Burial customs

Burial customs are very important as it is very much linked to culture as we observe a particular society’s treatment and approach to their dead, thus giving us an insight into how identities are negotiated, along with recording the globalisation of social practices. Also Pitts comments that it was common for amphorae, drinking vessels and metal drinking utensils, usually imported goods, to be found in the tombs. This perhaps hints at the importance of drinking held by the society9. One very good example of how cultures embraced and utilised Roman culture in funerary rituals is to be found in Woolf’s ‘Becoming Roman’ where the Lingon wanted his altar beside his tomb to be made of marble from Luni in Italy, which is meant to be the best quality stone, Woolf comments that it is significant that the Lingon knew precisely where the best marble was to be found as it shows that he has become more culturally aware of the quality materials the Roman world has to offer.

Pottery is considered to be the least biased class of material culture, as Pitts states that it has the ability to “provide a bottom-up perspective of consumption practice at virtually all levels of society”.10 This is important as issues have been raised about trusting evidence which belonged to the elite class as it will not give a viewpoint from a sub-elite class’ perspective, and so it is considered to be biased towards the elites. What pottery can offer us is an insight into a particular society’s consumption habits, for example we can see that by the number of amphorae and drinking vessels, found in sites in Britain, that drinking and feasting were major customs before Romans invaded, but studies had shown that the production of this pottery is reduced after the invasion, Pitts suggests that it is because the practice of feasting was no longer able to affirm one’s status as an elite.

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Small finds, which can include things like swords, brooches, glass, are useful in providing an insight into all classes of a society, more importantly in the non-elite classes. Brooches can be seen as useful towards understanding identity as they could have several uses such as expressing age, gender, ethnicity and what class a wearer belongs to. Literature can be useful, however there is the problem of it being written from a ‘Romano-centric’ viewpoint and has the potential to be very biased. According to Tacitus the Britons “who just lately had been rejecting the Roman tongue now conceived a desire for eloquence…the toga was everywhere to be seen…warm baths and elegant banquets.” This is a good example of classical text which describes how Britons assumed the identity of Roman culture.

Using a case study such as Pompeii can help illustrate the usefulness of material culture studies, as this city was against Rome in the Social War, and was successfully besieged in 89 BC where it was turned into a Roman colony. From here we can see the imposed identity on the citizens in the city and how the culture was adopted. The official language of Pompeii was Oscan but was soon replaced with Latin. The temple was converted into a Capitolium where statues of Jupiter, Juno, and Minerva were placed on a high podium. A temple to Venus was built along with an amphitheatre, a bath complex and a small odeon. So wholesale changes were made to the city of Pompeii and the identity of being connected to Rome was taken on.

From his analysis of Terrenato’s book on cultural bricolage12 , Roman E. Roth has pointed out that the concept of bricolage could be useful for the “study of Romanisation processes at all levels of society”.13 However he approaches Terrenato’s book with caution as he states that it mostly focuses on the social identity of elites. An example outlined by Roth is the city of Volterra, where villa-style buildings were found with mosaics and columns, but these were only for the elites whereas the sub-elites of Volterra did not experience the same changes that the elites had as their own buildings were untouched, unchanged for centuries. Terrenato concludes his book with stating that it was only the elites who adopted and embraced the cultural and political lifestyle of their Roman counterparts.

In conclusion material culture can be an extremely useful tool in understanding social identity as Pitts argues in his paper, “The emperor’s new clothes? The utility of identity in Roman archaeology”, that despite the recent attention paid to identity, which has led to focus being shed on ignored themes such as gender and on classes of evidence like small finds and pottery, there is still a major focus on cultural identity. He suggests that there should be an equilibrium between focus on cultural identity and on other forms of identity like gender and religion. Material cultural studies allows focus to be placed on these themes, which have previously been ignored, equally.

We must also acknowledge, as Woolf argues, that the transfer of Roman material culture does not automatically imply an associated transfer of Roman culture. There is also the problem of interpreting material culture as the analyst’s viewpoint of identities and the use of objects could be very different to what people, who actually used them in the past, perceived them to be. There are many questions to ask pertaining the problems with identity and material culture, for example is how much can the spread of Roman material culture be equated with Romanisation? Or did Rome actually pursue a policy of Romanisation or not? There are many opinions based on these types of questions, but material culture in social practice can help identity to be used as a way of understanding and explaining change.