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Recycling and Reuse in the Roman Economy

Recycling and Reuse in the Roman Economy

Edited by Chloë N. Duckworth and Andrew Wilson (Oxford Studies in the Roman Economy). Oxford: Oxford University Press 2020. Pp. 524. $130. ISBN 9780198860846 (cloth).

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This book, the latest edited volume from the Oxford Studies in the Roman Economy series, significantly reorients scholarship’s traditional portrayal of recycling and reuse as phenomena associated with economic decline. The book stems from the conference “Recycling and the Roman Economy” held at All Souls College in Oxford, 22–23 September 2017, that was organized by Duckworth and Wilson for the Oxford Roman Economy Project. It sets the stage for future scholarship by codifying terms and presenting a wide-ranging collection of case studies. Two interrelated themes are common across contributions; the first concerns temporality, and the second the economic significance of these activities. The authors show that recycling was practiced across many industries and time periods, even at the height of the Roman empire. The assumption that recycling and reuse were principally Late Antique phenomena can now be squarely rejected. The chapters also collectively demonstrate that recycling and reuse were often highly organized and sometimes even imperially driven processes. As such, these activities were deliberate, widespread economic strategies that must be factored into current models of production and consumption.

The book has three thematic sections bookended by brief introductory and concluding chapters by the organizers and discussants. J. Theodore Peña (ch. 2) contributes an expansive introduction to recycling and reuse across the Roman world, defining terminology and outlining core questions. He defines recycling as waste “taken up and utilized as a raw material in a productive process,” whereas reuse is a broader term, involving “recovering objects from provisional discard, de-facto discard, and/or the refuse stream, either for their original purpose or for some other application” (11–12).

Four chapters explore object reuse in section 1, “Reusing Commodities, Transforming Meaning.” John Peter Wild (ch. 3) analyzes the lifecycle of textiles, relying on well-preserved pieces from Egypt and Britain. He concludes with a thought-provoking question: is it possible to tell whether textile reuse and recycling were calculated economic strategies or simply part of a “make do” Roman attitude? Erja Salmenkivi (ch. 4) shows that papyri were commonly reused as writing surfaces, cartonnage, and book covers. Little is clear about production or supply, however, which would reveal more about the economic implications of reuse. She suggests preliminarily that, although papyrus rolls with finished texts were costly, papyrus used as a raw material was inexpensive.

The next chapters discuss more ubiquitous materials, including building materials and ceramics, drawing from expansive preexisting scholarly traditions and making striking conclusions. Simon J. Barker (ch. 5) presents a sophisticated analysis of spoliation in late antiquity, characterizing it as a logistically complex process requiring specialized labor and elite involvement. This chapter has significant implications for the organization of reuse, showing that it was not a haphazard symptom of urban decline. It adds nuance to our interpretations of Late Antique urbanism. Taking Africana 1 amphoras as a test case, in chapter 6 Tom Brughmans and Alessandra Pecci use computational simulation modeling to present scenarios for amphora reuse. While amphora distribution studies frequently assume that vessels only held their primary contents and came directly from their place of manufacture, the authors demonstrate that reuse for secondary products—even in low percentages—could drastically alter current reconstructions of trade networks. These are intriguing hypothetical results, underscoring the need for additional studies (e.g., residue analysis) to provide empirical data.

The second section, “Chemical Data and Material Flows,” examines recycling in pyrotechnologies. Metal and glass are materials for which recycling is often assumed, though archaeometry and large-scale data collection are adding additional nuance. A common message is the need to ground these new analyses with archaeological and historical data to explain motivations for recycling. Peter Bray (ch. 7) discusses copper alloy objects, arguing that archaeometric research often focuses too heavily on provenience, a quest complicated by the fact that metals can be recycled repeatedly. He advocates instead for the “characterization hypothesis”: using scientific techniques to aid in reconstructing life histories of metal objects. Matthew J. Ponting (ch. 8) suggests that recycling was a common strategy employed by the Roman state to acquire silver for minting coinage, thereby supplementing mining. He combines trace element analysis, lead isotope data, and historical documents to illustrate this point.

