RAC / TRAC 2014

I spent the last weekend in Reading, mostly at the University, attending the (fairly) mega-conference that is RAC/TRAC 2014.


For those who don’t know, RAC is the Roman Archaeology Conference, which is held every other year and TRAC is the Theoretical Roman Archaeology Conference, which is held annually. This sometimes ends up as a double header, as it has this year, hosted by Reading University.

I’m not going to attempt to give précis of all the sessions and papers that I attended, but just to give a flavour of the sorts of subjects and issues being tackled. The final afternoon was spent on a field trip, which is always fun.

For the first morning session, I opted for ‘Recent Work on the Roman Frontiers’ with the highlight (for me) provided by David Mattingly and Martin Sterry, ‘The Frontiers of Roman North Africa in the Satellite Age’, on the use of remote sensing in locating and mapping Roman and other ancient sites in North Africa. This area of the Roman world is my pet interest. Here, remote sensing, utilising high-resolution satellite technology, is especially useful because of the relative difficulty of accessing sites, and the large geographical area covered. The results so far of this ongoing research project support the increasing evidence for extensive settlement, mixed land use and movement and interaction between those living along, and on either side of, the Limes Africanus. It was great to see their maps, covered in swaths of yellow dots and squares, each one a settlement of one sort or another. This made me think about the landscapes I saw when I visited Tunisia earlier this year.  Landscapes which, at first glance look ‘natural’ but which, it quickly becomes apparent, have been adapted for use by the people settled there; terraced slopes, field systems, drainage ditches, floodwater management and defence systems. All these types of large-scale land management techniques would have been familiar to the people living here 1500++ years ago. Locating and mapping these sites is the first step to understanding them and their place in the wider context of ancient North Africa, and thereby get to see a view of ancient North Africa that was written out of history by later, primarily colonial commentaries.

Then, Andrew Birley on ‘The Complexity of Intramural and Extramural Relationships on the Northern Frontier of Britain’. By assessing factors such as small finds distributions inside and outside fort wall, Birley has been assessing whether the fort walls really constituted a ‘great divide’ between civilian and military residents.

From landscape to artefacts, my session choice for Friday afternoon was the absolutely rammed ‘Roman metal small finds’ session. There was standing room only in this session, and people were actually being turned away, and no wonder. We were treated to some cracking papers, including ‘Design, function and everyday social practice: a case study on Roman spoons’ from Ellen Swift, Emma Durham’s ‘Metropolitan styling. The figurines from London and Colchester‘, and Immigrant soldiers at Hollow Banks Quarry, Scorton? New work on crossbow brooches, burial rites and isotopes from Hella Eckardt.

And, one of my favourites, Michael Marshall, Natasha Powers and Sadie Watson, presented by Michael Marshall, on ‘‘Treasure’, ‘trash’ and taphonomy: Approaches to the excavation and interpretation of Roman finds from the Walbrook valley’. Love love love those Walbrook sites and, as these have been excavated relatively recently, I’m also delighted to hear about how the processing and interpretation are progressing. Marshall presented a pretty vivid picture of the trials and tribulations of excavating Walbrook sites, but also the prizes to be had from them. The sheer scale of the site and the “soggy” conditions made even seeing small finds fiendishly difficult and interpreting the results once all the materials has been processed will, no doubt, be keeping people very busy for a long time to come. Oh, and there was the point at which the ghoulish RAC/TRAC massive found out how dead bodies break up in water – wrists go first, heads bobbing along in the stream… 😀

Saturday morning started off with more small finds, featuring three excellent papers on some exciting things found down the drains. Alissa Whitmore considered the range of non-bathing activities carried out in bath houses, particularly those of a commercial nature, by examining small finds from drains, stoke-holes and other pokey places  in ‘Not just for bathing: Shops and commerce in and around Roman public baths’. Spindle whorls! In a bath house!; then an inordinate quantity of pottery down the loo and in the bathhouse drains in ‘Bathing, eating and communing: Glimpses of daily life from a late antique bathhouse in Gerasa, Jordan’ from Louise Blanke; and great stuff (and hands-on!) on Roman intaglios from Ian Marshman with ‘Down the drain: Understanding the deposition of Roman intaglios and signet rings’.

