Julia Hurley (Independent Scholar)
The study of ancient Roman foodways faces two major challenges: over-reliance on literary sources and exceptional archaeological sites, and a focus on overly narrow sub-categories of evidence in large-scale analyses. Studies in the first category often give primacy to elite diets, whereas the latter frequently center on small groups of variables such as major stock animals or exotic plants. While these yield valuable information, they fail to provide the integrated, more comprehensive views of ancient diets that are essential to moving the field forward.
The project presented here is a proof-of-concept for a new approach to the subject that employs digital methods to integrate large, and often inconsistent, datasets to enable the detection of broad patterns as well as variations within them. Multiple categories of samples, and associated information about sites and contexts, are stored in a standardized manner within a relational database that is in turn integrated with a Geographic Information System containing cultural and environmental spatial information. The system is very scalable and designed to be easily expanded. The test dataset consisted of 970 archaeobotanical and archaeozoological samples from 39 sites in Cambridgeshire. Preliminary results suggest that this method could provide the basis for a more reliable and comprehensive approach to the study of ancient foodways.