Download file in PDF format: TRAC 2006: Identities in Life and Death in Roman Britain: The Case of Baldock (pp. 172–182)
Identities in Life and Death in Roman Britain: The Case of Baldock
Introduction In recent years, and in line with movements in sociological understandings of the body (Foucault 1988: 18–22; Lurie 1981; Synnott 1993), it has become increasingly apparent that the manipulation and adornment of the body can play an important role in society to communicate social understandings of the group, and the place of individuals within it. Combined with an increasingly large corpus of anthropological data, this realisation stems back, in a large part, to changing focuses within the discipline. For many years the archaeology of material culture, and small finds in particular, focused on the typologies and functional uses of artefacts. Within the last twenty years or so, as a reaction to this dominant approach, discussions moved on to the theoretical interpretation and meanings influencing artefact design and use, focussing on how and why societies and their associated material culture developed (Huskinson 2000; Ingold 1992; Schiffer 1999). A happier medium that makes use of both the artefactual and theoretical approaches is increasingly being used, drawing on these various aspects to support each other, rather than focussing on a single element at any one time. This development is particularly important for studies aiming to look at people as individuals, combined with people as societies (that is, within their social context), as it provides a means for approaching and interpreting the vast collection of personal artefacts available to us in a critically informed manner. To understand people, one must include artefacts. Likewise, to understand the artefacts, a total dislocation from the people does not allow for the situation of these items within their context of use making it impossible for us to fully appreciate their function, meaning, and significance in the societies in which they were used. As put so succinctly by Schiffer, “humans…interact not with other humans per se but with artefacts and humans compounded with artefacts” (Schiffer 1999: 3). Baldock, a rural site in north Hertfordshire, with both occupation and cemetery material, allows an investigation into how people and artefacts interacted and varied between two very different contexts present within the social sphere of the community.
The significance of appearance With items of personal adornment, developments in archaeological understanding are particularly important, due to the personal nature of such items and the realisation of the highly communicative role this appearance takes in many societies (Barnes and Eicher 1992). Anthropological studies have greatly added to, if not influenced the development of, this field of study in archaeology. Observations of a number of societies have shown just how important appearance can be in demonstrating identities. In late nineteenth century Greece, for example, the specific styles of dress worn by different groups of people living in the same areas served to identify their ethnic origins as either Albanian or Greek (Welters 1995). Similarly, in the Niger region of Africa, among the Nembe and Kalabari, the amount and flamboyance of jewellery serves to distinguish between the two groups (Sumberg 1995). Despite representing very different societies, both studies show a similar use of the manipulation of appearance and adornment to mark out social distinctions, illustrating the cross-cultural commonality of such practices. Clearly just two case studies cannot be used to argue for the universal use of appearance in the demonstration of identity, but the link of appearance with the body, and the impossibility of separating the two, combined with its often very visual nature, makes appearance one of the most usable indicators of identity available to the archaeologist. Having identified that people have a tendency to use dress to mark identity and the types of personal items that are mostly likely to be used to achieve this, it provides a route of investigation for archaeologists to see whether past societies made a similar use of such items, and if they did, to look at what distinctions were made, and what these may have meant. This has the potential to provide an insight into the complex inter-relationships between groups and individuals present in the past.
