ISSN 1357-4442Editor: Simon Denison

Issue no 55, October 2000


Hunters in the cold

A 10,000-year-old campsite in southern Britain provides remarkable new evidence for hunter-gatherer life after the Ice Age. John Lewis reports.

They are a small group, just four or five people, bent to their tasks as they sit shoulder-to-shoulder by the campfire. No one speaks much. Their attention is fixed on survival.

Smoke from the fire drifts away across the cold, tundra landscape of southern Britain. Reindeer graze in the distance.

Some of the group work on flints - making new tools, repairing old ones. Flint chippings lie scattered around their feet. Eventually the knappers decide the flint they're working on can produce no further tools, and they toss the knapped-out flint core over their shoulder onto a rubbish pile behind them.

Others work away at bone and antler. They make harpoons for hunting fish, pins for sewing up leather shoes, toggles for their fur-lined leather `parka' coats. Fine bone chippings rain down around their feet while larger pieces of waste are thrown back onto the rubbish pile.

All around lie the bones and body-parts of last week's kill. Two reindeer had been shot with arrows, roughly butchered at the kill-site and hauled back to camp. Charred bones from recent meals lie nearby.

There is no uncontrolled feasting with this group. They eat three-quarters of the meat now, during the short period they are at camp working on their equipment. The remaining quarter they pack up in skin bags to take away. For before long the group is once again on the move, following the slowly-migrating herds of reindeer until they make another kill some miles further on.

All this takes place about 10,300 years ago, in the part of southern England that would later become Uxbridge, west of London. Just over a thousand years later, about 9,100 years ago, another group of hunters makes camp in exactly the same spot.

It is a larger group of about a dozen people. They sit in two arcs, facing each other across the fire. They talk, they tell stories as they work. It is winter, and the main task at hand is extracting marrow from a cache of red deer bones saved up over several months' hunting.

The landscape has changed. Gone are the scrubby open tundra and the migrating herds of reindeer found a thousand years earlier. Woodland now covers much of the ground. It is a mixed blessing for the hunters, impeding movement but providing a valuable new material - timber.

Here at camp, alongside the flints, bones and antlers, members of the group now work away at wood, perhaps building a canoe or shaping stretcherpoles for carrying luggage or young children. As happened a thousand years before, fine shavings and stone chips land at their feet while larger lumps of material are thrown away to the back.

Eventually this hunting group also moves on.

It may seem miraculous that after so many thousands of years we can tell so much about the Uxbridge camp-site, which was excavated a few years ago and is now approaching publication.

Part of our ability to interpret the scatters of flint and bone stems, of course, from our knowledge of modern hunter-gatherer behaviour. Anthropologists have detected certain `normal' patterns of action which are likely to have remained fairly unchanged since hunting began.

A large animal is generally too heavy to transport back to camp whole, so initial butchery takes place at the kill-site. First you remove the skin if you need it unbroken for tents or clothing. Next you quarter the animal, cutting off its four legs which are the main meat-bearing parts. The skull and backbone you leave behind.

Hunters may slit open the animal's belly to reach its intestines. The stomach can become a useful bag, the guts make serviceable twine or rope, while the liver and kidneys provide food. Antlers and horns can be cut off for tools. Archaeologists see these patterns reflected in sites such as Uxbridge, allowing us to recognise kill-sites and camp-sites simply from the types of bones that are found.

One of the reasons we believe that hides were being prepared for leather during the early (late Glacial) occupation at Uxbridge is that we found reindeer toe-bones, which typically remain attached to skin that has been flayed. If the skin is not taken, the animal's feet are usually left behind with the carcass.

Also helping us understand Uxbridge was research done by the great American archaeologist Lewis Binford among the Inuit of northern Canada in the 1970s. In order to understand the patterns found around campfires on archaeological sites, he followed a group of rifle-bearing Inuits in their motorised skidoos, and painstakingly recorded how they handled their game, how they sat around the fire, and the patterns of waste they left behind.

One pattern he found was the distinction between the `drop zone' and the `toss zone' for different types of waste. Small bits just drop to the floor, while larger pieces are thrown away, or tossed backwards. This is exactly the pattern we found at Uxbridge during both periods of occupation. With flints, for example, the densest scatters were around the fire, but the heaviest waste pieces - the used-up cores, the unworkable nodules - were found always at a distance.

