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The role of animals in late Iron Age and Roman life: cultural identity and the relationship between Italy and Britain

Final Report Summary - ANCID (The role of animals in late Iron Age and Roman life: cultural identity and the relationship between Italy and Britain)

This project aimed to investigate the Iron Age - Roman transition in husbandry practices, in Britain as well as Italy, and provide the fellow with training opportunities in various areas including project management, financial management, teaching, students' supervision, team work, presentation, as well as various methodological research advances. These included new approaches to recording, counting and quantification of animal bones from archaeological sites and new methods in ageing and biometrical recording and analysis. Prominent amongst these latter is the adoption of a system of metric processing known as 'scale index technique', of which the fellow had little previous experience. An important additional aim of the project was to allow the fellow to operate within a wider research team, with whom she could interact and from whom she could gain (and provide) stimulating information and ideas.

In the 24 months she was employed the fellow identified priorities in terms of research and training in conjunction with the scientist in charge. There was continuous and frequent communication that contributed to the success of the project. It was soon decided that - to start with and for training purposes - it was worth using an animal bone assemblage different from the one core to the project questions. The aim was to allow the fellow to familiarise herself with a new system of recording and counting. A series of relatively small assemblages ranging from prehistoric to Roman times, including Iron and Roman components which are central to the focus of the main project, from the Durrington Walls area (Wiltshire, England) were identified. These were an ideal choice because they allowed the fellow to get involved with the FEEDING STONEHENGE project, a high profile, interdisciplinary project based in our department, which gave her the opportunity to interact and collaborate with the wider scientific community. The material from these various sites was recorded, the data were analysed and two full reports were completed and they are now ready for publication in one of the project monographs, with the fellow as first author.

Once the training on the analysis of the material was completed it was time to identify a larger assemblage that would be suitable to address the key questions of the project. It was decided to focus on the site of Owslebury in southern England due to its large sample size and the promising chronological sequence ranging from the Iron Age to the Roman period. We were lucky to have the opportunity to interact closely with the excavator of the site - John Collis, an emeritus professor in our department. The site was also promising for another research aspect that represented one of the aims of the project, namely the investigation of animal movement through analysis of Strontium isotopic ratios. The main reason for the potential of Owslebury for this purpose is its location on chalk, a type of rock that has a well distinct Sr isotopic ratio, which therefore allows a relatively straightforward understanding of the origins of the livestock - inside or outside the chalk area.

Although the project focused on both Italy and Britain, for training purposed it was decided that it would be more beneficial to deal with a British assemblage, as this could be recorded in Sheffield, allowing thus regular and constant communication with the scientist in charge as well as his research team. The approach used for the Durrington Walls sites was adopted, with modifications, for Owslebury too. The fellow recorded all the material deriving from the late Iron Age and early Roman phases. The data so collected have also been fully analysed and the writing of the report is currently in progress. The data analysis was carried out in an innovative way, new to the fellow, therefore providing an important training opportunity. In addition cattle teeth were selected for isotopic analysis and sampled accordingly. The isotopic analysis was carried out at the NERC Keyworth Lab under the direction of Jane Evans. This was a completely new experience for the fellow, who thus gained a new skill in her research area.

In addition, the fellow also analysed a number of relevant Iron Age and Roman assemblages from Italy, as in the original research objectives. These are mainly from Rome and its surrounding area. The data so collected can be integrated with a previous dataset available to the fellow as a consequence of her previous work.

The results of the project so far are interesting and promising for future research. The isotopic analysis has indicated that the mobility of livestock increased between the Iron Age and the Roman period, thus suggesting a widening of market opportunities in the latter period. This was to be expected, but for the first time it can be demonstrated. Iron Age people also obtained some livestock from outside the chalk but the importation of livestock from other areas significantly increased in the Roman period. Such changes in market strategies are also accompanied by changes in the size and shape of the animals, as well as the mortality profiles, thus suggesting that animal husbandry was subject to substantial innovations in the Roman period.

The evidence from Italy has differences and similarities with this pattern. Changes certainly occurred at the Iron Age / Roman transition, but some of these at least seem to be more profoundly rooted in the Iron Age. Perhaps this reflects the fact that in Italy they represent a gradual local development, while in Britain they are more significantly affected by the introduction of new practices and goods (including livestock) from elsewhere, probably the main European continent.

These results, particularly when they will be further refined through further analysis currently in progress, will provide us with the opportunity to contribute to an important debate on the nature of the change generated by Roman influence. They will also illuminate on the mechanisms of cultural contact and how these can be viewed from a long term perspective.

This phenomenon is relevant to many questions that affect modern-day farming as well as trade and economic practices. A balance has got to be found between tradition and innovation, local and introduced products, as well as sustainability and productivity of the land. Archaeologists are in a strong position to contribute to this debate because of their ability to investigate long term perspectives, but in reality they rarely do so. Projects like this can, however, provide us with valuable information regarding how past communities implemented change, failing or succeeding in their attempts.

A web page of the project (combined with another, relevant Marie Curie scheme) can be found at: