Recent investigations centred on Burnswark, an imposing hillfort near Lockerbie in Dumfries and Galloway, have revealed the presence of more than 130 previously unknown settlements that were inhabited by indigenous communities during the Roman occupation of Britain.
The northern extent of conquered territories was initially marked by Hadrian’s Wall, which was built c.AD 122 (see CA 388 for more about its date and the possible motivations behind its construction). These fortifications run 73 miles coast- to-coast, from Wallsend on the River Tyne in the east to just beyond Bowness fort on the Solway Firth in the west. Around AD 142, though, the border was pushed about 100 miles to the north, establishing a new frontier in Scotland that ran c.37 miles from modern Bo’ness on the Firth of Forth to Old Kilpatrick on the River Clyde. It was marked by the Antonine Wall. Rome never managed to establish full control over Scotland, however, and was only able to maintain their extended position for a short period, withdrawing back to Hadrian’s Wall c.AD 162.
What was life like for the people who lived within this fluctuating militarised area? Written sources for the period are scarce, and indigenous voices even more so, but archaeological remains can provide glimpses of contact and confrontation taking place between peoples. With notable exceptions (see box opposite), studies of the Roman frontier zone have tended to focus on the infrastructure of occupation – not just the monumental fortifications of Hadrian’s Wall and the Antonine Wall, but the roads, temporary camps, and forts that were built to help secure imperial control of the area. Now, though, a wide-ranging project is working to tell the other side of the story, refocusing attention on the experiences of those who had settled these lands long before the legions arrived, and on the evidence of the places where they lived.
Since 2021, the Leverhulme Trust-funded ‘Beyond Walls: reassessing Iron Age and Roman encounters in northern Britain’ initiative has been exploring an area of northern England and southern Scotland stretching from c.25 miles (40km) south of Hadrian’s Wall to c.25 miles north of the Antonine Wall. This project will run until 2024, and a pilot study, undertaken as part of its first phase of research, has just published promising findings in Antiquity journal (see ‘Further reading’ on p.16).
Finds from the frontier
Titled ‘On the Edge of Empire: exploring Iron Age settlement landscapes in south-west Scotland’, the British Academy-supported pilot study has seen archaeologists led by Dr Manuel Fernández-Götz of the University of Edinburgh explore an area of 579 square miles (1,500km2) around Burnswark. This landmark is best known for its echoes of Roman military activity, with the hillfort sandwiched between a unique pair of unconventionally shaped camps, and yielding the largest concentration of Roman projectiles yet found in Britain. This was initially interpreted as evidence of a bloody siege, then of a Roman army training site, though in recent years investigations by the Trimontium Trust have tipped the narrative scales back towards warfare (see CA 316). The hillfort’s wider environs and the lives of the region’s Iron Age inhabitants are less well understood – something the present project team hoped to change.
A key element of the research involved high-resolution LiDAR data: detailed images of the landscape created by an airborne scanner pulsing a laser at the surface below and measuring how long it takes to be reflected back. The resulting models allowed the team to examine the ground surface in great detail, using a range of visualisation techniques to reveal the outlines of often incredibly subtle features. This survey has enabled the researchers to identify 134 otherwise undocumented Iron Age settlements, mostly small farmsteads, bringing the total known in the region to more than 700. The discovery of new features even close to well-known sites – such as a pair of enclosures found in the shadow of Range Castle, a large, multiple-ditched hillfort about 11km west of Burnswark – further highlights the value of LiDAR as an addition to the established archaeological arsenal.
While many of the larger sites examined during the survey were already known, the small farmsteads are an important addition to our understanding, filling in the gaps and revealing a dense scatter of sites distributed with a regularity that suggests patterns of settlement were highly organised. The project team is now working to explore selected sites and small landscapes further using geophysical surveys, and they will also combine radiocarbon dating and chronological modelling to pin down when some of these settlements were inhabited. The small farmsteads would have been the homes of ordinary Iron Age people and, by establishing when they were occupied, and when their use ended, the researchers hope to shed more light on the influence of Rome in this region on everyday lives.
The impact of Empire
One of the key questions about how fortifications like Hadrian’s Wall and the Antonine Wall operated is whether they were intended as open or closed borders (see CA 326), and what impact their construction had on the communities living close-by.
Since the 1960s, it has been known that the Northumberland coastal plain immediately to the north of Hadrian’s Wall was densely scattered with Iron Age farmsteads – a picture that has become even clearer since the advent of developer-led archaeology in the 1990s. These remains were initially thought to be evidence of indigenous settlements flourishing under Roman rule, their occupants enjoying the fruits of friendly cooperation and the pax Romana – although artefactual evidence suggested that they were not so enthusiastic about adopting the material trappings of their new neighbours’ culture.
In the last decade, however, this story has taken a dramatic turn. An investigation headed by Nick Hodgson, together with Tyne & Wear Archives & Museum, used radiocarbon dating to establish chronologies for the coastal plain farmsteads, and this analysis revealed that, far from blossoming during the Roman period, they had in fact come to an abrupt end (CA 277). This was not the result of the area’s first contact with the Roman army in the AD 70s, though: the settlements had been abandoned in the 2nd century, around the time that Hadrian’s Wall was being built.
What is less clear, though, is why these settlements, many of them hundreds of years old, had met such a sudden termination. Perhaps their inhabitants had been evicted from their homes as the military sought to create a sterile buffer on the frontier, or they may have withered after the new border cut off vital commercial connections with markets to the south.
Further reading Manuel Fernández-Götz, Dave Cowley, Derek Hamilton, Ian J Hardwick, and Sophie McDonald (2022) ‘Beyond Walls: reassessing Iron Age and Roman encounters in northern Britain’, Antiquity vol.96, p.388 (August), https://doi.org/10.15184/aqy.2022.47. Whatever the reason, the sudden and total collapse of these well-established communities offers a vivid insight into the human impact of contact with Rome. As the ‘Beyond the Wall’ project continues, establishing life stories for more and more settlements within and on the fringes of the frontier area, it will be fascinating to see what their findings reveal about how life for their inhabitants changed during and after Roman occupation.