In Romano-British archaeology, a number of recent studies have started to explore the role of personal adornment items in identity expression in more depth. Cool’s (1990) work on hairpins has shown varied distribution patterns of different types, as has Crummy and Eckardt’s (2003; Eckardt and Crummy 2006) work into nail cleaners and strapends, although they are careful to point out the effect production and distribution may have on type clustering. Swift (2000; 2003), expanding this beyond the confines of Britain, has shown that varied distributions and uses of the many different types of personal adornment items operated throughout the western Roman Empire and beyond, having the potential to inform on aspects of identity. All of these studies have been fundamental in highlighting how much can still be learned from a reassessment of small finds and personal adornment in particular. However, although looking at a large range of different types of personal adornment, each class of artefact is still very much approached on an individual basis. This detailed approach to understanding the variations within items and types is essential for revealing the full complexity and subtleties of artefact use. By drawing together the range of items to see variations in assemblage composition from different regions and sites, and specific patterns of association, especially within single grave groups, there is the potential to inform on different approaches to appearance and adornment among different communities. Some small scale studies have done this for a limited range of items to identify groups of material that served to indicate the identities of those using specific military sites (Allason-Jones 1988, 1996; Allison, et al. 2005; Gardner 2001), but this is yet to be expanded to look at other site types. Appearance is built up through all items and processes that are associated with altering the natural look of the body including clothing, accessories, and shoes, yet also through altering practices such as grooming, make-up, and hair styling (Eicher and Roach-Higgins 1992: 8, 13). Because of this, the artefacts associated with grooming, but not actually used to adorn the body themselves, also need to be considered when looking at appearance, as they are indicative of particular methods of body alteration. The artefacts used to adorn the body cannot be fully understood without reference to the bodies which they adorn, as their closeness to the body (both in terms of the way in which they affect appearance, and in the physical proximity during application and wearing) makes them highly personalised items.
Due to this closeness, items of personal adornment can be interpreted as representing something of the person that they are associated with, enabling the wearer to make statements through their appearance, and allowing the viewer to make inferences as to aspects of the identity of the wearer. The ability to create statements about identities makes it possible not only for individuals to use this material as a means of personal identification, but for groups within a society to adopt particular styles of adornment and appearance. As a result, these may be used to indicate social identities beyond that of the individual. Having said this, such a distinction between personal and group identity is not necessarily a clear divide as the identity of some groups may be identified through the expression of certain personal distinctions, marking out aspects such as age, gender, and status. Within the group, these would serve to inform about the individual, whilst to an outsider, the consistency of approach within, informing about the group identity.
The Romano-British material To look at identity in Roman Britain, there is a large range of artefacts to work with. Toilet implements such as tweezers, ear-scoops, and nail-cleaners can provide information on grooming practices. Brooches, finger-rings, ear-rings, necklaces, bracelets, and hairpins for example can inform on the types of items used to enhance appearances, and the occasional preservation of cloth, footwear, and hair provide information on the clothing with which accessories were used, and the styling that they helped achieve. Additionally, where appropriate, inscriptions, visual representations, and textual sources can also add to our understanding of these items. Distribution patterns of personal adornment artefacts may show whether contemporaneous communities made use of a differing range of items. On a smaller scale, the distribution of styles within a specific item type may also be used to indicate preferences of some communities. As mentioned above, the role of production centres may have had a strong affect on distribution patterns, influencing the amount of choice of the consumers. They may have used certain styles as these were what were produced and were therefore available locally. If this is the case then identifying the difference between choice and availability can be problematic. For this reason, I have chosen to approach the material in a highly contextualised manner, on a site-by-site basis, to identify the different ways that individual communities were making use of the range of items. By developing a dataset of the range of personal adornment artefacts from similar and different site types it will be possible to compare individual site use patterns to the overall distribution zones of certain artefacts and types. From this, it should be possible to determine the extent to which production and distribution affected use, and whether different site types had or developed different characters as expressed through the appearance of the occupants.
When looking at individual sites, there are three main types of data available: material from religious sites, that from settlements and material from cemeteries. Religious sites provide a very specific situation and the choices that guided everyday activities may not have been followed at such places. Given this, the way in which artefacts used at such sites, both in terms of the range deposited and the way in which deposition occurred, are unlikely to provide a reflection of daily availability, ownership and use. The nature of these sites may have meant that they became places where some identities were most consciously expressed. Similarly, it is also likely that such identity display would seek to show off specific aspects of individuals most suitable to the situation, thereby potentially distorting results.
