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 is a Leverhulme-funded research project directed by Dr Ben Russell (Classics) and Dr Chris Beckett (Engineering), exploring earth building traditions in the Roman world.

HCA Earthen Empire

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, which over time were also adopted across the north-western provinces, additionally becoming a mainstay of military construction, as most dramatically demonstrated by the Antonine Wall in Scotland, Rome’s largest earthen structure. Despite their ubiquity, earthen building materials have been somewhat neglected in studies of Roman architecture, which have, since at least Vitruvius’ day, concentrated on a narrow range of structures and materials regarded as typically ‘Roman’. Earthen materials were minimally processed, locally sourced, and are often reflective of everyday pre-Roman construction practices; structures built in them are often hard to identify archaeologically.

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.

This interdisciplinary project, funded by the Leverhulme Trust (RPG-2018-223) aims to shed new light on the use and properties of earthen buildings in the Roman North-West (from Mediterranean France to Scotland). Drawing together the expertise of archaeologists, architects, engineers and soil scientists, it will provide a comprehensive study examining the architecture and construction of earthen buildings, their development, spread and timeframe. By re-analysing archaeological datasets and testing material properties, this project will change our understanding of everyday Roman building and contribute historically-tested data to the recent boom in engineering studies of the potential and sustainability of contemporary earth construction. The aim is to write a more complex, less selective, history of Roman architecture, 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 is a collaboration between the School of History, Classics and Archaeology and the School of Engineering at the University of Edinburgh.

A PhD student will join the team in 2019.