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The Role of Zooarchaeology in the Study of the Western Roman Empire

The Role of Zooarchaeology in the Study of the Western Roman Empire

Edited by Martyn G. Allen (JRA Suppl. 107). Portsmouth. R.I.: Journal of Roman Archaeology 2019. Pp. 168. $69.75. ISBN 978-0-9994586-1-7 (cloth).

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This work is a testimony to the value of international conferences for fostering discussion among specialists. Contributions to the volume were originally papers presented at either the 11th Roman Archaeology Conference (University of Reading, 27–30 March 2014) or the Zooarchaeology of the Roman Period Working Group Meeting (Sheffield, U.K., 20–22 November) in 2014. This volume is an excellent source for both specialist and nonspecialist readers, since it reports new findings and offers a modern, accessible introduction to the value of zooarchaeology within Roman archaeology. I recommend this book to Roman archaeology students and researchers as an example of clear communication of data-driven analyses using animal remains to situate findings within broader themes in archaeology. The diverse geographic, temporal, and topical range ensures that any archaeologist will find discussions that relate to their interests.

Following Martyn Allen’s introduction, Mark Maltby (ch. 2) recounts the history and contributions of zooarchaeological research to understanding Romano-British sites, offering a summary of findings by taxonomic category to describe the pastoral economy in Roman Britain, supported by an extensive bibliography. He argues for continued growth of the integration of zooarchaeology into broader archaeological discourse, and his discussion highlights regional and intrasite variation in faunal remains. Tony King (ch. 3), who has previously studied meat consumption across Roman provinces, uses this chapter instead to compare meat consumption across agro-climatic zones based on soil type in order to address whether regional variation was due to cultural or environmental influences. He finds that, at a large scale, political and ecological zones are indistinguishable, but that soil type influenced economic choices in Britain, particularly for raising cattle. While both cultural and environmental factors are at play, King notes cultural factors are stronger determinants for intraregional variation. The theme of regionalism continues with Sabine Deschler-Erb and Maaike Groot (ch. 4), who argue that two responses to supplying meat to the military can be identified at two different Roman military sites: Vindonissa in Switzerland and Nijmegen in the Netherlands. At Vindonissa, consumer preference for ovicaprids, pigs, and young cattle drove supply to the military, while at Nijmegen, meat consumption consisted of locally available, older cattle. Regional factors, including the availability of arable land, urbanization, and trade connectivity to Rome before occupation, influenced the disparate supply practices. The authors are particularly successful at relating complex, multisite statistical analysis to questions of culture contact, economy, and military influence, and they even connect archaeological phenomena to modern regionalism.

Michael Mackinnon (ch. 5) also links regional faunal variation to Roman contact, influence, or emulation in a number of ways. Firstly, he compares the presence of domesticates (especially pigs) in Pompeii, Carthage, and Athens to illustrate that while Roman occupation influenced dietary choices, the results were not uniform. Secondly, he shows that the presence of wild animals in Spain exemplifies a localized, uneven response to Roman political occupation. Mackinnon’s chapter shifts the focus of the volume from domesticates to wild animal exploitation.

Jacopo De Grossi Mazzorin and Claudia Minniti (ch. 6) compile evidence, both archaeological and literary, for exotic animals in the city of Rome. These animals were imported not only for entertainment but also as beasts of burden, or for medicine, rituals, or food. Holly Miller, Naomi Sykes, and Christopher Ward (ch. 7) show the dual symbolic roles of fallow deer. They argue that the importation and maintenance of live herds at sites in Roman Britain were a way for owners to display their elite status and affinity with a Roman identity, while across northern and central Europe the trade of antler and foot bones from fallow deer represent medicinal and magical items associated with the cult of Diana.