Cemetery data has the advantage of linking specific artefacts or groups of artefacts to individuals, but, given the ritual nature of burial, it may not reflect what was actually being used in everyday life. If the deceased were dressed, was it in their daily garb or a ceremonial costume? There are two main points here; firstly, if it did reflect ceremonial as opposed to daily costume, can the data still provide any meaningful information on the representation of identities in that society? Although ceremonial costume may not show everyday appearance, it may well reveal ideological social structures (such as approaches to age and gender) that could, though not necessarily, have also affected social actions and understanding on a daily basis. Secondly, it raises the question as to the extent to which artefacts contained in burials represent the deceased individual or the choice of the mourner, a subject that has been much debated in archaeology (Babic 2005: 78–82; Black 1986: 211–12; Pearce 2000: 4–6). If such artefacts do represent the deceased rather than the mourner, then they will provide insights into the way in which the individuals perceived themselves, and how they chose to project this. If the items represent the choice of the mourners, then this would inform either on how they perceived or wished to perceive the deceased, or how they wished others to perceive the dead and/or themselves. Although the latter situation does not directly inform on the individual, as with the first point, it does show what aspects of appearance were considered to be important within the community. If appearance was actively used to portray aspects of identity within the community, trends linking particular items with particular types of individuals would become apparent in the burial assemblage. As burials often present a situation in which aspects of identity that whilst present in everyday life, become more emphasised (Sumberg 1995: 174), any trends would show underlying societal approaches to identity.
Settlement data, on the other hand, is thought to derive much more from casual losses, thereby giving a more ‘real’ picture, but can only be used to develop settlement wide patterns of use. However, we cannot automatically assume that all such finds on sites are solely due to accidental loss. Deposition in pits, for example, may have been ritually guided and items included may have undergone a process of selection and there is increasing evidence to suggest the highly ritualised nature of many settlement deposits (Hill 1995; Willis 1994: 143). Due to processes such as this, all deposits need to be contextually assessed where possible to identify the degree of structured deposition within an assemblage.
There is a strong tendency to treat the settlement and cemetery material as two distinct sets of data, but given the many human factors affecting deposition for both, an analysis that compares the data will show if there are any actual differences between the two, and if so, what these are. This brings its own set of problems. Preservational differences are likely to be encountered between burial and settlement finds. Burials are often deeper, more discrete, and better preserved deposits. Given this, differential preservation of certain items and materials (e.g. organic materials) between burial and settlement deposits may occur. The context of cemetery and settlement finds is different, but where excavations have been extensive enough to reveal substantial information about both for individual sites, this has great potential for furthering our understanding into the use of appearance and adornment. Furthermore, when a site has revealed multiple cemeteries, differences between the communities using the site can provided even more detailed information into the various ways different groups expressed themselves.
Case study: Baldock Baldock, in Hertfordshire, presents an opportunity for just such a case study. Developing from a site of some status in the Late Iron Age, often described as an oppidum, to a larger settlement in the Roman period, and continuing in use into the fifth and sixth centuries, Baldock provides a long sequence of continuous settlement and funerary activity (see Fitzpatrick-Matthews, this volume, for a detailed description of the site).
The amount of data present means that not only can the material from contemporary cemeteries be used to see differences in the way in which the people using these separate sites adorned their dead, but also that broad changes in approaches to appearance in death over time can be assessed. Excavation from non-cemetery contexts means that there is also material from the occupation areas, with archaeological investigations by Stead and Rigby (1986) and Burleigh covering more than 7% of the town (Fitzpatrick-Matthews and Burleigh forthcoming). Comparing the range and commonality of different artefacts associated with appearance from funerary and settlement contexts allows the investigation into the potentially different ways in which the deceased and living had aspects of their identity demonstrated through adornment. This last point is the aspect that I will focus on in this paper, using examples of the three most common artefact types from Baldock; brooches, finger-rings, and hairpins.
