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More Than Just Numbers? The Role of Science in Roman Archaeology

More Than Just Numbers? The Role of Science in Roman Archaeology

Edited by Irene Schrüfer-Kolb (JRA Suppl. 91). Pp. 191, figs. 67. Journal of Roman Archaeology, Portsmouth, R.I. 2012. $89. ISBN 978-1-887829-91-5 (cloth).

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This book developed out of the session “More Than Just Numbers? Science, Archaeology, and the Romans” at the Ninth Roman Archaeology Conference (RAC) in March 2010. Of the nine articles included in this volume, seven were presented at RAC, and two were specially commissioned for this volume. The aim of the session was to “highlight the contribution science can make to Roman archaeology,” and the papers cover a wide geographical and temporal range in the Roman world (7). Each paper presents a case study in which scientific application is employed to answer a research question unresolvable by archaeological methods alone. The studies include analyses of both organic (food, animal bones, human remains, and charcoal) and inorganic (metal and stone) materials.

Two overview articles provide context, one from the perspective of a scientist (Pollard) and the other from that of an archaeologist (Schrüfer-Kolb). In “Introduction: Rome Was Not Built in a Day. C.P. Snow and the Significance of His Rede Lecture Today,” Schrüfer-Kolb underscores Snow’s historic call for a “third culture” to bridge the science-humanities divide and its meaning for modern archaeology. In “Science, Archaeology and the Romans, or ‘What Has Scientific Archaeology Ever Done for the Romans?’” Pollard provides an overview of the kind of contributions archaeological science has made to Roman archaeology. These essays are fully supported by the articles in the volume, all of them demonstrable proof that such interdisciplinary work can be done and done well.

Veal, in “From Context to Economy: Charcoal as an Archaeological Interpretative Tool. A Case Study from Pompeii (3rd c. B.C.–A.D. 79),” presents evidence drawn from her study of charcoal at Pompeii. Her paper not only presents a diachronic and spatial overview of the region’s wood fuel economy but also reconstructs supply areas for various fuel woods and offers a preliminary quantitative model for fuel consumption in 79 C.E. Her methodology is key for any future study of the ancient fuel economy.

Sperduti, Bondioli, and Garnsey, in “Skeletal Evidence for Occupational Structure at the Coastal Towns of Portus and Velia (1st–3rd c. A.D.),” reconstruct the diet and lifestyle of the ancient populations of two Roman coastal towns (Portus and Velia). Using the evolving methodology of stable isotope analysis of human skeletal remains to determine dietary habits and the study of a particular pathology of the outer ear (EAE [external auditory exostosis], or “surfer’s ear”) to determine possible work activities, their paper demonstrates that a significant percentage of the male population in both towns made their living from the sea and that fish was an important part of the diet for both towns.

Groot, in “Animal Bones as a Tool for Investigating Social and Economic Change: Horse-Breeding Veterans in the civitas Batavorum,” uses zooarchaeology to explore the practice of animal husbandry in the Roman Netherlands. The examination of animal bones at three Roman sites in the Dutch River Area provide data that show a strong correlation between the presence of horse bones, military gear, a specific type of house construction, and granaries, all of which appear to link the introduction and practice of horse breeding in the area to Roman veterans.

Cramp, Evershed, and Eckardt, in “Are You What You Grind? A Comparison of Organic Residues from Ceramics at Two Romano-British Sites,” use analyses of absorbed organic residues extracted from ceramic wares at two rural Romano-British sites to reveal local differences in dietary and cooking habits. The presence of dairy fat residues varied greatly: more than 40% of the vessels at Stanwick contained dairy fat, compared with only 7% of those at Faversham. The paper also discusses how types of vessels and mortaria might have been used in light of the organic residue evidence.

White, Siddall, Underwood, and BouDagher-Fadel, in “The Geological Provenance of Coloured Carbonate Mosaic Materials Used at Fishbourne,” use petrographic analyses to determine the provenance of the stone materials in the mosaic floors of the “Palace” at Fishbourne, one of Britain’s earliest and most elaborate villas. Analyses show that the stone was brought from a wide range of locations, some unexpected, including the Mediterranean, the Pyrenees, and Britain, especially the Isle of Purbeck (still an important source of building stone today). This work demonstrates that the exploitation of mineral resources in Roman Britain was more extensive and well developed than previously believed and that it began soon after the Roman invasion in the first century C.E., if not earlier.

Fillery-Travis, in “Multidisciplinary Analysis of Roman Horse-and-Rider Brooches from Bosworth,” studies a hoard of 60 Roman brooches at Bosworth in the United Kingdom. Combining traditional stylistic analyses with scientific analysis of the brooches’ material composition and manufacturing techniques, her paper demonstrates that these brooches were of more varied manufacture than previously suggested and were probably deposited as votives over an extended period, rather than as a single hoard. Bosworth now can be seen as a possible religious site, one of a group of sites sharing iconographic and votive traditions. Such interdisciplinary study can help to identify new regional patterns of brooch production and consumption.

Ponting, in “The Potential of the Scientific Analysis of Roman Military Equipment: The Case of Syria-Palestina,” analyzes the different kinds of copper alloys used by the Roman army to manufacture military equipment and discusses how the use of these alloys varied both regionally and over time. In the first century C.E., brass was the preferred copper alloy used by the Roman military, and its use was possibly controlled by the Roman state. The use of brass alloy declines in the second century C.E. with the increased use of “gun metals”; but in the third century C.E., the use of brass revives in the Roman East, where evidence from Syria-Palestina suggests its use by both the military and civilians, a regionally distinctive preference.

In summary, this useful volume shows that interdisciplinary research in Roman archaeology is alive and well in the hands of young scholars and that C.P. Snow should be smiling.

Susan Kane
Department of Archaeological Studies
Oberlin College
Oberlin, Ohio 44074

Book Review of More Than Just Numbers? The Role of Science in Roman Archaeology, edited by Irene Schrüfer-Kolb

Reviewed by Susan Kane

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 117, No. 4 (October 2013)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1174.Kane

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