Download file in PDF format: TRAC 1992: A Shoppers’ Paradise: Consumers in Roman Britain (pp. 132–140)
SHOPPERS’ PARADISE: CONSUMERS IN ROMAN BRITAIN
‘I often wonder that it should be so dull’, Catherine Morland said of history
in ‘Northanger Abbey’, ‘for a great deal of it must be invention’. Conversely, can the invented world, the realm of the novelist, contain historical
insights, explanations and models that could be of use to the archaeologist
or historian in writing his or her own academic narratives? Christopher
Evans, in his paper ‘Digging with the Pen: Novel Archaeologies and Literary Traditions’, wrote that ‘while inspiring, literature and literary criticism
hold no ready-made formulae for the social sciences’ (Evans 1989: 204) but
also noted the existence of a fictional genre, which he called ‘post-holocaust’ or ‘terrestrial’ science fiction, in which reflections ‘upon the role of
material culture and identity’ were prevalent (Evans 1989: 201). He interpreted such examples as instances of the individual bodying forth order
out of chaos, ‘the very solidity of things … appeal[ing] beyond the purely
sentimental inasmuch as they embody time and can be personally/culturally symbolic’ (Evans 1989: 201). The matter of the novel itself
having the potential to be an archaeology of contemporary material culture
was not considered.
In this paper it is proposed, firstly, to examine a number of novels that
each evoke and enshrine the essence of the material culture of their particular era and which, in so doing, create visions of those eras which could
be said to constitute historical documents. In these novels the authors consider the role of objects in relation to the people who bought, used and CONSUMERS IN ROMAN BRITAlN 133
discarded them and thus indirectly allude to the broader society or culture
in which these various transactions take place. Secondly, attention will be
focused on a number of anthropological and sociological studies of consumer societies, highlighting the mechanics and processes of consumption,
before finally turning to examine the potential relevance of the novelistic
and/ or anthropological approach to the theoretical treatment of consumption in the Romano-British period.
The solid and ubiquitous material culture of Victorian Britain, a society
so perfectly described by Henry James as ‘the Empire of Things’, can be
evoked no better than through the writings of Dickens, Thackeray or James
himself. In ‘The Spoils of Poynton’ James recounts the battle between Mrs
Gereth, a widow, and her son over the contents of Poynton Park. To Mrs
Gereth ‘things were … the sum of the world’ Games 1897: 20) and ‘the old
golds and brasses, old ivories and bronzes, the fresh old tapestries and
deep old damasks threw out a radiance in which [she] saw in solution all
her old loves and patiences, all her old tricks and triumphs’ Games 1897:
43). The contents of the house were not merely an assemblage of artefacts
but were rather ‘the record of a life .. . written in great syllables of colour
and form, the tongues of other countries and the hands of rare artists’
Games 1897: 18-19); their very essence could not be captured or tamed in
an inventory for it was rather embodied in ‘a presence, a perfume, a touch’
Games 1897: 180).
A different approach to the material world can be seen in Georges
Perec’s novel Les Choses, translated as Things. A Story of the Sixties, in which
the novel’s protagonists are realised, and their characters defined, almost
entirely through an examination of their relationship with material culture.
Their elevation from a bohemian student existence to the world of work
was marked by an accompanying change in material lifestyle; ‘they . . .
burned what they had previously worshipped: the witches’ mirrors, the
chopping-blocks, those stupid little mobiles, the radiometers, the multicoloured pebbles, the hessian panels adorned with expressive squiggles’
(Perec 1965: 33-34) and they moved on to objects ‘which only the taste of
the day decreed to be beautiful: imitation Epinal pseudo-naive cartoons,
English-style etchings, agates, spun-glass tumblers, neo-primitive paste
jewellery, para-scientific apparatus’ (Perec 1965: 33). Later in the novel, out
of work, they leave France and take up teaching posts in Tunisia. While still
surrounded by their possessions, the material paraphernalia that had previously given their lives meaning now seemed curiously alienating in a new
environment and though it still ‘exuded a little warmth’ it was more of a 134 1. FERRIS
barrier than a bridge. Their host culture did not entice them and they
bought nothing ‘because they did not feel drawn to these things’. In
essence ‘it was wanting that had been all their existence’ (Perec 1965: 119).
