The view that culture evolves is not new. But while Charles Darwin alluded to the evolutionary mechanism of cultural change, it was not until the publication in 1976 of Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene that the connection between culture and Darwinian evolution was made explicit. Cultural information is transmitted through communication or other media and spreads by being copied or imitated. A variation in that information, if favoured or selected, results in the evolution of an aspect of culture. Dawkins called these bits of information memes. Analogous to genes, the units of natural selection, memes are units of cultural selection.
Roman archaeologists have largely remained untouched by memetics, yet cultural selection provides an elegant mechanism for the emergence, persistence and evolution of traditions in the Roman world. This paper examines this process through the funerary archaeology of Roman Britain, focusing on Pepper Hill cemetery, Southfleet, Kent, which serviced the town of Vagniacis. The cemetery, used from the mid 1st to late 3rd century AD, provides evidence of behaviours, for instance grave location, inherited from earlier generations of inhabitants, the rapid, virus-like, spread of new traditions, for example conspicuous grave-side feasting, and the gradual, blind evolution of traditions as variations are favoured and replicated, such as the changing composition of the pottery assemblage. We also see how the cultural environment helps to determine the success of imported traditions, such as busta, and how geographical or cultural isolation leads to regional divergence or speciation of burial rites.