The following chapters expand on the theme of animals and ritual. Rachel Hesse (ch. 8) illustrates the variety and nuance in domestic rituals based on the zooarchaeological evidence from several domestic gardens in Pompeii. Chiara Corbino, Ornella Fonzo, and Nancy T. de Grummond (ch. 9) investigate the faunal remains from a well at Cetamura del Chianti that arguably represent ritual activities associated with Mithraic banquets. Lines of evidence include the abundance of chicken remains, presence of piglets and young caprines, association with water, and the presence of lamps, miniaturized votive pottery, and other ceramic evidence, as well as bull iconography. In the final contribution (ch. 10), the editor addresses the significance of feasting in Roman Britain and the central role of meat consumption in elite political displays. Allen shows that feasting practices at Selhurstpark Farm, Hayling Island, and Fishbourne change during the transition from the Iron Age to the Roman period, from inclusive communal consumption of widely available domesticates (especially cattle and ovicaprines) to meat from animals that were less widely accessible, such as pigs, chickens, wild animals, and fish. Exposure to the Roman world view influenced local elites to adopt new, exclusionary feasting practices.

The identified themes of this work include the pastoral economy, the exploitation of exotic and wild animals, and ritual practices (8). Other themes that emerge are culture contact, especially in terms of changing political regimes (usually Roman political expansion), and the importance of archaeological context. Discussions of romanization are thoughtful and avoid the common problem of viewing Roman influence as a monolithic and unidirectional cultural force. Each contribution demonstrates the importance of context at difference scales, including comparing regions across the empire, sites within regions, deposits within a site, or a singular deposit. The chapters by Hesse, Allen, and Corbino et al. provide in-depth analysis of one or a few deposits in relation to other artifacts, while Maltby, King, and Mackinnon contextualize the remains of broader regions.

Each chapter clearly states how the faunal data relate to research objectives, making the arguments clear even for those without a background in zooarchaeology. For the most part, the authors balance technical analyses and jargon-free explanations to address complex questions. They note limitations of the data (e.g., the use of modern soil data that may not represent the soil present in antiquity, assemblages from older excavations, and small sample sizes), thus arming nonspecialist readers with tools to assess zooarchaeological arguments while also addressing concerns from those familiar with such pitfalls.

The primary data for each chapter are zooarchaeological, but all of the authors draw support from archaeobotanical, iconographical, textual, ceramic, or architectural evidence. The authors call for greater integration of zooarchaeology with other approaches, especially through increased incorporation of contextual information and collaborations between archaeobotanists and zooarchaeologists. For example, Allen successfully uses the analytical framework for feasting established by archaeobotanical research in Roman Britain to assess zooarchaeological remains, bridging these fields and interpreting the remains using comparable criteria. Corbino et al. incorporate a broad range of evidence and identify how future investigation of nearby architecture could further the findings, thus showing how zooarchaeological evidence can shape future research questions.

To the specialist, many of these datasets or premises are familiar, but the authors apply new methodological or theoretical approaches, or make novel comparisons that are only possible now that we have decades of zooarchaeological publications from across the western Roman empire. The new research from published studies highlights the complexity of zooarchaeological data, the need for thorough publication of faunal data so that future scholars can undertake new analyses, and the potential knowledge that can be gained by integrating individual datasets. For example, Mackinnon compares several regions that have previously been published in isolation, and King reassesses data using ecological instead of political boundaries. As King shows, there are many opportunities for further research by applying the zooarchaeological methods to other datasets.

The emphasis on the exploitation of wild animals in this volume is a particularly novel take since the so-called zooarchaeological “Roman Triad” of ovicaprids, cattle, and pig typically dominates the conversation. An exciting contribution from Miller et al. provides new evidence for the timeline and implications of the introduction of fallow deer across Europe. Mackinnon’s chapter first compares proportions of domesticates across the empire but then shows that wild game was also a potent symbol of identity. Allen highlights the critical role of wild animals in feasting. De Grossi Mazzorin and Minniti show the diversity in exotic animals and their range of roles. While wild and exotic animals are less numerous at each site, chapters throughout the volume underline the significance of nondomesticates as evidence for ritual, identity, and economy.

The editor acknowledges that there are geographic and temporal gaps in this collection, but given the breadth of the subject, a comprehensive book would be impractically long. Instead, this is a cohesive volume that showcases the research potential of zooarchaeology and the centrality of animals to broader archaeological themes.

Victoria C. Moses
School of Anthropology
University of Arizona

Book Review of The Role of Zooarchaeology in the Study of the Western Roman Empire,
edited by Martyn G. Allen
American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 125, No.1 (January 2021)
Published online at
DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1251.Moses

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