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A study of archaeological evidence from the Spanish city of Mérida by a University of Otago Classics lecturer, Dr Dan Osland, could rewrite the textbooks on Roman and medieval history.

Osland explains that he is interested in contrasting what we read in historical accounts with what we find by analysing excavated remains from such places as Mérida, which was the capital of the Roman province of Lusitania and, in the late Roman period, of the entire Iberian Peninsula.

“The city where I work has a number of professional archaeologists who are employed full-time in digging sites, mostly through what they call ‘emergency excavations’. So, any time there is a construction project, they excavate the site and the material goes into boxes that sit in a warehouse,” says Osland.

He has related this excavated material to changes in such things as city plan, housing style, and food preparation and dining habits, and concluded that these changes occurred much earlier than previously thought.

“The classical view is that the Roman ideal of a city starts to collapse with the arrival of the ‘barbarians’ in the late fifth century, which is traditionally seen as the age of disastrous, catastrophic decline.

“So, you lose your neatly-organised grid of streets with nice, well-maintained houses; large, beautiful, well-decorated public spaces; and local administration that can clean garbage out of the city. And eventually, after a couple of centuries, you get something that they refer to as the medieval city.

“If the classical definition of a neatly-organised city is a Roman city, and a hodge-podge of houses thrown up in open spaces rearranging the street grid is the definition of a medieval city, then some of the work that I am doing now suggests that the actual physical changes that you see in the cities start to take place in the late third, early fourth century, rather than in the fifth.”

Fluent in Latin, Greek, Spanish and Portuguese, Osland says that, although contemporary accounts are useful, the almost exclusively Roman writers are painting the picture that they want people to see.

“An author talking about the arrival of barbarian armies in the fifth century will focus mainly on the disastrous outcomes of that arrival. And the reality on the ground is that we almost never see the hard evidence for destruction, abandoned sites, dead people and people displaced out of cities.”

Lusitania, which covered part of Spain and most of Portugal, is a region in which the 36 year old has a near-lifelong association. Born in the US, he spent most of his childhood in Portugal, where his parents were missionaries, training pastors at a seminary for the Assemblies of God World Missions. (They are now based in Portuguese-speaking Angola.)

Osland says that he decided at a very early age that he wanted to be an archaeologist and returned to the US to study archaeology, anthropology and classics. He completed an MA thesis on early Roman cities of Lusitania and a PhD thesis on Mérida, at the University of Cincinnati. He then taught at Indiana University before taking up what he describes as “the perfect job” at Otago in 2013.

A revised and updated version of Osland’s MA thesis has been published, and he is producing various conference papers and journal articles and plans to complete a book on urban change in the late Roman and post-Roman periods.

He confesses that he has not seen the New Zealand produced television series, Spartacus, but feels that television dramas, and movies such as Ben-Hur and Gladiator, are a good starting point for people interested in finding out more about the Roman world.