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Extracting the social relevance of artefact distribution in Roman military forts

Penelope M. Allison, Andrew S. Fairbairn, Steven J.R. Ellis and Christopher W. Blackall

Section 1: Project Summary

reconstructed entrance of the Roman fort at Saalburg
Figure 1: Reconstructed entrance of the Roman fort at Saalburg (photo P. M. Allison)

The objectives of the research project, 'Engendering Roman Spaces', are to contribute to a gendered history of the Roman world through the analysis of its material-cultural remains. This means using archaeological approaches to Roman material culture for a more holistic understanding of the nature and functioning of Roman society in its relationship to space. It also means a closer engagement for studies of Roman space with feminist scholarship, and more critical analyses of the use of ancient written sources to provide frameworks for contextualising gender roles within space. The particular areas with which the project is primarily concerned are domestic space and military space. This article presents a sample of the analyses being carried out for the latter.

The mapping of artefacts and artefact assemblages can facilitate analyses of the distribution of activities at Roman military sites and lead to greater insights into the range of activities which took place there, as well as into the range of people who inhabited these sites. The data from a number of Roman military forts and fortresses are being used to assess the similarities and differences in material-cultural patterning among the various architectural spaces of a site and between sites. That is, comparisons are being made between fort designs and their range of material culture (e.g. cooking pots and personal apparatus). Also, drawing on previous artefact analyses and relevant textual and iconographic material, gender and status markings of these activities are being assessed. Here, this project is taking a critical approach to relationships between artefacts and their contexts and the range of social activities and social actors with which they may have been associated. For example, an important issue is the relationship between the material-cultural patterning and the changing laws which allowed legal marriages for ordinary soldiers at the end of the 2nd century CE (see Section 2.2.1b The marriage of ordinary soldiers).

This article, therefore, discusses approaches used in the 'Engendering Roman Spaces' project to identify artefact distribution and to analyse social behaviour within military fortifications of the 1st and 2nd centuries CE. It introduces processes for digitising previously published plans and catalogues of artefacts from Roman military sites and for then plotting and analysing the spatial distributions of artefact types according to personnel and function-related categories (e.g. male/female, toilet activities, combat equipment, horse equipment). It leads the reader through the processes involved in the digitisation of a published excavation report, the formation of relational databases from its artefact catalogues, and the importation of these data and of site plans into a GIS programme.

Figure 2: Map of Rhine and Danube regions showing location of Vetera I (drawing P. A. Faulkner)

To demonstrate the process, the Lower Rhine double legionary fortress of Vetera I has been used (Figure 2) (see Section 4). The fortress was excavated in the early 20th century but a catalogue of the excavated artefacts was not published until 1995 (Hanel 1995). A number of interactive examples from this site, in the form of graphically enhanced GIS maps and associated databases, are used to demonstrate the process and the types of analyses. The examples chosen for the purposes of this article focus on categories such as toilet activities, dress, cloth-production, gaming, writing, and gender (see Section 8). The activities discussed are not strictly of military concern but potentially highlight the presence and roles of women and children in the fortress and non-combatant activities of military personnel.

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Last updated: Mon Apr 4 2005