Friday, 27 November 2015

Reconstructing the Roman London flavourscape: new insights into the exotic food plant trade using network and spatial analyses

Volume 55, March 2015, Pages 244–252
  Open Access


The distribution of exotic food plants in Roman London and Britain is modelled.
A combination of density surfaces, social and spatial network analyses is used.
Constant inflow of exotics with variable distribution within London over time.
London changes from consumption to distribution centre after the Early Roman phase.
The established transport network conditioned London's central Late Roman position.


Using archaeobotanical data and examining them with a novel combination of density interpolation surfaces and social and spatial network analyses, this study has brought together exotic food plants in Roman London to outline the changing ‘face’ of its flavourscape, and contextualise it within the broader exotics commerce in Britannia. Consumption of a variety of exotics appeared to be widespread since the very first stages of London's establishment and their presence was maintained throughout although later on, as life in the town developed and its character changed, the focus of their distribution also changed. The emphasis shifted from the core of the city in its early days towards its outer zones, such as the upper Walbrook valley and Southwark in the Middle Roman, and the western and eastern sectors in the Late Roman phase. These changes appeared to largely reflect the changes in the overall commerce network of exotics in Britannia. In this network London starts as a mainly consumption place in the Early Roman phase to become the main redistribution centre in the Middle Roman and the necessary intermediate node in the transport system that had been established by the Late Roman phase, connecting the south to the north.


  • Roman London;
  • Exotic food plants;
  • Network analysis;
  • Commerce;
  • Flavourscape;
  • Archaeobotany

1. Introduction

A substantial body of work on exotic food plant introductions in the northern provinces during the Roman period, adopting more contextual approaches, has been underway during the past decade (e.g. Bakels and Jacomet, 2003, Jacomet et al., 2002, Livarda, 2008a, Livarda, 2008b, Livarda, 2011 and Livarda and van der Veen, 2008). As a result, significant advances have been made, indicating a diverse socio-cultural pattern in accessing these food plants. This research has demonstrated that, alongside the movement of people, urban centres and military sites were key in the introduction and dispersal of exotic food plants, whilst rural sites seem to have somewhat lagged behind in time in accessing them.
In Britain, this contextual approach has indicated the presence of several consumer groups (military, major towns, rural), regional variations (e.g. rural southeast, rural southwest and north) and temporal changes in the incorporation of new food plants into the cuisine of its population (Van der Veen et al., 2008), highlighting the diversity of Roman foodways. Of the major town consumer group identified, London stands out as one of the richest sites in terms of types of new food plants, including some of the rarest ones (Van der Veen et al., 2007 and Van der Veen et al., 2008). London is also among the best-studied places in regards to archaeobotany. This is due to the systematic work carried out since the 1970s largely by the Museum of London Archaeology (MOLA) but also other units that were responsible for the study of material from numerous excavations conducted prior to urban development projects. This unique past and present privileged position of London offers a great potential to move one step further and investigate in detail, at a site level, how and why a new ‘flavourscape’ emerged during the Roman period. Most importantly, it offers a means to study how this impacted on and became intertwined with the new ways of life in Britain after the Roman invasion.
The term ‘flavourscape’ has been coined here in order to convey the methodological and theoretical approach adopted in this study. It refers to the urban and socio-cultural landscape that consists of several nodes, that is sites, linked together by their shared acquisition/possession of exotic food plants, following a network analysis approach (sensu Knappett, 2013). Exotics are defined here as those food plants that were either imported or started to be cultivated more widely in Britain during the Roman period (see Livarda, 2008a and Livarda and van der Veen, 2008). Willcox (1977) first reported on exotics from London, providing an early stimulating glimpse of their presence and trade. Now, almost 40 years after this publication, the dataset has increased significantly allowing better insights into the exotics' access and circulation in the city.
Within the suggested framework of network analysis, London can be characterised as an ‘impact’ site because it fulfils two criteria (sensu Knappett, 2013, 10): first, it is large in size and the largest city in Britannia; and second, it is a ‘busy’ site with high inflow and outflow of exotics ( Orengo and Livarda, forthcoming). London is thought to have started as a commercial centre at a boundary area that fell outside the control of native groups and it is speculated that it had some military presence, potentially used as a supply base, by around 50–55 AD (e.g. Mattingly, 2006, 273–274; Perring, 2011, 252). Wallace (2013) recently revaluated the character of early London and refuted the argument for its planning by a central administration to provide supplies to the army. Instead she favoured the idea that London started as a port town where the traders had stronger ties to the trade networks and craftsmen of Gaul and Germany than to the British ones, and only in the post-Boudican period (i.e. post AD 60/1) the military and administration became actively involved in the town (see also e.g. Jones and Mattingly, 1993, Millett, 1994 and Carreras Monfort and Funan, 1998). London's key role in the early post-conquest overland communications has been attributed to its geographical position ( Mattingly, 2006, 511), and to the commercial nature and varied socio-cultural make up of the early settlement ( Wacher, 1975, 80–82). Its pivotal role and commercial success were also reflected by the size of its port and variety of imports and services found there ( Hall, 2008, 36).
Given this prominent role of Londinium, our aim is thus to investigate the trade and distribution of exotics within London to shed light on the factors related to the weight of the ‘node’ of London within the exotics trade network of Roman Britain as a whole. This micro-scale, site-specific approach can provide one of the most significant basic building blocks upon which solid new interpretations of aspects of Roman society and economy in this province can be achieved.