The Science of Roman History: biology, climate, and the future of the past
Walter Scheidel (ed.)
Princeton University Press, £27
Review by: Hella Eckardt
The study of the Roman past is often thought of as a conservative discipline, but this book demonstrates the enormous potential of historians and archaeologists engaging with new types of evidence. Edited by the eminent Walter Scheidel, the book brings together a range of archaeological scientists, who present a summary of the latest thinking in their field in seven well-referenced chapters.
The first covers the impact of climate change, highlighting how increasingly fine-grained proxy data can be used to reconstruct local, regional, and Empire-wide patterns. The next two chapters (on archaeobotany and zooarchaeology) represent two fundamental methods, which illuminate questions of economy, food supply, and diet. Two further papers focus on human skeletal analysis, giving overviews and examples of the contributions of palaeodemography and biometrics (stature), palaeopathology (the study of ancient diseases), and bone chemistry (specifically isotope analysis, which is increasingly used to explore both diet and geographical origin of individuals). The final two papers demonstrate the potential of both ancient and modern DNA to reveal origins of people – and even diseases, such as the plague of Justinian. Overall, this is a fabulous introduction to a wide range of techniques, and provides numerous fascinating insights into life in the Roman period.