Before presenting the result, however, some points on the nature of the data need to be noted. Given the (often) better sealed and protected environment provided by burial deposits and the more disturbed nature of settlement deposits, it is possible that the results show preservational differences between the two contexts, rather than real trends. However, two factors argue against this; firstly, many of the burials at Baldock were badly plough damaged (Burleigh 1982: 8), giving preservational differences comparable to settlement deposits, and secondly, in the excavations undertaken by Burleigh that represent the majority of excavation work after Stead’s initial excavations in the 1960’s (Stead and Rigby 1986), systematic metal detection was employed to maximise the level of metalwork recovered (Fitzpatrick-Matthews pers. comm.). Having said this, the affects of preservational differences, particularly with iron artefacts, should not be totally disregarded. Despite these efforts, contextual information for many of the settlement finds is minimal, and it has not been possible to separate the finds into more discrete time periods within the broad Roman date. As the burials also span the entire period the finds from both contexts remain comparable, but it must be remembered that this affects the resolution of the results. With regard to the burials, several specific factors need to be taken into account. Most importantly, of the 1800 burials recorded from Baldock, just over 10% (158) contain a total of 182 personal adornment artefacts, and by looking at just three of these artefact types for this study (brooches, finger-rings, and hairpins), this number is further reduced. Additionally, whether cremation or inhumation (even for worn articles), it is not possible to know whether the items were also worn by the deceased when living or added by mourners at some stage during the burial rite. If worn, then the items may be more likely to have had personal associations with the deceased, but this does remain an assumption. If placed inside the grave by the mourners, the adornment artefacts can inform on what was considered important to include with the dead. Despite the drawbacks of the data, we, as archaeologists, must use the material that there is. To discard incomplete datasets would leave us with little to work with. Rather, it is our duty to be aware of the limitations and use the material responsibly and in accordance with this awareness.
Nearly 350 brooches have been recovered from Baldock, and though the majority of these are copper alloy, 7% are of iron. More than three hundred of the brooches are from non-burial contexts, and so to illustrate these differences, both the actual number and the percentage of the assemblage have been given. When dividing the brooches between those from burials and those from the settlement, some differences become apparent (Table 1). It is immediately clear from this that the make-up of brooch fabrics from these two contexts is different. Iron brooches contribute to more than a third of those from burials, whereas they form only 5% of those from the settlement assemblage. Many of the iron brooches come from the earlier cemeteries at the site, dating to the Late Iron Age and early Roman period, but this is not exclusively so, and even though there are more copper alloy examples from the later period burials, iron examples do still feature. Bow brooches date largely from the mid first century B.C. to the early second century A.D.; the settlement brooches come from contexts dating from between the first century B.C. to the third century A.D. and many of those from later contexts are residual (Stead and Rigby 1986: 123), and so this pattern cannot be entirely put down to the varying date ranges of the burials and settlement contexts containing brooches. The small burial sample is problematic as the high iron percentage could be due to chance survival. What this provides, is an indication of a potentially significant difference between burial and settlement material, a theory that can be developed as more sites are analysed in this way. However, it may be that iron was, in fact, a favoured metal for burial purposes. The quote below, although it cannot be taken as accurate, does serve to highlight that different groups did not necessarily value all materials in the same way, and as such we must be careful not to place our own value perceptions on the past:
“They [Britons] are unfamiliar with the use of clothing, but decorate their waists and necks with iron, valuing this metal as an ornament and as a symbol of wealth in the way that other barbarians value gold…” (Herodian 3.14.7)
Table 1. The brooch by material from the settlement and burials, given as total number and percentage of each assemblage. Copper alloy Iron Tinned Gilded Count % Count % Count % Count % Settlement 279 89 15 4.5 19 6 1 0.5 Burial 16 61.5 10 38.5 – – – –
The tinned and gilded examples, although on a copper alloy base, have been separated out as the finish on these items would have given them a very different appearance to untreated copper alloy examples. When looking at the use of appearance, it is this outward look of items that is important. Coated items would not only have required more time and cost in making, but they also make use of less commonly available materials, and unless very worn, there is no reason to suppose that someone seeing such an item would have been able to identify that it was not solid silver or gold. This therefore has implications as to both the wealth the wearers and the perception they may have wished others to have of them. It should be noted that these may be under-represented as the thin coating is likely to have worn off or be unidentifiable on a number of brooches that may originally have been tinned or gilded.
