Sagittarii: an everyday story of (Roman) country-folk

In the last few decades evidence of many new Roman Iron Age (RIA) period small farms has been found in Britain. They now far exceed in number the much more famous villa sites. Can we say anything useful about the farming practices of those that worked the land? Excavations of farm sites in Roman Britain invariably produce animal bones and querns, suggesting that mixed subsistence farming was customary on Iron Age and RIA sites. This seems perfectly reasonable although the balance on any individual farm must have depended on land suitability and climate. There is some historical evidence that the 4th century emperor Julian imported grain from Britain to feed his troops along the Rhine in Germany. At an earlier period grain was on Strabo’s list of the valuable products of Britain along with skins, slaves, hunting dogs, and (less plausibly) pearls. If grain was indeed exported it was probably produced in the south east and East Anglia where soils were suitable and transportation easiest. East Yorkshire was cattle country and northern Britain in general may have been seen as more suitable for cows and sheep. No dark satanic mills in the Roman period, of course.

Field walking commonly identifies scatters of Roman pottery. This has been attributed to a programme of soil improvement which involved broken potsherds being part of a manure. The presence of boundary ditches isolating relatively small fields suggests that a type of crop rotation was being practised. Leguminous plants, like peas and ‘Celtic’ beans, could have been included in this rotation with the subsequent crop being dried for winter consumption. Soil fertility could have been maintained with a three phase rotation consisting of cereals, legumes, and fallow with animal grazing. Recently I saw an ‘information’ board at Ravenglass, Cumbria which suggested that the local Roman port of Glannaventa imported such desirable products as rum, tea and tobacco! My protest about these absurd anachronisms has been sent to English Heritage. Roman agricultural labourers did not relax from their labours with cups of sweet tea and Havana cigars. Later, South American derived, plants like tomatoes and potatoes were not part of Roman agriculture, nor is there evidence of root crop use so far as I know.

None of the customary farm animals or arable crops are native to Britain. Most were introduced in the Neolithic, thousands of years before the RIA. The size of animal bones increases in the Roman period suggesting a programme of selective breeding and animal improvement. The Romans were famously fond of olives but in the early RIA the climate is thought to have been similar to today. It seems impossible that the olive tree, native to the Mediterranean littoral, could have been successfully grown in Britain’s pleasant pastures. The situation is more difficult when it comes to those other Roman imports: vines, figs, and walnuts. All these plants were consumed in the RIA and rarely actual seeds survive on Roman sites. The plants will certainly grow in Britain today but whether they could ever have been grown commercially is more doubtful. The best evidence of local exploitation is for vines. The findings at one rural excavation have been interpreted as the remnants of viticulture. This would have been an impressive achievement; the grape varieties grown in Britain today were selectively bred for colder climates over the last few hundred years.

The presence of many corn driers, if they really are corn driers, in the late RIA suggests climate deterioration. The heavy clay soils in the Midlands were once thought to have remained forested in the RIA. If true this had two implications: firstly that there could have been no pressing need to plough them and secondly that forests were still valuable as a source of fuel and pannage for pigs. But as time passes, and more Roman sites are identified, agriculture has come to seem more universal, and the population of Britain requiring to be fed grows higher.

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