OK. So People Rarely Ask What Have The Romans Ever Done For Gardeners. But Perhaps We Should. I Explain Why In This Post About Archaeobotany.
In Life if Brian, John Cleese raises a question to his band of fellow freedom fighters,
“What have the Romans ever done for us?”Monty Python / John Cleese
“What have the Romans ever done for us?” isnt actually a joke. It’s a very serious question.
Simple. Because Without The Romans Our Vegetable & Fruit Gardens Would Be Near Bare. Arguably we need to know the answer to What Have The Romans Ever Done For Gardeners?
You see the Romans brought many of today’s veg and fruit to the country and without them our plates would be empty. OK, not quite empty, but many of the things we consider as being British were actually brought her by the Romans.
And some of them actually adorn dishes such as Chicken Tandoori and other Asian dishes. Does this surprise you?
The History Of Vegetables, Fruit And Other Foods In Britain: An Answer to What Have The Romans Ever Done For Gardeners?
Before the Romans conquered Britain the British diet was quite restricted. The main reason being that during the Ice Age virtually all the plants were wiped out in all but the most southern parts of the country. But as people repopulated Britain, from the south or having travelled over the land bridge where the English Channel now separates us from Europe, they brought a few veg and fruit with them, but there were few plants we’d recognise as today’s garden staples.
The ice age lasted until around 11500 years ago. And if we zip forward to when the Romans came here in 43 AD, until the left in 410 AD they brought more and more Mediterranean and other global plants and animals. Of course a few plants got here before the Romans, with for example the Phoenicians, but they were few. Surprisingly though, wine and olive oil were traded in the Late Iron Age.
But while there is archaeobotanical evidence for several introduced Mediterranean fruits and herbs at selected Late Iron Age sites in Europe (e.g. Kreuz 2004), there is only one record of fig from the Late Iron Age port at Hengistbury Head (Cunliffe 2000, 191–92) and little else to date.
What Food Plants Did The Romans Bring to the UK?
According to researcher Marijke Van der Veen they Romans brought around 50 new species to Britain. Marijke Van der Veen is an archaeobotanist (there’s a video about archaeobotany later in this post) and with her colleagues, Alexandra Livarda and Alistair Hill, wrote a fascinating paper on the plants introduced by the Romans.
That paper is entitled “New Plant Foods in Roman Britain — Dispersal and Social Access” and it’s available via the link.
Van der Veen is Dutch and her interest with British archaeobotany is probably explained by the fact that she is Emeritus Professor of Archeology at the University of Leicester. Later I’ll explain how she discovered the information I’m about to present, but first let’s look at the list of plants she identified.
The following plant foods (mostly fruits, herbs and vegetables) were introduced during the Roman period.
Some existed in a wild form before, but weren’t farmed as they were inferior in various ways, e.g. size or flavour. Where wild forms of a taxon occur in Britain or where the introduced status is uncertain this is annotated as follows: (n) wild form is native in Britain; (?n) possibly native, (? intrd.) probably introduced (after Stace 1997). State refers to Clive Stace, the author of New Flora of the British Isles, the standard plant ID textbook.
Millet, Panicum miliaceum L.
Einkorn, Triticum monococcum L.
Lentil, Lens culinaris Medik.
Bitter vetch, Vicia ervilia (L.) Willd.
Fig, Ficus carica L.
Grape, Vitis vinifera L.
Mulberry, Morus nigra L.
Olive, Olea europea L.
Peach, Persica vulgaris Miller
Date, Phoenix dactylifera L.
Pomegranate, Punica granatum L.
Apple, Malus sp. (N) z (intrd.)
Pear, Pyrus sp.
Sweet cherry, Prunus avium L. (N)
Sour cherry, Prunus cerasus L.
Cherry plum, Prunus cerasifera Ehrh.
Plum, Prunus domestica L. Ssp.
Domestica damson, Prunus domestica L. Ssp. Insititia
Leaf beet, Beta vulgaris L. (N)
Rape, Brassica napus L.
Cabbage, Brassica oleracea L. (?N)
Turnip, Brassica rapa L. (? Intrd.) Leek, Allium porrum L.
Cucumber, Cucumis sativus L.
Carrot, Daucus carota L. (N)
Parsnip, Pastinaca sativa L. (N)
Lettuce, Lactuca sativa L.
