Download file in PDF format: TRAC 1992: Economy and Space in Roman Britain (pp. 141–147)
ECONOMY AND SPACE IN ROMAN BRITAIN
I do not intend to give an account of the nature of the Romano-British
economy but by re-examining the basis of current thinking my aim is to
outline a new strategy through which the chronological development and
the geographical variation of the economy can be investigated and placed
within the context of Romano-British society as a whole. As I hope to show
the present consensus has not only, in effect, limited the questions that
have been addressed but also has inherent methodological and theoretical
problems. In this paper I shall restrict myself largely to issues of exchange
and distribution as these are, perhaps, currently most prominent and it is
not possible in the space available to discuss all aspects of the RomanoBritish economy.
THE CURRENT FRAMEWORK
The current approach to explaining economic phenomena is characterised
by a number of interconnected facets: an implicit theoretical base derived
from the substantivist brand of functionalism; a constraining framework
derived from historical sources; a failure to integrate economics fully with
the social sphere and an inadequate conception of spatial relationships.
It was Hodder’s 1979 paper that first introduced the substantivist’s view
of economics to Romano-British archaeology. The ideas outlined in this
paper have formed the basis of much subsequent discussion on the ques-142 P. RUSH
tion of whether exchange was embedded within social relations or took
place through disembedded market mechanisms (e.g. Fulford 1981 and
1989; Millett 1990: 123-26 and 157-80). As a result the nature of the economy appears to have often been presented as one of two possibilities,
either embedded or disembedded. lbis dichotomous characterisation of
economics has led to a general failure to attempt to explore in more detail
the constitution of the Romano-British economy.
Social relations have largely been seen as acting as constraints upon the
distribution of particular artefacts within an embedded economy. Generally, the embeddedness of an exchange system has been demonstrated
through the apparent coincidence of the spatial limits of both social groups,
particularly tribal areas, and artefact distributions. For example Hodder
(1979) suggests a social boundary limited the distribution of Savernake ware
in particular directions and Evans (1985 and 1991) makes a similar point in
relation to pottery produced in East Yorkshire which for much of the
Roman period has a distribution restricted to that region. Clearly, the interaction of economic activity and social relations may be far more complex
than this and the evidence of the overlapping distributions of pottery of
various types and other material does suggest this to be the case in Roman
Britain. Furthermore, the limitation of this approach can be seen in the difficulty of distinguishing a socially constrained distribution from a distribution limited by market economic factors, particularly transport costs.
Although substantivist theory maintains the importance of the role of
social factors in exchange the conceptualisation of the relationship between
the two has the effect of analytically isolating the economic system from
the rest of society. Economic organisation is presented as determined by
social relationships and organisation and thus the distribution patterns of
particular objects such as certain classes of pottery are treated as abstract
entities separate from their specific contexts of occurrence and often without regard for their symbolic, social or practical values. This limits explanation to the level of describing an economy as embedded and prevents
further analysis of the inter-relationship of social and economic activity.
The implicit functionalist theoretical basis of this perspective also presents
problems in accounting for economic change. As it was developed within
anthropology functionalism was mainly concerned with the synchronic description and analysis of societies and how social institutions and structures
functioned within a particular society to maintain it. This makes external
factors, in this case the roles of the Roman army and imperial administration, particularly in the form of taxation and monetary supply, preeminent EcONOMY AND SPACE IN ROMAN BRITAIN 143
as causal factors of change in Romano-British economic systems (e.g. Fulford 1989; Middleton 1979). The embedded/disembedded dichotomy is
then apparent as a contrast between the continuation of Iron Age exchange patterns and a market economy that develops under the guidance
of external Romanising influences. This down plays the possibility of economic and social change being the result of internal societal dynamics.
I want to turn now to consider disembedded market economics. An important question here is how appropriate is it to treat market exchange as
analytically separate from the social and political sphere? Economic relations always intersect with social organisation and structure within a society
and, hence, cannot be adequately addressed from a theoretical stance that
isolates them from each other. A fully disembedded economy would
require exchange to take place without any regard for the social and political relationships between the participants and the exchange itself would
have no symbolic dimension or meaning beyond what could be accounted
for in terms of profit or loss. As Davis (1992) argues, even in a contemporary capitalist society economic activity and exchange have symbolic and
social aspects and a price fIXing market exchange model is simply inadequate in explaining all economic phenomena.
The readiness with which substantivist economics were accepted into
Romano-British archaeology is perhaps linked to the current dominance of
an explanatory framework, based on information derived from historical
sources, which also emphasises the external origins of societal change
within Roman Britain. Archaeological data, rather than being examined in
terms of its own content, structure and relationships, has, to some extent,
been fitted into a prior historical scheme. This is evident not just as a
chronological framework but in the use of references to historical events to
provide causal factors to explain perceived changes in material culture
(Hingley 1989: 1-3). This has again led to a reliance on external influences
to explain societal change and perhaps also to an overemphasis on the
more obviously ‘Romanised’ facets of Roman Britain.
