(T)RAC – an early medievalist goes Roman

On Saturday 29 March, I went to Reading to attend RAC/TRAC, the jointly organised Roman Archaeology Conference and Theoretical Roman Archaeology Conference. In doing so, I was impersonating my Romanist colleague Zena Kamash, who was scheduled to give a paper, but was actually in Ireland at the wedding of our very own Dan Stansbie..! The first of the wedding guests, Anwen, has since returned to the office, and it sounds like they had a truly great time… congratulations, Dan!

Zena’s paper – entitled ‘Long-term rhythms versus short-term ruptures: Roman rural settlement from a long-term perspective’ – was second in the morning slot of a day-long session (New Approaches to the Romano-British Countryside) in the Henley Business School, organised by our friends from the Roman Grey Literature project run by Cotswold Archaeology and the University of Reading (http://www.cotswoldarchaeology.co.uk/national-roman-grey-literature/). Other speakers in the first session included Neil Holbrook (Cotswold Archaeology/Roman Grey Literature project), who kicked off the proceedings with a summary of the state of play in Roman archaeology in Britain, and Stephen Rippon of the University of Exeter, who concluded the early morning part with a summary of his recently completed Fields of Britannia project.

The Fields of Britannia project (https://humanities.exeter.ac.uk/archaeology/research/projects/title_84580_en.html), which will be published some time next year, investigated changes and continuities in field systems from the Roman into the early medieval periods, a topic that – as an early medievalist – was particularly to my liking. The emerging image seems to be one of overwhelming continuity, which begs the question how relevant ‘traditional’ period divisions are, which is a topic that is of course also hotly debated within the EngLaId project. Interesting in this context too is the fact that Neil Holbrook pointed out that the events of AD 43 – the ‘traditional’ start date of the Roman period – is overall utterly invisible within the stratigraphic sequences in settlement contexts that they have looked at so far.

After the morning coffee break, the next three papers were given by different members of the Roman Grey Literature project, Alex Smith, Tom Brindle and Martyn Allen, talking about different aspects of their work. This gave a good impression of the work they have been doing so far, re-focusing the balance away from the older villa-centred view of the Romano-British countryside through investigation of the huge number of farmsteads that have come to light in the almost-25 years since PPG16. The overall image that was emerging – very much in line with the work that we have been doing in the context of the EngLaId project – is one of significant complexity. To refer to Tom Brindle’s presentation specifically, patterns seem to be affected by a combination of regional, chronological and social factors. This three-fold acknowledgement of what one could call ‘space, time and identity’ has also characterised much of our own recent work, and it is very interesting to see how the different ‘big data’ projects that are currently being undertaken are gradually reaching similar conclusions, despite employing very different methodologies.

Tom Brindle of the Roman Grey Literature project presenting his paper
Tom Brindle of the Roman Grey Literature project presenting his paper

After a very nice lunch, I decided to leave the New Approaches to the Romano-British Countryside for a bit, and wandered over to a TRAC session on Romans and Barbarians Beyond the Frontiers: Ideology and Identities in the North. The title of this session drew my interest as a result of the work on the case study area of North Northumberland that I have been doing in recent months, which is of course located at some distance to the north of Hadrian’s Wall. Andrew Gardner of UCL gave a most interesting overview paper, discussing frontier theory and issues of identity with reference to Britain’s northern and western frontiers, emphasising the two-way porous nature of frontiers as well as – again – regional differences between different frontier zones. This was followed by two again most interesting papers by Fraser Hunter and Jacqueline Cahill Wilson, who discussed similar issues with reference to Scotland and Ireland respectively.

After the afternoon coffee break, I returned to the New Approaches to the Romano-British Countryside session. Nick Hodgson and Jeffrey Davies gave two interesting papers looking at the north of England and Wales. Of particular relevance to my own work in North Northumberland were some of Nick Hodgson’s arguments. He drew attention to the prevailing image of an indigenous population in northern Britain, living in isolated upland farmsteads, who continued their lifestyle unchanged into the Roman period, and suggested that this view might be caused by a bias towards upland zones and a relative lack of archaeological investigation in lowland regions. However, since the advent of developer-funded archaeology, more and more investigations in lowland zones are now taking place, and it is becoming evident that rural settlement sites of considerable size and complexity also existed in the north of Britain at this time.

Nick Hodgson and Oxford DPhil student Abi Tompkins  listening to the discussion after the afternoon session
Nick Hodgson and Oxford DPhil student Abi Tompkins listening to the discussion after the afternoon session

The afternoon was concluded by a summing-up by discussant Richard Hingley, who was asked to compare the recent state of play to his 1989 book Rural Settlement in Roman Britain. In line with the evidence presented, Hingley stated how much more complex the picture now is than it had been just before PPG16. He furthermore emphasised the importance of contextualising Roman rural settlement evidence with other types of evidence, such as burials, and by reference to more extended chronologies, which is of course exactly what the EngLaId project – amongst other things! – is doing. It sounds like we are on the right track!

