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Livestock and cultural change in Roman Europe

Animal remains retrieved from archaeological sites can tell us a lot about the past, including animal husbandry and the meat diet of human populations. This area of study, known as zooarchaeology, was used by an EU-funded research project to investigate the cultural transition from the Iron Age to the Roman period.

Climate Change and Environment

Raising livestock has been practiced in Europe for the past 8 000 years. Because of this tradition, the study of the remains of domestic animals is a reliable record of eating and husbandry changes resulting from population growth and changes in society. The Iron Age to Roman transition is particularly interesting as it represents change from a regional economy to a centralised world socioeconomic system. However, little comparative research had been conducted in Europe due to the lack of published data. Therefore, the PICOSHEEP project was established to collect data through biometrics and cutting-edge chemical analysis. The geographical area under consideration was the western Mediterranean — more specifically, present-day England, Portugal, Spain and Tunisia. Size, age of culling and the frequency of animal species were used to detect changes in meat diet and herding between the two historical periods. Levels of strontium and oxygen isotopes were studied using cattle and sheep teeth. This method was used as the two elements are known to be associated with the soil on which livestock pastured and the seasonal temperature of water. Results gave a greater understanding of the herding productivity of each territory and chronological period studied. It was found that those study areas closest to Rome showed more and larger cattle compared to the frontier areas of Britain and Iberia. Some cultural resistance was observed in the area of Tarraconensis, a Roman province that covered northern and western Iberia. Results showed changes in animal size and numbers in newly built Roman cities. However, these changes occurred much later or not at all in those indigenous sites that persisted into the Roman era. A common trend was identified in Tunisia, north-eastern Spain and southern England, despite their ecological differences. This showed a decrease in cattle numbers from the Bronze Age to the Iron Age in the areas studied. In addition, a significant reduction in cattle size was noted between the Bronze and Iron Ages across Europe. The size of cattle then increased in Roman times in the conquered territories. The work conducted by PICOSHEEP will provide a comprehensive picture of the animal husbandry strategies adopted in Britain and Iberia. This is within the context of demographic changes occurring throughout Europe during a momentous period in its history.


Livestock, cultural change, husbandry, zooarchaeology, Iron Age, Bronze Age

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