Asparagus, Asparagus officinalis L. (N)
Brassica rapa have been kept separate in some analyses, but combined under ‘Brassicas’ in others, but it needs to be stressed here that the records of these foods are not complete. Their seeds are very difficult to identify to species level and often are allocated to genus level, Brassica spp. This last category was not recorded due to an oversight. Moreover, there are several foods for which we cannot distinguish between the wild and cultivated forms on the basis of seeds alone: black mustard, mint, carrot, leaf beet, parsnip and celery (for a discussion, see below).
Black pepper, Piper nigrum L.
Coriander, Coriandrum sativum L.
Dill, Anethum graveolens L.
Celery, Apium graveolens L. (N)
Fennel, Foeniculum vulgare Mill. (? Intrd.)
Parsley, Petroselinum crispum (Mill.) Nym.
Anise, Pimpinella anisum L.
Summer savory, Satureja hortensis L. Marjoram,
Origanum vulgare L. (N)
Mint, Mentha sp. (N)
Horehound, Marrubium vulgare L. (N)
Black cumin, Nigella sativa L.
Rue, Ruta graveolens L.
White mustard, Sinapis alba L.
Lovage, Levisticum officinale Koch
Sesame, Sesamum indicum L.
Gold of pleasure, Camelina sativa (l.) Crantz.
Hemp, Cannabis sativa L.
Poppy, Papaver somniferum L. (? Intrd.)
Black mustard, Brassica nigra (L.) Koch (?N)
Walnut, Juglans regia L.
Pine nut, Pinus pinea L.
Almond, Amygdalus communis L.
Chesnut, Castanea sativa L.
Hop, Humulus lupulus L. (N)Marijke Van der Veen in New Plant Foods in Roman Britain — Dispersal and Social Access
Some of these plants are now so tied up with our way of life they are often regarded as being British. For example, hops gave us beer, carrots are a British staple and where would be be without cabbage. Others, such as einkorn (an old type of wheat) maybe known by a few agrobotanists but few farmers recognise the name. Crops like lentils virtually disappeared from Britain for many centuries and are only just coming back into British farming.
Many people I speak to believe the Roman introduction of the Sweet Chestnut, Castanea sativa, was forefoot purposes. But others believe it was introduced for other purposes and only became important as a food plant in medieval times. An interesting read is The cultivation of Castanea sativa (Mill.) in Europe, by M. Conedera, P. Krebs, W. Tinner, M. Pradella & D. Torriani.
Why Did The Romans Introduce So Many Vegetables, Condiments and Fruit To Britain?
The simple answer is that is what conquering peoples do. They bring their culture, foods, laws, learning and customs with them.
But there are further reasons. The British food was simple and boring. Think what it must be like to have few veg or fruit to choose from and no refrigeration to help you store perishable foods. You’d welcome a bit of variety and some strong spices to help disguise off flavours! Especially in meat as it deteriorates!
There is another reason. Before the Romans came to Britain the indigenous people were largely farmers. They grew and ate local food and trade was relatively limited compared to that found in Roman society.
The Romans were different. They introduced new consumers that weren’t farming people.
They were the military and their followers. Most followers were craftspeople that supported the military. Some travelled the Roman world serving the Roman army wherever it went; they were well travelled. For every soldier there would have been as many was ten people that supplied and serviced each “ordinary” soldier. Mounted soldiers required even more support and numbers of supporters soared.
There was second development that drove change in diets. It was the fact these new plant species were made available. It was the first agricultural revolution after the introduction of wheat and barley in neolithic times. And Britain would never be the same again. Local people started to grow the new crops simply because they had a ready market in the consumer I mention above; the military and their followers.
Thirdly the new crops lead the way beyond agriculture to horticulture. No longer were crops grown on a field scale, vegetable crops could be grown in gardens and on small plots of land around people’s homes. Arguably gardening was “born” and the British have embraced gardening ever since.
What Is Archaeobotany?
Archaeobotany, aka Paleoethnobotany is a field of archeology where ancient plant remains and records are studied. Their analysis draws on other science fields such as chemistry and botany.
The following link provides a useful overview but in the next section I provide a much shorter and simpler explanation.
How Archaeobotanists Research Ancient Plants and Their Uses
Archaeobotanists use two methods to research plants.
