jueves, 9 de enero de 2014

Manning the ramparts: a hillfort on the edge of Empire (Scotland)

In 2012, a team from Rampart Scotland carried out an archaeological investigation at Sheriffside, a large crop mark site some 20 miles to the east of Edinburgh. Unexpectedly, a ditch measuring over 8m across and up to 2.80m deep was uncovered, which appears to represent the final phase of enclosure of the hillfort. Currently, this is the largest ditch discovered in the region and has produced a C14 date range of AD 211-384.
Archaeologically, this date range and re-cutting of the ditch is extremely interesting, as it falls into a turbulent era in the history of Southern Scotland. After the Romans withdrew behind Hadrian’s Wall in the early 3rd century AD, the Picts carried out frequent raids and may have forced the local tribes such as the Votadini into taking defensive action to protect themselves and their livestock.
A landscape of struggle and societal stress
There is no doubt that weakened military borders were the result of internal politics and competing factions which were beginning to plague the Roman Empire. As a result, people in this largely abandoned region appear to have been living in a landscape of struggle and societal stress for over a century; as Constantius Chlorus’s punitive raids north of the Antonine Wall in AD 305, Theodosius’ reprisals in AD 368-9, Maximus’ conflicts of AD 384 and Stilichos’ Pictish War of AD 400 (Salway 1991, 419) all attest to. A reference to the troubles in Northern Britain in AD 360 by ex-Roman army officer Ammianus Marcellinus paints a grim picture:
“The wild tribes of the Scots and the Picts broke their undertaking to keep peace, were causing destruction in those areas near the frontiers, and the provincials, exhausted by the repeated disasters they had already suffered, were caught in the grip of fear..” 
Although no historical records exist from contemporary Britain, the writing of Marcellinus has become a major source for 4th century British history, including the so-called ‘Barbarian Conspiracy’ (barbarica conspiratio) of AD 367: a key event of the ‘Pictish Wars’. His account has often been interpreted as a premeditated singular act of conspiracy, in which several barbarian groups agree between themselves to invade Britannia simultaneously, but in fact, Marcellinus mentions several incidents, without ever referring to one major concerted attack:
“During this period [Valentinian had just chosen Valens as Augustus - AD 364] practically the whole Roman world heard the trumpet-call of war, as savage peoples stirred themselves and raided the frontiers nearest to them. The Alamanni were ravaging Gaul and Raetia simultaneously; the Sarmatians and Quadi were devastating Pannonia; the Picts, Saxons, Scots [Irish] and Attacotti  were bringing continual misery upon Britain; the Austoriani and other Moorish peoples were attacking Africa with more than usual violence; and predatory bands of Goths were plundering Thrace and Moesia.”
Living with continual conflict
While the full extent of these conflicts are not well understood, the Late Roman signal towers of eastern England are often connected with Pictish raids beyond the Limes of the Roman Empire (Breeze 2011, 158), and a knife handle inscribed with Pictish ogham found in Norfolk, South East England, may indicate the depth of raiding (Clarke 1952). Laycock also argues that an increase in the deposition of coin hoards in 4th century, relatively stable southern Britain, relates to increased uncertainty (2008, 111-12). It has also been argued that the defences around many Roman towns reflects this (Guest, undated).
These types of encounters with the Picts are graphically described by an inscription on the 4th century AD Vettweiss-Froitzheim Dice Tower (Hall 2007, 3) which proclaims in Latin: “Pictos Victos – Hostis Deleta – Lvdite Secvri”, translated to mean “The Picts defeated – the enemy wiped out – play without fear”.
Restoring order
Thedosisus’ campaign to finally restore order to a land ravaged by bandits, deserters and hostile raiding parties culminates in a reorganisation of the four provinces of Roman Britain to include a new fifth province of Valentia. While it is unclear if this included Southern Scotland (Salway 1991, 411), it is likely that the Lothians acted in some way as a buffer zone that operated with co-operation from border tribes. These tribes came under the command of men such as Padarn Beisrudd ap Tegid (Paternus of the Scarlet Robe, son of Tegid) who is known from the manuscripts of Nennius and is thought to have been a chieftain of the Manaw Gododdin with Roman military rank (hence the scarlet cloak).
Certainly, there is evidence for people in Southern Scotland serving in the late Empire’s army perhaps as Areni (native scouts) (Ammianus Marcelinus 28.3.8) and the Traprain Law Treasure (East Lothian) appears to represent hack silver payment (Hunter & Painter 2013), though whether for military service or bribery to prevent attack is unclear. It also seems that many literate peoples of the 5th century in Southern Scotland viewed themselves in some way as Roman (Fraser 2013).
Final abandonment
Following a wave of similar crises across the Empire, Britain was formally abandoned in the early 5th century AD (Mattingly 2007, 225-52). The Britons pleaded for help to Emperor Honorius who famously responded by telling them to “look to their own defences” (Zosimus’ Historia Nova). Unfortunately, the raids continued across the 5th century as described by the 6th century writer Gildas who speaks of the Picts as:
“..foul hordes…like dark throngs of worms who wriggle out of narrow fissures in the rock when the sun is high and the weather grows warm” (Gildas De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae, The Ruin and Conquest of Britain).
These raids led to the Britons employing mercenary Angles and Saxons to help with defence. This is the 5th century context for the King Arthur myths, a valiant campaign of 12 battles bringing brief respite before the former Romanised Britons were overwhelmed by the pagan Angles and Saxons (Jones and Jones 1978, xxi-xxvii).
Sheriffside is situated firmly within the Roman buffer zone in what is now the Lothians and perhaps this is even the setting for the lost Province of Valentia. However, we cannot be confident that the entirety of this region was uniformly pro-Roman. Certainly, Taylor (2013, 184-5) has argued that the continued use of round and timber architecture in Roman Shropshire represents a conscious expression and maintenance of a non-Roman identity within the Empire.
As a result, we are left with two possibilities:
1.The large ditch was constructed against real threat from the north, or
2.(less likely) In preparation for Roman reprisals from the south.
As the historical evidence is scant and further confused by myth and legend, it is left to archaeology to make sense of the upheaval that beset this region. Currently, the remains from this period are as yet not well recognised, so to make progress, we first need to ask the right research questions and set the answers within the results of previously excavated sites and features that date to this time.
A programme of research
We also need to conduct more new research excavations and Sheriffside provides us with that opportunity. Therefore Rampart Scotland is initiating a programme starting in the summer of 2014 to explore this lost hillfort (discovered in the 1980s from aerial photographs) and provide a context for East Lothian’s largest set of defences!

Source: Past Horizons: http://www.pasthorizonspr.com/index.php/archives/01/2014/manning-the-ramparts-a-hillfort-on-the-edge-of-empire

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