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The speakers at the front during the final discussion at the RAI 2013 conference, Professor David Breeze leading the discussion

In a previous blog entry I outlined the inaugural lecture of the 2013 RAI annual conference by Professor Nico Roymans. Here I would like to review the rest of the conference. The line-up for Saturday 12th October was as follows:

Dr Roger White. The Wroxeter environs project

Professor Dominic Powlesland. Survey and excavations in Vale of Pickering, East Yorkshire

Professor Martin Millett.  The complexity of impact on a local scale: studies from Yorkshire

Dr Nick Hodgson. Rome on the British frontier

Dr Tom Moore. From community to civitas; the impact of Rome on the southern Cotswolds

Sally Worrell. The contribution of the Portable Antiquities Scheme to understanding the Countryside

I picked up and attended the conference on the Sunday 13th October, listening to three stimulating talks taking very different perspectives:

Neil Holbrook. Developer archaeology and the Romano-British Countryside: a revolution in Understanding?

Dr Ioana Oltean. A view from the east: the impact of Rome on Romania and Britain

Professor Brian Roberts. Looking at the countryside

The Discussion and Some Final Thoughts

Obviously I missed many of the presentations due to family illness on Saturday, but having seen Friday and Sunday, and the final discussion, I want to outline some thoughts. The discussion at the end of the conference was varied and interesting and identified some big issues for the future of studying the Roman impact on the countryside of Britain. Regarding method and scope of the papers, some questioned how much the ‘countryside’ had been addressed as the papers tended to focus upon settlement patterns and roads rather than woodland, fields and the material culture and environmental evidence for agricultural life. There were also questions raised regarding whether we can understand the maps as presented in our studies: how do we design maps that communicate rather than simply hold information? Another member of the audience criticised the fact that much of the discussion was about Romano-English landscapes, with Wales and Scotland cut off the distribution maps. Others discussed the need for funding to enable the study and publication of the sites and landscapes investigated to such good effect was widely accepted. Also notable in terms of field methods, many agreed about the need for further field-walking surveys like the Berkshire Downs Maddle Farm project to complement the extensive geophysical and aerial photography work undertaken. Interestingly, the potential of LIDAR wasn’t aired in the final discussion.

Regarding how we interpret Romano-British landscapes, one commentator noted the importance of understanding the agency of humans in transforming landscapes. This point seems key: we shouldn’t treat sites as ‘draped onto the landscape’. The changes in soil and settlement towards the fourth century and beyond didn’t get much of an airing in the conference discussions and papers I heard; the focus seemed to dwell on the early Roman impact. Also Roberts identified the potential of looking far later, to the medieval and early modern worlds, to gain insights into how Roman landscapes may have been structured and composed. Oltean’s paper made very clear the need for comparative studies on a range of scales, putting the evidence from Britain into a wider context.

How does burial fit in?

As a burial archaeologist, I was struck by the way in which many of the papers I heard did incorporate burial archaeology into their discussions. Roymans in his keynote public lecture did so as previously discussed, but Neil Holbook revealed how his survey of developer led grey literature reports reveals the common use of inhumation in early Roman Britain in the rural context, challenging the picture that cremation predominated. Outside of towns and the ‘Belgic’ area, inhumation was commonplace. Likewise, Oltean showed the results of her aerial photographic surveys in Romania to reveal the barrow landscapes that defined the  Roman colonisation. The issue of ‘taskscapes’ got mentioned briefly, but I didn’t get a full sense of how mortuary evidence fitted into these landscapes, something that Esmonde Cleary addressed, and showed the potential for further work on, in his 2000 paper.

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Professor Newstead – part of curator Liz Royles’ discussion of the history of archaeological work and collecting at the Grosvenor Museum

The Grosvenor Museum

After the formal end of the conference presentations at midday and lunch, the delegates met at the Grosvenor Museum to hear Early History curator Liz Royles introduce the museum’s collections and show off some of the key artefacts from the stores.  This was followed by an opportunity to look around the museum, including the galleries on Roman archaeology and the Roman tombstones. The museum has the UK’s largest collection of Romano-British tombstones and a fabulous collection of Roman artefacts and materials derivied from the many excavations in and around the Roman city since the nineteenth century.

Then, Peter Carrington stepped in last minute to guide the delegates on a tour around the Roman walls and amphitheatre. Monday, the delegates embark on a tour of prehistoric and Roman sites in North Wales.

Thanks

I proposed and negotiated the conference coming to Chester last year and I am grateful to Professor David Breeze who organised the conference programme and to Caroline Schadla-Hall for doing all the real hard work of organising the event. I also appreciate the support of the University’s Corporate Communications office, Conference Office, Sarah Griffiths of University of Chester Press, the University catering for the superb amounts of wine, cheese, coffee and sandwiches, and my department secretary Brenda Davies. Antony Price of the Riverside Innovation Centre for all his hard work on the day. Two first-year University of Chester students – Chiara (from Italy) and Nathan (from East Yorkshire) – helped out in setting up the displays and ushering. Finally, the University’s Vice-Chancellor – Professor Tim Wheeler – not only did a great job in opening the conference but I understand he came by on Saturday to check all was going well; as usual he shows his full support for the work of his staff.

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