1. Artefact assemblages in Roman Britain: trends and problems

The study of Roman artefactual assemblages, particularly in Britain, has undergone something of a quiet revolution in recent years. Despite Romano-British sites having always produced large quantities of material remains, attention has traditionally focused on buildings, architecture and settlements, with smaller artefacts being condemned to the important but lacklustre role of establishing typologies and relative chronologies. In the 1970s and 80s this picture began to change, with the consideration of pottery and animal bone assemblages as a resource for understanding trade and economic patterning. However, in recent years, a growing number of studies of artefactual assemblages based on existing catalogues of data have demonstrated the existence of massive variability in the culture of Roman Britain that has been hitherto missed and unreported. Notable examples include Cool and Baxter's (1999) analysis of glass vessel assemblages, Evans' (2001; 2005) use of pottery assemblages to distinguish different site-types, Willis' (1996) analysis of cultural change in eastern Britain through changes in pottery supply and consumption, Eckardt's (2002) monograph on the social use of lighting equipment, and Creighton's (2000) innovative study of coinage that has facilitated the production of a completely new perspective on the Iron Age to Roman transition in south-east Britain.

Despite the importance of such new artefactual studies, a limiting factor of many of these approaches is the frustrating variability in the level of recording and quantification in archaeological excavation reports. For example, anyone wishing to produce a synthesis of pottery use for any given region in Roman Britain will probably find significant problems comparing excavation reports published in the last 20 years, and this problem becomes even worse when looking at results from earlier excavations. Furthermore, in many excavation reports, the pressure to save space has led to a situation in which artefacts are only reported in composite tables by period, rendering the reconstruction of complete individual assemblage contents virtually impossible, unless the excavator has left behind a particularly well-ordered and comprehensible archive.

In the long term, the best way of improving the quality of material culture archives is the implementation of digital data storage and publication on the Internet. A full and accessible web-based excavation archive would allow researchers to access and download relevant chunks of information without burdening the publishers of the hard-copy excavation report with endless tables of specialist data. Therefore, in the rest of this article, the potential of such an archive is explored, using the example of a large digital dataset of pottery assemblages from the late Iron Age to Roman site of Elms Farm, Heybridge, Essex.


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Last updated: Tue May 08 2007