A more recent novel, Nicholson Baker’s ‘The Mezzanine’, approaches the
America of rampant consumerism and packaging-overload with a microscopic eye, much of the book consisting of a stream-of-consciousness, obsessive, inner dialogue about the design and significance of, for instance,
drinking straws, shoelaces, sugar-sachets, milk cartons and so on. Billed as
the story of one man’s lunch-hour, the apparent triviality of these musings
conceals a razor-sharp and amusing critique of the cult of the disposable
and the hidden meanings of sometimes banal objects. To the narrator
‘what was central and what was incidental end up exactly reversed’ (Baker
1988: 92). Baker’s investigation of the object as cultural sign or signifier is
not a new phenomenon and perhaps the best examples of an almost obsessive search into the ramifications of the object as symbol are to be found
in the works of Kafka, though these will not be considered here.
Some writers use objects to create a stage setting in an unashamedly
nostalgic manner which triggers, when successful, recognition and response in the reader. One recent example will here suffice. In ‘Motorama
1954’ Bill Morris, while he fails to create a a particularly engrossing or convincing drama, sets the scene with a virtual archaeology of the Fifties consumer paradise of finned-automobiles, ideal kitchens, cocktail and bar paraphernalia and deep-piled carpets, a mixture of the ubiquitous, and at times
absurd, labour-saving devices of the day and the merely fashionable object
or status symbol (Morris 1992).
Perec, Baker and Morris all owe something to the work of anthropologists, sociologists and consumer researchers whose approaches to material
culture through personal obsen’ation and interview provide a dimension
alien to the kind of object-led study to which many archaeologists are, by
necessity, restricted. In particular, Douglas and Isherwood (1978) in The
World of Goods. Towards an Anthropology of Consumption and Csikszentmihalyi and Rochberg-Halton (1981) in The Meaning of Things. Domestic
Symbols and the Self have shown that an understanding of the motives
behind the acquisition of goods is crucial to an understanding of the wider
social and cultural world, and vice-versa, for the two cannot properly be
separated and it is perhaps unfortunate that we so often study the fmds
from, for instance, Roman Britain in splendid isolation. It has been said
that ‘consumption is the very arena in which culture is fought over and
licked into shape’ (Douglas and Isherwood 1978: 57). ‘Goods . .. make and CONSUMERS IN ROMAN BRITAIN 135
maintain social relationships’ (Douglas and Isherwood 1978: 60), and
‘objects … serve to express dynamic processes within people, among
people, and between people and the total environment. These processes
might lead to either a more and more specific differentiation or increasing
integration’ (Csikszentmihalyi and Rochberg-Halton 1981: 43).
An interdisciplinary approach to the analysis of consumption, interpreting patterns discerned by the study of basic historical data in the form of
probate inventories – taken at the time of death and recording the household and/or trade goods of the deceased – has been taken by Lorna
Weatherill in her book, Consumer Behaviour and Material Culture in Britain
1660-1760, (Weatherill 1988), and I have suggested elsewhere that this
study could provide a model for similar work on the material culture of
Roman Britain (Ferris forthcoming). While the value of any model lies in
the quantity and quality of the available data against which it can be tested,
as Millett has pointed out our reticence to undertake theoretical studies of
this kind seems untenable given the undoubted value of the database from
Roman Britain (Millett 1990a).
Weatherill’s analysis of her data allowed her to discuss a number of
broader issues; both hierarchical and social ones, such as the roles of
status, occupation and wealth in the processes of consumption, as well as
geographical ones such as the significance of place of residence, forms of
regional variation and the contrast between town and country. These discussions allowed for some analysis and perspective of changes over time,
leading to an appreciation of the processes behind the spread of new
goods throughout society. Time does not allow here for a full examination
of the potential worth of a model based on Weatherill’s work transposed
back to Roman Britain but one or two parts of that model will be discussed, as they suggest that though obviously objects listed in inventories or
objects recovered by archaeological excavation have different values, the
broad framework of interpretation can still be applied.
