Wednesday, 30 March 2016

Out on the tiles...

Whilst we wait impatiently to be able to get out into the field again, the Discovering Dorchester team hasn't been idle. Work has been continuing apace on our post-excavation jobs, with Sheila Raven and her volunteers putting our material archive in order, and Dr Wendy Morrison working on our digital records and mapping. (More on these in blog posts to come.)

Meanwhile I have been continuing my research into the building material from the site. This is a material category that often gets somewhat overlooked in Roman excavations: shapeless lumps of stone or tile seem nowhere near as exciting as shiny bits of Samian ware or copper alloy brooches.

However, there is still a lot we can learn from this material, and it is worth looking at in more detail. When we consider the past activities that building material represents, we are looking at some of the largest scale economic activities going on in the Roman world. Construction involves the purchase, movement, and use of really large quantities of stuff... just the roof for a small building, if the patron decided to opt for a smart new Roman-style tiled roof, would need many tonnes of tile.

In the modern world, with mechanical cranes, lorries, and a well-made and well-maintained road network, such a requirement is fairly easily met; in the Roman world, using ox or mule carts, human labour, and having to deal with far more unpredictable road conditions, getting several tonnes of tile to your building site would have been a significant undertaking.

Imagine trying to drag a reluctant mule, pulling a 1 tonne cart, along there!

And so when analysing the building material from Dorchester it was really interesting to see that both tiles and building stone were being brought in from considerable distances away: up to 50 km in some cases, even when locally made material was available.

We have to ask, why?!

One of my theories rests on the fact that construction represents one of the most obvious possible displays of wealth. You would only know if your neighbour in Dorchester had bought a nice shiny new set of Samian ware dishes if you were invited around for dinner... but you'd definitely notice if they put up a brand spanking new tile roof! As such this was an excellent medium through which individuals living in Roman Dorchester could express their identity and show off their wealth, If they used different coloured tiles perhaps, or a stone type very different to the normal local material, it would surely be the talk of the town.

So next time you're working on a Roman site, and find an ugly lump of tile that you don't fancy putting in your finds tray, for fear of breaking all that lovely pottery, please don't just chuck it on the spoil heap! What you're holding in your hand probably represented a highly significant, meaningful choice by a Roman-Briton, spending vast sums of money to import and build their fancy new Mediterranean-style roof!