Another pattern was that of the `wind corridor'. Hunters around a fire, Binford found, often sit side-on to the wind. If they sit upwind they block the wind to the fire, and if downwind they get a faceful of smoke. This side-on seating plan produces two distinct fans of debris with gaps at either end - which is exactly what we found in the later (Mesolithic) occupation of the Uxbridge camp.

Uxbridge (the site is formally known as Three Ways Wharf) is one of the most important hunter-gatherer sites in Britain because it is one of the very few where we have tools and animal bones together, allowing us to construct a fuller story. Another similar site has been found a few miles away at Church Lammas in Staines but the analysis of the finds there is still underway.

It may even be that the two camp-sites represent successive stops made by the same group of late Glacial hunters. The only way to prove it would be to find a flint flake from one site that exactly matched a tool at the other site, suggesting that a tool repaired at one camp had been carried to the other and discarded.

They say that, in one instance, a pair of late Glacial flints found on opposite sides of the English Channel - in England and Belgium - have been refitted together (at this period the North Sea was dry land), so such long-distance matching should in theory be possible. I can't prove the story but I'd like it to be true.

Certainly, refitting knapped flakes found within the Uxbridge site has allowed us to tell some fascinating stories. In one case, we found a flint burin, or chisel, which had been carried around the site during the late Glacial occupation, as its owner whittled away at a piece of antler or bone.

Every so often, he (or she) stopped, resharpened the chisel by striking a small piece off its end which fell to the ground. This person then moved on, still chiselling away, until they stopped again and resharpened the tool - and so on several times as they paced around the fire. Eventually, with the task complete, the blunt chisel was thrown away.

This kind of refitting is relatively easy. You simply collect all your chisels and chisel pieces (so-called burin spalls) and see if any match. Sometimes individual flints have a distinct colour or pattern and you can quickly see which pieces go together.

Afar harder task is refitting dozens of small flake tools and waste pieces back together to form the original flint nodule, like a three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle often up to a foot long. However, we did manage to do this at Uxbridge with one very distinctive flint which had a beautiful vein of translucent quartz running right through it.

The original knapping of the flint probably took no more than ten minutes of someone's time. Piecing it together took far longer, but by doing so we forged an uncanny link with the mind of the man or woman who first handled the flint more than 10,000 years ago.

I strongly suspect that it was the vein of quartz that attracted our knapper to this flint, because what we found was that the nodule had been worked in such as way as to ensure the maximum amount of quartz in every finished blade. You can imagine the knapper's determination and delight watching the translucent blades falling off the core.

One huge blade knocked off this core was used for heavy-duty chopping of antler. Its heavily damaged or `bruised' blade edge is very characteristic of a tool that has been put to this kind of work. Another quartz-rich blade was modified and turned into a microlith used as an awl. Several pieces of flint were missing from the reassembled nodule, representing the blades and other tools that were carried away when the hunters left their camp.

Another illuminating type of close analysis is that of `microwear'. This is the study, under a microscope, of the detailed pattern of wear on a flint or bone tool which is said to indicate the type of work that the tool has been used for. Thus, the working of bone, wood, flint and leather all leave distinctive traces on the blade. Microwear analysis on the quartz microlith indicated it had been used for boring leather. The later, Mesolithic hunter group who set up camp at Uxbridge had with them a very unusual collection of animal bones - the leg bones of at least 15 red deer, and very little else. The assemblage as a whole does not seem to represent the butchered remains of animals that had been recently killed. So what was going on?

According to James Rackham, the environmental archaeologist who worked on the site, the leg bones probably represent a cache of supplies held over from one or two

months of hunting. Stripped of meat, the bones had been stored, perhaps in snowdrifts or in bags up trees, until they were needed in the depths of winter.

In the cold season and early spring, supplies of fat and carbohydrate - energy-giving nutrients - tend to run low in the landscape. Grazing animals are themselves using up their fat reserves and represent a protein-rich but nutritionally poor source of food. The autumn's supplies of hazelnuts will perhaps by now have been consumed.

It is a time of crisis for humans who live by hunting and gathering. Anthropological research has shown hunter-gatherers in some parts of the world rapidly losing weight at this time of year. The stored leg-bones at Uxbridge, however, contained a supply of marrow and fat which could be released by boiling. This appears to demonstrate that our Mesolithic group had evolved a strategy for getting through the most dangerous time of year.

