The Archaeology of Britain: An Introduction from the Upper Palaeolithic to the Industrial Revolution

By John Hunter; Ian Ralston | Go to book overview

Chapter Nine

Roman Britain

Civil and rural society

Simon Esmonde Cleary


INTRODUCTION

One of the briefest of the epochs of Britain’s past, the Roman period is also one of the most recognizable. To the archaeologist, this is because it saw the introduction of important and distinctive new classes of site, monument and artefact. More generally, it is also the period that bequeathed legacies such as roads and towns that still shape the map of Britain. It also marks the intrusion into Britain of Classical culture, the intellectual, literary and architectural vocabulary of which are embedded in modern European idioms. It can therefore seem comfortingly familiar, perhaps dangerously so for those whose business it is to investigate the ‘otherness’ of the past.

The distinctive dataset, links with the wider Classical world and some long-standing intellectual traditions mean that the study of Roman Britain has often been rather self-contained. At both the beginning and the end of the Roman period, however, an incoming group imposed itself on a numerically far superior indigenous population. The archaeological distinctiveness of Roman and of Anglo-Saxon material culture (Chapter 10) has meant that perhaps disproportionate effort has been expended on the minority at the expense of the less archaeologically obvious majority. One of the longest standing approaches to the analysis and explanation of the archaeology of the Roman period has been the concept of ‘Romanization’, analysing the nature and process of the interaction of Roman and indigenous culture to produce the synthesis known as ‘Romano-British’ (Millett 1990; see also Chapter 8 here). This was not a process whereby the imperial power imposed its culture, but one where the British population made choices about its relationship to that power and about how to display those choices through the adoption (or not) of Roman-style behaviour and its physical expressions. This approach can be undertaken only with an understanding of the Later Iron Age (Chapter 7 here) in order to identify and assess the changes resulting from the Roman conquest. The links between the two periods and the transition from one to the other are visible in the archaeological record, and currently the increasing emphasis on the role of the indigenous population can lead to the earlier part of the Roman period at least being seen almost as a continuation of the Iron Age by other means.

At the end of the Roman period, the interface between Roman Britain and Early Anglo-Saxon England is much less well studied and understood, for the two material cultures seem to have nothing in common, reinforcing the impression of ethnic, cultural and religious separateness gained from the written sources. More recent research and excavation are suggesting, however,

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