The Last of the (Roman) Summer Wine

By Nurse, Keith | History Today, January 1994 | Go to article overview

The Last of the (Roman) Summer Wine


Nurse, Keith, History Today


* New findings which have established that a wine-producing industry flourished in south-east England during the early Roman period are likely to come as a surprise to international experts in London this month for a conference at the museum of London on Roman amphorae.

The discoveries mean that locally-produced wine (arguably the bench-mark test of the Mediterranean good-life) was available and marketed on a sizeable commercial scale in the remote, cool and damp island province.

It has long been assumed, on the basis of plant and grape-pip remains, that local wines of a sort were produced in Roman Britain. But it was generally considered to have been a small-scale, ~kitchen' garden activity, largely confined to certain villas in the south and south-west. However, research of pottery finds by the Museum of London Archaeology Service now points strongly to the existence of a substantial, yet short-lived (for reasons apparently unconnected with the vagaries of the British climate) French or Gaulish-style wine trade carried out by immigrant craftsmen and merchants from about AD 70 to AD 100.

Specialists at the conference (Roman Amphorae: Problems of Identification and Methodology) will see for themselves the evidence -- in the form of remains and reconstructed vessels. The conference is being sponsored by English Heritage as part of their national programme to develop skills in pottery analysis.

An initially unlikely-looking group of vessel fragments recovered from a pit in 1989 at west Smithfield, London, and dating from AD 70-80, turned out to be the key pieces in the research jigsaw. The sherds had lain in a museum storage box for three years, but then their significance was recognised by Cesar Carreras-Monfort, a Spanish student at Southampton University, and Robin Symonds, the Service's Roman pottery specialist.

Reconstructed, the pieces were found to make up a complete two-handled 25-litre capacity wine amphora of a typically flat-bottomed French form. The vessel bears the stamp -- ~Senecionis'. Senecio is a Roman or Gaulish name, which suggests that the vessel maker or vineyard owner may well have been an immigrant.

Amphorae -- traditionally regarded as the great long-distance ~travellers' of Rome -- were used to convey wine and other commodities from the Mediterranean to the outer reaches of the Empire. Most of those found in Britain were made in southern Spain or France. But in this instance it has been established that the Smithfield vessel was not an imported container. Examination of the clay used in its manufacture proved beyond doubt that it was made at Brockley Hill, Middlesex, a major pottery production centre well known to archaeologists. It was located north-west of Roman Londinium, on Watling Street, between the capital and Verulamium (present-day St Albans).

A follow-up search of finds from earlier London excavations recently produced a second -- near-complete -- amphora of a very similar type to the one uncovered at Smithfield.

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