Weatherill found surprisingly that consumption hierarchies and social
hierarchies did not completely correspond, as might have been expected,
with traders and merchants being higher in the consumption hierarchy,
that is tending to be the earliest possessors of new types of goods, than the
gentry and others of a higher social status, indicating that the oft-quoted
theory of social emulation and display as a dynamic force behind the
acquisition and ownership of certain types of new goods is perhaps too
Visually, the role of the new object as status symbol cannot be better ex-136 I. FERRIS
pressed than in the Bellini painting ‘The Feast of the Gods’, finished by
Titian in 1514, in which the gods dine not off gold and silver plate but off
Chinese blue and white porcelain, still a rarity in Europe at that time.
In Roman Britain we can, perhaps, map the possible routes for the introduction of certain types of key Roman goods by reconstructing the information-processing network of the time. Jeremy Evans, in his study of literacy
in Roman Britain as reflected in the distribution of graffiti (Evans 1988),
found that there were no great regional variations in this distribution but
considerable variations depending on the class of sites represented, with a
hierarchy of basic literacy declining from forts and towns to villas and
other rural sites or settlements. ‘There is a very real suggestion that villas
may occupy a lower position in the social and economic hierarchy than the
towns’ (Evans 1988: 202).
Does the poor showing of the villas in this study suggest, as with Weatherill’s findings on the secondary position of the gentry in the consumption
hierarchies of her period, that there is some doubt as to the role of villa
occupiers as influential social innovators in Roman Britain?
The second point be to raised here concerns Weatherill’s findings on regional patterns of consumption and the possible explanations for regional
differences. While she could not fully develop the theme, due to the limitations imposed by the nature of the evidence, she noted that ‘attitudes to
consumption and material goods can usefully be examined at a regional
level, for in some areas people may have preferred to spend their resources
on special occasions rather than in acquiring household durables’ (Weatherill 1988: 45), and that in Scotland, for which there exists other documentary sources that can supplement the evidence of the inventories, there are
well-documented instances of such conspicuous expenditure. ‘Here surplus
was consumed in excessive food and drink on a few occasions, rather than
on durable goods or even clothing, again characteristic of a ‘traditional’
attitude to consumption’ (Weatherill1988: 67).
The general question of the regionality of cultures in Roman Britain is a
topic that has been relatively understudied. Here I will limit discussion to a
brief examination of one example only, that is the situation in the northern
military zone. Here there existed not one but four distinct cultures; Roman
culture, a distinct and separate Roman military culture, the indigenous
local culture, and the culture of the vicani who were dependent on the military but who negotiated the space between the two dominant and predominant cultures of Roman and native. It has been suggested that the
creation of this situation was brought about by the interplay between two CONSUMERS IN ROMAN BRITAIN 137
strands of colonial policy at work in the north, one encouraging cultural
change but controlling the speed and nature of that change, and the other
being the practice of social and cultural isolationism on the part of the immigrants, leading to maintained ‘separate development’ though under a
unitary political and economic control (Higham 1989: 153). Millett though
has warned of the dangers of assuming the existence of a comprehensive
and unswerving policy of Romanisation; there were, perhaps, more elements of laissez-faire than social-engineering at play (Millett 1 990b). In any
case, other studies have indicated that the army was not an agent for a
policy of Romanisation; rather, this was a separate civil and, presumably,
emulative process (Blagg 1980; Evans 1988: 331-33).