Patrick Degryse (ch. 9) and Duckworth (ch. 10) present research on glass recycling based on new large-scale analyses. Drawing on isotopic and trace element analysis, Degryse suggests that glass recycling became prevalent from the Graeco-Roman period when translucent glass was introduced, which was easier to reprocess than colored glass. He estimates that a quarter of all Roman glass was recycled, with the process driven by individual workshops rather than imperial oversight. Duckworth estimates that even higher proportions of glass were recycled (more than 50% of her samples) and that recycling glass was common practice from the first century CE onward. This practice, she argues, has remained elusive because recycling can leave few chemical traces. Additionally, previous studies have favored analyses of glass vessels, which were less likely to come from recycled material than other objects (e.g., tesserae, jewelry).

The third section concerns “Site Formation, Visibility, and Temporality of Recycling.” The first three contributions tackle the question of how to identify recycling through sites of production, including new workshop spaces and sites where old buildings were repurposed or dismantled for reuse themselves. Alessandro Sebastiani and Thomas J. Derrick (ch. 11) present workshops for recycling metal, glass, and possibly marble at Spolverino, a coastal Tyrrhenian settlement. They suggest that increased recycling from the third century CE onward was a strategy for economic diversification following the Antonine Plague. Beth Munro (ch. 12) examines evidence for reuse and recycling at villas in Italy and the Western Mediterranean from the second–sixth centuries CE, where workshops were often installed in formerly residential areas. She argues that this is not evidence for squatters, but the result of economically motivated decisions of villa owners working with skilled craftsmen. These could be cost-saving choices (e.g., building a church with available materials on a villa estate) or profit-driven production for external consumer markets. This is one of the most comprehensive chapters, with significant economic and social implications for interpreting later phases of Roman villas. Robin Fleming (ch. 13) turns to fourth- to fifth-century CE Britain to examine patterns of reuse of Roman masonry buildings as well the repurposing of their material, arguing that both phenomena had been associated with Roman state-sponsored building. Builders began to lose their skill sets after Rome withdrew from Britain. Some construction practices persisted while others were lost. Here again, reuse and recycling were not the purview of squatters, but depended on locally held knowledge of laborers who no longer learned the full suite of Roman masonry techniques. Ellen Swift’s contribution (ch. 14)—somewhat of a thematic outlier for the section—examines reused bracelets and belt fittings in Late Antique and Medieval Britain. A central element of her argument is that the social value of objects in their geographical and temporal contexts cannot be separated from economic motivations for reuse, a point that seems especially crucial for interpreting reuse and recycling behavior.

Rather than being a definitive look at a mature field, this volume serves as a call to action for systematic documentation and analysis of reuse and recycling as it relates to the Roman economy. The premise is both novel and exciting. Archaeologists and historians working on the Roman economy must now consider the significant implications of widespread recycling and reassess conventional interpretations of material evidence, particularly in light of the chapters on spolia (ch. 5) and amphora reuse (ch. 6). Peña’s introduction should standardize vocabulary and modes of inquiry, while the book’s concluding chapter poses comparative questions about urban vs. rural, rich vs. poor, and regional differences in practice that will enliven research going forward.

At times the coverage of material feels uneven, particularly when it comes to the broader economic implications of these rich case studies. Material from the third century CE onward is more extensively discussed than that from earlier centuries. This reflects a new subfield in its infancy and the necessity of collating and describing the data, rather than any shortcomings on the part of the authors. The volume is a key first step in consolidating disparate research and centering questions of recycling and reuse. Given this, the concluding chapter is quite brief; a more robust, synthetic discussion to close would have been a major contribution, particularly given the collective expertise of the chapter’s seven authors.

Finally, the book clearly demonstrates that recycling cannot be explained solely as a manifestation of economic decline in late antiquity. The question of what (scale? modes or organization? a particular Roman resourcefulness?), if anything, differentiates Roman recycling from other cultural contexts deserves further scrutiny. Peña introduces this line of inquiry, drawing comparison with other historical epochs and borrowing models from the field of contemporary recycling studies, but the theme is largely absent from other contributions and will be another fruitful avenue for future research.

As with many volumes in this series, the price of the hardback edition is inaccessible for many individuals, but the book will be indispensable for library collections. Taken as a whole, this substantial volume presents innovative, foundational work and will catalyze studies of recycling and reuse in and beyond the Roman world for years to come.

Linda R. Gosner
Department of Classical and Modern Languages and Literatures
Texas Tech University

Book Review of Recycling and Reuse in the Roman Economy, edited by Chloë N. Duckworth and Andrew Wilson
Reviewed by Linda R. Gosner
American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 125, No. 4 (October 2021)
Published online at
DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1254.Gosner

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