4. Environmental Analysis

4.1 Introduction

Section 4 comprises the environmental reports for the Elms Farm excavations. In total 1173 soil samples were taken for a range of environmental studies; of these 665 were processed by wet-sieving to recover charred plant remains and small bones. Appropriate samples were assessed by specialists, then samples with potential to produce information about the site selected for further analysis. The assessment reports are held in archive and the following reports present the individual specialist analyses for the human bone, animal bone, fish remains, charred plant remains, marine mollusc shell, insects, waterlogged plant macrofossils, pollen and soil micromorphology. It must be emphasised that most of these specialist reports were produced by the year 2000 and their contents have not been updated in the light of more recent discoveries or developments in our understanding of the site. Only the results for the Roman to Early Saxon periods are presented in the environmental reports, the prehistoric periods have been covered elsewhere (Atkinson and Preston 2001). The discussion on the environment and landscape of Elms Farm is presented in Volume 1, particularly Chapter 8 (Atkinson and Preston 2015). The analysis also provided evidence about food and farming, some introduced plants and evidence of trade. All the evidence was examined in order to characterise the status and economy of the settlement.

Landscape and farming

The settlement lay on the flood plain of the Chelmer and Blackwater rivers, with salt-marsh and the Blackwater estuary to the east and higher ground to the south and north. It was largely a grassland landscape, with pasture and hay meadows along the valley of the River Chelmer, together with areas of arable agriculture, waste ground and some woodland and wetland. The main crop cultivated in the fields was spelt, with hulled barley as a second cereal. Charred arable weed seeds found with the cereal remains suggest the extensive cultivation of fields to produce the crops for the settlement (van der Veen 1992). The corn dryers found in Phase 4, peripheral to the site, indicate improved agricultural technology, while the presence of the arable weed, stinking mayweed, is associated with more efficient ploughing in later times, which is possible here in the Roman period. Other crops possibly grown on smaller plots included peas and flax, while fruit trees may have been grown near the settlement; grapevines may also have been cultivated. The animal bone was primarily derived from the processing and consumption of food animals, with cattle bones predominating. The meadows would no doubt have been used as seasonal pasturage and there would have been extensive grazing (also seasonal) on the salt-marsh, while the cropmark and excavation evidence from the gravel terraces to the north and west show a largely agricultural landscape of fields (both arable and for stock) linked by tracks and droveways and with numerous farmsteads. The animal bone also had a secondary function as a manufacturing raw material, as well as forming one element of structured deposits. The fish bone evidence was dominated by estuarine species (reflecting the location) and there was no evidence that the inhabitants ventured further out into the North Sea for deep-sea fishing. The Blackwater estuary is still noted for the quality of its oysters and they were consumed at Elms Farm in Roman times; there was, however, no evidence for deliberate farming of this resource. Indeed, the Heybridge oysters were of a type fished from natural beds, either by hand collection in the intertidal zone or by dredging inshore shallow waters. Hence the plant and animal remains recovered show the mixed farming economy of the settlement that exploited both land and estuarine resources for food supply and possibly trade, discussed in the following reports.

The evidence for the local environment is largely derived from the waterlogged deposits including plant macrofossils, pollen and insect remains from the wells and deepest pits. The plant macrofossils and pollen show the vegetation of the locality, which included hay meadows and weedy vegetation between the buildings, while the pollen also includes that from the surrounding open environment with few trees or bushes except elder. The insect remains are mostly derived from nearby and also show an open environment with a background of pasture from the presence of dung beetles. Some insects associated with buildings and human occupation were present, but not the developed urban fauna as found in major towns such as York. The remains in the wells were thought to be accumulated or backfilled in disuse and reflect the refuse of occupation near the features at the time; parasite eggs suggest some may have been used as cesspits or for disposal of latrine waste. Weeds of the settlement are also represented in the charred plant remains, some of which are suggested as being similar to those of a traditional farmyard - an environment recognised in parts of many Roman towns (Hall 1988). The soil micromorphology demonstrated that the soils on the site contained high levels of organic waste, probably derived in the large part from dung, and fodder further emphasising the rural or market town character of the Elms Farm settlement. Findings from the less intensive study of later Roman-Early Saxon soils, infer that the rural character of the settlement persisted.

