School of History, Classics & Archaeology

Earthen Empire: Earth and turf building in the Roman North-West

Earthen Empire: Earth and Turf Building in the Roman North-West was a Leverhulme-funded research project directed by Professor Ben Russell (Classics) and Dr Chris Beckett (Engineering), which explored earthed building traditions in the Roman North.

HCA Earthen Empire cycle of archaeology
Clockwise from top left: Sampling a turf rampart at Vindolanda; Inspecting layers of Roman turf; Thin sections of Roman turf walls; Inspecting thin sections in the lab.

Mud in Roman Architecture

Mud is not a material usually associated with Roman architecture. However, soil and turf (collectively ‘earthen’ materials) were widely used in unit-based (mudbrick and turf) and mass walls (rammed earth and cob) throughout the pre-Roman and Roman Mediterranean. These were cheap, easily available, and versatile materials, which over time were also adopted across the north-western provinces. Here they became a mainstay of military construction, as most dramatically demonstrated by the Antonine Wall in Scotland, possibly Rome’s largest earthen structure.

Despite their ubiquity, earthen building materials have been somewhat neglected in studies of Roman architecture, which have concentrated on a narrow range of structures and materials regarded as typically ‘Roman’ - brick, concrete, and marble most notably. Earthen materials were minimally processed, locally sourced, and often hard to identify archaeologically; the structures built in them are often also reflective of everyday pre-Roman construction practices and traditions.

The scholarly neglect of Roman earthen materials contrasts sharply with the recent revival of earth in modern architecture. Environmentally friendly and sustainable, architects and engineers take these materials seriously once more, even if the potential of turf remains largely underexplored. The field of engineering, in particular, now consciously engages with historic examples of earthen construction, which provide a crucial dataset, otherwise unavailable, for re-examining the long-term performance of these materials. Roman material remains entirely untapped from this perspective.

New light on old buildings

This interdisciplinary project, funded by the Leverhulme Trust (RPG-2018-223), was designed to shed new light on the use and properties of earthen buildings in the Roman North. Drawing together the expertise of archaeologists, architects, engineers and soil scientists, it focused on a series of case study sites, military and non-military. These included the Antonine Wall, Vindolanda, High Rochester, Carlisle, London, Richborough, and Valkenburg in the Netherlands. At each of these sites macro-scale analysis of the extant earthen architecture, including new excavation of it, was combined with microscopic analysis. These resulting datasets allow us to write a more complex, less selective, history of architecture in the Roman North, one that listens to vernacular voices while contributing to debates about how sustainable building today can responsibly use soil-based materials. 

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The Project Team

The Earthen Empire project was a collaboration between the School of History, Classics and Archaeology and the School of Engineering at the University of Edinburgh. The Principal Investigator was Professor Ben Russell (Classics), the Co-Investigator Dr Chris Beckett (Engineering). Dr Tanja Romankiewicz (Archaeology) was a Research Associate on the project between 2018 and 2021, and has continued to collaborate with the project team since 2021. Dr Riley Snyder (Engineering) was a Research Associate on the project between 2018 and 2022. Dr Rose Ferraby was a Research Associate in 2021. Benedicta Yi Xin Lin (Engineering) is the PhD student on the project, working on the mechanics of turf.

We have collaborated with a range of colleagues at various organisations and sites. Dr Tom Gardner (Historic Environment Scotland) performed all of the micromorphology on the project, using thin sections prepared by Dr Sabrina Save (TerraScope). We worked closely with Daniël Postma (Archaeo Build) on the practicalities of turf construction. We are grateful to our various collaborators: Dr Andy Birley at the Vindolanda Trust, Dr Geoff Bailey at the Falkirk Local History Society, Dr Tony Wilmott at Historic England, Dr Louise Fowler at MOLA, Dr Richard Carlton at The Archaeological Practice Ltd,  Dr Wouter Vos at Vos Archeo, and Drs Frank Gieco and Matthew Hobson at Wardell Armstrong.

Project Outputs (to date)

  • Russell, B., Beckett, C., Romankiewicz, T., Snyder, J.R., and Yi Xin Lin, B., 2023. 'Turf structures in the Roman North and beyond', in Terra, legno e materiali deperibili nell'architettura antica, ed. by J. Bonetto and C. Previato. Padua: Università degli Studi di Padova, 865-881.
  • Russell, B., Beckett, C., Romankiewicz, T., Snyder, J.R., and Ferraby, R. 2023. '...incorrupti imbribus, ventis, ignibus omnique caemento firmiores? Earthen building materials in the Roman West', in Architectures of the Roman World, ed. by N. Mugnai. Oxford: Oxbow, 5-21.
  • Yi Xin Lin, B., Beckett, C., Romankiewicz, T., Snyder, J.R., and Russell, B. 2023. 'Unlocking the water retention behaviour of turf construction materials', in 8th International Conference on Unsaturated Soils (UNSAT 2023). ES5 Web of Conferences 382, 17008 ( (open access)).
  • Romankiewicz, T., Russell, B., Snyder, J.R, and Beckett, C.T.S. 2023. 'Das Forschungsprojekt 'Earthen Empire': wie die Römer ein 'Erd-Reich' bauten', Der Limes 17.1: 16-21.
  • Snyder, J.R., Russell, B., Romankiewicz, T. and Beckett, C.T.S. 2023. 'The energetics of earth and turf construction in the Roman world', in From Concept to Monument: Time and Costs of Construction in the Ancient World. Papers in Honour of Janet DeLaine, ed. by S. Barker, C. Courault, J. Domingo and D. Maschek. Oxford: Archaeopress, 135-158.
  • Romankiewicz, T., Russell, B., Bailey, G., Gardner, T., Snyder, J.R, and Beckett, C.T.S. 2022. ''Another wall of turf': geoarchaeological analysis of the Antonine Wall at 72 Grahamsdyke Street, Laurieston, Falkirk', Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland 151: 103-141 ( (open access)).
  • Russell, B., Romankiewicz, T., Gardner, T., Birley, A., Snyder, J.R, and Beckett, C.T.S. 2021. 'Building with turf at Roman Vindolanda: multi-scalar analysis of earthen materials, construction techniques, and landscape context', Archaeological Journal: 169-210 ( (open access)).
  • Romankiewicz, T., Milek, K., Beckett, C., Russell, B., and Snyder, J.R. 2020. 'New perspectives on the structure of the Antonine Wall', in The Antonine Wall: Papers in Honour of Professor Lawrence Keppie, ed. by D.J. Breeze and W.S. Hanson. Oxford: Archaeopress, 121-41 ( access)).

​​​​Turf: An Online Exhibition

Within the wider remit of the Earthen Empire project, Dr Rose Ferraby and the project team have created an online exhibition and associated video on turf building and its Roman heritage. A key part of this exhibition is the series of commissioned paintings produced by Dr Ferraby, inspired by the excavation of Roman turf structures.

View 'Turf: An Online Exhibition'