Within this approach to Romano-British exchange systems and economics the mapping and analysis of the distribution of particular artefact
types, especially pottery, has played a central role. The reason for this is
clear as trade and exchange are only archaeologically visible through recovered material that can be shown to have been transported away from its
place of production. The methodological and theoretical approach to space
and spatial relationships within distributional analyses occupies a critical
place. 144 P. RUSH
Often space has been treated as an isotropic plain that forms an unchanging background to particular distribution patterns. This has been the
case not only for spatial studies of pottery but also in investigations of the
distributions of different kinds of settlements (Fulford and Hodder 1975;
Hodder and Hassall 1971). Spatial relations have been presented as the
straight line distances between the locations of the things being studied,
and in the case of exchange and economic systems these distances have
been presumed to be proportional to transport costs. For example King
(1981) has calculated that the cost of transporting samian into Britain from
eastern Calli was approximately double that of importing it from central
Calli but only transport costs appear to have been considered. Other costs
such as storage, losses in transit and transference between carriers or
modes of transport have been disregarded. This must be an over simplification of the real situation and, therefore, there is a need to take the
underlying geography into account.
In large part spatial structures, both in terms of the physical location of
sites within the landscape and of the spatial aspects of social relations such
as tribal areas, have been seen as prior determining factors of the spatial
aspects of exchange systems. In particlliar, social boundaries have been
emphasised as playing an important part in the location of production
centres (Millett 1990: 168-69) and in shaping the extent of some exchange
or trade networks. This view fails to take into account the role of economic
activity as partially constitutive of social relations and boundaries.
If I have been accurate in the assessment I have given then it is clear that
we must look for new strategies to explain Romano-British socio-economic
phenomena. There is clearly a need to break. from substantivist theory and
to start analysing the archaeological data in more sophisticated ways independently, to a large extent, of the framework of the historical sources.
OUTLINE OF A NEW STRATEGY —-
In outlining a new approach to the problem it is first necessary to reexamine what is meant by economics and economic activity. Ciddens
(1984: 34) points out that ‘the sphere of the ‘economic’ is given by the inherently constitutive role of allocative resources in the structuration of
societal totalities’. This perspective makes clear that economics can not be
analytically isolated from the other facets of a society and be adequately
explained. The essential point is that not only is economic activity always
constrained and enabled by the social milieu within which it takes place but ECONOMY AND SPACE IN ROMAN BRITAIN 145
that such activity is part of the process of the production and reproduction
of the rules and resources that make up the social structure of that society.
The question of the embeddedness or disembeddedness of the RomanoBritish economy is, then, not a particularly informative one to attempt to
answer. In fact it has tended to partially obscure the inter-relatedness of
economic and social institutions.
Economic activity is inherently spatial in nature, not only in the obvious
sense in which all activity must take place within space and time, but that
location of the activity is important in explaining and understanding it. Any
study of Romano-British economics must therefore take into account as
fully as possible the settings of economic activity. The physical attributes of
economic space need to be approached methodologically through the
transformation of distances into such measures as travel time and transport
We also need to re-orientate our theoretical thinking with respect to
space and spatial structures. Space should not simply be thought of as
forming a neutral background to the social and economic actions of
human agents. As Godelier (1986) has shown through the analysis of
numerous ethnographic examples it is not the natural environment that
has an effect in shaping economic and social activity but rather the perceptions of environment by those involved. However, the space within which
economic activity takes place is not merely determined by the nature of the
underlying physical environment as it is perceived but can also be considered as a space defined by social and economic relationships. It should
be remembered though, that social and economic action are not merely
constrained to follow particular paths by the structure of such space but
are reflexively constitutive of it.
How, then, should the investigation of the Romano-British economy proceed? Firstly, the archaeological data needs to be assessed on its own merits
before recourse is made to explanation derived from historical sources.
This is not to deny that such information can be valuable but to ensure that
possible explanations outside its scope are also considered. The economy
should always be examined with regard to the other facets of RomanoBritish society such that the relationships between them can be understood.
Although the inherently spatial character of economic activity makes
archaeological distribution data highly appropriate material to use in its explanation from the preceding arguments it should be clear that they should
not be used as a basis for explanation in isolation from their contexts. 146 P. RUSH
Account must be taken of the specific nature of the locations that make up
the distribution and the relationships between them. It is only by concentrating on the inter-relationships of all the different aspects of material culture that it will be possible to unravel the complex interconnections of economics, social relations and space in Roman Britain.
Finally, it should be noted that although I have largely talked of the
Romano-British economy in the singular it is likely that it will be found to
consist of a multiplicity of different intersecting economic systems that
change through time in different ways in different parts of the province. By
adopting this new approach it may be possible to go further in mapping
and explaining these phenomena.
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