As they sat in two arcs on either side of their campfire, some members of the group smashed the bones and tossed the joint ends onto a heap behind them. Others worked bone, or wood, or leather, or flint. The areas used for different types of work seem distinct, and it looks as though each group member had his or her own allotted task to perform.

Perhaps someone in the group was good at, say, making boots - at cutting the leather to fit the foot, at sewing the boot up with a bone needle, at lining it with fur. It is a skilled job and ethnographic research shows that, for whatever reason, it is often carried out by an elderly woman. That, then, would be her regular work. I like to imagine children running around the outside of the circle, picking up odd bits of flint or bone and practising their craftworking skills. Evidence of apprenticeship has been claimed at other sites, but sadly there is nothing to prove it occurred at Uxbridge.

It is likely that, sitting face-to-face with one another across the fire, these people talked. At a time before monuments were built, and when the dead were seldom buried, they probably expressed their religious beliefs and maintained a cultural identity by oral history - by telling stories of the past.

At the head of each arc sat the flint knappers. I regard these as senior members of the group, the story-tellers who also took responsibility for producing the knives and axes - the most symbolically potent of the group's possessions. In the Neolithic period which followed, it is commonplace for archaeologists to assign symbolic or ritual significance to axes and other tools, especially when found in `ritual deposits'. I suspect this symbolic potency had deep roots in the Mesolithic era.

A wedding ring today has intense significance for its owner, but remains - in material reality - nothing but a gold ring. In the same way, I believe axes were imbued with now unreachable meanings as tales of group history were told around the fire. One axe, for example, was broken on the site and reused to make blades and a microlith point. Is this merely an economical reuse of raw material?

Or could the axe have been used in some `great event' that merited such honourable recycling?

From our distance of nine millennia, we can see these people as they sit, and work, and talk. But we cannot yet quite see into their minds.

John Lewis directed the Uxbridge excavation for the Museum of London Archaeology Service. He now works at Wessex Archaeology

Great sites: Skara Brae

Europe's best preserved Neolithic village was dug in the 1920s and the 1970s, but it continues to give up new secrets, writes Alexandra Shepherd

It has been called the `best-preserved prehistoric village in northern Europe', but no archaeologist can claim credit for its discovery. Rather it was a great storm that blasted away the covering layers of sand and first revealed the 5,000-yearold stone walls, furnishings and other remarkable remains of Skara Brae.

That was in 1850, and in the following 70 years or so an assortment of antiquaries and local enthusiasts - including members of a 1913 house party from the nearby big house - carried on what the elements had begun. By 1924, when the site on mainland Orkney was taken into state guardianship, five Neolithic houses had been cleared out and many artefacts carried away.

Then the elements struck again. A further great storm washed away part of one house, and a protective sea wall was then built which cut into midden deposits surrounding the village. It was clearly time for more consolidation, and to oversee it the authorities called in Gordon Childe, then Professor of Archaeology at Edinburgh and one of the most influential archaeologists of the 20th century. His work at Skara Brae between 1928-30 proved to be his most famous dig and produced the site that visitors see today.

The site consists of nine houses linked by passageways, with a main thoroughfare that opens onto a paved area dubbed the Market Place, and a possible workshop beyond. The structures stand in some places more than two metres high, their walls usually double, packed with midden and plastered thickly with blue-grey clay. Floors were also made of this clay. The settlement had a stone-built drainage system, possible indoor sanitation and efficient security, with doors wedged against jambs by bars slotted into the walls behind.

A wealth of finds from the site included three of the major indications of a Neolithic lifestyle - the bones of domesticated animals (principally cattle and sheep, but also pigs and dogs), polished stone axes and numerous sherds of flat-based pottery decorated with grooves and cordons.

Alongside these was a considerable array of tools, including numerous `Skaill knives' (Childe's name for the ubiquitous disc-shaped segments of beach pebbles used for butchery); scrapers, awls and smoothers for leather-working; and bone mattocks and shovels made from cattle shoulder blades for digging and earthmoving. Childe also found bone and ivory pins, thousands of tubular and disc-shaped beads and, intriguingly, finely sculpted stone balls and more enigmatic forms, some carved with designs also found incised on the stonework within the village.

