Big Data on the Roman Table

‌Workshop 2 of the AHRC Research Network

Led by Professor Penelope Allison (Leicester) and Dr Martin Pitts (Exeter)

July 6-7th 2016, Innovation Centre, University of Exeter


Eating and drinking are core activities around which interactions within and between households and communities are structured. As a vital sphere of socio-cultural practice, greater knowledge of everyday food consumption practices can better inform understandings of social connectedness and disconnectedness in the Roman world. Artefacts associated with eating and drinking have been recorded by archaeologists over many decades and are the largest component of ‘big data’ from the Roman world. They include mass-produced terra sigillata fine wares and more numerous local imitations and off-shoots, as well as metal and glass wares and utensils. These under-utilised data provide fine-grained information on Roman food-consumption practices essential for a bottom-up approach to varied experiences of phenomena such as imperialism and globalisation. An artefactual approach permits analyses of representative cross-sections of societies throughout the empire, and more understanding of the lives of people less well recorded in the written sources (e.g. women, children, ordinary soldiers, non-élites, provincials), while also incorporating more visible groups such as urban elites. Current knowledge of everyday consumption practices for the majority living in the Roman Empire remain uneven. Little is known about how, where and with whom most people ate their meals, or what aspects of this social practice might have conveyed a universal sense of shared behaviour.


Workshop 2 focused on the cross-regional theme of ‘table settings’, supplemented by smaller sessions addressing approaches to vessel use, new approaches to analysing and visualising data, and relevant large data-sets. In addressing these themes, the workshop aimed to stimulate the development of guidelines for best practice for excavators and curators responsible for artefact datasets across the Roman world, and to set up frameworks for future international collaborative research programmes to apply best practice for the digital analysis and visualisation of large datasets relating to Roman consumption.

The workshop is funded by the AHRC Research Network, “Big Data on the Roman Table".