When investigating life beyond the frontier, it is easy to be swept up in the Roman narrative of conquests and battles against savages and barbarians. But when looking at Roman propaganda monuments, with scenes of combat, slaughter and submission, we have to consider the other players in this game – the locals. Scotland was no empty landscape waiting to be conquered, but a land full of people with their own cultures, aspirations and traditions.
In the surviving histories, ‘barbarians’ are stock characters to be conquered and enslaved – or taxed. But archaeology can provide a more rounded view of these ‘people without history’. A recent find serves as a taster: a mould for making counterfeit Roman coins. It was found on an Iron Age site at Brighouse Bay, on the north side of the Solway Firth. This site overlooked the Roman military build-up on the Cumbrian coast – a perfect market for such fakes. This simple demonstration that the locals were capable of exploiting the newcomers reveals a less one-sided relationship than Roman propaganda would have us believe. Yet the conquerors certainly projected their influence north of the border, and their meddling in local politics may even have triggered the rise of a formidable new enemy: the Picts.
Iron Age societies
Iron Age Scotland was home to many societies on the eve of Roman contact in the AD 70s. By the early 1st century AD, the age of hillforts – those great monuments that dominate our view of the Iron Age – was essentially past. There is little or no evidence for defences being constructed or maintained, although groups of houses still sheltered in the old ramparts. In the north and west, building of those other classic monuments, the brochs, was also all but over. Yet these sturdy structures were still maintained and inhabited. In some areas, such as Orkney and Caithness, villages grew up around them at about this time. These look like vivid expressions of the quintessential Iron Age social model, with a powerful chief in the broch surrounded by his or her dependents, all clustered within an enclosing wall and ditch. Yet the visibility of such a hierarchy in the settlement plan is unusual.
Elsewhere, the landscape was dominated by single buildings or small clusters – farming communities of varying size. In the Atlantic west, for instance, the brochs tend to be isolated. Their distribution is echoed by post-Medieval farms or townships, suggesting a similar scale of society. In other areas, groups of houses are found. In the north-east of Scotland, these are mostly unenclosed, with some boasting underground souterrains – probably cellars. In southern Scotland, the farms are more often enclosed. Such variation emphasises different kinds of social norms across the country.
These were not ‘simple farming folk’, and finds from their homes show signs of a changing world. The surplus generated by the farms fed craftworkers and contacts, which brought bronze and glass ornaments. Such objects were becoming important to everyday life, signalling group or family ties, marital status, and social importance. Jewellery and other objects decorated with Celtic art were also much more common. This flurry of decoration may signal societies under stress. Anthropologists have noted that groups which feel threatened often respond with flamboyant displays of identity – a trend one can still see in expatriate communities. Was the proximity of Roman forces a key factor in this flourishing of Celtic art?
An active frontier
While we must look beyond the violence to find a rounded picture of frontier life, blood was undoubtedly shed. This was an active border, from which Roman troops periodically set forth to try to complete the conquest of Britain, or engaged in day-to-day police actions. The archaeology of conflict is notoriously difficult to see, and the mighty hillfort of Burnswark in eastern Dumfriesshire illustrates this well. This long-lived centre was a prominent landmark and focal point in the early Roman period – George Jobey’s excavations (CA 15) found roundhouses rich in finds, marking it out as a place of paramount importance. Yet the hillfort is held in the grip of two Roman siege camps – and opinion has differed wildly on their interpretation.
Was Burnswark a Scottish Masada where a revolt was crushed? Or was it a version of Salisbury Plain, a training area where troops could hone their skills in bloodless battles? The evidence does not allow dogma, but we should remember the importance of this place to the local population. Whether it was stormed for real or practice, the Roman camps made a statement – this land was theirs. The symbolism of besieging a place laden with indigenous significance was very powerful. Control and violence, actual or latent, were part of frontier life.
There are signs that the nature of the threat changed over the course of the Roman invasions in the later 1st and 2nd centuries AD. The evidence is sparse, but the reoccupation of southern Scotland by the Roman military in the Antonine period – shortly after the completion of Hadrian’s Wall – suggests this area had been causing trouble. Nick Hodgson has recently made a convincing case for unrest and revolt in parts of south-west Scotland around this time. By c.AD 160 this Scottish interlude was over and the army returned to Hadrian’s Wall.
The focus of Rome’s problems seems to have shifted in the 3rd and 4th centuries, from areas of southern Scotland to the lands north of the Forth, in north-east Scotland. The Caledonians, the Maeatae, and the Picts appear successively in the history books as conflict-causing bogeymen. Throughout the Roman occupation, the area north of the Wall was a source of trouble, whether intermittent or continuous.
Yet this is only one part of the story. The Wall was no fortress line, barring access to the north. There has been a long debate about the function of Hadrian’s Wall (CA 240), but it is worth noting that it was not a closed frontier. Roman objects reached Iron Age societies to the north, and in turn some northern material moved south. There is little of this, and it is poorly known, but there are hints of a market in small-scale luxuries – polished stone beads and pendants from Scottish sources, made of black shiny stones like shale or multi-coloured lithomarge, are found on Wall forts. Recent work by Tyne and Wear Museums has identified a group of local jars made north of the Wall that found a market in the forts at its eastern end. It is unlikely these pots were imported for their beauty – they are functional items – so presumably their contents were valued, perhaps some local culinary delicacy.
