Roman Vineyards in Britain: Finds from the Nene Valley and New Research

By Brown, A. G.; Meadows, I. | Antiquity, September 2000 | Go to article overview

Roman Vineyards in Britain: Finds from the Nene Valley and New Research


Brown, A. G., Meadows, I., Antiquity


The Wollaston vineyards: stratigraphy and palynology

Northamptonshire Archaeology has carried out large-scale archaeological recording in advance of gravel extraction for over five years at Wollaston. The quarries lay on the south and east side of a long bend in the river Nene where there was a wide flood plain. Running the entire 3 km of the study area lay a major Roman road along which low-status farmsteads were spaced between 500-700 m apart with pottery indicating occupation from the 1st to 4th centuries. At the northern end of the initial quarry an area of 7.5 ha of parallel trenches 5 m apart had been identified in the evaluation. The steep-sided, flat-bottomed trenches were 0.85 m wide and 0.3 m deep and were of uncertain function. Similar trenches had been identified by D. Jackson at Grendon, 3 km to the south, as lazy beds (Jackson 1995). Careful hand excavation of a sample of the trenches recovered post pits along both sides, set into infill deposits. The post pits did not form a coherent plan and probably reflected renewal/replacement of posts over an extended period. The occurrence of posts indicated a crop requiring support which in turn was represented by root balls about 1-5 m apart.

Samples were taken from a sealed ditch within the area of the trenches (Brown & Meadows forthcoming). An unusually large pollen sum (1000 total land pollen) was used in order to increase the frequency of rare types. The three samples contained very little tree pollen (3.2-4.1% Total Land Pollen) and were dominated by grasses, sedges, Dandelion family, Plantains, Bracken and grains of both arable and pastoral `weeds' including Pheasants Eye (probably a Roman introduction), Corn Chamomile, Cornflower, Pale Persicaria, Bedstraw, Fat Hen, Sheep's Sorrel, Black Knapweed, Knotgrass, members of the Goosefoot family and Cereal types (0.9-1.1% TLP; mostly degraded) as well as some epiphytes, e.g. Bindweed and Field Bindweed. An unusual feature was a low percentage of Grape Vine (Vitis type) pollen (0.5-0.7% TLP). A second group of four similar trenches were identified 2.5 km away to the south by magnetometry and confirmed by excavation (500 m to the northwest of those identified by Jackson in Grendon). Samples from a well in this area revealed a similar open landscape with both arable and pastoral indicators and Vitis (0.4% TLP). The British palynological record of Vitis type pollen is sparse, occasional grains being recorded from Roman and Medieval levels.

In Britain, Roman viticulture has generally been assumed although the palaeobotanical and archaeological evidence has been ambiguous (Williams 1977). The trenches at Wollaston conformed to a pattern of vine cultivation, pastinatio, described in some detail by Columella and Pliny (Pliny XVII.166). The first vineyard at Wollaston comprised at least 6 km of pastinatio trenches, supporting 4000 vines and yielding 10,500 litres of white wine (based upon typical yield values) with total production from the area being probably closer to 30,000 (excluding Grendon). It would appear that the Nene Valley was a major area of wine production and although it is uncertain who the wine was produced for, links to other trades such as the pottery industries of the Nene valley should perhaps be sought.

The PALVIT Project

With Wollaston providing one model of a British Roman vineyard it is worthwhile considering how widespread viticulture was in Roman Britain. …

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