Does anyone remember seeing the play “The Romans in Britain”? I saw it at The National Theatre in 1980. In the very opening scene, two hapless and confused squaddie Roman soldiers wander through thick mist to the front of the stage, and look nervously around. Then one says to the other, “Where the *%$@ are we?”. The powers-that-be tried to ban the play, mainly because of its depiction of the brutalisation of a celtic Warrior by a Roman soldier, but with no success – the days of theatre censorship had long since passed. Anyway, I digress.
What did the Romans do for us?
What did the Romans do for us in Britain, then? Apart from the Wall, the towns, the roads? I don’t intend to write about the multitude of venerable Roman remains that litter these isles – at least, not in this particular post. We are all familiar with the wonders of the Roman baths at Bath, Hadrian’s masterpiece, and of the die-straight nature of Watling Street, to name but a few. No, I want to talk about:
When you walk along the coasts and estuaries of my home county of Essex, you often come across what the Ordnance Survey lists as “red hills”. They are not always visible, especially in summer when they are covered by vegetation.
But at certain times of the year, you can see what appears to be flat, discoloured circles in the fields. These are the remains of the salt panning industry, first developed during the Bronze and Iron Ages, and enthusiastically adopted by the Romans.
Driven by tides
Red hills are found throughout East Anglia in tidal estuary areas. 300 or so have been found to date in Essex, including along the banks of the Crouch and the Blackwater.
Sea water would be collected and boiled, and the residual salt harvested and made into salt cakes. (Scholars believe that the process actually pre-dates the Romans). It certainly continued through medieval times.
The hills are elusive little things, You have to really want to find them, and need to be armed with an OS map to locate them, but there are worse ways to spend a summers afternoon on a long walk along the sea wall.
Further north along the Essex coast, you can pick “native” oysters from the beach at Bradwell-on-Sea, escapees from the oyster farms just over the water at Mersea Island. The nutrient-rich salty waters of the Essex estuaries are ideal breeding grounds for the molluscs. British oysters were very much prized by the Romans, and were one of the natural resources, along with metals and wheat, which made the Romans eye Brittannia with a view to invasion.
Roman fast food
Once in Britain they developed oyster farming on quite an industrial scale. Their appetite for the molluscs was insatiable. Huge dumps of oyster shells have been found in Colchester, the Roman city of Camulodunum, just up-river from Mersea. One particularly large dump of shells was found just outside the Roman-built Balkerne Gate in Colchester, on the main road out of town. Archaeologists think that it was the site of a market stall. Fast food, Roman style.
Oysters weren’t cultivated only for the home market. There was a voracious demand back home, so the creatures were harvested in winter, packed in snow and taken south over the Alps, back to Italy. There are also tales, who knows whether true or not, of British oysters in nets being trawled behind Roman ships on the journey south.
I like to think of those young Roman squaddies, (somewhat like the ones I saw at the theatre), a long way from home and shivering in the cold rain, at least being able to enjoy a few Colchester native oysters, a hunk of bread with a sprinkling of sea salt – and perhaps a pitcher of native wine: Roman Britain was warmer than our current climate, so local vineyards flourished – a topic for another day.
The past in plain sight
Today the Maldon Salt Company produces excellent sea salt for cooking, just a mile or so away from where the picture above of a red hill was taken, along the sea wall at Goldhanger.
Facile est- Simples
The process is more sophisticated today, but the elementary steps are identical to those used by the Romans along those same river banks: collect seawater, evaporate the water and collect the residual salt.
When there’s an R in the month….
And oysters- well they still thrive along the Blackwater and other Essex rivers. Autumn sees queues of hungry foodies outside the oyster shacks on Mersea Island, and events are held to celebrate their “open season”. In a thousand years, some keen archaeologist will no doubt ponder the origin of large dump of oyster shells dredged up from a Maldon creek….