Walking on the Border

January 25, 2013 12:15 pm

Holding the phone pressed up against my ear I look at the small and blurred image that has appeared on the screen of my computer. Dr Hoffmann, on the other end of the line, is telling me that what I see in the picture she has just e-mailed me, is not only the Scottish autumnal wood: It’s a round house, the typical Caledonian dwelling.
And to be more precise, it’s the round house that the “Roman Gask Project” found last September just outside a Roman fort at Doune. “We also found other settlements outside the forts and even what is identifiable as the Roman equivalent of a pub just outside the Stacarthro Fort” – adds Birgitta Hoffmann – co-director of the Roman Gask Project – trying to hide the enthusiasm in her voice.

Roman Gask Project

The Roman Gask Project started about fourteen years ago at the University of Liverpool to study the Gask Ridge frontier system, the earliest series of fortifications ever built by the Romans. What we can see today, thanks to the excavations of archaeologists like Birgitta Hoffmann, is a 10 mile ridge of land that hosts a line of Roman watch-towers and settlements: the first limes in Rome’s history.
Paolo Trezzi, one of the several postgraduate students who co-operate with the Roman Gask Project, explains: “Carrying on the excavations is not always easy because most of the sites lie on private lands. In that case we need to use non-invasive methods, metal detectors and logs.”

What the Roman Gask Project didn’t expect fourteen years ago, however, was to rewrite Scottish history.
When Birgitta Hoffmann and her husband, David Woolliscroft, started studying the limes (it means frontier in Latin), the major theory was that the Caledonian tribes, who lived in Scotland in the 70 AC, put up a valiant resistance to the Romans, managing to ward off the attack. It seemed the most convincing explanation to the sudden decision of the Romans to step back just seventeen years after their arrival. This theory was so well established that it has been taught in schools for almost 50 years.

But the discovery of the round house just outside the Doune Fort changes everything. The presence of an old pub where both Romans and Caledonians used to go gives us more clues on the relationship between them.
“These two discoveries are extremely important. We have excavated the round house and we figured that the site was indefensible. It means that the Caledonians were not really feeling threatened by the Romans. Moreover” – comments Dr Hoffmann – “if the Romans built a sort of pub outside the fort where also the Caledonians used to go, it means that the relationship between them may have been really cordial.” With a little bit of imagination and the help of the fog, it’s not difficult to picture Romans and Caledonians drinking aromatised wine in the large square room that was once the pub.

caledonia

But, how does this new discovery match with the theory of a violent clash between the Romans and the Caledonians?

In the later first century AD the Roman Empire was at the height of its power. It had expanded for centuries, covering the present Europe, North Africa and the Near East.
Britain made no exception. The invasion began in AD 43 under the Emperor Claudius. By the early ’70s what is now England and Wales was safely occupied. The Romans’ tactic was always the same. It worked for centuries before crushing under the weight of its own ambition. They used to integrate the conquered people, most of the times preserving the previous social and administrative organisation. It wasn’t about being polite. Romans had a massive empire to take care of and relying on the local administration was cheaper and safer. It made the native populations feel less under the imperial thumb and it allowed the Romans to run countries with the minimal military presence.
In Scotland, however, things have been really different. After putting themselves in considerable trouble in invading the country, investing resources and building a massive series of fortifications, the Romans left.

According to Tacitus’ Agricola, the only written evidence of the conquest, the Romans gloriously managed to beat the Caledonians in 70 AC, suddenly leaving seventeen years later. But Tacitus saves a surprise too.

The Roman Gask Project has found evidence that the occupation timeline given by Tacitus might be wrong. Agricola, in fact, might have not been the first one to fight in Scotland. In the light of the recent discoveries, it seems likely that the Romans had been in Scotland longer than what was thought. Coins and pottery found in the forts, date back the first occupation to the pre-Flavian period. “Tacitus was an historian, but Latin literature defined historiography as the closest literary art form to poetry, which means that the accuracy of Tacitus’ Agricola must at least be questioned”, explains Birgitta Hoffmann.

History is written by the victors. This is something archaeologists always keep in mind while analysing the sources. Tacitus, like other Roman authors, wrote his Agricola exaggerating the situations, the number of enemies, the cruelty of the Caledonians and the courage of the Roman soldiers. He talks about a nightly attack to the Romans: an incredible number of Caledonians fighting against a bunch of Romans and still losing. Putting the Scottish conquest down to Agricola was Tacitus’ attempt to glorify the general (and place himself in a favourable light).

The description of the enemy was distorted as well. We usually think of Caledonians as long-red-haired, warlike barbarians; a stereotype that was put about by Tacitus. Contrarily to what Hollywood colossal-like “Centurion” picture, Caledonians used to live for the most part by farming. “There is also environmental evidence that their production intensified with the arrival of the Romans” – says Dr. Hoffmann – “It means that they used to trade with the Romans and they were mostly pacific.”
This bolsters the theory of a peaceful relationship between the Romans and the natives.

Then why, if the Romans and the Caledonians had such a profitable and peaceful relationship, did the Romans leave? Why did they suddenly abandon the territory?

The evidence found by The Roman Gask Project seem to confirm that the Roman withdrawal was due to a political decision rather than caused by numerous Caledonian attacks, as believed so far.
“British archaeologists tend to fight like cats and dogs and coming up with such a drastic theory wasn’t easy.” Claims David Woolliscroft, co-director of the Roman Gask Project. “However, current researchers agree now that the ‘Romans vs. Caledonians theory’ was wrong. The ones who still believe in it are for the most part very old and retired academics!”

The Romans weren’t being defeated on the Scottish front, however, they were having troubles on the Rumanian front. “That territory was just a week’s march from Rome and it was really important to put down any possible attack by the Dacians to protect the heart of the empire”  says Dr Woolliscroft.  “For this reason, troops had to be withdrawn from whatever territory that didn’t need them and be sent to the Danube lands.”
Britain was a peripheral province, which makes it easily controllable even with minimal military force. Roman troops left Scotland in a rush, demolishing the major settlements and removing any useful material. Everything was done so fast that the Caledonians themselves must have found it unexpected.

Nowadays, there are twenty-seven excavations going on, in eighteen different sites. Eleven more sites, including six entire Roman forts have been recently found. Thanks to aerial photos the Gask Project’s team expects to find more settlements to give even more strength to the new theory.

KIRKHILL

What is really stunning about the Gask Ridge frontier system is not only the beauty of the raw Scottish landscape, with its emerald-green lawns and the endless rain. It’s what those series of frontiers mean to the world. Their message.
The barrier between Israeli and Palestine, the border fence between Mexico and United States, the Korean border that separates North Korea and South Korea are just few examples of modern limes. Frontiers are places where two groups of people have decided that they need to keep some sort of distance. But they are also the places where people come into contact with each other to exchange either goods and ideas: the European Union is the practical demonstration that frontiers can fall.
“Understanding how the Romans dealt with their frontiers, may help us to understand how we could react to ours,” comments David Woolliscroft,  “and perhaps think of why we react differently.”

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