To have walls standing almost to their original height and a myriad of finds would be enough to set the site apart. But what makes Skara Brae so exceptional is the preservation of the layout of individual houses, resulting from the use of sandstone for the chief items of furniture.

Today, visitors can still see complete rooms with bed-places facing each other across a central hearth, cupboards, storage places, alcoves and little cells set into the walls. Most evocative of all, opposite the doorway of one house stands a two-tier dresser, reminiscent of so many farmhouses across the centuries.

Yet this astonishingly preserved embodiment of an early farming community took some time to assume a key place in the Neolithic of Britain. Although Childe described it as `essentially a Neolithic culture', he saw the site - very much in the spirit of his times - as a survival in the north of a primitive Neolithic lifestyle that had long been overtaken further south. Indeed, he published the site under the subtitle `a Pictish village', arguing that it dated from the late Bronze Age.

Early dates

Others placed Skara Brae even later, on the basis of the similarity of many of its artefacts and architectural features to those found at Iron Age brochs. It was not until publication of Stuart Piggott's Neolithic Cultures of the British Isles in 1954 that the site was positioned firmly back in the Neolithic - on the evidence of pottery - albeit, in those pre-radiocarbon days, a very short Neolithic squeezed into the 500 years from 2000-1500 BC.

Even then Skara Brae had not fully arrived. Although its pottery assemblage played a major role in identifying the striking similarities between the type of Grooved ware of Orkney and that produced far to the south in Essex, its name was not used to label the northern end of this phenomenon. Instead Piggott turned to the settlement of Rinyo on Rousay, first excavated in 1937, a site without Skara Brae's miraculous preservation but with more rigorous stratigraphy - and so `Rinyo-Clactonian' entered the literature.

That lack of solid stratigraphy for Skara Brae was finally rectified by the first modern excavations of the site, which took place in 1972-3 under the direction of David Clarke of the National Museums of Scotland. These gave the village a firm chronology, defining the picture of a long-lived, settled community, existing from 3100-2500 BC with only minor alterations in lifestyle over that period.

The excavations also confirmed the early presence of cereals at Skara Brae - alongside pastoral farming - and produced an array of organic finds such as a rope of twisted crowberry stems and part of a finely-shaped handle of willow. Clarke's dig also added a further three early structures to expand the plan of the earliest village and incidentally produced the finest decorated stone from the site.

Normal village

The final publication of Clarke's work is still in train and its completion should allow Skara Brae to make its full contribution to all aspects of the Neolithic - the period, the pottery style, and the history of settled agricultural communities. For, paradoxically, although one of the most famous sites in Britain, until now Skara Brae's contribution to the creation of serious models for the Neolithic has been severely limited.

Archaeologists have taken too much to heart Piggott's warning against using its unparalleled preservation to make generalisations about the rest of Britain or Scotland. Steering clear of making it the prime domestic type-site, some have gone so far as to claim it was always unique, suggesting it was perhaps a settlement for magician priests.

Yet the 1937 excavation of Rinyo, revealing a very similar settlement, had demonstrated clearly that Skara Brae was not alone. Work over the last two decades (particularly by Colin Richards of Glasgow University) has added further sites to these two - Barnhouse and other possible sites on mainland Orkney, Links of Noltland on Westray and Pool on Sanday. A picture has begun to emerge of not one Skara Brae but many, suggesting an Orkney landscape studded then, as now, with flourishing farming communities.

Archaeologists are now becoming increasingly confident that the close similarities in the Grooved ware pottery across Britain from southern England to Orkney - Piggott's Rinyo-Clactonian culture - stand for a real link not just an archaeologist's theory. What that means in human terms is still hard to say, but in an ironic reversal of the old views of fossilised survival in the north, increasingly the origins for this style are seen as lying at the northern end of the connection.

Orkney first

Recently I have myself drawn attention to evidence that supports this view. The decorated stones in Skara Brae bear criss-cross and diamond motifs that I believe are formal expressions of the patterns which appear naturally as fissures in Orkney bedrock. With these same geometric designs forming the basis of much of the Grooved ware design, the case for placing the origins of at least parts of the tradition in Orkney begins to look increasingly secure.

