Institute of Archaeology


RAC/TRAC Session 20: Invasive Species

Details of the RAC/TRAC Conference session 'Invasive Species – the impact of the Roman military on local agricultural and ecological systems.'

Conference Sessions and Abstracts - Thursday 11 April 2024

20. Invasive Species – the impact of the Roman military on local agricultural and ecological systems

Tanja Romankiewicz – The University of Edinburgh 
Gillian Taylor – Teesside University
Richard Madgwick – Cardiff University

The impact of the advancing Roman army on local systems remains a hotly debated topic. Social and political impacts have been traced through changes in settlement patterns or by investigating strategies of control over conquered communities. Studies on production, consumption and exchange consider Rome’s economic impact, including goods but also agricultural resources. All this leaves not only an imprint on the conquered people, but also the conquered environment.

This session would like to hear of new research analysing this impact on local agricultural and ecological systems. We particularly welcome presentations on new scientific methods to answer how, for example, the need of feeding a field army and stationed garrisons with grain, meat and dairy changed local agricultural practices and ultimately landscape use and exploitation? How have the building projects using stone, timber and turf to create the military infrastructure affected woodland cover, pastures and quarry sites? Has increased metalworking and other industries not only consumed raw materials but also polluted local environments, including soils and watercourses? Was this impact simply exploitative or actively managed, and by whom? To what extent did local agency come to play in this? And can we see changes in Rome’s invasive impact over time?

Session schedule 

Thursday 11 April (PM)                                                         Room 5 - C3.09 (Level 3)
13:40Landscapes Beyond Walls: Exploring societies on the Roman Empire’s northern frontier through palaeoenvironmental reconstruction (Sophie McDonald, Derek Hamilton, Ian Hardwick, Dave Cowley & Manuel Fernández-Götz) 
14:00Reconstructing Microbial Communities Within Roman Turf Ramparts (Caroline H. Orr, Gillian Taylor, Ben Russell, Tom Gardner, Andrew Birley & Tanja Romankiewicz)
14:20Conquering the Fields of Yorkshire: Crops, Weeds, and Romans (Neal Payne)
14:40Exploring consumption patterns during the Roman period in Harelbeke, Belgium via sedaDNA analysis (Kadir Toykan Özdoğan, Kevin Nota, Roy van Mousch, Arjen de Groot & Gertjan Plets)
15:00                                               BREAK
15:30The subsistence perspectives on Roman military presence at the barbarian territories of the Middle Danube during the Marcomannic wars (Balázs Komoróczy & Marek Vlach)
15:50Feeding the Roman Army in Britain: A Multi-Proxy Investigation into Animal Management, Supply Networks and the Impact on Local Agricultural Systems (Richard Madgwick, Leia Mion, Hongjiao Ma, Angela Lamb & Peter Guest)
16:10The Camp at Pooh Corner. Or, Ancient Environmental Warfare (Mike Dobson)


Landscapes Beyond Walls: Exploring societies on the Roman Empire’s northern frontier through palaeoenvironmental reconstruction
Sophie McDonald – University of Glasgow        Derek Hamilton – University of Glasgow
Ian Hardwick – The University of Edinburgh        Dave Cowley – Historic Environment Scotland
Manuel Fernández-Götz – The University of Edinburgh

The Beyond Walls project aims to explore the impact of Roman occupation in Northern Britain, analysing settlement and land use in the area between and around Hadrian’s Wall and the Antonine Wall. The project is looking at trends and changes over the long-term – c.500 BC-AD 500 – in a study area extending from northern England to the southernmost part of the Scottish Highlands, adopting a multi-scalar, interdisciplinary approach. This includes reviewing published survey and excavation data and grey literature; incorporating remote-sensing data; producing new radiocarbon dates from excavated sites; and collating and producing palaeoenvironmental datasets. This paper will focus on the project’s palaeoenvironmental strand, looking at spatial and temporal variation in any impacts of the Roman presence on vegetation in our study area, and linking this to economic and social factors. Although the region is well-served in terms of legacy palaeoenvironmental records, for many of these datasets there are relatively few scientific dates, limiting their interpretation. This paper will outline the methodology of the palaeoenvironmental strand of the project, which, alongside creating new datasets from previously unstudied sites, involves revisiting sites with published palynological records where improved chronological resolution could refine existing narratives.

