About the Project

Our image of the classical world is overwhelmingly shaped by elites, the lettered elite who penned the majority of textual sources and the monied elite whose largess built the monuments synonymous with "classical civilization It is easy to forget that these elites, and these concerns, represented those of only a tiny fraction of the overall population. Even at its political zenith, the Roman empire was an agrarian society, with as much as 90% of the population living in the countryside and cultivating small plots of land. The inhabitants of the Roman countryside play only brief, walk-on roles in the textual record, and historical studies of these non-elites have, to date, been similarly limited.

The Roman Peasant Project draws on the combined disciplines of archaeology, history, zooarchaeology, archaeobotany, geophysics and geology to address this lacuna in the scholarly record. Our aim is to produce thick descriptions of the peasantry in the Roman world: their diet; exploitation of local resources; socio-economies; and above all, the diversity of what it meant to be "poor" in antiquity. We seek to recapture a peasant-eye's view of issues such as agriculture, social relationships, and trade, which have previously been seen only from the vantage-point of the wealthy, lettered elite. In this respect, the study draws upon and contributes to contemporary discussions on poverty and rural development in the modern world.

Methods and Aims

Our archaeobotanical, zooarchaeological and micro-topographical soil reconstructions are aimed at producing the first systematic analysis of Roman peasant diet and husbandry patterns. Comparisons between sites allow us to document local and chronological heterogeneity. For each site we excavate, we produce micro-resource and topographic studies: mapping the location of all building materials, water sources and reconstructing soil types allows us to assess how the inhabitants of these countrysides might have exploited their immediate landscapes. We also produce movement-potential analyses, using GIS, verified by field-walking, to map potential route-ways and impediments around each site. Rather than illustrate how environment predetermined human action, these maps are designed to show the multiple kinds of relationships locals had with their landscapes – considering local geologies when building their farms, manipulating water resources, pushing through geographic confines to obtain better building stone.

Methodologically, we exploit a combination of intensive, large-scale field survey; geophysical survey; study of early modern cadastral maps and aerial photography; and excavation of carefully selected sites. These sites are characteristically marked by small (under 0.5 ha) scatters of roof tiles and cooking ceramics, and tend to be located under existing fields exploited by local farmers. Together, these factors determine the form that our excavations take. We first prospect the sites remotely using magnetometry, in order to target our excavations more carefully. Then we employ techniques of rescue archaeology to excavate these sites at speed, so that the farmers who own the fields in which they are located suffer only minimal loss of income from them. The sites are protected, refilled, and returned to their owners after a four-week excavation season.