The abandonment of Skara Brae, like its discovery, has been attributed to a great storm, overwhelming the inhabitants with sand so rapidly that one fleeing woman was said to have left the beads of her necklace scattered in her wake.

I think this particular scenario is unlikely. Evidence shows the inhabitants lived with almost continuous sand-blow, and would not have given up in the face of a single storm. The encroaching sea and increased salt spray may have gradually put an end to cereal production, making life less supportable. Then disease - or even conflict - may have brought about the finish of the settlement.

Perhaps it is significant that, as Skara Brae was deserted, the upper levels at Rinyo and at a number of Orkney's chambered tombs were marked with traces of a new cultural package - Beakers. This hints at a time of very significant change on the islands which seems to have spelt the end of a settled Neolithic life on Orkney.

Whatever the reasons for its demise, Skara Brae remains an icon for the Neolithic. Its houses still seem to radiate an air of gentle domesticity, bearing the memory of a sheltered farming life sustained by its people over many generations.

Alexandra Shepherd took part in the 1972-3 excavations at Skara Brae and is coordinating their publication for the National Museums of Scotland and Historic Scotland

Decline and fall

Roman culture was fading in Britain from the early 200s. It had all but gone a century later. Neil Faulkner looks at the evidence.

It used to be thought, years ago, that Roman Britain `ended' in AD 410. The impression was that, one day, the Roman army marched out in orderly fashion under their standards, and on the next, the barbarian Saxons sailed in and consigned everywhere to the Dark Ages.

More recently, archaeologists have taken a different line, arguing that Roman Britain hardly ended at all. Using evidence mainly from single sites like Wroxeter, they claim that some aspects of Roman culture - such as town life, bureaucracy and the use of Latin - continued, at least in the west, as late as the 7th century. Although some scholars have pointed to signs of early decline, the dominant view has been that of survival.

New research, however, throws that consensus into doubt. Taking the excavated evidence as a whole, it now seems that Roman culture was disintegrating in Britain from the early 200s and had almost completely gone by the end of the 4th century.

This gradual but inexorable collapse affected towns, villas and villages. Nothing was exempt. The imperial project, the bringing of civilised life to barbarian lands, started with enthusiasm but ended - and ended early - amid piles of refuse and squalor, with abandoned farms and villages, country houses turned into barns and workshops, and towns heavily fortified by an embattled class of state officials desperate to cling on to power.

Part of the new research work was a large-scale survey of Roman buildings I conducted during the 1990s with Jack Newman, a retired quantity-surveyor and amateur archaeologist based in Essex. We looked at published excavation reports to catalogue and analyse large samples of excavated Romano-British buildings from town and country, first recording the approximate date of construction, then the likely length of occupation. Some of the results were published this year.

The towns survey included about 1,500 buildings from 300 excavations at 17 urban sites across England (civitas capitals, coloniae and possible municipia), ranging from Wroxeter to Canterbury and from Exeter to Lincoln. A clear pattern emerged. Most civic buildings were erected in about AD 75-150, most private town-houses in about AD150-225, and urban occupation (measured by rooms in use) reached peak levels in the early 3rd century.

Civic construction work then collapsed as resources were diverted into building town walls in the mid to late 3rd century. There was a partial recovery in the early 4th - the so-called `Constantian renaissance' - but it was a temporary blip, and, from around AD 325, Romano-British towns faced terminal decline. Few new buildings were erected, many old ones were abandoned, and by about AD400 there was little left in most places but a wasteland of ruins and rubbish.

Colchester is a prime example. My survey counted 115 private buildings, most of them excavated by Philip Crummy's Colchester Archaeological Trust in the 1970s and 80s. Especially important were two massive rescue sites up against the south wall of the town - Lion Walk and Culver Street - which between them represented about half the total area so far excavated in the town. We now know of 20 grand houses in Colchester at its peak in about AD 250, but a hundred years later only three of these were left, and by AD 400 there were none at all.

Archaeologists have sometimes made too much of a few exceptional sequences. When Shepherd Frere uncovered Building XXVII.2 at Verulamium (St Albans) in 1955-61, most scholars agreed with him that Romano-British town life must have flourished well into the 5th century - and a new consensus was quickly established.