Finger-rings and hairpins also indicate some differences in fabric to those found in burials compared to those from the surrounding site. The assemblage of finger-rings is smaller than the brooches, 32 rings coming from the settlement, and 21 from the burials. A wider variety of metals make up the cemetery assemblage of finger-rings, with five consisting of metals more precious than copper alloy, an element absent from the settlement finds. As with the brooches, the difference between the relative proportions of copper alloy to iron finger rings is also apparent, with the relative proportion of iron finger-rings in burials consisting of more than double the proportion of those found on the settlement (Table 2). The possibility of iron being a more valued burial item, as implied by the brooches, is supported by the finger-ring evidence. Furthermore, it has been noted by Henig that a number of fine gems were set in iron bezels (Henig 1974: 47), once again raising questions over the perceived value of iron in Roman Britain. Another possibility may be that this relates instead to Roman sumptuary laws, forbidding those below the status of equites from wearing gold finger-rings (Pliny Nat. Hist. 33.6–8), and the presence of iron finger-rings may indicate a continued recognition of this. Poorly preserved iron finger-rings are not always easy to identify as such, and in this case it may be that preservational differences have played a part in the differential distribution of finds in burials and settlements. However, given the highly disturbed nature of many burials, and the fact that iron finger-rings have been found on the settlement, this should not discredit the results.
Table 2. The finger rings by material, given as total number and percentage of each assemblage. Copper alloy Iron Copper alloy/iron Silvered Gilded Count % Count % Count % Count % Count % Settlement 29 90.5 3 9.5 – – – – – – Burial 9 45 5 25 1 5 2 10 3 15
Silvered and gilded finger-rings only occur in burials, and there are two possible reasons for this. Firstly, it maybe that (items with the appearance of) precious metal items were specifically reserved or chosen for deposition in burials deposits. At the same time, if lost during everyday activities, given the value of precious metal items, more time may have been invested in searching for and finding, thereby massively reducing the number of casual losses (Cooper 2000: 83). This assumes that all settlement finds are the result of casual loss, rather than actively structured deposits, the likelihood of which has been discussed above.
Looking at the burial finger rings on a more detailed contextual level provides further insights into the use of precious metals. Four of the five silvered and gilded finger-rings were actually recovered from the burial of a single individual, thus distorting the results, implying that precious metal examples were more widespread in burials than was actually the case. By removing these from the results, the iron finger rings can be seen to rise to 33% of the burial sample, and copper alloy to 60%. It should, however, be remembered that the overall numbers involved are small and the percentage figures are therefore potentially misleading, and so we must be careful not to over-interpret the results. Rather, these point towards possible trends that future investigation of comparative sites may shed further light on.
With hairpins, it is the difference between the proportions of copper alloy to bone pins where the difference is most apparent, although once again, the small size of the assemblage needs to be taken into consideration. The bone pins make up more than half of those from the settlement whereas they represent less than a third of those recovered from burials. In part, this may relate to the recyclability of copper alloy over bone, but if we follow the argument that at least a proportion of the settlement data results from casual loss, we can also suggest that not all the assemblage would have been affected by re-use, as casual loss would not have been selective about material type (although bone pins, being thicker, may have been easier to see and recover). Secondly, if some of the settlement finds do represent ritual deposits as opposed to casual loss, would the issue of recyclability have been considered? This is where a more context specific analysis would aid interpretation, but this is out the bounds of this paper. Interestingly, Baldock has several examples of iron hairpins, which is unusual given that metal hairpins are most commonly made of copper alloy or precious metal. Making iron hairpins would not have been a problem as although there was no casting in the Roman period, smiths were skilled at the forge and similarly shaped and sized items such as styli were made in this way, yet despite this, iron hairpins were extremely rare (Hilary Cool pers. comm.). As with the previous items, this too may have some interesting implications for the perceived value of iron hairpins given their apparent rarity and of iron personal adornment items in general.
