8.3 Impact of Empire

Research into the Roman period has worked in a different research environment and within different intellectual frameworks (for instance, in the wider world of Roman frontier and Roman military research), and represents a considerable wealth of data. However, it is vital that it should not be seen as a separate element from the Iron Age, as the interrelation, indeed interdigitation, of the two is intellectually critical. Thus, the period of engagement with the Roman world is considered in detail elsewhere (see the ScARF Roman Panel report) with the main perspectives relevant to indigenous society being highlighted here.

A photograph of 5 sherds of Roman pottery including orange samian ware and fragments of a black vessel with a white decoration

Roman finds from Keiss broch, Caithness, Copyright NMS

The last couple of decades have been an exciting time for Roman studies, particularly in Britain and especially on the frontier. The normal approach to the period, focused very much on aspects of military history and politics, remains relevant, and has been enlivened by various studies questioning long-held views on frontier history. To this has been added a much broader appreciation of other aspects, looking at topics such as supply, the diversity of peoples and identities in the frontier zone, and more subtle understandings of interactions with the indigenous population. Much of this has drawn very visibly on developing theoretical trends such as the archaeology of identity and the interplay of structure and agency. The wealth of complex data from the Roman period and the time-limited horizons of Roman contact provide valuable case studies of relevance far beyond the country’s current borders. The military remain fundamental to this study – not just in the disposition and chronology of their installations, which has been the focus of much work (and still presents problems), but in the lifestyles and identities of the soldiers and their followers and the homogeneities and varieties within this; in the impact of forts on the landscape, as settlement nodes which both created and drew activity to them; in the impact on the local populations; and in moving beyond simplistic oppositions (‘Roman’ and ‘native’; ‘Romanisation’ and ‘resistance’) to a more complex, more realistic picture of life in the environs of the frontier.

These issues are reflected in the key themes used to structure the ScARF Roman panel report:

  1. The time and place of Roman Scotland, considering issues of the disposition and chronology of forts and forces.
  2. Forts in their landscapes, which attempts to foster a view of the fort as a node in a wider, interlocking set of landscapes, rather than focusing on the fort alone.
  3. Supplying the army, considering the vital issue of logistics in sustaining the army of conquest and occupation.
  4. Changing worlds, which examines the experiences of daily life for the various peoples of the frontier and how they influenced and were affected by this (a deliberately broader view than more traditional “Roman and native” perspectives).
  5. Roman Scotland in the Roman world, which stresses those angles where a wider frontier or Empire perspective benefits Scottish research, and where Scottish material can have a wider impact internationally.
A photograph showing 11 almost complete Roman brooches of various designs, some with coloured enamel decoration

Roman brooches from the Iron Age hillfort of Traprain Law, Copyright NMS

Exploring the impact of the Roman presence through archaeology is a complex area of research, though one in which parallels can be invoked from other frontier regions. The complexity of the situation overrides a simple Roman/native dichotomy, and there were regionally varied responses to the Romans that also developed over time (e.g. Macinnes 1984; Hunter 2001, 2007a, 2010). In the south of Scotland in particular the development of ‘hybrid’ styles  of material culture (e.g Hunter 2007a, 2008) begs the question of who exactly was making, using and depositing what. Iron Age societies therefore need to be understood in order to understand responses to Rome, but Roman material can act as a valuable indicator of for relationships between people. As well as artefacts, other sources of information have been employed to trace the relationships with Rome, including palynology to infer settlement, though close independent dating is essential to take research forward. The data-set as a whole, with its taphonomic issues and fragmentary material, and the difficulties of dealing with the biographies of Roman artefacts (and differing views on these), poses plentiful challenges for the future.

The topic is discussed more fully in the ScARF Roman report, but the following are the key recommendations from that work:

It is vital that the Roman material is considered in context, not in isolation – Roman material forms only one part of indigenous material culture and needs to be considered alongside this.

Integrating the study of Roman and Iron Age societies requires tight radiocarbon chronologies to be obtained from Iron Age sites.

The life-cycle of Roman material (arrival, reception, modification, reuse, emulation and deposition) needs closer attention than it has traditionally received.There is a need for close study of taphonomy, from both object condition and site context, to understand life cycles of the artefacts.

Traprain is a pivotal site for understanding interactions with the Roman world. Full publication to modern standards of the existing assemblage, and further fieldwork to clarify the sequence and expand knowledge of the site, are long overdue. Why did Traprain become so prominent in the Roman period?

An updated and discursive corpus of Roman material from non-Roman sites is a key desiderata; such a volume has been commissioned for the Römisch-Germanisch Kommission’s “Corpus der Römischen Funde im europäischen Barbaricum“, though funding is still required.

Detailed study of specific artefact classes by specialists can cast important fresh light on apparently intractable or supposedly well-known material (e.g. Erdrich et al.2000; Ingemark 2014).

Hybrid forms of material culture, such as glass bangles and Roman Iron Age / Romano-British metalwork, merit more research.

Investigation of the impact of different frontiers (e.g. Hadrian’s Wall cf Antonine Wall), the differential and long-term impact either side of a frontier (e.g. Hadrian’s Wall), and broad comparative perspective to other frontier areas would make an important research project.

The positioning of Roman fort sites in relation to the Iron Age landscape merits further consideration.

There is much scope for further research into the longer-term impact of Rome, for instance in the effects on the emergence on larger political units, or its role as a culture and political model. It forms an overarching area of research at what is too often regarded as a disciplinary boundary.

Scientific analysis should consider the impact of Roman raw materials, especially in the transfer of copper alloy, silver and glass.

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