It seemed confirmed when Philip Barker's excavations on the Baths Basilica site at Wroxeter in 1966-91 revealed a long post-Roman sequence culminating in a grand residence of 6th century date which many felt was highly Romanised. Ken Dark has argued recently that, in the early Dark Ages, supposedly `Celtic' western Britain was in fact `Roman' - with Latin literacy, classical tastes, trade links with the Mediterranean, and a whole political framework inherited from the Romans of the 4th century (BA March 1998).

These conclusions seem much less compelling in the light of my survey results. Early Dark Age elites used the forms and symbols of Romanitas to legitimise their claims to wealth and power. It is no surprise that much of their material culture looks `Roman'. The same process can be witnessed in other periods. The Sutton Hoo Saxons imported Byzantine luxuries, Renaissance scholars wrote in Latin, and the Georgians built in a neoclassical style - in each case we are dealing with the reuse of ancient cultural symbols in a new situation.

The 5th and 6th centuries in Britain were probably no different - some elite culture was retained, but it was a thin veneer behind which one of the most complete transformations in British history had taken place. What the archaeology as a whole shows is near-total collapse of the Roman settlement pattern - not just the disappearance of towns, but of villas too, and indeed many native villages and farmsteads.

Two further recent surveys add weight to this view - one by Jack Newman of 78 villas randomly selected from published reports, another by Katie Meheux from the Institute of Archaeology (UCL) of 162 possible villa sites in the Severn Valley/Welsh Marches region. Neither survey has yet been published.

One favoured explanation for urban decline is that the Romano-British gentry `retreated to the countryside' to escape the burdens of public service in towns, and there, from the late 3rd century onwards, invested heavily in the embellishment of their country seats. Because of this, Guy de la Bédoyère has described the 4th century as Roman Britain's `golden age' (BA July 1999).

In fact, the boom in the villa economy seems to have ended early in that century. Newman's survey showed that between AD 300 (the peak) and AD 350 the amount of new building-work undertaken on villas fell by almost two thirds. Both his survey and that of Meheux revealed that a majority of villas had been abandoned by about AD375 and virtually all by about AD 400.

The odd exception - like Whitley Grange in Shropshire - cannot alter the general picture. Much more typical were sites like Gorhambury in Hertfordshire, where the grand house was a ruin and had been incorporated into the farmyard by the mid-4th century, and Thurnham in Kent, where one of the central rooms was being used as an iron smithy at an even earlier date.

Native villages and farmsteads fared somewhat better, but many were still deserted or contracted sharply in the 4th century. Katie Meheux surveyed 317 native rural sites in the Severn Valley/Welsh Marches region and discovered a fall of 27 per cent in the number occupied between AD 100-150 and AD 350-400. My own more modest survey of 177 rural sites excavated in 1969-96 (as listed in the Roman archaeology journal Britannia) showed a fall of 35 per cent for the same period.

When careful modern excavation reveals evidence of early decline at sites like the Romano-British village of Heybridge in Essex (BA September 1999), excavators often conclude that here is the exception, and they seek special-case explanations. Certainly, it was the more marginal sites that succumbed - economic crisis strikes down the weakest - but it was part of a general pattern. At Heybridge, some peripheral areas had been abandoned by about AD200, few new buildings were erected in the central zone in the 3rd and 4th centuries, and rubbish pits were encroaching on the sacred precinct around the temple.

Taken as a whole, the evidence implies not a 4th century `golden age', but after about AD325 at any rate, an agricultural slump, a decaying class of gentry and an increasingly hard-pressed peasantry. There was, it seems, decline in both town and country - Roman Britain was in crisis long before AD 410. What had gone wrong?

The crisis must have had deep roots. In the centuries before the Claudian invasion of Britain, Rome had been a fast-growing empire - a dynamic system of robbery with violence in which wars of plunder were waged to fill the treasury, support the army, and subsidise the policy of `bread and circuses' which ensured domestic peace.

But the conquest of Britain had been one of the last great military adventures, almost an afterthought. Rome had already reached the limits of her empire. Civilisation - forts, towns, villas and `the world of taste' - was expensive. In the absence of a continuing stream of plunder, it could only be paid for out of the surpluses generated by extensive arable agriculture, which enabled the Roman authorities to raise labour corvées and taxes from rural areas to devote to building a Roman way of life.