Table 3. The hairpins by material, given as total number and percentage of each assemblage. Copper alloy Bone Iron Silver Count % Count % Count % Count % Settlement 36 44 43 52 2 3 1 1 Burial 13 59 6 27 3 14 – –
Conclusions The total number of burials containing some form of personal adornment is small, some 10% of the total (although this varies between cemeteries). That the majority of people were not being adorned is significant in itself, and this raises a number of questions that require further investigation. Was the overall lack of personal adornment in burial contexts influenced by the wealth of the population? What was the value of these items? Was the inclusion of personal adornment affected by social factors unrelated to wealth, such as limited permission to wear such items, or burial rites that forbade certain groups being adorned? These are questions that need to be addressed as work on burial and settlement assemblages continue.
For the burials containing personal adornment, when divided by item type, the figures become very small: 26 brooches, 20 finger-rings, and 22 hairpins. With such small numbers, conclusions become problematic, not least as survival chance may affect the assemblage composition. Furthermore, with limited information on many of the settlement contexts, the analysis has not be able to take into account change over time, so the data is assigned to a very broad time span. As such, the following conclusions can only be seen as a fist stage of analysis, raising issues that future research, encompassing more sites, may help to resolve.
What these results begin to suggest is that of the small percentage of the population being buried with personal adornment, it is possible that those burying them may have been choosing a different selection of items to those apparently used in everyday life. It is realised that to do such a broad analysis that treats the entire cemetery and settlement data as homogenous is something which needs to be addressed. Differences between the individual cemeteries reveal trends different to the overall patterns shown above. However, what this analysis does indicate is that identities displayed in death were potentially expressed using a different range of signifiers and markers to those used in everyday circumstances. This adds support to the suspicion that cemetery data cannot be taken as a direct reading for everyday practices and furthermore, shows the importance of combining the material from cemeteries and settlements in our study of material culture, as through this, a more subtle and complex reading of Romano-British society may be revealed.
A more contextual analysis of the site finds is also required, to determine the extent to which finds were the result of casual or ritual deposition. The nature of settlement deposition in the Iron Age and early Roman period has increasingly revealed interesting results as to the extent to which selective processes were at work (Jundi and Hill 1998; Pope 2003: 362–75). Research into the continuation of this through the Roman period may reveal a long term continuity of ritual deposition in which case the range of uses of personal adornment items beyond that of enhancing appearance would need to be investigated. Comparisons of these actively structured settlement deposits to the actively structured burial deposits may provide a route into taking the study of personal adornment items beyond that of identity issues alone. This paper provides preliminary results into the investigation of the way in which personal adornment was used in different contexts at Baldock. The aim has been to show the potential for developing identity studies beyond datasets from single context types and to show the massive potential for a range of comparative studies that bring together settlement and cemetery data. Similar disparities between burial and settlement data have also been identified with other classes of material culture, specifically pottery styles (Willis 2005), further emphasising the need to develop this type of analysis. By breaking down this modern construction of diametric opposition between settlement and cemetery provides not only the means of increasing our understanding of the finds from each, but also for furthering our understanding of how different identities were represented and the different ways in which life and death assemblages were expressed through the material culture.
School of Archaeology and Ancient History, University of Leicester
Acknowledgements I would like to thank Simon James, Colin Haselgrove, and Jennifer Baird for comments and discussion on this paper. I would also like to thank Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews and North Hertfordshire District Council for access to the Baldock material, and the AHRC who’s funding has made this research possible.