History from fragments
The main source of evidence for understanding interactions between the local peoples and the Roman army is Roman finds from Iron Age sites. These reveal connections, direct or indirect, over the course of the occupation. They undoubtedly have their problems. The shifting frontier line over the first couple of centuries meant that southern Scotland was variously inside and outside the Roman province. An even more basic problem is the fragmentary condition of much of the material, making it easy to overlook or underestimate.
In contrast to areas like Denmark, where rich burials groan under the weight of intact Roman bronze and glass vessels, a wealthy Scottish site will produce a handful of sherds of worn Samian, broken glass, and a brooch fragment or two. Yet we must remember we are seeing these things at the end of their lives, and think of the intact object, not the surviving fragment. We also know little of the stages between the objects moving north of the Wall and ending up in the soil. Did they pass through many hands? Were they treasured heirlooms kept for special occasions, or used as everyday objects? Once they broke, many were reworked or reused. Bronze and glass was melted down as raw material, so what we have surviving is only a small part of the total. Much of the Celtic art from the area was made from melted down and reused Roman brooches and bronze vessels. How long did they circulate for, and how did people’s views of them change? These issues are a focus of active research, and the fruits of this will allow us to piece together the local side of the relationship.
Picking and choosing
How did the objects leave Roman hands in the first place? Various methods have been suggested over the years, including trade, loot, plunder or diplomacy. Two factors – the types of Roman objects found, and the places they come from – suggest to me that there was a deliberate Roman policy of contact, and equally deliberate local control over access to these contacts.
The range of Roman finds on Iron Age sites is highly selective. There are almost no querns or iron tools, almost no amphorae or mortaria, surprisingly few coins and surprisingly little everyday pottery. Instead objects used for feasting and drinking, and items of jewellery, are favoured. A high proportion of the pottery is Samian – far more so than at a fort site – while much of the glassware is drinking and serving vessels. There are also bronze vessels for the preparation and serving of wine. We do not know if Roman cuisine was adopted as well, but these tablewares were valued on local sites. Where jewellery is concerned, brooches are far more common than other items such as beads or rings. There was no tradition of brooch-wearing in the Scottish Iron Age, but it was enthusiastically adopted. Styles which fitted local tastes, including those with echoes of Celtic art, or flashy silvering and enamel, were particularly prized.
Clearly this was not a random selection of material. The locals amassed Roman objects that fitted significant local traditions – the importance of feasts for building links to other groups and showing your wealth, and the use of jewellery to mark your position in society. Artefacts that did not fit their customs were ignored.
It is also clear that Roman objects were widely available – in some areas, every site occupied had some. But not all sites were equal. Some have a far larger quantity and broader range, and these tend to be marked out in other ways, for instance by ornate architecture or access to restricted craft skills such as bronze-casting. In other words, we are seeing a difference between the haves and have-nots. Roman finds are more common on sites where people were richer and more powerful. This suggests that the Romans used existing social structures in their dealings with the local population. They would actively forge links with leaders or prominent groups, who then acquired access to a wide range of Roman goods. Some of these they apparently kept for themselves, as exotic goods which reinforced their position. Others were passed on to clients and dependents, or as gifts to other leaders. The result was that Roman objects became an important local ‘power tool’, used to build and reinforce relationships.
Silver subsidies in changing times
One of the rich sites was Birnie, near Elgin in north-east Scotland, where long-running excavations (see CA 181) have just finished. This large, unenclosed farm seems to have been a local power centre. Its inhabitants built up links to the Roman world over a century or more, as seen in finds of pottery, glass, brooches, and so forth. Most striking are two hoards of late 2nd-century silver denarii, buried in an open area at the heart of the settlement, apparently a place of ceremony. They both contain just over 300 coins, and probably arrived a few years apart – the latest coins in the two hoards are of AD 193 and 196. These form part of a much wider pattern, with a concentration of silver coin hoards dating from c.160-230 in central and north-east Scotland. The Birnie evidence suggests these were part of a deliberate policy of contact and subsidy (or bribery) that can be linked to diplomatic efforts before and after the invasions of Septimius Severus in 209-210. The coins were not alone – quantities of fine glassware and pottery also arrived during the period.
This silver was not much use as currency – there was no coin economy in the area. Neither was it melted down for raw material, apparently, as analysis of crucibles from across Scotland has found no evidence of silver at this date. Instead its value seems to be as a prestigious gift from the Roman world, used perhaps to flaunt at meetings and ceremonies, to exchange as gifts, perhaps to seal marriage or other alliances, to secure mercenaries, or dedicate to the gods – much like early Celtic coinage in southern Britain a couple of centuries earlier.