The first is very simple. They look at old records, books and reports from the past. And if, say, a farm record from the distant past mentions growing a crop they regard it as a serious indication that this happened.
In the Iliad and Odyssey Homer mentions both olive trees and olive oil. That’s not surprising in Greece at that time, but confirms other sources. Though harder to find, archaeobotanists are adept at finding similar written records pertaining to Britain.
As well as these classical texts, they also use linguistic etymology and genetic analysis, but more of that another day. There are also, still in existence, farming manuals written in Roman times.
The second important avenue of research is physical evidence. We can still find remains of the actual plants themselves.
You’ve probably seen on TV how forensic teams can use pollen to confirm that someone has been at the crime scene, sometimes months or years after the visit. Now imagine if you could do that over centuries or even millennium. Well, archeobotanists can and often do. The science of investing samples invisible to the naked eye is called micro-archeobotany.
Pollen are extremely long lasting if the conditions suit. And traces of pollen can be found in soil sediments thousands of years after they were deposited. And by identifying the date at which pollen or soil sediments were laid down, something that can be done very accurately in many cases, its possible to identify when a pollen first appeared on the scene.
So if pollen is found at the site of, say, a Roman villa with a known date, but isn’t found at earlier sites anywhere in the country an inference can be made that the pollen and Romans are somehow linked. Repeat that over many sites and it is possible to zero in on the date a pollen first appeared, if not to the year at least to a few decades.
And it’s not just pollen. Seeds also persist. And most seeds are large enough to be visible to the naked eye. Their study is called macro-archaeobotany.
Sometimes seeds etc are found around kitchen areas, gardens, latrine deposits, middens etc. Debris such as walnut or hazel nut shells are easier to identify than pollen, simply because they are much bigger. And relevant chronological dates can be applied in similar ways to that described above.
Seeds such as cereals also persist in a recognisable form for long periods and can be identified. However brassica seeds all look very similar and recognising one from another visually is not possible. I can’t even do it with fresh seed! But genetic fingerprinting and analysis is improving at speed and is contributing a great deal of information.
Some plants exist as actual plant remains beyond pollen, shells and seeds. Grasses used in thatch or as bedding sometimes exist for millennia and can be identified. But softer material such as flowers rarely last long. So when a plant is not found it might be that we’ve yet to find a sample, not that it didn’t occur. Of course if like in Jurassic Park organic material is enveloped in resin it can last for what appears to be close to forever. We just have to find the resin sample!
Sometimes the imprint of a seed is found embedded in mud or wet clay before it was fired in the kiln. It doesn’t happen often, but isn’t unknown.
The Archeobotanical Computer Database records an array of archeobotanical plant records and was set up by Dr Philippa Tomlinson. It has yet to be published in print but is available to interested scholars.
Plants introduced in ancient times are called archaeophytes.
Archaeophytes are non-native (alien) taxa that were introduced by humans, either intentionally or unintentionally, and became naturalised in Britain and Ireland between the start of the Neolithic period and AD1500. Most were introduced by early farmers mainly in the Late Bronze Age, Iron Age, Roman or Medieval periods.Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland.
Academic & Other Archaeobotany References (Some Regarding What Have The Romans Ever Done For Gardeners?)
I strongly recommend the work of Lisa Lodwick, written when she was a post doctoral fellow at Oxford https://lisalodwick.com/
And her gardeners World contribution which is worth a listen. The link is below.
Preston, C., Pearman, D., & Hall, A. (2004). Archaeophytes in Britain. Botanical Journal of the Linnean Society, 145, 257–294.
Witcher, R. (2013). On Rome’s ecological contribution to British flora and fauna: landscape, legacy and identity. Landscape History, 34(2), 5–26.
Tomlinson, P., & Hall, A. R. (1996). Review of archaeological evidence for food plants from the British Isles (ABCD). Internet Archaeology, 1.
Van der Veen, M., Livarda, A., & Hill, A. (2008). New plant foods in Roman Britain — dispersal and social access. Environmental Archaeology, 13(1), 11–36
What Have The Romans Ever Done For Gardeners? Archeobotany.
If words such as Archeobotany are new or confusing check out my Gardening Terminology post. It’s a gardener’s dictionary of weird, wonderful and gardening terms.
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