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Evidence in East England has revealed that there were Roman vineyards in the area. Source: mythja / Adobe Stock

Make Wine Not War: Digs in England Reveal 1st Century Roman Vineyard

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Excavations in Cambridgeshire, England, recently produced evidence to suggest that Roman winemakers were active in the region in the first century, possibly as early as 43 AD. This was the time of Emperor Claudius’s invasion of the British Isles, an event which reduced the lands of the modern United Kingdom to occupied territory for nearly four centuries. Nevertheless, it would seem the Romans brought the secrets of grape growing and wine production to England, setting up Roman vineyards to produce this prized alcoholic beverage right from the start.

Explorations in East England Unearth Roman Vineyard

In anticipation of an upcoming highway expansion project, archaeologists from the Museum of London Archaeology (MOLA) have been exploring a massive area along the Bedfordshire and Cambridgeshire border in East England, looking for treasures left behind by past civilizations. It is known that ancient settlements existed on this site, which so far has produced artifacts dating back to the Bronze Age (2,500 BC to 800 BC), the Iron Age (800 BC to 43 AD) and the Roman Period (43 to 410).

During recent explorations, the researchers removed several core samples from waterlogged soil to see what they could learn about ancient agricultural practices. When examined closely, some of the samples were found to contain grains of grape pollen from the types of grapes favored by Roman winemakers. This means settlers must have installed a Roman vineyard in this area, presumably not long after they arrived in the first century.

In addition to the telltale signs of grape growing, the MOLA archaeologists also unearthed the remains of several headless animals. Even more intriguingly, they dug up a pen-like writing implement known as a stylus, which would have been used during Roman times to write on wax tablets.

These findings suggest that there was indeed Roman settlement at the site, founded by the same people who converted some of the surrounding land into a vineyard, or perhaps multiple vineyards. Experts hope that future excavations may uncover evidence for this.

Excavations in the area revealed human settlements dating back to the late Middle Age (1400 to 100 BC). (MOLA)

Excavations in the area revealed human settlements dating back to the late Middle Age (1400 to 100 BC). (MOLA)

Trade Networks and Grape Growing: Roman Civilization Arrives in Britain

During the ongoing excavations for a new 10-mile dual carriageway that will connect the cities of Cambridge and Milton Keynes, archaeologists working for the government’s motorway management organization National Highways have unearthed a wealth of artifacts that in some cases date back thousands of years. The MOLA team was investigating a huge section of land which covers about 180 acres (73 hectares) in total when they discovered what they believe to be a Roman vineyard.

This is one of the largest excavations to occur on English soil. Up until recently the area had produced artifacts left by settlements dating as far back as the English Iron Age, which began in 800 BC. But new excavations produced something even more ancient, when archaeologists found a loom weight used for clothes making. Early estimates are that this heavy stone with a carefully carved hole in its center was made during the Bronze Age, meaning it may be more than 3,000 years old.

Before this, the MOLA archaeologists had only found a few stone arrow points believed to be Bronze Age relics left behind by hunter-gatherers tracking herds through the area. But the loom weight represented the first evidence that an actual Bronze Age settlement may have existed at the site. However, most of the focus at the moment is on discoveries linked to the Roman Period, a legendary time that never fails to fascinate British archaeologists and historians.

Besides evidence of a Roman vineyard, excavations uncovered the skeletal remains of sheep and pigs, providing insights into the Roman diet. (National Highways)

Besides evidence of a Roman vineyard, excavations uncovered the skeletal remains of sheep and pigs, providing insights into the Roman diet. (National Highways)

In addition to the evidence of a winemaking industry and Roman vineyard, archaeologists have uncovered a cache of interesting items that would have been imported into the region from elsewhere, along long-distance Roman trade routes. Amongst their finds they unearthed several large ancient storage jars known as amphorae, which would have been used to ship olive oil from Spain.

The excavations also unearthed fragments of fancy dinnerware in the Samian style, which would have been imported from northern France by Roman elites. The Roman stylus is also a significant find. It would have been used to write on Roman wax tablets, possibly for the purposes of record-keeping if business transactions were going on in the Roman settlement.

The bones of the headless animals are yet another important discovery, one that reveals new details about the culinary habits of Romans living in Britain. Many of the skeletal remains came from sheep and pigs, from which the Romans would have obtained their meat. Interestingly, these bones were found in the bottom of a pit, indicating that they were disposed of following large community feasts. Elsewhere on the site another Roman pit was found, but this one was reserved for used and broken ceramic pottery.

“These incredible discoveries show us that Bedfordshire and Cambridgeshire were incredibly well connected with other regions across Great Britain and Europe,” enthused National Highways senior project manager Lorraine Bennetts, in a National Highways press release. “We are working with schools and other community groups to showcase these finds with craft workshops and virtual realizations so people can really understand our local history.” Soon these remarkable discoveries will be made available for public viewing.

The excavations also revealed a Roman stylus which would have been used to write on wax tablets during the Roman conquest of Britain. (MOLA)

The excavations also revealed a Roman stylus which would have been used to write on wax tablets during the Roman conquest of Britain. (MOLA)

Winemaking Not War: What Remnants of Roman Vineyard Can Teach Us

When the forces of Emperor Claudius arrived in the British Isles in 43 AD as part of the Roman Empire’s British invasion, they would have found a land with a climate that was warmer than it is today. For, despite the modern-day climate which sends Brits south ever year for some sunshine, at the time it would have provided ideal growing conditions for grapes.

Previous discoveries have suggested that Roman vineyards were installed in multiple locations in Cambridgeshire and in the surrounding counties, although the newly unearthed site offers the most conclusive evidence of such activity that has yet been found.

When the Romans marched into eastern England in the areas north of London, they met resistance from forces led by an individual named Caratacus, a descendent of a celebrated Celtic king who was the leader of ancient Britain’s influential Catuvellauni clan. Caratacus’s fierce efforts to hold back the Roman tide ultimately proved to be in vain, but the Romans apparently admired his bravery and pardoned him after his final defeat.

In the wake of these developments, the people who lived in the region may have been amenable to the Roman interest in planting grapes and making wine, since that would have formed a relatively peaceful basis for forming a shared local economy. After all, the people may have reasoned, isn’t it better to have Roman agriculturists occupying the region than legions of Roman soldiers expecting further rebellions?

In any regard, the newly discovered Roman vineyard, and others apparently found in the area, offer solid evidence that the Romans brought their wine-drinking culture with them when they landed in England and didn’t wait to adopt the practice until later.

Notably, jars that would have been used to import wine from Italy have been found in Britain, indicating that at least some Romans preferred the wine made in their homeland to that which was locally produced. But grape growing and Roman winemaking eventually gained a major foothold in Britain, and it remained a popular practice long after the Romans had departed.

Top image: Evidence in East England has revealed that there were Roman vineyards in the area. Source: mythja / Adobe Stock

By Nathan Falde

 
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Nathan

Nathan Falde graduated from American Public University in 2010 with a Bachelors Degree in History, and has a long-standing fascination with ancient history, historical mysteries, mythology, astronomy and esoteric topics of all types. He is a full-time freelance writer from... Read More

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