Skip to main content

Mobility and management of cattle in Iron Age and Roman Netherlands

Article Category

Article available in the folowing languages:

Moving cattle in Holland during the Iron Age and Roman times

Cattle were key livestock animals for the human economy in the past. An EU initiative explored their use and mobility in the Netherlands to gain valuable insight into Iron Age and Roman societies.


Cattle have always played a crucial role in the Netherlands. They have supported arable farming through traction and manure, provided food in the form of meat and dairy products, and equipped societies with raw materials for clothing and artefacts. The EU-funded MoMa project investigated the use of cattle in the Netherlands from the Iron Age to the Roman period (750 BC-AD 450). “By investigating long-term developments in cattle management and mobility, and the interaction between native communities and newcomers, we can better understand how cultural transmission operates,” explains coordinator Umberto Albarella. This research was undertaken with the support of the Marie Skłodowska-Curie programme.

Exploring cattle mobility during the Iron Age and Roman times

Researchers investigated changes between Iron Age and Roman societies in the Netherlands and how these were affected by different factors such as environment, landscape use, trade, and economic and political organisations. MoMa initiated a focused dialogue between different researchers studying how animals contributed to cultural diversity in different areas of the Roman Empire. The research team’s investigation of cattle exploitation in the Netherlands was informed by similar work carried out in Britain. It then scrutinised the differences and similarities between the two. The project introduced greater international collaboration on a research topic that is especially suited for exploration on a large geographical scale. Results have been presented at international conferences and a paper was published in a peer-reviewed journal. More papers are also currently being prepared.

Establishing cattle’s local and non-local origins

The MoMa team carried out an isotopic analysis on cattle teeth to demonstrate that the degree of livestock mobility is very much dependent on a site’s type of use. Analysis of a rural site showed decreased incoming mobility when moving from the Iron Age to the Roman period. “We now have greater awareness of the role that different archaeological site types play in the organisation of human communities, and consequently, the diversity of their archaeological evidence,” comments Marie Skłodowska-Curie fellow Maaike Groot. Although this was examined specifically for the Dutch case study, it has broader interpretive implications. “Considering the huge trade intensity that characterised the Roman period, this may be surprising,” continues Groot. “However, it can be explained by the fact that most mobility was outgoing at a Roman rural site because cattle was bred locally to be exported elsewhere.” Conversely, incoming mobility was high at a Roman urban site, revealing the complementarity of these site types. With respect to incoming mobility, animals would be moved from rural to urban locations. “MoMa has emphasised the need to study our past relationship with animals from an international and interdisciplinary perspective,” concludes Albarella. “We provided valuable evidence about the nature of cultural transmission during the Iron Age and Roman transition and beyond.”


MoMa, Roman, cattle, mobility, Iron Age, Netherlands, animal, livestock, rural, cultural transmission, urban

Discover other articles in the same domain of application