The ritual recycling of Roman building material in late 4th- and early 5th-century Britain
By Robin Fleming
Post – Classical Archaeologies, Vol.6 (2016)
Abstract: Much of the scholarly literature on late and post-Roman recycling focuses on either the pragmatic or the ideological reuse of spolia. This article, however, examines the widespread late- and post-Roman practice in Britain of including recycled Roman building material in ritual activities, especially in closure deposits made in wells. Deposits like these, which are found in more than forty wells, and which dated between c. 370 and c. 430, are described and analysed.
Introduction: The literature on late- and post-Roman recycling most familiar to scholars focuses on the ideological uses of spolia. Numerous studies have analyzed the ways great men deployed recycled building materials to bolster claims that they were true heirs to a past Golden Age. Elites regularly engaged in this practice in the West from the late-3rd century through the Carolingian era, and we find generations of strivers across Continental Europe embellishing their own monumental buildings with spolia taken from earlier Roman structures. Not only were great men reusing decorative elements taken from ancient buildings, but they were repurposing antique metalwork, gemstones, and ivory carvings as well, adding them to “modern” liturgical vessels, book covers, reliquaries, and jewelry.
Although some of this recycling was spurred on by economic necessity, much of it was driven by programmatic and ideological concerns and was the result of active choice. Less has been written about recycling in less august circles. Much of it was pragmatic, and although evidence for this activity is less dramatic in the material record, it is clear that many people recycled to compensate for a decline in the production of basic goods and materials, such as iron, problems apparent in many places in the West by the 5th century. I will not rehearse the arguments I have made elsewhere for the ubiquity of metal recycling in early medieval Britain, except to note that there is both abundant evidence for the scavenging of Roman iron objects in the post-Roman period and for the precipitous decline by c. 400 CE of iron smelting in Britain. There is also convincing evidence that the majority of copper-alloy and lead objects made and used in lowland Britain in the 5th and early 6th centuries were fabricated from recycled, scavenged Roman objects.
Top Image: 11th-century doorway of Holy Trinity Church, Colchester, built with recycled Roman brick. Photo by Christian Etheridge / Wikimedia Commons