Foods available

The waterlogged remains also include evidence of the food plants cultivated and consumed on the site. These include fruits and herbs from the evidence of fruit stones and seeds, and pollen of grapevine and peas, which suggest nearby cultivation. Honey bee was found among the insects, suggesting the use of honey, while evidence for stored grain was found from beetles typical of a granary. Other food remains included the evidence from charred cereals, hazel nutshell, hedgerow fruits, some possibly cultivated fruits; some edible plants indicated by the presence of seeds may have been utilised. These foods are tabulated, together with other food evidence from bones, shell and fish remains, to show the food available to the people over the phases of the site. Other food ingredients may have included imported wine, olive oil, fish sauce and fruit in the identified amphoras but vary by phase (see Roman pottery report).

The charred plant macrofossil assemblage was dominated by cereal remains, which show the crops cultivated by the settlement and processed for food. Spelt is the main crop with a trace of emmer, and a few bread wheat type grains probably as contaminants of the crop. Barley is also present throughout, perhaps more common in the Late Roman-Saxon period. Processing of spelt was seen in Periods 3 to 5 from remains of abundant chaff cleaned from the crop during dehusking, while charred malted spelt was found in Periods 3 and 4, the latter in a dump of refuse in a palaeochannel, possibly derived from nearby corn dryers which could also have been used for roasting or parching the malted grain. Malt is prepared by first seeping the grain in water, draining the water away and then piling the grain on a floor to allow the grain to germinate. This is best done within a building to provide steady conditions for germination during which the starch in the grain is converted to sugars. The grain is then lightly roasted or parched to halt the growth of the cereal and the malt can then be ground for brewing. Although features associated with malting were not identified, water was available and the corn dryers of Period 4 may have been used to roast the malt. Any cereal can be used but the evidence suggests that spelt was often used for malt in Roman Britain (van der Veen 1992). Brewing of beer may have been carried out on the site. The basic process of brewing is the same now as in the past and can be carried out in a domestic situation (Vilsteren 1994), so would leave little evidence. Brewing involves the extraction of the sugars from the malted grain in warm water, then the liquid is poured into a container, cooled, and fermented with yeast and the beer or ale decanted and settled for consumption. Larger scale brewing requires hearths, larger vessels and wooden troughs and barrels, none of which may survive, and prepared malt can be traded elsewhere, but it is likely that the settlement produced and consumed beer in Roman times.

Fish remains as bones and scales were widely distributed in the wet-sieved samples from the settlement although only a small assemblage was identifiable as most were fragmentary. Fish were recovered from Period 2 onwards and were from inshore or estuarine waters. Eel and herring were common, together with flatfish, plaice and flounder. Larger sea fish were not found because deep sea fishing only developed later in the medieval period. Some fresh water fish were also consumed from local rivers. Roman influence is suggested by the presence of mackerel and red mullet, although evidence of high status was thought to be lacking. However, it may be significant that fish remains together with fruit are generally only found from urban and high-status sites; little of either of these is found in the Iron Age or small rural sites, so may suggest Romanisation of the diet.

