Stable Isotopes and Diet: Their Contribution to Romano-British Research

By Muldner, Gundula | Antiquity, March 2013 | Go to article overview

Stable Isotopes and Diet: Their Contribution to Romano-British Research


Muldner, Gundula, Antiquity


Introduction

The Roman conquest of AD 43 is an important watershed in the history of Britain. It is traditionally regarded as the 'end of British prehistory' and marking the beginning of four centuries as part of a vast Mediterranean empire. Although the simplistic notion of 'Romanisation' in the sense of one-directional acculturation has now been all bur deconstructed and replaced by more complex models of interaction (see Webster 2001; Mattingly 2004), exploring the many changes that occurred in the social, political and economic make-up of post-conquest Britain is still a productive approach towards a better understanding of the realities of life in Rome's northernmost province (see Mattingly 2006).

The analysis of food and foodways has proved a particularly fruitful approach in this respect. Investigations into different foods and the material culture associated with their production, distribution and consumption has demonstrated that the transition from the Iron Age to the Roman period brought with it a large number of changes, ah increase in dietary breadth and the availability of exotic foods as well as changes in cooking and dining culture. By contrasting different site types, the evidence has also highlighted variation within society, with the greatest changes, unsurprisingly, seen in the larger towns and places associated with the military. The impact on rural Britain seems to have been much more varied, with some sites readily embracing the new foodways, while others appear more conservative, choosing to adapt (and possibly subvert) only selected new foods and related material culture, while keeping to an overall more traditional lifestyle (King 1984, 1999; Cool 2006; Locker 2007; Maltby 2007; van der Veen 2008; Cramp et al. 2011).

A number of excellent synthetic accounts of food consumption in Roman Britain from different methodological perspectives have recently been published, e.g. Grant (2007) on meat diet; Locker (2007) on fish; van der Veen (2008) on plants; Cool (2006) for a general overview and especially material culture. The contribution from bone chemistry, however, namely stable isotope analysis of bone collagen, is yet to be fully integrated into the academic debate. This is despite the success of the first application of the technique in Romano-British archaeology at Poundbury Camp Cemetery in Dorset, where the results indicated not only greater diversity in diet in the Roman period compared with the Iron Age, but also significant differences between high-status individuals (in lead coffins and mausolea) and 'simple' inhumations in earth graves or wooden coffins, suggesting that marine products were an elite food in Roman Britain (Richards et al. 1998).

Since the Poundbury study, the number of practitioners of dietary isotope analysis has increased considerably and, as a result, a much larger body of Iron Age and Roman-period carbon and nitrogen isotope data is now available--although these are usually published as individual case studies and in rather diverse places (Fuller et al. 2006; Jay & Richards 2006, 2007; Muldner & Richards 2007; Jay 2008; Cummings 2009; Lightfoot et al. 2009; Chenery et al. 2010, 2011; Cummings & Hedges 2010; Redfern et al. 2010, 2012; Stevens et al. 2010, 2012; Muldner et al. 2011 ; Pollard et al. 2011; Cheung et al. 2012). A recent interdisciplinary project that explored population diversity in Roman Britain included isotopic approaches to diet in its research design (see Eckardt 2010).

The present study is ah attempt to take stock and assess the contribution of the method to Romano-British archaeology so far. In doing so, I will concentrate on two questions: (1) do the isotope data indicate a general change in diet (i.e. a shift in site averages) from the Iron Age to the Roman period and, if so, what form did this shift take? (2) What can the data on intra-population variation tell us about dietary diversity in different groups of Romano-British society? …

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