The Economic History of Roman Britain: the Olive Oil Contribution to the Debate
Archaeology provides the most important source for interpreting the ancient past and it is considerably richer than the limited and finite written sources. A traditional approach has been to use historical texts simply to “confirm” archaeology and vice versa. In the last decades there has been a growing awareness that epistemological developments in the study of material culture is now crucial for a more critical approach to the ancient world.
The unspoken assumption of the primacy of the ancient sources over the material evidence has been widely criticised. One of the advantages that classical archaeology has over other branches of archaeology is precisely the abundance of written documents that can be used to substantiate, or challenge, deductions drawn form the comprehensive study of material culture. Fewer scholars than before espouse an uncritical acceptance of the writings of classical authors and the resulting inclination to interpret the archaeological record in traditional historical terms, in line with the ancient authors. Several archaeologists, however, consider that archaeology continues to play a dependent role, as material evidence has been used solely to illuminate and elucidate the textual record, proposing instead that the archaeological record can achieve independent status and can even be used to challenge standard interpretations of the textual record.
A variety of approaches towards the combined analysis of written and material evidence is advocated by different scholars. There are those who use the two sources of evidence to complement one another, others look for contradictions between material and written evidence, whilst in other cases the documentary evidence is used to construct sets of expectations in relation to the material record. In this context, the first aim of this paper is to show how the archaeological evidence can be used for a better understanding of the role of the army in the Roman frontier, by means of an analysis of the consumption of olive oil in Britain.
A second goal is to argue that a contextual archaeological approach can prove useful in considering the organisation and characteristics of the Roman supply network. The image of the Roman army was shaped in modern times by the contemporary experience of imperialism, as a kind of model to be duplicated. This was particularly true in the British context in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. British imperial administrators, politicians, and intellectuals drew a particular parallel between the imperial experiences of Britain and Rome. The Roman army and administration served as much as a model as an ideal to be adapted to the modern, industrial times. In a way, modern scholarship used modern concepts to understand ancient realities, an inescapable but possibly misleading analytic procedure.
Roman Britain is particularly suited for a study of the role of the army in the consumption of olive oil, this important species annonaria. Britain was a frontier province with a strong military presence; olive oil was not produced in the British mainland and was never used by native Britons. Furthermore, Britain produced in the last twenty years or so important archaeological evidence, namely amphora remains, as well as stamps and painted inscriptions.
Interdisciplinary Journal ‘História e Economia’, Vol.1 (2005)