University of Exeter (July 2016), each with about 50 participants from academic, government and consultancy organisations, from UK, Netherland, Belgium, France, Germany, Spain, Italy, Croatia, Egypt, Canada, and USA.

Roman pots – photo courtesy University of Leicester

Professor Allison added: “These two workshops stimulated vibrant discussion between archaeologists, museum curators, mathematicians, and computer scientists on how best to handle the immense amounts of archaeological evidence from eating and drinking in the Roman world so that they can be comprehensively analysed to better understand how different people in different parts of the vast Roman world socialised around eating and drinking.”

Internet Archaeology has been publishing on the web since 1996 and is the premier e-journal for archaeology. Click here to access Issue 50: Big Data on the Roman Table.

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