Ben Croxford, Stephen Rippon, Neil Holbrook, Alex Smith and Paul Booth listening to the general discussion following Hingley's summing up
Ben Croxford, Stephen Rippon, Neil Holbrook, Alex Smith, Paul Booth and others listening to the general discussion following Hingley’s summing up

After the day’s official proceedings were over, I discovered to my joy that that evening was also the evening of the conference party, held upstairs at Reading’s Global Cafe.

The band at the conference party
The band at the conference party

There was a truly excellent band, although the dance floor remained fairly empty (at least it was when I left – but who who knows what might have happened afterwards…).

Romanists clustering around the bar
Romanists clustering around the bar

In fact, most of the conference attendees clustered in the room where the bar was located – from which I can only conclude that Roman archaeologists are not that different after all from early medieval ones!

All in all, I had a most excellent day, and regretted not registering for the full duration of the conference. Perhaps next year I will go Roman all the way!

CAA UK 2014

Members of the EngLaID team helped to organise the UK Chapter Meeting of Computer Applications and Quantitative Methods in Archaeology (CAA) this year.  The conference took place in the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford, on 21-22 March 2014.  The full conference programme can be found here.

Gary Lock welcomes attendees

Following a welcome by Emeritus Professor Gary Lock of Oxford University, who is the current Chairman of CAA International, speakers were heard hailing from a good selection of UK universities and other institutions, including English Heritage and the British Museum.

EngLaID team member, Vicky Donnelly, presents her research

Amongst this varied and excellent selection of talks, EngLaID DPhil student, Vicky Donnelly, spoke about her research into the role of grey literature in archaeology and what it can enlighten us on.


Feedback on the conference was mostly very positive, with some minor complaints about lack of internet access for non-academic attendees.

Mark Gillings presents the keynote lecture

Particularly inspiring was our keynote speaker, Dr Mark Gillings.  Mark is Reader in Archaeology at the University of Leicester and a well known figure in the field of archaeological computing.  He gave an excellent lecture on what he terms “Geosophical Information Systems”, which is (I believe) an attempt to reframe archaeological GIS as a more exploratory technique.  Particular resonant with me were his ideas about “shallow but juicy” GIS experiments.


On the Friday evening, a beer reception was held in the Pitt Rivers Museum, which seemed to be thoroughly enjoyed by all who attended.

8_reception 7_reception 6_reception

Amazingly, despite the presence of a large number of archaeologists for two hours, only two-thirds of the beer provided was drunk!  But we made a very good effort.

Conference beer ration!

The conference twitter feed can be found here: #caauk14 or storify

Chris Green

CAA UK, 21-22 March 2014

This is just a short announcement to say that the UK chapter meeting of Computer Applications in Archaeology is coming to Oxford in March this year.

Abstract submission is now open here.

Exploring landscape agency: a report on our 2nd symposium

This week saw the second of our annual project symposia. This year’s theme was the agency of landscape, which provoked some lively debate about the nature of non-human agency and the use of rhetoric in archaeology. As well as the formal presentation of papers, Dan Stansbie displayed a poster on his current thinking about his PhD on food and identity and Miranda Creswell exhibited two pieces of art: ‘Four Days in Port Meadow’ and ‘Layered Notes’.

Anwen introduces the project and our aims for the day.
Anwen introduces the project and our aims for the day.
Chris Green explaining our mapping of national trends.
Chris Green explains our mapping of national trends.

The project team kicked off the day with an overview of what we have achieved since the beginning of the project (‘EngLaID at 18 months: learning to walk’) presented by Anwen and Chris Green, followed by an exploration of landscape agency in my Somerset case study area. Gary Lock and John Pouncett (University of Oxford) then grappled with how GIS might reconcile landscape as data with landscape as narrative, suggesting that scalar approaches must be central to attain a qualitative understanding of quantitative data.

Gary Lock presenting on GIS and agency.
Gary Lock presenting on GIS and agency.
Musing about Somerset
Musing on agency in Somerset.

The papers after lunch picked up on these themes and explored how one might best apply ideas of landscape agency in different sectors of British archaeology. David Roberts (University of York) developed an interesting theoretical framework for landscape agency demonstrated through examples from Roman Gaul and Britain that highlighted the materiality of landscape agency in an effort to bridge humanistic and scientific accounts of landscape. The pinning down of the nature of landscape agency continued into Jonathan Last’s (English Heritage) paper, who took a different stance arguing that human agency needed to be central to our thought both as heritage practitioners and as academics. Gwilym Williams (John Moore Heritage Services) also pursued the link between theory and practice in a thoughtful account of how we create archaeological narratives. With reference to fieldwork at Nevendon Washlands in Essex, Gwilym suggested that instead of constructing linear ‘a to b’ reports, we might consider taking an alternative approach that highlights ruptures and punctuated equilibria in the development of landscapes.

David Roberts discusses theoretical frameworks for landscape agency.
David Roberts discusses theoretical frameworks for landscape agency.
Jonathan Last: a landscape view from English Heritage.
Gwilym Williams encourages us towards lateral reporting.

