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Archaeologists Uncover Roman Market Economy – KU Leuven

FLI Roman 1

A collection of well-preserved earthenware from Sagalassos, dating from the third century CE. This is tableware from the clubhouse of a non-identified association, used for communal dining practices. Before the clubhouse was closed, there was, apparently, one final big party. Tableware and leftovers were simply abandoned afterwards. © Sagalassos Archaeological Research Project

The Roman economy was a market rather than a bazaar, and it was more structured and integrated into the region than researchers sometimes assume. That is the conclusion of KU Leuven archaeologists after they used computer modelling to compare records on tens of thousands of excavated potsherds with theories of historians and economists.

Professor Jeroen Poblome coordinates the Sagalassos project and is thus a specialist in the archaeology of the eastern provinces of the Roman Empire. In addition, he also launched the Icrates project. This project creates an inventory of archaeological findings of tableware – plates, bowls, cups – and examines what we can learn from their distribution.

“We have processed roughly 40,000 potsherds, retrieved from some hundreds of sites,” says Professor Poblome. “Such large collections of archaeological data have enormous potential. By contrasting our data with historical theories in computer models, we can find out whether these theories are actually consistent with the reality of archaeological findings. In these computer models, we can, for instance, change certain parameters – think of the stock and prices of the tableware – to check whether a theory about the Roman economy still gives us what the archaeological data say it should give us. The result is a much clearer image of the economic reality of the time than was hitherto possible.”

“Such use of archaeological material is new. Historians sometimes use large-scale statistical data about, for instance, the number of sunken ships in the Mediterranean or metal pollution in the pack ice of the North Pole. But data about the distribution of simple and cheap objects such as cups and plates teach us much more about the everyday economic reality of the people in those days.”

Bazaar or market?

FLI Roman 2

“This is a new way of dealing with archaeological data, which suddenly acquire a much broader scientific relevance,” says Professor Jeroen Poblome – pictured here doing fieldwork in Sagalassos. © Sagalassos Archaeological Research Project

Poblome and his colleague Tom Brughmans (University of Konstanz & University of Southampton) focused on two theories, both of which claim to capture the economy of the Roman Empire. The first could be called the theory of the bazaar. It describes an economy that is only embedded in society to a limited degree. Traders more or less formed their own protectionist groups. They had a limited awareness of prices in the wider area or of the demand for and availability of goods. Their information was limited, their field of action chaotic, their results unpredictable.

The second could be called the theory of the market. It posits that there was a significantly higher degree of embeddedness. Through the social networks of the time, traders, according to this view, actually had good information and they were well able to tailor their prices and stocks to local needs. They also understood the broader economic possibilities in the Mediterranean area.

“At first sight, there’s something to be said for both theories,” says Professor Poblome. “But if you confront them, like we have done, with archaeological data in a computer model, you can easily show which theory corresponds most with the distribution pattern of tableware. The answer is abundantly clear: the theory of the market. Let me give you an example. At any given archaeological site, you will never find tableware from just one production centre. And you also never excavate two identical sets of tableware. The only possible explanation is a clear demand for goods coupled with a broad and rapidly changing supply. Taken together, these are the characteristics of a market economy.”

Strong and robust

“Our archaeological data show that the Roman economy was characterized by widespread and layered distribution. There were large-scale, international production centres that distributed their products in a very large area. In addition, there were a number of more local centres – comparable with Sagalassos – that fulfilled the needs of the residents of a smaller, but still relatively large area. And finally, there were the small local companies.”

“The Roman market, in other words, was a strong and robust apparatus. Traders could be active in a large area, and their good networks gave them access to reliable information about the wishes and needs of the consumer.”

“Coupling historical theory and archaeological reality has enabled us to confirm specific historical insights. This is a new way of dealing with archaeological data, which suddenly acquire a much broader scientific relevance. Not bad with just a few old potsherds, isn’t it?”

Source: KU Leuven
(Translated by Katrien Bollen)

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