Although I did want to come back after coffee for ‘Performance in the Holy Cave? Archaeological evidence for the initiations into the Mysteries of Mithras’ by Ines Klenner (which, I hear, was great), I was lured away to the Study Group for Roman Pottery (SGRP) session for the excellent ‘Modes of production in Africa Proconsularis viewed through the amphorae from Portus. A study of vessel technology and society‘ from Pina Strutt. Amphorae have often been used as evidence for trade networks and commodities; merely as containers, with the focus of their contents. Strutt’s investigation of the amphora sherds from Portus, turns the view back on the amphorae themselves and their origins, the locations and social contexts of their production and of their producers, the potters. By comparing practice at two sites in modern Tunisia, at Nabeul; urban, specialist and with professional full time potters, and Guellala, rural, non-specialist, with farmers working part-time/seasonally as potters, Strutt has begun to understand working conditions in the Roman period. Further by examining the amphora sherds themselves, she has begun to focus on the ways that these different manufacturing practices, and the cultural contexts within which this production took place, manifest in the fabric of the amphorae themselves.

Sunday started in Britannia with the ‘Recent Work on Roman Britain’ session. My highlight, unsurprisingly, ‘Recent Work on Roman London’ from MOLA’s Julian Hill. Hill looked along the Walbrook at recent excavations including Bloomberg and 8-10 Moorgate and emphasized that while these are ‘Walbrook’ sites, the excavations teams had great difficulty in actually ascertaining the precise lines of the Walbrook main and tributary channels. Post excavation is currently going on at an accelerated rate for the Bloomberg site because of the planned opening (in 2017) of the new Temple of Mithras site museum. Ongoing interpretation work for this site is also drawing on a wider area, including No.1 Poultry, Walbrook and a few other smaller sites nearby. This will really help to give a much broader view of the area around (what is now) Bank Station, Cannon Street Station, and Dowgate, Vintry and Walbrook Wards. An interesting observation made by Hill was that while the material recovered from Walbrook sites used to be seen as exceptional, the top end of material culture in Londinium, it has become increasingly clear that this material would have been pretty typical. What is exceptional is the state of preservation at these sites. We await, with bated breath, more on the writing tablets.

Although Ian Haynes and Tony Wilmott’s talk on ‘The Roman Temples Project, Maryport’ had obvious appeal, I decided to go all foodie for the last session, starting with ‘Bread across the Empire: case studies from Britain, Italy and Egypt’ from Roberta Tomber. Interesting stuff, bread. As are all staple foods. They’re everywhere, in some way shape or form, and so offer possibilities for comparisons across different regions, climatic zones, cultural and historical contexts and social strata. Tomber’s (early days) examination takes in the material evidence from Pompeii – representing ‘Roman’ culture, several sites in Egypt – with its very distinct cultural background and exceptional preservation, and Britain – a far western province and a contrast with Egypt in terms of climate, and with its own distinct pre-Roman culture. Tomber considered the use of pots, trays and moulds in bread making, but this highlighted the fact that none of these is actually necessary for bread making. Hmm, tricky. How do you use pottery evidence for studying a process/product that doesn’t necessarily need pottery?

These are just some of my top choices from the weekend*, but if you use Twitter, you can see what other attendees had to say with the following hashtags and @s:  #TRAC2014,  #RAC2014,  #rfg2014,  @TRAC_conference,  @HadranicSoc,  @RomanFindsGrp. You can also find out more and join the conversation at  trac.org.uk

Sunday afternoon was given over to a field trip to Silchester, Roman Calleva Atrebatum, led by Mike Fulford.

A few random pictures of TRACers and RACees at Silchester


* if anyone feels that I may have misunderstood or misrepresented any of the papers mentioned, please do get in touch. This is just my own personal take on the weekend.



2 thoughts on “RAC / TRAC 2014

    • I’ve been to RAC and TRAC a few times and they do tend to be pretty good, although obviously how interesting any individual finds it depends on the specific sessions and papers.
      This year’s was really good. Sarcanon was there 😀

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