Institute for Biodiversity and Ecosystem Dynamics

Romans reason for massive deforestation of the Dutch landscape

11 March 2014

Researchers from the Institute for Biodiversity and Ecosystem Dynamics (IBED) have reconstructed the impact of Roman occupation on the environment near Utrecht using ancient river sediments. Such sediments hold many clues to the past and allowed the research team to use fossil pollen, plant remains and fragments of beetles in combination with chemical analyses to reconstruct the dramatic influence of Romans on the deforestation of their surroundings.

A natural archive near castellum Fectio

Castellum Fectio was one of the largest fortifications along the Limes, the northern border of the Roman Empire. A six meter long sediment core was retrieved from ancient river sediments deposited right in front of the castellum and analysed for its composition. Various man-made materials were found in the eight centimetre-wide sediment core and include pieces of plaster, processed wood, food remains and an iron nail. These finds indicate that the river arm filled up with sediments during the time of Roman occupation.

A piece of Roman plaster recovered by the researchers from the studied sediment core.

In addition to accumulating finds related to human settlement, sediments can also act as a ‘natural archive’ by recording changes in local vegetation patterns. Samples taken from the lower (older) parts of the sediment core included pollen derived mainly from local trees. The abundance of this tree-pollen was found to have a strong decreasing trend upward. Near the (younger) top of the core almost all fossil tree-pollen was replaced by pollen derived from herbs, grasses and cultivated plants. This dramatic change in local vegetation illustrates how the Romans were strongly involved in large-scale deforestation and it suggests an almost completely deforested landscape around 200 AD. 

Trash talk(s)

The upper part of the sediment record also contained many surprising elements. Masticated bran fragments of cereals reveal the presence of human food products, while the remains of clovers, eggs of intestinal parasites and other entomological and geochemical data show that the upper sediment largely consists of faeces which were dumped into the former channel. Remains of beetles commonly associated to hay and litter of stables and barns and those often encountered in manure suggest that the most likely source is stable manure. The detailed analyses of this ancient trash therefore helped the research team to credit the Romans with the observed changes in the surroundings of the castellum Fectio.

The study was a cooperation between scientists from Utrecht and Bristol University, Naturalis Biodiversity Centre, Groningen Institute of Archaeology and the National Cultural Heritage Agency.

Publication details

Van den Bos, V., Brinkkemper, O., Bull, I.D., Engels, S., Hakbijl, T., Schepers, M., van Dinter, M., van Reenen G., van Geel, B. 2014. 'Roman impact on the landscape near castellum Fectio, The Netherlands', in:Vegetation History and Archaeobotany 23: 277–298, DOI: 10.1007/s00334-013-0424-0

Published by  IBED