Are Roman Slaves Visible in the Archaeological Record?

The latest volume of Journal of Roman Archaeology is out. It has no less than six papers on slavery in the Roman world (five from a 2001 conference in Rome), a topic that previously has been somewhat overlooked in archaeology because of the perceived invisibility of slaves in terms of material culture and purpose-built monuments. However, Jane Webster, building on her previous work that has taken inspiration from North American and Caribbean archaeology, takes issue with this assumption and suggests a number of sites in Britain as linked to slaves. These include several roundhouses found on villa sites (e.g. Redlands Farm, Stanwick). These have in the past been interpreted as animal pens, which might tell us something of the conditions Roman slaves lived under.

It is assumed that Roman slaves, like their American counterparts, were responsible of building their own accomodations, and round structures on otherwise ‘Romanized’ sites could be characteristic of enslaved native Britons. Webster also discusses the enigmatic round buildings found at the Roman fort Vindolanda just south of Hadrian’s Wall. These buildings are truly fascinating, not only because they are one of the most unlikely finds in a 2nd century CE Roman fort. Why were they there? And who built them?

Slave accommodation at Vindolanda? Stone foundations of three round buildings dated to the 2nd century CE. Photo: TMK, October 2003.

The circular structures, as they are officially known, have been found over several seasons of work. In the north-eastern part of the fort, six were located in the 1930s excavations and a seventh in 1979. In the late 1990s, an additional two were found underneath the praetorium, and in 2000 six were excavated under the south-western wall of Stone Fort 2. From these latest excavations, it is clear that the buildings extended beyond both the north and south walls of the two stone forts. This means that they were probably built over a clear plateau without defences. It is estimated that there would have been room for 240 of these structures on the site.

There has been much debate over how to interpret the circular structures. Early suggestions included mill-houses and religious shrines, and more recently, suggestions such as a prison or refugee camp have been put forward. There are no parallels on military sites, but a number of similar buildings have been found in isolation on villa sites. Their similarity with Iron Age-style roundhouses has led some to suggest that they were built by natives. One possible explanation is that they were surveyed by Roman architects and built by different groups of individuals, since the huts are built very differently. Unfortunately, the excavations revealed very few finds.

Webster suggests that the huts are ergastula, i.e. slave ‘prisons’. This is a very tempting interpretation, but one important question needs to be addressed: Why place 240 slave huts in the middle of nowhere? I think that the location of such a camp so close to Hadrian’s Wall could suggest that the inhabitants of the huts were more hostages than slaves, although the reality of such a distinction can be debated.

In an article in the same issue, Elisabeth Fentress suggests four well-known monuments as being linked to the slave trade: Crypta Balbi (Rome), the Herculaneum ‘Basilica’, the Eumachia Building (Pompeii) and the porticus of the Round Temple at Ostia. There will also be a session on Roman slavery at AIA Montreal, so the debate is only beginning to take off.

I haven’t been updating the site as much as I would like recently, but I can promise coverage from the AIA meeting in Montreal in early January. I will also try to get some more posts done before then. I have plenty of drafts, but time is precious…

Justin Blake. 2001. The Southern Defences of Stone Fort Two, with the Circular Huts and Other Features. Vindolanda Trust.
Elisabeth Fentress. 2005. “On the Block: Catastae, Chalcidica and Cryptae in Early Imperial Italy”, JRA 18: 220-234.
Jane Webster. 2005. “Archaeologies of Slavery and Servitude: Bringing ‘New World’ Perspective to Roman Britain”, JRA 18: 161-179.

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