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Understanding the construction works of the past

Building Roman Britain

This innovative programme of archaeological science will characterise stone and ceramic building materials and explore the contexts within which they were produced.

The Roman invasion of Britain in AD43 brought with it not only new customs and cultures but new architectural and building styles. These styles required building material not typically used in Britain; stone and ceramic building material (CBM).

The need for high volumes of stone and CBM as construction materials would have required resources that extended far beyond the existing Iron Age procurement networks. As such, it represents a clear socio-economic change that would have had significant impact on native communities. The Building Roman Britain Project is exploring these issues through an innovative programme of archaeological science that characterises these materials and the production landscapes within which they were produced.

Discover how BU’s archaeologists have worked closely with partners at the famous sites of The Roman Baths and Fishbourne Roman Palace – using new methods to examine the main materials used by the Romans in their buildings.

The project was initially supported by HEIF grants. This included the development of a framework through which portable X-ray fluorescence (pXRF) can add to our understanding of Roman building material. While XRF has been used for some time in archaeology, the recent development of portable XRF has added a whole new dimension. We no longer have to bring samples to the lab, but the lab can come to the museum, examining stone and ceramic samples that are on display.

The Department of Archaeology and Anthropology is at the leading edge of this development and has already made a reputation using pXRF on archaeological soils, metals and for forensic analyses. However, work by science-based archaeology departments into Roman building material and ceramic building material has been limited. This is therefore an opportunity to work up a methodology and to apply it to the early Roman settlement of Britain.

The initial  work formed the centrepiece of a knowledge exchange network with two leading museums in southern Britain (Roman Bath Museum and Fishbourne Roman Palace Museum) who are using our results in innovative interpretations, including new displays and museum learning centres. The research supports knowledge exchange activity with SMEs by building on links established by BU over many years with archaeological museums in southern Britain.

Museums are a vital component of our local economy. For instance, Roman Bath Museum attracts well over 1 million visitors per annum, making it one of the most popular museums outside London. Its importance not only to Bath but to the wider regional economy is well recognised. But museums must constantly renew themselves and offer an exciting educational package to visitors of all ages.

With this in mind the Museum Association has made collaborations between universities and museums one of its key priorities, and as such this project should be seen as a model of best practice.

The latest phase of the work began in 2019 with the appointment of a PhD student, Owen Kearn, funded through a match-funded scholarship by the University and our partner organisation, The Roman Baths run by the Heritage Services section of Bath and North East Somerset Council. Owen is taking this work on to a new level, looking in detail at both the ceramic building material (bricks, tiles, etc) and the building stone used in constructing the Roman baths. As well as using pXRF to characterise the material, he is also examining similar types of material used on other sites and possible quarries and tileries where the material was procured and produced.

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