Blog Post #63: Graduate Student Feature with Neal Payne

One of Peopling the Past’s goals is to amplify the work of young and/or under-represented scholars and the amazing research that they are doing to add new perspectives to the fields of ancient history and archaeology (broadly construed). We will thus feature several blog posts throughout the year interviewing graduate students on their research topics, focusing on how they shed light on real people in the past.

What topic do you study? 

I am a third year PhD student in the Faculty of Classics at the University of Cambridge, Darwin College. I am a Roman archaeologist with a focus in Roman Britain and archaeobotany.  

My thesis research focuses on long-term agricultural change spanning a millennium between 800 BCE and 800 CE in Yorkshire (Fig. 1), with a particular emphasis on the Roman conquest of the region. My study area correlates roughly with the modern English counties of East, North, South, and West Yorkshire, though extends northward across the Tees Valley into southern Durham and south across the Humber into North Lincolnshire. This geographic region lies between the militarised northern frontier and the more prolonged Pre-Flavian Roman occupation to the south.  

The main goal of my research is to better understand the impact of Roman conquest through an integration of Roman and pre-Roman arable practices across the region. Additionally, I am seeking to provide a better understanding of local variability of this process through the impacts of growing population densities, military supply demands, and local microregional climates and landscapes. 

What sources or data do you use?

My PhD research draws together the vast wealth of previously produced archaeobotanical research from Yorkshire. This includes reports produced by both research excavations such as the one I have been involved with at Aldborough (Fig. 2), and archaeobotanical specialist reports produced as part of developer funded commercial archaeological excavations. My project has collated and standardized the archaeobotanical reports from over 500 archaeological sites, and over 2500 unique archaeological contexts.

Neil stands on rocky ground within an archaeological excavation. He is wearing a light coloured baseball cap, a blue t-shirt, and green pants.
Fig 2: Aldborough, North Yorkshire 2022

The study of botanical remains from Roman archaeological sites in Britain has an expansive history dating back to the early 1900s. Currently the majority of Romano-British archaeobotanical research is dominated by two extremes, (1) small-scale specialist reports spawned by specific excavations and (2) large-scale national syntheses that seek to identify some combination of site-type, spatial, or temporal variation. The former of these approaches provides detailed information on specific excavation locations, though often remains disengaged from wider regional narratives. The latter often relies on modern categorizations imposed on to the archaeobotanical data to infer patterns of significance. My approach differs in that it steps back from these previous emphases, focusing instead on temporal variance in a specific region and using this broad dataset to identify emerging spatial patterns in crop-distribution.

One of the major issues encountered when working with this dataset is the diversity of reporting strategies that have been employed over time and by different archaeobotanists working in the region. To counter this issue and allow the greatest amount of data to be utilized, I revised a pre-existing semi-quantitative method (see, Heiss and Stika 2013; Effenberger 2018) to standardize the region’s data, while minimizing the impact of preservation biases on the archaeobotanical material. Ultimately, this broad dataset will produce a model of long-term agricultural change in the region. This model is structured around 50-year intervals, an attempt to minimize the biases of pre-determined periodization and allow for the inclusion of the various levels of dating resolution found in the dataset.

an excavation square has been dug in a large green field, and one person in inside the perimeter examining something. Another person stands in the foreground with survey equipment.
Fig 3: Aldborough 2022
How does your research shed light on real people in the past? 

People, plants, and their landscape are fundamentally entangled. As such, my project uses changes in plant remains as a proxy for the changes occurring in people’s everyday lives.

Traditionally, the Roman conquest of Britain has been viewed as either the imposition of Roman material culture, and more problematically civilization, on to the local population by either the Romans or local elites; or more recently, through a narrative of local resistance to these external forces. Both approaches structure a firm dichotomy between the Romans and the Iron Age peoples of Britain. This binary conceals the diverse responses to the region’s annexation evident in the archaeological record, while also problematically framing the Romans as a single monolithic entity.

The botanical dimension of the Roman conquest of Britain has likewise been rooted in this binary, with specific plants coming to be seen as indicators of Roman cultural practices and progress. This framing reductively homogenizes the impact Roman conquest had for different people across the annexed territory. By disengaging from these predefined narratives of polarizing adoption or resistance, my thesis research is working towards exploring the diversity with which people engaged with the plants and their shared landscape across this transformative period, foregrounding the non-fixed nature of this process – its spatial and temporal variation.

Further Reading


Effenberger, Henrike. 2018 The Plant Economy of the Northern European Bronze Age—More Diversity through Increased Trade with Southern Regions. Vegetation History and Archaeobotany 27:65-74.

Heiss, Andreas G., Hans-Peter Stika. 2013 Making the Incomparable Comparable? A New Attempt of the Semi-Quantitative Evaluation of Large-Scale Archaeobotanical Data. 6th Symposium of the International Work Group for Palaeoethnobotany in Thessaloniki. Aristotle University of Thessaloniki. DOI: 10.13140/2.1.3426.8167

Livarda, Alexandra. 2011 Spicing Up Life in Northwestern Europe: Exotic Food Plant Imports in the Roman and Medieval World. Vegetation History and Archaeobotany 20:143-164.

Lodwick, Lisa. 2017 Arable Farming, Plant Foods and Resources. In New visions of the countryside of Roman Britain volume 2: The Rural Economy of Roman Britain, Britannia Monograph 30, edited by Martyn Allen, Lisa Lodwick. Tom Brindle, Michael Fulford, and A. Smith, pp. 11-84. Society for the Promotion of Roman Studies, London.

Meadows, Karen I. 1995 You Are What You Eat: Diet, Identity, and Romanisation. In TRAC 94: Proceedings of the Fourth Annual Theoretical Roman Archaeology Conference, edited by S. Cottam, D. Dungworth, S. Scott, and J. Taylor, pp. 133–140. Oxbow Books, Oxford.

Van der Veen, Marijke, Alexandra Livarda, Alistair Hill. 2007 The Archaeobotany of Roman Britain: Current State and Identification of Research Priorities. Britannia 38:181-210.

Van der Veen, Marijke, Alistair Hill, Alexandra Livarda. 2013 The Archaeobotany of Medieval Britain (c ad 450-1500): Identifying Research Priorities for the 21st Century. Medieval Archaeology 57(1):151-182.

Witcher, Robert. 2013 On Rome’s Ecological Contribution to British Flora and Fauna: Landscape, Legacy and Identity. Landscape History 34(2):5-26.

Online Resources

Aldborough Roman Town Project

The Rural Settlement of Roman Britain

Niel bends down holding a trowel over an archaeological find within a dig site.

Neal Payne graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in Environment with Majors in both Archaeology and English and a Certificate in Liberal Arts from Simon Fraser University. He completed a Master of Arts in Archaeology at Simon Fraser University under the supervision of Dr. Sabrina Higgins. Currently, he is a PhD student in the Faculty of Classics at the University of Cambridge, Darwin College under the supervision of Professor Martin Millett. Neal’s research is funded by the University of Cambridge’s Faculty of Classics through the F. S. Salisbury Studentship and through a Canadian Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council Doctoral Fellowship. Neal has previously excavated in Italy and has spent the past summers of 2021 and 2022 as part of Aldborough Roman Town Project excavation team in Aldborough, North Yorkshire, UK.

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