Shell fish were dominated by oysters, which were very abundant on the site, emphasised by the fact that deposits were only sampled and still almost 7000 shells were recorded. Even so the shell could be under-represented because shell can be used for many purposes, including as a soil conditioner, or exported with the oysters if traded elsewhere. Very few shells were recovered from the earlier phase, Period 2, and it was noted that nationally very few Iron Age sites have oyster shell present. Here there is a massive increase in the occurrence of shell through the Roman periods of occupation, with most from Period 3. The oyster shells were measured and compared statistically by size, shape and infestations with those from other sites and it was concluded that they were all of local Essex type but distinct from North Shoebury and Colchester. Shells in Leicester had been found to be of North Shoebury type (Monckton and Winder 1992) but different from Heybridge oysters. Early Roman shells from Heybridge were found to be similar (of no significant difference) to shells from 2nd-century deposits at Pudding Lane, London. Live oysters can survive for about ten days if packed close together in sacks or baskets and kept cool and moist, so it is likely that Heybridge oysters were transported by boat to London. This report discussed oyster culture and transport and compares shell from a large number of sites, it provides a resource of data to compare with future finds of oysters at sites inland (Winder 1984, 1985a). Other shell fish included mussels and whelks less numerous but found throughout the Roman periods of occupation.

The animal bones were very numerous from the site, with cattle most numerous through the Roman phases followed by sheep and pig. Cattle had mostly been used as draught animals in the earlier phases and were mature at slaughter; sheep were also older animals used first for wool then as meat, as is common in the Roman period. Pigs were probably kept as back-yard animals near the houses and fed on food waste to provide meat. Goats were present throughout the Roman periods, probably kept to produce milk. The age and stature of domestic animals was recorded and is discussed; some improvement in size of cattle by better husbandry practices was noted during the Roman period. Other meat was from hunted red and roe deer; a wild hare may also have been hunted for food. Domestic fowl, chickens, were also probably introduced after the conquest. Other fowl exploited include ducks and geese, some wild, probably from the riverside, as well as woodcock, small waders, plover and curlew. A swan was also found from Period 3 used as meat. Comparison of the animal bone assemblage showed differences from the major towns of Colchester and Chelmsford, but similarities with the Roman small town of Braintree.

The foods available are summarised in Table 206 and show the range of foods available to some of the inhabitants throughout the phases of the site. The presence of fruit and fish is thought to be typical of a Roman town (Score et al. 2010), together with oysters showing the Roman influence on the diet. There are some imported or introduced plants such as grape, cherry, small plums, walnut, coriander, dill and opium poppy characteristic of Roman times (van der Veen et al. 2008); these are also known to be used in Roman recipes. Hedgerow fruits and probably some wild herbs were also used. Abundant domestic animals used as meat were found and include cattle bones of 'soup-kitchen type' deposits, which are also typically Roman. Pottery thought to be used for cheese production suggests that milk from cows, sheep or goats could have been made into cheese. Quite a range of meat, game, fowl, and wild birds were exploited; chickens were probably also kept for eggs. Drinks included wine, imported at times from the evidence of amphoras, but grapes may have been cultivated from the evidence of pollen; pottery wine or ale strainers also suggest the drinks consumed. There is also evidence of larger scale cereal processing, including dehusking of spelt to supply the people with cleaned grain, together with malting of spelt, probably to make beer, found in Period 3 and Period 4. Spelt was the usual grain for beer making in Roman Britain. These remains all suggest a diet similar to that of inhabitants of Roman urban settlement for at least some of the people.

Ritual and burials

Although cattle formed approximately 90% of the total bone assemblage, the bones deposited within the intercutting pit group associated with the temple, which had the appearance of domestic rubbish assemblages, solely comprised the remains of mature sheep, perhaps the result of ritual slaughter, consumption and disposal during the course of feasting rituals. The occurrence of structurally deposited animal bone groups was also low, but they do occur; these include the skeletons of four dogs, a cow, a pig and a young piglet in the later Roman backfills of well 14984 (Group 710) and, perhaps most spectacularly, in latest Roman pit 6641 (Group 579) there was not only a group of pewter vessels but also a headless horse. The bones of seven chickens were also recovered from the temple area.

Other than in funerary features, the incidence of human bone was low across the settlement area with only eight examples being identified. The majority comprise the remains of neonates and infants and tend to occur within, or in association with, structural features interpreted as building foundations.


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