Our final session of the day took a slightly different tack, looking at the relationships of art, both past and present, and landscape. Richard Bradley (University of Reading) presented a compelling argument about the importance of the nature of the rocks influencing human activity on Ben Lawers in Scotland. Simon Callery rounded the day off by presenting a painter’s view of archaeological landscapes that focused on his works Pit Paintings and Wallspines. Both of these papers brought the importance of movement, texture and light to the fore.

Simon Callery introduces us to the idea of landscape as model.
Richard Bradley discusses Ben Lawers
Richard Bradley discussing Ben Lawers

Overall, the day was extremely enjoyable and sparked off numerous ideas for us to follow and explore as a project. Although some members of the audience remained unpersuaded by the idea of landscape agency, the majority agreed that if used cautiously it may prove a useful tool for analysis that gives some space for thinking about how and why humans have responded in particular ways to past landscapes. Other themes that came out strongly were whether past perceptions of landscape were shared or contested and how the study of past landscapes relates to who is doing the studying.

Roger Thomas, Richard Bradley and Chris Gosden deep in discussion.
Roger Thomas, Richard Bradley and Chris Gosden deep in discussion.

We would like to thank all the speakers, the chair people and the audience for creating such a stimulating symposium!

Exploring the Agency of Landscape workshop, 12 June 2013

There are still a few places left! Contact Laura Morley (laura.morley@arch.ox.ac.uk) to register an interest.


Exploring the agency of landscape: a multi-disciplinary symposium





Image: Miranda Creswell

In recent archaeological thinking, it is widely accepted that objects and artefacts are invested with agency, but this understanding is not commonly extended to landscapes; rather any notion of ‘agency of landscape’ is often regarded as synonymous with environmental determinism. This symposium seeks to redress the balance and investigate how landscape can be invested with agency without being environmentally deterministic.

While this one-day symposium is organised in the context of the English Landscapes and Identities (EngLaId) project, which investigates the development of English landscapes from the middle of the Bronze Age, when the first extensive field systems were laid out, to the Domesday period, when the foundations of the modern agricultural landscape were in place, contributions are encouraged from any archaeological, geographical or other relevant disciplinary perspectives. We also welcome contributions that consider different parts of the world and different time periods.

Abstracts for 20 min papers and poster presentations are invited that address this tension between cultural choices and the structuring influence of the landscape itself.

For more information or to register interest, please contact Dr Laura Morley: laura.morley@arch.ox.ac.uk (Wednesday to Friday).


For more information about the EngLaId project, see:

CAA 2013 and more on PAS fuzziness

I have just got back from the 2013 Computer Applications in Archaeology (CAA) conference in Perth, Australia.  The conference was held in the University Club at the University of Western Australia:


UWA is in western Perth, close to the estuary of the aptly named Swan River:

Swan River

The conference overall was a fun one, with particularly interesting presentations by Oxford’s own John Pouncett and by his boyhood mentor, Dominic Powlesland.  I presented a paper in John and Gary Lock’s session on spatial scale, about how different scales inter-operate in the context of Englaid data.  I will summarise it on here at some point in the future, once we’ve thought through our ideas a bit more.

After the conference, I explored some distinctly non-English landscapes:

Pinnacles Desert

Moving on from my holiday snaps, I have been thinking a little more about temporal fuzziness with regards to PAS data (see previous post).  This time, I built in the data contained in the early medieval coin corpus at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge (EMC), to provide extra detail for the post-Roman period.

Using the “standard” time brackets discussed in the previous post, I then divided the data up according to (some of) our broad object type categories.  These are what we call “soft” categories, so that certain types of object can appear in more than one category (e.g. axes are categorised as both weapons and tools).  We can then produce graphs of the summed probabilities for each type, showing change in their deposition over time (x-axis is time, y-axis is summed probability):

PAS & EMC summed probability
Summed probability curves for combined PAS and EMC data, divided by broad type

Obvious things to note are the peaks in coinage deposition in the late Iron Age and the 4th century and the peaks in personal decorative items in the early Roman and during the earliest early medieval.  However, because of the vastly different amounts of objects found in each category and in each time period bracket, it is hard to pick out subtler patterning.  To do so, we can calculate the mean value and standard deviation for each category and then express the values in variation from the mean (in standard deviations) for each category (x-axis is again time, y-axis is summed probability in plus or minus standard deviations [0 is the mean, +1 is +1 st. dev., -1 is -1 st. dev., etc.]):

PAS & EMC summed probability, stdev
Summed probability curves for combined PAS and EMC data, divided by broad type, plotted by standard deviations from mean value

This graph then shows the same patterns we could draw out from the previous graph, but brings out various other details.  Most obvious is the huge peak in weapons and tools in the Bronze Age (especially later), but other patterns also come out (relatively high amount of tools during the Roman period; relatively high amount of weapons [i.e. average] in the earliest early medieval; etc.).

Similar graphs could be produced for regions of the country, rather than types, or for types within a region of the country.  These ideas still need further exploration, but I think they begin to show the power of using a fuzzy probability approach to the analysis of the temporality of our data.

Chris Green