Skip main navigation

New offer! Get 30% off your first 2 months of Unlimited Monthly. Start your subscription for just £29.99 £19.99. New subscribers only. T&Cs apply

Find out more

The transformation of Roman cities: from rubbish to revelations

In this step, you’ll see how the trash or rubbish of the past helps reveal important historical knowledge.
The developments which took shape in the fifth century were disruptive, since centralized and militarized administration, stripped the management of urban resources from the aristocracy. The latter were already weakened by declining income, as their profits were based on an economy that revolved around the commercialization of specialized agricultural production. The militarization of society caused, not only the progressive decline of urban infrastructure and monuments, but also enormous changes
to the lifestyle of the upper classes: their residences, their clothes, and even how they spent their leisure time. The need for defense and the financial investment it required, caused in most cities, the decay of public buildings, followed either by the gradual adaptation, abandonment, or even destruction of roads, aqueducts, sewers, and ports, of buildings and public spaces, such as those used for entertainment, temples or public baths. The decay also spread to private housing, which demanded resources no longer available. In general, the poor state of maintenance of aqueducts reduced the functioning of sewers and thus led to the accumulation of rubbish.
The deterioration of the systems that brought water to cities undoubtedly had profound public health consequences, with an increase in gastrointestinal illnesses caused by contaminated water. Enormous dumps appear within the walls, reusing public squares and monuments, even in very prominent locations. When it comes to rubbish as a phenomenon, urban archaeologists pay particularly close attention to dark earth. In many European cities, dark colored layers occurred directly above the remains of Roman age structures, often robbed, decayed or partially destroyed. The term “dark earth” was used to address such deposits dating to the late Roman, early medieval period, that is the fifth to the 11th century AD, initially in the UK and later on in Italy and France.
Today, sophisticated analysis such as soil micromorphology, soil chemical analysis and gas chromatography, mass spectrometry analysis of organic traces, can be performed in order to corroborate the data, gathered from a stratigraphic excavation and to reconstruct human activities and the use of space in the city during this dark period. Generally, analysis performed in Northern Italian cities showed that these deposits were created by the accumulation of solid rubbish, that is artifacts, ecofacts, and the encasing sedimentary matrix inside the city and not anymore as in Roman times, in dumps outside the city. In such a framework, these forms of anthropic accretion embody the tangible outcome of the change in the life ways of cities after the collapse of the Roman regulatory system.
These processes happen at different times and within different local situations which varied from city to city, and even between one neighborhood and the next, in response to circumstances that require a local analysis. Nevertheless, some features were widespread across place and time. The spoliation of Roman public monuments, for example, continued for centuries until the late middle ages. One of the most salient features of early medieval cities is the appearance of numerous artisans and industrial workshops in central locations, especially within former public buildings. It is possible that many of these productive activities were conducted under the control of public authorities, whether Gothic, Lombard, or Roman. In other cases, they were connected to religious centers such as monasteries.
In the last decade, the effects of these productive activities on the deterioration of antique buildings have been studied in depth by archaeologists. But other effects should also be considered from how the entry of craftspeople socially impacted cities to environmental damage created by pollution. The latter also shaped public health, particularly in relation to respiratory illnesses.

Have you ever heard the saying: “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure”?

In this step, with the help of Cristiano Nicosia, an associate professor at the University of Padua, we’ll see how the trash or rubbish of the past helps reveal important historical knowledge. Our archaeological lens will focus on the fifth century, a period characterised by disruption, with the decline of the Roman Empire and the beginnings of the Early Middle Ages.

You’re more than welcome to ask questions or share your insights in the Comments section!
This article is from the free online

Enlightening the Dark Ages: Early Medieval Archaeology in Italy

Created by
FutureLearn - Learning For Life

Reach your personal and professional goals

Unlock access to hundreds of expert online courses and degrees from top universities and educators to gain accredited qualifications and professional CV-building certificates.

Join over 18 million learners to launch, switch or build upon your career, all at your own pace, across a wide range of topic areas.

Start Learning now