Down, but Not Out: Biological Evidence for Complex Economic Organization in Lincoln in the Late 4th Century

Article excerpt

As a result of major archaeological investigations in recent years, it has become apparent that in the early 3rd century changing economic circumstances in the Roman empire caused a check in the growth of towns in Britain (Millett 1990: 134-7). The evidence suggests a decline in manufacturing activity and interprovincial trade. Few public buildings were erected after the early 3rd century and a reduction in the area settled, especially in London, is indicated by the accumulation of material, often referred to as 'dark earth', over earlier buildings (Ottaway 1993: 112-17; Yule 1990).

The later 3rd century and much of the 4th was a time of prosperity in Roman Britain, but the role of towns is thought to have been primarily related to the administrative, political and ceremonial functions of the Roman state. The urban population was probably dominated by government officials who lived in the well-appointed town houses for which there is evidence in most towns, including Lincoln (Jones 1993). Towards the end of the 4th century, however, change in the urban order, traditionally linked to economic recession (Esmonde Cleary 1989: 130-34), manifested itself in declining populations and poorer standards of maintenance of public facilities.

Although there is now an element of consensus concerning the broad outlines of urban development in late Roman Britain, there are many aspects that are poorly understood. In particular, one might ask, firstly, did change in the early 3rd century affect the various components of the urban economy equally? Secondly, how quickly did the urban economy collapse in the late 4th century? Did the process begin in the mid 4th century or only in the last decade or so? In considering both problems, it is necessary to allow not only for differences between towns, but for a different picture to emerge from different categories of evidence, reflecting asynchronous decline in various economic activities and processes.

Environmental archaeology is a very powerful, but greatly under-used, tool for investigating socio-economic processes, representing aspects of life not illuminated by structural and artefactual evidence. This paper summarizes some important results of recent analyses of vertebrate and invertebrate remains from the waterfront excavations in Lincoln and shows how they present new evidence to understanding its economy and society in the late Roman period. We argue that, in this case, biological remains are as appropriate a measure of economic (and by implication social) organization as structures and artefacts.

Studies of a series of assemblages of vertebrate and invertebrate remains from the City of Lincoln Waterfront excavations, carried out by City of Lincoln Archaeological Unit in the late 1980s (Chitwood 1989; Donel 1989; Donel & Jarvis 1990; Williams 1989), lead Dobney and Kenward to question traditional views of late Roman Britain. Excavations of large late Roman dump deposits at the Waterside North West site (WNW88, [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 1 OMITTED], in particular, produced the largest vertebrate assemblage of late Roman date so far published from Britain (Dobney et al. 1996b), as well as invertebrate, principally beetle, assemblages of exceptional importance (Carrott et al. 1995b).

Evidence for dumping activity from the 3rd to the late 4th centuries AD was present at all the sites excavated at waterside, Lincoln. This dumping appeared to be linked to a series of surfaces, also constructed during this period, which probably provided access to the river from Saltergate to the north and the High street to the west. The surfaces found at WN87, WO89, WF89 and WW89 [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 1 OMITTED] indicated that the course of the river was purposely being moved further south from its former bank (Chitwood et al. 1989; Donel & Jarvis 1990). Each successive surface was lengthened over newly reclaimed land as the course of the river was moved.

Preliminary analysis of the pottery from these dump layers and surfaces has provided dates ranging from the 3rd to the late 4th centuries. …