By the 1st century AD, the Roman frontiers ran roughly along the limits of ploughed land - beyond lay a true barbaria of upland crofters and pastoralists whose impoverished economies could not support `Romanisation'. The Roman army repeatedly failed to conquer the wilderness of northern Britain. This was not a localised failure. Central Europe was also beyond its reach. An ancient system of military imperialism such as Rome was tied to the ploughed.

For some time the empire's dependency on internal resources did not matter much. Landowners, rich peasant farmers and numerous petty traders found ready markets for their surpluses in an economy pump-primed by state arms expenditure. But there was a fine balance. Without the subsidy of conquest, documentary sources tell us, taxes slowly crept up, labour corvées became longer, and arbitrary requisitions were more frequent. By analogy with other, better documented historical periods, it is likely that rising demands provoked resistance. Peasants no doubt secreted their grain, hid their cattle in the woods, and their sturdy sons on cousins' farms. Sometimes perhaps they banded together to ambush tax collectors and press-gangs. We know that some abandoned marginal plots and took to the hills and forests to live as bandits beyond the law.

Caught in the middle were the municipal gentry who ran the towns. Faced with trying to hold together a disintegrating infrastructure, many lost their taste for public service and town life. Ancient historians have long acknowledged a `decline of the decurionate' from the later 2nd century onwards, but Romano-British archaeologists have often assumed that Britain was different.

A parallel development was the rising wealth and power of a small class of imperial grandees - holders of high office, owners of multiple estates, men networked into the late Roman bureaucracy and protected by their contacts within it. The evidence was meticulously collated by the great ancient historian AHM Jones in his 1960s book The Later Roman Empire, but again Romano-British archaeologists have been reluctant to use these insights in interpreting their own data.

The awkward relationship between archaeology and history is an old problem. Archaeologists are often fearful of drifting too far from the `scientific' rigour of postholes and potsherds into a reliance on what some see as `biased' documents. But if our task is to explain what happened in the past, historical and archaeological evidence need to be integrated so that a proper story can be told.

Nor can archaeologists restrict themselves to looking only at their own patch - a single site, region or province. New thinking about interpreting the past urges us to see Roman Britain as part of a `world system'. We should be able to fit together the evidence collected by historians of the empire with what we find on our excavations.

I think this can be done.

Let us take the example of late Romano-British towns. We have known for a long time that town walls were strengthened in the 4th century - principally with the addition of projecting bastions - but recent excavation evidence has given a much fuller picture of what things were like inside late Roman towns.

It is not just that grand old townhouses fell into ruin and were not replaced. Civic buildings also decayed - like the public baths at Canterbury, which, after refurbishment at the beginning of the 4th century, soon fell into disuse and were taken over by `squatters'. On the other hand, town life of a sort certainly continued. Amid abandoned houses, plebeian hovels and piles of refuse and sewage, there were government offices, arms factories, official warehouses, and active markets. Canterbury's municipal baths were in ruins, but a street-front portico with shops and stalls was completely rebuilt around AD 400.

After the grand houses had been pulled down in Colchester's Culver Street suburb, a huge aisled warehouse was constructed, perhaps for storing taxes-in-kind and military supplies.

At Caerwent, though much of the old town hall was demolished, one part was retained and given a central-heating system, perhaps for government offices, while another was used for metalworkers' hearths and furnaces, possibly for making armaments. These sites were still towns, but very different from those of the 2nd century - no longer the local centres and garden-cities of a Romanising gentry, but heavily defended outposts of an embattled empire. Imperial defence was the priority and local infrastructures were kept up because the war effort needed them. The imperial grandees in control - courtiers, officers, civil servants and bishops - enriched themselves; but gentry, peasantry, towns, villas and villages were left impoverished.

When the last Roman soldiers left the island or melted back into the countryside in the early 5th century, Britain's fragile Romanitas had already rotted away to almost nothing.

The succeeding Dark Ages are `dark' for archaeologists precisely because virtually none of the rich material culture of Roman Britain survived.

Almost the whole edifice of Romanisation vanished in a generation or two - the forts, towns and villas, the mosaics, frescoes and hypocausts, the stone-quarries, potteries and markets. Late Roman Britain had been part of a world system in crisis, and because it was a distant, under-developed region, it was one of the first to fall.

Neil Faulkner's book `The Decline and Fall of Roman Britain' was published by Tempus last month

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