Big Data on the Roman Table

Lead Research Organisation: University of Leicester
Department Name: Sch of Archaeology and Ancient History


In archaeological terms, the Roman period is exceptionally data rich. Most people are familiar with iconic monuments like Hadrian's Wall and the city of Pompeii. Yet infinitely more important for understanding people's lives across the Roman world are millions of artefacts unearthed during excavations. A great proportion of these artefacts, especially pottery vessels, are objects used by almost everyone from senator to slave to eat and drink from, and so hold essential information on the diversity of such practices among different social and cultural groups. However, this wealth of data is under-utilised due to its very complexity. For decades it has served to provide chronological sequences for individual excavations and to develop region-wide understandings of economic networks, rather than to answer socio-cultural questions. E.g., how can differing combinations of differing sizes, shapes and types of vessels, excavated from different contexts, provide more nuanced understandings of how individuals and communities throughout the Roman world used them and socialised around food and drink?

Many people are also familiar with studies that have focused on the idealised discourses of food consumption in ancient texts and visual culture. Authors such as Petronius, who wrote about the dinner party of the nouveau riche ex-slave Trimalchio, have done much to colour perspectives on dining practices throughout the Roman world. These texts are frequently used to interpret the architectural remains of, for example, dining rooms in Pompeian houses. While writings of ancient authors provide helpful insights, they are frequently limited to elites from urban centres, and, more importantly, lack the detail needed for consistent comparison across different context and different regions of the Roman world. Such perspectives obscure a more critical understanding of the everyday eating and drinking practices that would have provided the daily sustenance and communication opportunities for the majority of people living in this world - citizens and provincials, indigenous and immigrant families, shop-keepers, soldiers, and slaves, as well as the upper crust. The meals of these different kinds of people are not well recorded in the literary record but are prolifically documented by archaeological evidence, in particular artefactual remains.

More recently, archaeological scholarship on Roman food - notably through zooarchaeology, archaeobotany, osteoarchaeology - has begun to address some of the lacunae in literary-based studies and the biased views they portray of social behaviour in the Roman empire. However, these approaches focus on the kinds of food eaten, but not the contexts in which it was consumed and the experiences involved. It is timely for more impetus in studies of styles of consumption - crucial for understanding the diversity of Roman social and cultural differentiation - 'to catch-up' with bioarchaeological approaches, in the process harnessing the potential of what constitutes the largest surviving body of evidence from the Roman world - its artefacts.

By harnessing the 'big data' of Roman archaeology - artefactual datasets that are so large and complex that it is difficult to visualise fine-grained patterning using standard archaeological methods - this network seeks to set a new benchmark for the application of statistical, spatial and visualisation techniques to such data to provide fresh historical insights into social practice across the Roman world. In the current climate of recession and limited public funds for archaeological research, the network can point the way for the cost effective use of so-called legacy data from older excavations, and also for more efficient data collection in future excavations that can be used to build more robust and analysable datasets. Establishing best practice for the on-going collection and digital collation of materials enables future research that is also of public interest.

Planned Impact

The main impact of this network on the academic community is outlined above. The main impact on the non-academic community will be on participating non-HEI organisations who are custodians of relevant datasets of artefacts and professional non-academic archaeologists. These invited participants will both contribute to and gain insights from the workshops presentations and discussions arising from them, during the network. The published freely accessible guidelines for best practice, resulting from this network and with input from this non-HEI partners, will facilitate the collection, digital collation and management of the artefact datasets in their care and enhance the usefulness of these data in their public presentations. Such participating custodial organisations include the Museum of London (MOLA), Historic Scotland (HS) and the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland (RCAHMS) in the UK, and the Archaeological Superintendencies of Pompeii and Piedmonte in Italy. Further participating professional and commercial archaeological organisations, who also perform a custodial role for such datasets and are concerned with the contribution the types of analyses investigated by this network can make to greater understandings of Roman society, include the Vindolanda Trust, Oxford Archaeology, Archaeology South-East, and the University of Leicester Archaeological Service (ULAS - custodians of archaeological collections in the East Midlands - e.g. at Jewry Wall Museum in Leicester).

The papers, discussions, and results from the workshops, especially the guidelines for best practice, will also benefit further non-HEI custodial organisations and professional archaeologists, nationally and internationally and beyond the network participants, who are charged with the collection, collation and curation of similar datasets, and responsible for the research design of field and excavation projects. These network resources, with the input from the key participating non-HEI stakeholders, will be particularly important for such organisations in the management of the artefact datasets in their care.

It is also anticipated that the results from this network, especially the international collaborations and the programme of research that will develop from it, will also be used by the museums and relevant institutions listed above (e.g. MOLA and the Superintendency of Pompeii), as well as by other museums with collections of Roman artefacts, to enhance their public displays by providing more reliable information to museum visitors on the varied dynamics of Roman social practices. This should provide a more satisfactory and rewarding visitor experience that will go beyond current and traditional approaches which typically flag textual descriptions of elite dinner parties, and the provenance of artefacts, rather than the social and cultural significance of artefact 'biographies' in the Roman period.

It is anticipated that the general public with interests in archaeology, and especially Roman archaeology, will benefit from the results of this network and subsequent research projects, with greater understandings of the role that material culture can play in understanding the social aspects of foodways in the past through more intelligible presentation of archaeological information.


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Description The need for:
a) more emphasis in Roman pottery research on more rigorous approaches to developing greater understandings of the potential ranges of uses for particular forms of tableware vessels
b) greater digital literacy for the collation and analyses large bodies of Roman tablewares and in the visual presentations of the analyses.
Exploitation Route We will be developing these areas of the project in the second workshop in July 2016 and disseminating the findings further through publication of an edited volume and journal article
Sectors Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections
Description Regarding the document 'A standard for pottery analysis in archaeology' the Study Group of Roman Pottery considered that its was 'very valuable, therefore, to share a draft of the document with the [AHRC Research] network, and receive feedback on its content from those actively engaged in academic big data projects. The strategic aims of all three pottery groups recognise the need to develop better links between the commercial and academic sectors in British archaeology. The Big Data project, by engaging with these groups and other individuals working in the commercial sector, has made an important step towards achieving this.' MOLA, UK. 'will be seeking opportunities where practical within our developer-funded work to use some of the types of analysis and visualisations discussed in the workshop. We intend to trial the sooting/abrasion typology created by Laura Banducci on a large assemblage of pottery to be recorded later this year to see if this additional level of detail produces different results from our standard level of recording. Additionally, we have been comparing some of our in-house approaches to chronological modelling with some of those advocated at this workshop.'
First Year Of Impact 2015
Sector Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections
Impact Types Cultural