There is a striking change in the years after this phase of silver subsidy. If we wind the clock forward, the map of late Roman imports shows a distinct gap in the very area where all this wealth flowed a century or so earlier. We find other differences too – major changes in architecture that make settlements far less visible, and new fashions in material culture. Out of this rise Rome’s new bogeymen – the Picts, first mentioned in AD 297. I speculate that there is a connection here.
The new-found wealth of silver coins was powerful stuff – the kind of thing that could create envy within local societies, especially if the Romans restricted their contacts to certain favoured groups. Yet it seems that at some point in the early 3rd century the tap was turned off – no more Roman goods, no more silver, and no more fine glassware came to these north-eastern sites. What effect would this have? It could easily have been disastrous. If the people at these sites had grown rich and powerful on the basis of their access to Roman prestige goods, then a regular supply would be critical. The drinking vessels and fine brooches could be replaced by local prestige goods, but not the silver coin – that was an alien metal, made in an alien way, and bearing alien images. If silver meant power, then perhaps its absence meant people lost that power.
This is, of course, speculation – but we need to try to explain the patterns we can see, not just keep accumulating evidence. This gives us theories to test, or stirs up other researchers to try to disprove them! There is a major dislocation in the archaeology of north-east Scotland at this time, and in the century or so after this the peoples became a thorn in the side of the Roman army. The Roman dabbling in local politics may well have ended up destabilising a comparatively compliant society, allowing an altogether more effective enemy to emerge from it – the Picts.
The Picts are only one part of the story. To the north, and especially in southern Scotland, contacts were maintained between the Romans and local societies. Some finds are of strikingly high quality and may have been diplomatic gifts, such as the wonderful gold brooch from Erickstanebrae in Dumfriesshire. Most of the evidence comes from the south of Scotland, but there are far fewer finds than before, and they are focused on a few major sites. This suggests an even stronger control over access to Roman goods. Many of these sites were hillforts, which regained their role as central places. The best evidence comes from Traprain Law in East Lothian, where recent excavations and research on old finds is adding to our picture of this major site (see CA 203).
Traprain has produced a wealth of Roman finds – more than the rest of Iron Age Scotland put together – and they span the period of Roman Britain and beyond. There is a striking amount of 3rd- and 4th-century material, suggesting the Roman army was deliberately maintaining contacts with this area as a kind of buffer state between the frontier and its enemies to the north. The most famous find from the site is the Traprain Treasure – a hoard of Hacksilber containing over 20kg of crushed, cut-up Late Roman silver. An ongoing research project, drawing on specialists from across Europe, is reassessing this in the light of modern knowledge.
It is clear that the silver came to Traprain in the first half of the 5th century, after the formal ‘end’ of Roman Britain. Why did it arrive here? Kenneth Painter suggests that while it may be a spectacular diplomatic gift, it is more likely to represent military pay or bounty. Chopped-up silver bullion became a typical form of currency in the 4th and 5th centuries, and is found in other hoards which are probably donatives, or gifts to soldiers. Was the Traprain hoard the bounty of a war-leader, gained in service to some of the petty kings vying to be successors of the Roman state? More work is needed, but what is clear is its local use – raw material, to be melted down and recycled as local jewellery, for instance in the magnificent silver neck-chains found in southern and north-east Scotland around this time.
The impact of Rome?
We have come a long way from the image of proud Roman cavalrymen riding down naked barbarians. I hope this short article has shown something of what we can extract from the fragmentary surviving evidence, if only we ask the right questions. Much of this is speculative, or a work in progress, but there is an interesting story to be told. A key thing is the variety of relationships – aggressive, trade, diplomatic – and how these changed. It is important to get beyond simple oppositions of ‘Roman and native’. North of the Wall there was considerable variety, and on the Wall too there were more than just ‘Romans’ – the army, both legionary and auxiliary; migrant civilians following in their wake to service the soldiers’ needs; locals from the newly conquered areas finding new ways of surviving. This cultural mix gave rise to some fascinating features of frontier life, including new styles of art that proved popular on both sides of the frontier zone, such as the dragonesque brooch. These show strong influences from indigenous art, and remind us that both ‘sides’ were affected by the encounter.
What of the effects on the local populations? Initially Roman material brought many benefits, but in the longer term I believe that in some areas the effects were disastrous, undermining local societies in the north-east. There were other long-term effects – the appearance of the Picts, and perhaps the emergence of larger political units, focused on late Roman power centres such as Traprain Law or Dumbarton Rock. Few aspects of life in the north in the early first millennium AD were untouched by the Roman presence; but the complexities of this picture are only slowly coming into focus, as we gather and consider evidence from the trench and the museum archives. Lindsay Allason-Jones and myself have been invited to prepare a catalogue of Roman finds from the ‘barbarian north’ as part of a German-led project to study finds from beyond the Roman frontier across Europe – we hope results will tell us more about this story of conflict, coexistence and change on the northern frontier.
Dr Fraser Hunter is Principal Curator of the Iron Age and Roman collections at National Museums Scotland.
ALL IMAGES: National Museums Scotland, unless otherwise stated.