 Reconstructing Microbial Communities Within Roman Turf Ramparts 
Caroline H. Orr – Teeside University            Gillian Taylor – Teesside University    
Ben Russell – The University of Edinburgh        Tom Gardner – Historic Environment Scotland
Andrew Birley – Vindolanda Trust            Tanja Romankiewicz – The University of Edinburgh 

The Grassroots project used microbial and geochemical methods to study turf blocks taken from preserved turf ramparts at the Roman fort of Vindolanda, UK. The turf blocks used to build these ramparts presented visually intact sequences of prehistoric and Roman vegetation covers as well as topsoil and subsoil layers. Our aim was to develop a proof-of-concept methodology for reconstructing ancient environmental conditions and studying land use. For this study a range of samples were taken: 

  1. Bulk grab samples across two vertical profiles taken at systematic intervals in the field, 
  2. Boxed field samples, sub-sampled in the lab targeting different soil horizons and layers characterised by micromorphology,
  3. Samples from resinated box samples from which thin section slides had been prepared already. 

This presentation presents results of the bacterial and fungal communities identified within the samples specifically focusing on linking the microbial communities to the identified soil horizons within the turf. It is thought that preservation of the environmental conditions within turf at Vindolanda stabilises the microbial community and is indicative of soil conditions at the time. It is hoped that studying these communities further allows a more detailed understanding of microbially mediated processes such as nutrient cycling at the time and provide an insight into agricultural practices for the production of turf.

 Conquering the Fields of Yorkshire: Crops, Weeds, and Romans
Neal Payne – University of Cambridge

My presentation explores the extent to which Roman annexation stimulated change in the crops and weeds of Yorkshire’s arable fields. I take a vertical perspective, contextualizing these Roman period changes through the incorporation of data from the Iron Age to differentiate Roman plant introductions and the proliferation of pre-existing introductions. My research synthesizes both published and unpublished archaeobotanical reports, collating and standardizing data from 6500 contexts originating from 550 archaeological sites throughout Yorkshire to situate Roman period changes within their broader chronological context. I will discuss the macrobotanical and palynological evidence for new cereal crops and weed species introduced across the Pre-Roman Iron Age and the Roman period, and the role of conquest in their wider proliferation. Additionally, the incorporation of weed ecology modelling allows contextualization of the composition of agriculture fields and their temporal evolution. Together, this approach explores the trajectories of cereal cultivation prior to the Roman annexation, the influence of Roman rule, and the impact of the decline of Roman centralized institutions on these arable practices.

 Exploring consumption patterns during the Roman period in Harelbeke, Belgium via sedaDNA analysis 
Kadir Toykan Özdoğan – Universiteit Utrecht            Kevin Nota – Max-Planck-Institut für evolutionäre Anthropologie
Roy van Mousch – BAAC: Archeologie Bouwhistorie        Arjen de Groot – Wagenigen Environmental Research
Gertjan Plets – Universiteit Utrecht

Recent studies show that sedaDNA methods could provide information about the biodiversity of past environments. This study explores the use of sedaDNA methods to investigate past consumption habits and their implications on the northwestern border zones of the Roman Empire (The Lower Germanic Limes). We were able to obtain ancient DNA from latrine contents that gave an insight into the biodiversity of the past environment of the region and consumption patterns, with a focus on domestic animal and plant taxa. While our findings were mostly supported by previous archaeozoological and archaeobotanical research they also demonstrated the complementary nature of sedaDNA studies with other archaeological methods for investigating historical periods. Therefore, this study highlights the potential of sedaDNA methods for improving our knowledge of the past and contributes to our understanding of ancient societies and their interactions with the environment. Furthermore, the future sedaDNA research in the Limes area has the potential to provide a more comprehensive understanding of consumption habits and trade routes in the borderlands of the Roman Empire.