The nature of the cultural intercourse between Roman and native in the
north has been variously surmised. Bennett saw little or no contact
between the two dominant cultures and indeed adopted the idea of a
more-or-less seamless indigenous culture with a lifestyle and material
culture that changed little from the Iron Age to the post-Roman period. He
noted that some absences of Roman goods on native sites ‘might indicate a
conscious rejection of these goods by the indigenes’ (Bennett 1983: 217) or
that ‘they could not afford such goods’ (Bennett 1983: 209). Higham, looking at the area north of the Tees, thought that the local indigenous peoples
‘were denied access to provincial civilisation even if some among them perceived a need to adopt it’ (Higham 1989: 169) and that in the light of this
‘the process of acculturation was thereby severely limited’ (Higham 1989:
209). Once more, he considered the possibility of exclusion through
poverty and noted that ‘the process of pauperisation in many areas, particularly west of the Pennines, is reflected in the failure of the less wellplaced communities to attract later prehistoric metalwork’ (Higham 1989:
In her study of Roman and native interaction in Northumberland, Lindsay Allason:Jones found that a number of small prestige items of Roman
origin, such as intaglios, appeared on native sites but that few metal objects
from the same source were present. However, she goes on to note that the
later prehistoric culture of the area was also relatively free of such items
and that it was ‘probable that north of the Tyne wealth was calculated in
terms of cattle or by even more intangible means. Perhaps they concentrated on wine, women and song rather than on decorated metalwork’
(Allason:Jones 1991: 3), a point also raised by Bennett, who suggested a
possible penchant for goods that leave little or no trace in the archaeological record, and by Hingley, who suggested that power, status or prestige 138 I. FERRIS
among native Romano-Britains could have been manifested by, amongst
other things, something as intangible and undetectable as the control of
followers (Hingley 1989: 145-47).
Weatherill’s identification of regional or local, but otherwise well-integrated, cultures, which through tradition retained patterns of consumption
based more upon ostentatious, and often relatively intangible, consumption through display or ceremony rather than on a lower-level acquisition
of goods, and Allason:Jones’ evidence for perhaps a similar set of cultural
priorities in the Roman north are interesting to contrast and connect.
However, it is almost impossible to fully define the role played in the
mechanics of consumption in Roman Britain by the interplay between the
differing value systems of the Roman and Celtic worlds. The lack of any
satisfactory method of gauging the level of poverty, and its effects upon the
native population in the Roman north, also make the connection difficult
to verify on anything other than a theoretical basis. While poverty does undoubtedly lead to cultural exclusion and dispossession at a certain level of
society, the poor can also, consciously or unconsciously, use goods as social
fences rather than bridges with the construction of a ‘culture of poverty’, a
term first coined by Oscar Lewis in the 1950s (Lewis 1959),in which spending on alcohol, on non-essentials and on conspicuous display, rather than
on material goods and often even on essentials, is marked.
In the native cultures of the Roman north we may, in many cases, be
looking at sites or settlements so low in the social hierarchy that to use
them as indicators of negative contact between Roman and native may be
misleading; such sites would be part of what Richard Reece has dubbed
‘the sub-culture’ of Romanisation, where little or no cultural change over
time should indeed be expected (Reece 1990: 32). The true measure of
poverty is not in possessions but in the degree of social involvement and
Allason:Jones’ data, leading her to surmise a considerable traffic of goods
from native to Roman, seem to suggest that, leaving aside the very poor, on
a regional basis there is an indication of a level of social involvement in the
north perhaps over and above that required simply to satisfy the fulfllment
of tax obligations. This brings to mind Heisenberg’s principle that an
observed system inevitably interacts with its observer.
In conclusion, it has been written that for the Roman archaeologist ‘fora
and baths can tell more of ideology and symbolism than can seeds and
sherds’ (Jones 1987: 47), but in Roman Britain, by necessity of survival, the
ornaments from the period block our view of the architecture. This paper
has attempted to suggest that there may be value in the application of CONSUMERS IN ROMAN BRITAIN 139
anthropologically and sociologically derived models of consumption to the
finds data from Roman Britain, and that more imaginative approaches to
the writing of archaeological texts might result from a greater awareness of
the construction of literary narratives. As Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote,
‘the poet, by an ulterior intellectual perception, gives [things] a power
which makes their old use forgotten, and puts eyes and a tongue into every
dumb and inanimate object’. Judging from the traditional approach to the
study of artefacts from Roman Britain taken by the most recent book on
the subject, with few attempts to look outside the geographical or
chronological limits of the study, one would think that little had changed
since the days of Collingwood and Richmond. There is a potential value in
a more theoretical approach to the material culture of Roman Britain and
in a move on from studies which are largely, to quote Stephen Spender in
another context, ‘time-obsessed, time-tormented, as though beaten with
rods of restless days’ (Spender 1951: 137).
I would like to thank Lynne Bevan, Jane Evans and Jeremy Evans for
commenting on a draft of this paper.
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