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Durham University

Department of Archaeology


Publication details for Dr Robert Witcher

Witcher, R.E. (2013). On Rome’s Ecological Contribution to British Flora and Fauna: landscape, legacy and identity. Landscape History 34(2): 5-26.

Author(s) from Durham


This paper addresses the flora and fauna of Roman Britain via two long-lived and closely-related notions: the ‘Roman introduction’ and the ‘living legacy’. These concepts connect knowledge and beliefs about the introduction of new species during the Roman period with the idea of direct and enduring biological inheritance in post-Roman societies. The paper explores both the popular and academic prominence of the Romans as agents of ecological change with effects on landscape, identity and diet which are still discernible and resonant today. These notions demonstrate wide currency, from popular stories through to scientific research.

Today, archaeobotany and zooarchaeology are the primary means of documenting the flora and fauna of Roman Britain. Yet the discipline of archaeology came late to this topic. This paper outlines the evolving sources of evidence used over the past 400 years to identify those species introduced during the Roman period. This includes consideration of the reception of classical texts, linguistic etymology and genetic analysis. An overarching narrative behind these concepts is the colonial theoretical framework of ‘Romanisation’, or the genealogical appropriation of the Romans as ‘our’ cultural and biological ancestors.

Despite interest in the reception of Rome and its archaeological remains, scholars have been slow to recognise the centrality of flora and fauna for understanding historical and contemporary perceptions of the Roman past. This paper opens a new avenue of research by calling attention to the intellectual biography of the dominant interpretive frameworks which structure both scientific approaches to the collection and interpretation of data and popular attitudes towards landscape and identity.