The subsistence perspectives on Roman military presence at the barbarian territories of the Middle Danube during the Marcomannic wars
Balázs Komoróczy – Akademie věd České republiky        
Marek Vlach – Akademie věd České republiky

The Middle Danube region during the Roman Period has become a specific scene of multifaceted Roman-Germanic interactions. The periods of economic and diplomatic activities were occasionally interrupted by military confrontations. The large-scale military conflict of the Marcomannic wars impacted significantly not only the Middle Danube region's borderland but also deep into the Germanic and Roman worlds. The number of direct and indirect evidence of the Roman military operations and their spatial distribution throughout the Germanic territories allows for assumptions about strategic and tactical concepts of the Roman military leadership. The questions about the Roman army's subsistence and logistics are firmly embedded within the topic. The size of the military operation region of the Marcomannic settlement zone testifies to considerable provisioning requirements. The evidence for reconstruction and understanding of its various aspects through the archaeobotanical record originates in the Roman military installations or the local Germanic context. Apart from qualitative aspects, various quantitative ones are explored through digital modelling and simulation (agent-based modelling) as a complementary part of the research. Based on the existing data, various estimates and proxies (archaeology, Roman historiography, geomorphology, etc.), the model is aimed to test assumptions about the Roman army's logistic requirements of the presence in the enemy territory and use the featuring transportation means.

 Feeding the Roman Army in Britain: A Multi-Proxy Investigation into Animal Management, Supply Networks and the Impact on Local Agricultural Systems
Richard Madgwick – Cardiff University            Leia Mion – Cardiff University 
Hongjiao Ma – Cardiff University             Angela Lamb – British Geological Survey
Peter Guest – Vianova Archaeology and Heritage Services

The effective supply of the army on the frontiers was key to the success of Roman imperialism, yet we know very little of the strategies employed on Britannia’s frontiers. The impact of garrisons on the surrounding landscapes and their populations is also very poorly understood. It is possible that long distance networks of supply meant that the impact on surrounding landscapes and the local agricultural economy was limited. However, it may be that the presence of the legions and auxiliary units necessitated major reorganisation of the agricultural economy with new approaches to animal and landscape management to enhance productivity and meet the army’s needs. Feeding the Roman Army in Britain (FRAB) is a Leverhulme Trust-funded project that is exploring these longstanding issues. The project involves a programme of multi-isotope analysis, combining strontium, carbon, nitrogen and sulphur isotopes, integrated with historical, archaeological and zooarchaeological evidence in three frontier zones - Hadrian’s Wall, the Antonine Wall, and south Wales. The research is providing, for the first time, a sophisticated understanding of how Roman soldiers were provisioned, and what impact this had on local landscapes, the populace and the agricultural economy.

 The Camp at Pooh Corner. Or, Ancient Environmental Warfare
Mike Dobson – University of Exeter

Environmental concerns are a recent matter, and especially for campaigning armies of the past, conserving the landscape can hardly have been a concern. Ancient armies were ‘eco-warriors’, but in the sense of against the ecosystem, not for it. An army’s success may result from marching on its stomach, but what came out of those could also conduct environmental warfare. However, little has been published about soldiers’ daily bodily waste – urine and faeces – or the environmental impact of where ancient campaign armies encamped.
An army encamping for any length of time would cause rapid local and increasingly extending environmental change and devastation. Like locusts, forestation would be steadily consumed, water security was a constant concern, and disease from pollution a threat. Food would be sucked into the camps from nearby and from increasingly further afield. As for the growing smell from the camp, the enemy’s noses would have been more than adequate to find the Romans. Using the example of Roman armies in the succession of camps related to the 2nd century BC campaigns against the Celtiberian city of Numantia, some eye-watering sewage statistics emerge for when an army encamped, and its general environmental impact.