Aims of the Research Network

This research network aimed to develop approaches to Roman artefactual evidence for eating and drinking whereby this wealth of data can be investigated more effectively and be truly instrumental in understandings of social practice across diverse social, cultural and gender groups in the Roman world. It aimed to establish a research dialogue, to:

a) complement analyses of bioarchaeological remains of Roman foods and of Roman cooking utensils with analyses of how food and drink was consumed, where these activities took place, how these social practices varied across different contexts and reflected different cultural preferences, and how they changed over time.

b) review, critique and develop analytical methods for interrogating artefact assemblages to investigate eating and drinking. We take a consumption-oriented perspective, focusing in particular on the use of tablewares, as opposed to a production-oriented approach (e.g. to pottery manufacture), or concerns for trade. For example, what fabric, shapes and combinations of vessels were required to undertake different styles of food consumption across the Roman world? Here we strive for a multi-scalar approach that permits analyses of spatial and contextual patterning within archaeological sites at household, community, regional and global levels.

c) refine and develop techniques for enhanced visual communication of analyses and their results. The quantity and complexity of Roman artefactual data is such that advanced multivariate and GIS methodologies must be used to maximise the extraction of social information from these data. This network takes up the challenge of intelligibly presenting the outputs of specialist analyses for a wider audience, from Roman scholars to the general public.

d) develop and inform best practice for the collection, characterisation, digital collation and utilisation of analysable datasets for consumption-oriented analyses.

f) communicate the findings to both academic and non-academic communities and seek to widen the sustainability of, and access to, high-quality digitally available artefact datasets.

g) build impetus for the enhancement and integration of quantitative, qualitative and visualisation skills in archaeology, and in cognate disciplines concerned with material culture.

The network focused on the 1st-2nd centuries CE as the period in which Roman ways of life and material culture were established across the empire. It will explore and develop approaches to big data that can bring manifold possibilities for mapping diverse cultural practices of Roman food consumption, in ways that have thus far – because of data quality and because of the limitations of current analytical and visualisation techniques, and of scholarly vision – only been attempted on small or disparately connected datasets.

It drew on several substantial artefact datasets, many encompassing both legacy data and data from recent excavations, such as those from the catastrophically 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).

The network was concerned with effective analyses of large artefact datasets for better understandings of foodways and social practice across the Roman world. It will target lacunae in our knowledge and in our approaches, and investigate methodological implications of using multivariate, ‘big data’ approaches to artefactual datasets, for addressing questions such as:

How can packages of artefacts from across the Roman world be systematically quantified and effectively analysed to investigate diversity of eating and drinking practice?

  • How can shared consumption practices within the attested diversity of Roman culture, rather than merely shared material culture, be identified and verified?
  • How can these data be analysed at household and community levels to both inform and be understood within bigger-picture narratives of consumption at regional and inter-provincial scales?
  • How can such analyses be more effectively communicated?

Network participants

This research network brought together an international group of researchers and non-academic specialists and stakeholders:

1: Scholars concerned with developing innovative approaches to analysing large high-quality artefactual datasets to investigate social behaviour associated with food and drink consumption throughout the Roman world.

2: Scholars from other disciplines concerned with digital collation, analysis and visualisation of large datasets.

3: Representatives from museum, government and commercial archaeological organisations with custodial responsibility for such datasets and for public dissemination of information about them.

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