This is a guest blog, written by visiting specialists Dr Richard Madgwick


The Feeding the Roman Army in Britain (FRAB) project led by archaeozoologist Dr Richard Madgwick (Cardiff University), geochemist Dr Angela Lamb (British Geological Survey) and archaeologist Dr Peter Guest (Vianova Archaeology & Heritage Services), is funded by The Leverhulme Trust. The project is investigating how the challenges of supplying the Roman Army on the frontiers of Britannia were met. This is being achieved by studying animal teeth and bone to produce one of the largest multi-isotope (strontium, sulphur, carbon and nitrogen) datasets in archaeological research to date. Archaeozoology collections from multiple museums will be sampled with a focus on the main three domestic animals - pig, cattle and sheep - from forts and rural settlements in three regions – Hadrian’s Wall, the Antonine Wall and southeast Wales. By exploring the diet and place of birth of those animals, FRAB will provide, for the first time, a sophisticated understanding of how soldiers in these areas were provisioned. This will address how the Roman Empire supplied and maintained its very large frontier garrisons and the nature of the Roman army’s impact on the native populations and landscapes of conquered territories. The multi-isotope analysis will reveal animal origins, the supply networks that supported military garrisons and any new animal husbandry strategies introduced to intensify production and support the army. Ultimately this will improve understanding of the frontiers as economic as well as militarised zones.

Project team members from Cardiff University and Vianova Archaeology on our sampling trip to Vindolanda in November 2022.

Vindolanda has produced a vast quantity of faunal remains during the multiple seasons of excavation and much of this, from early occupation phases, is perfectly suited to addressing questions of how effective supply to the army was achieved on the distant frontiers. FRAB will analyse 48 samples of pig, sheep, goat and cattle, from a cavalry barrack and the granary (areas V12, V13 and V17), dating to c. AD 105-120 (Phase IV). Isotope data will be used to explore how varied animal origins were, whether they were locally raised or came from further afield, perhaps even imported by sea or from north of the wall. It will also address whether new approaches to animal management were employed to raise the large stocks the army needed in this unfamiliar, northerly territory. Results from Vindolanda will be compared to those from other contemporary Hadrian’s Wall forts at South Shields, Wallsend, Housesteads and Birdoswald, to explore how different sites were sustained, as well as the supply base at Corbridge.

Most of the project’s samples from Vindolanda, as at most Hadrian’s Wall forts, are cattle, and it is clear that beef was key to supplying the army. Previous research at the legionary fortress at Caerleon in Wales showed that at least 25% of cattle consumed by the Legion came from beyond the local region, and possibly far more (Madgwick et al. 2019, Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences). It reveals a significant impact of the presence of the Roman Legion on the countryside and a complex supply network around military sites. Forts like Vindolanda will have required a specific supply and landscape management strategy, yet archaeologists and historians know very little about the approaches this entailed. Feeding the Roman Army in Britain aims to change this situation, by conducting multi-isotope analyses on more than 600 animal specimens.