My research looks at native societies and at how they change at the end of the Long Iron Age: in simple terms, that’s the period from just before the Romans arrived, to just after they left. In this post, I will present part of my research from the region of Dumfriesshire, showing the inconsistencies between written sources and archaeology for the Roman Iron Age in Dumfriesshire, as well as the tantalising riddles that still remain unanswered.
To keep within the word limit, let us consider just two sources: Ptolemy’s Geography and Tacitus’s Agricola. The former is the description of a map for the known world, the latter the biography of the author’s father in law. They are both concerned in what is known to Romanists as the Flavian period: that is, the late first century AD. The Geography lists three tribes who live in south-west Scotland, the Selgovae, the Novantae and the Damnoni; and for each tribe it lists a number of key sites, or πόλεις: literally, the word means city, but a looser interpretation of ‘focal site’ is probably better (Ptolemy 1843, p.70 (3.7–9)). Building on this text, we could extrapolate three key factors about south-west Scotland in this period: a) there are cultural subdivision in the native social landscape; b) these subdivisions are reflected in physical landscape subdivision; c) each group has at least a degree of social organisation, with common sites of importance present in each territory.
The Agricola paints a not quite as flattering image: it says that the native tribes were so terrified that they did not dare to stand up the Roman soldiers, whose only issue was the weather (Tacitus 2006, 66–69 (ch.22)). If we were to extrapolate from this source at face value, we would certainly not think about a strong social identity, nor of social organisation. However, when dealing with historical sources, it is always necessary to remember their context. The Geography is based on military intelligence, probably the same one available to the Roman generals who first pushed into Scotland. It is based on an outsider’s point of view, and it may not record anything more than fleeting alliances between otherwise similar communities. The Agricola is, for all intents and purposes, a PR text to praise his main character: it would hardly be fitting of Agricola’s exploits if, after having spent the preceding chapters obliterating one tribe, the next tribe he engages with was not suitably cowered.
|Map from one of the areas from my sample of Dumfriesshire, realised in ArcGIS with data from Canmore|
The archaeological evidence from the region does not support a reading of centralisation for this period, showing a number of different fortifications and defended settlements potentially in synchronic use in the landscape of Dumfriesshire. It is also at odds with the cowering people that Tacitus portrayed. In fact, it shows a degree of co-operation and integration with the native people of Dumfriesshire, with the birth of an entirely new settlement system.
|Table with distances between closest polygonal settlements across my sample area. Also note the similarity between group A and the distance represented by two militaria (Roman miles)|
In the Iron Age, settlements can be described as curvilinear enclosures, while during the period discussed a new system of polygonal enclosures springs up in the landscape; each settlement is located approximately two Roman miles away from the closest one, thus creating inter-visibility chains. None of the settlements in my sample have been excavated, but other similar settlements, like Carronbridge, have yielded a date of first through second century AD, so during the period the Romans were directly present in the south-west Scotland (Johnston et al. 1994). However, the identity of these settlements’ dwellers, their relationship with the rest of the native populations, and what happens to them after the second century AD, is a mystery. Polygonal settlements are more common in the Early Historic period, so the trend they started certainly continues on. There are several other polygonal settlements which do not fit in the two-mile pattern, which may or may not be contemporary with those that do. There also are examples of settlements within the two-mile pattern which have been relocated, suggesting that the system might have outlived the Romans.
Overall, the archaeological evidence is much more layered than the historical sources. It talks of a landscape inhabited by many communities, sharing the same architectural vocabulary; it also talks of change. The native populations did not seem to be afraid of the Romans: they, or at least some of them, embraced the new culture and mirrored these changes in their new homes.
Ptolemy, C. 1843. Geographia. Edited by C. F. A. Nobbe. Lipsia: Carolus Tauchnitius.
Tacitus. 2006. “Agricola.” In Agricola. Germania. Dialogus., 1–115. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.