Consumption, deposition and social practice: a ceramic approach to intra-site analysis in late Iron Age to Roman Britain

Martin Pitts

Extended Summary

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. However, the scope for further research in this area is constrained at present by the inconsistent recording of archaeological data in traditional excavation reports.

2. Intra-site analysis at Elms Farm

The site of Elms Farm, Heybridge, Essex, offers a virtually unique opportunity for intra-site analysis of patterns of pottery consumption and deposition, as a non-urban site with multiple excavated areas and a particularly high resolution of ceramic phasing (seven phases in the period c. 50 BC - AD 210). The aims of analysis were two-fold. The first was to provide a basic account of changes in pottery assemblage composition at Elms Farm over time, which could be compared with changing patterns of pottery consumption at comparative sites in the region and period. Second, and more critical in understanding the articulation of social practice, was to investigate changing patterns of ceramic consumption and deposition, with particular emphasis on patterning within and between deposits, in terms of the contextual linkages both between different pot types and the deposit 'types' themselves.

3. Results

The results of analysis of seven phases of pottery deposition are discussed, including the spectacular level of imports and possible feasting events coinciding with a period of Augustan settlement reorganisation (c. 15 BC - AD 20), the deposition of broken fine ware dining sets around the time of the Claudian conquest, the apparent decline in drinking practice from the late first century AD, and the later proliferation of dining vessels and mortaria in the later second century AD.

4. Discussion: pottery consumption and cultural change

The main chronological trend in ceramic consumption at Elms Farm was the transition in the use of pottery from an emphasis on drinking vessels in the late Iron Age to the greater use of dining vessels associated with Romano-British urban-style consumption in the second century AD. However, whilst changes in consumption seemed to mirror the changing political situation, regional forms of depositional practice and identity remained largely constant and continued to assert themselves throughout the period of interest. This patterning suggests that instead of representing a wholesale 'Romanisation' of consumption practice, the Britons merely adapted their everyday habits to suit the overarching changes to ceramic production and supply. Comparison with material from elsewhere in the region and beyond suggests that proximity to the urban system and road network, rather than any conscious involvement in Roman culture, is the best explanation of such assemblage changes.

5. Concluding remarks: correspondence analysis and digital data

This study highlighted both the potential and pitfalls of using correspondence analysis to conduct intra-site analysis of pottery consumption at archaeological sites. Whereas correspondence analysis was able to highlight previously unseen patterns of ceramic deposition relating to the likely social use of the pottery, the significance of such patterning often required verification with the raw data. However, the facility to manipulate, re-describe and filter digital data according to the specific research interests of the author was of great assistance in the construction of a site narrative based on the consumption and deposition of pottery.


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Last updated: Tue May 08 2007