Roman Vineyards in Britain: Stratigraphic and Palynological Data from Wollaston in the Nene Valley, England

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There has long been uncertainty as to the status of viticulture in Roman Britain. The progressive extension of the domesticated vine is well attested in Gaul and Germany, where from initial beginnings in the south (the vine appears unknown outside Mediterranean Gaul from the 4th--1st centuries BC), viticulture had spread by the late 2nd century AD to the Bourgogne, Loire, Normandy, Rhine and Mosel areas (Brun 1993:321--31; Brun & Tchernia 1999). Botanically there is no reason to doubt that cultivation could also have been extended to Britain at about the same time as it reached Northern Gaul and the Rhineland in the late 2nd or early 3rd century. Various Classical sources have been used to argue the case, though two relating to the 1st century AD pre-date the likely extension of viticulture into such northern latitudes. The statement by Tacitus (Vita Agricolae, 12) that all food plants except the olive and vine could flourish in Britain provides no evidence that viticulture was not to be practised later in the Roman period. Similarly, we would not expect Domitian's wine edict of c. AD 90 or 91, which sought to restrict wine production in the provinces (Jones 1992), to make specific reference to Britain. On the other hand, another imperial edict, by the 3rd-century emperor Probus, can only be interpreted as confirmation that viticulture was by the AD 270s considered possible in Britain: 'Hence he granted permission to all the Gauls and the Spaniards and Britons to cultivate vineyards and make wines' (Historiae Augustae, Probus, 18.8). The mention of both Britain and vines appears to have satisfied early thought as to whether or not wine-production took place in Roman Britain (e.g. West 1931; Hyams 1949; Frere 1974). Reviewing both the archaeological and palaeoecological evidence for viticulture in Roman Britain, Williams (1977) concluded that the evidence was inconclusive. Although the general assumption is that viticulture was almost certainly practised in Roman Britain, aside from villa gardens, the scale and extent of viticulture has remained unknown.

This paper presents stratigraphic and palynological data from Wollaston in the Nene Valley, Northamptonshire, which, it is argued, provides conclusive evidence of viticulture on an large scale. The interpretation of stratigraphic and palynological evidence is discussed along with the evidence from agricultural tools. One of the aims of this research has been to stimulate a wider search for Roman vineyards thereby allowing the scale, extent and socio-economic significance of viticulture to be assessed. The spread of viticulture through the Roman world, and the extent to which it supplanted beer brewing, can be seen as an essential element in the consideration of the Romanization of northwest Europe.

Northamptonshire Archaeology has carried out large-scale archaeological recording in advance of gravel extraction for Pioneer Aggregates over a five-year period (1993--1998) in a series of quarries at Wollaston, Northamptonshire. A total area of over 150 ha was the subject of archaeological study. The quarries lay on the south and east side of a long bend in the river where there was a wide flood plain. The area was known from aerial photographs to be rich in archaeological remains. Running the entire 3 km of the study area lay a major Roman road, linking Irchester to Towcester, along which, at a spacing of between 500--700 m, Roman farmsteads were present. Each was the subject of a set-piece excavation whilst the surrounding fields were recorded by a detailed watching brief with limited excavations more fully to clarify specific questions. Of the farmsteads examined none produced evidence indicating high status and, although pottery indicated occupation from the 1st to the 4th centuries, few coins and brooches were found. Structures were generally poorly preserved but the small scale of those within the study area contrasted strongly with the large villas just beyond. …