6.2 Social identities

6.2.1 Background

A photograph of a carved stone pillar engraved with Latin text topped with a degraded decorative carving

Carriden altar ©SCRAN and NMS

The theme of ‘changing worlds’ addresses the experiences and the impact of Empire on the daily life course of the inhabitants of northern Britain during the Roman period. It deals with the subtle negotiation of social identity, encompassing categories such as age, gender, ethnicity and status (Mattingly 2004). Increasingly Roman frontiers are viewed as pluralistic in nature, socially and ethnically diverse (e.g. Collins 2006; Cool 2004; Gardner 2001, 2007a, 2007b; Hingley 2004; James 2001; Okun 1991; Swan 1992, 1999, 2002; Wells  2005). This is not a new concept; there has long been discussion on who exactly peopled the frontiers (eg Curle 1911; Richmond and Steer 1957; Salway 1965; Birley 1980; Hanson and Maxwell 1986, 182-92). However, little of the recent work has directly considered the Scottish evidence, with the notable exception of Vivien Swan’s work on Antonine pottery (Swan 1992, 1999, 2009). Yet there is substantial potential in this area. The very specific and well-understood temporal framework of Roman Scotland, with relatively clear phases of activity, has the great benefit of simplifying the datasets, creating a series of discrete case-studies which are not muddled by the complex rebuilding histories and extended periods of occupation common on Hadrian’s Wall, for example. The biggest issue in addressing this material is to have the right questions in mind, as any enquiry will be limited by the way it is approached.

The epigraphic evidence has long been the first port of call for students of Roman Scotland, and it serves to highlight the diverse and complex reality of identity. The altar erected by the vicani, the inhabitants of the village, at Carriden attests to the presence of a civil settlement associated with the fort (RIB 3503; Richmond and Steer 1957). From Shirva (probably deriving from Auchendavy fort) comes the tombstone of Salmanes, erected by his father, who shared his name which is of Semitic origin, and Salmanes has been seen as a Near Eastern trader, since the inscription lacks any clear military link (RIB 2182). An altar at Westerwood (RIB 3504) was erected by the wife of a legionary centurion, Vibia Pacata; her name suggests she came from north Africa, while her husband was from Hungary. There is also a wealth of information relating to the soldiers themselves in the form of dedications and graffiti; Nectovelius, for instance, who was buried at Mumrills, served in a unit of Thracians but was himself a Brigantian (RIB 2142) while the dedications of Marcus Cocceius Firmus at Auchendavy emphasise the wide ranging career of officers in the Roman army (Birley 1953).

Place of origin is only one part of an individual’s or unit’s identity. As Swan’s research (1992) has highlighted, it is not only a unit’s origin that is of interest, but also its various deployments, each of which could influence it. Some units did maintain strong ties with their point of origin, notably Batavians (Roymans 1999; 2005), but, as the Mumrills inscription shows, while a unit may be raised in one area, it could rapidly lose any ethnic character in subsequent generations of more localised recruitment where they were garrisoned.

Epigraphy may provide a taster of the complexity, but a focus on it introduces a significant bias, as inscriptions are more common in certain periods and places, and are selective in terms of the class and status of those that commissioned them. There is a growing realisation that social identity (including ethnicity) had an impact on social practice in the fort which is archaeologically detectable (Bruhn 2008, Collis 2008, Cool 2004). This may be achieved by comparing categories of material (for example, by as types, proportions, and distribution) within and between forts, between forts and their annexes and vici, with surrounding farms, with neighbouring frontiers, and so forth.

The inscriptions noted above attest to the presence of women in and around Roman forts, a topic which saw early discussion, with Curle (1911) addressing the material from Newstead and Macdonald (1906) attempting to rationalise the presence of women’s shoes at Bar Hill. While there are larger current debates about gender on the frontiers within Roman studies, and few accounts of Roman Scotland have attempted to address this issue in any great depth (cf Allason-Jones 1989, 1999; Allison 2006a, 2006b; James 2006; Van Driel-Murray 1995). There is a need to address the issue of women and children in the frontier zone by scrutinising the available material. Equally, they were not the only non-military individuals in the area, as the case of Salmanes suggests – a range of specialists such as traders and craft-workers as well as people drawn to the fort by family connections, and veterans who may have settled in familiar territory during the occupation (a group increasingly seen as key active social agents in affecting the impact of Roman culture; see Groot in press a) are to be expected. However, none of the Scottish vici can be shown to have outlived the military occupation.

A stone slab carved with a Latin inscription

Tombstone of the soldier Nectovilius, a Brigantian who was recruited into the Second Cohort of Thracians. From Mumrills ©NMS

Yet there are obvious traps here, notably a tendency to focus on the unique or different and to exclude the obvious from the discussion of social identity. When gender is discussed, the focus is on finding and defining women; the family elicits discussions of children; while with ethnicity the focus is on the exotic, such as the study of Africans and Syrians in the frontiers. A whole group of individuals too rarely feature in such debates: the ‘common soldiery’ (Haynes 1999). They are treated as the default setting, often layered with modern preconceptions. Yet there is, for instance, significant evidence to address gender in the frontier zone through the study of masculinity (Gardner 2007) and, as noted, diversity within the ‘ordinary squaddie’ should be expected and sought.

Other sources of evidence can cast light on frontier mentalities. Ferris (2000) has considered the iconography of Antonine Wall distance slabs, with their stereotypical depictions of naked, conquered barbarians. This offers insights into the perception of its formal enemy by the Roman military, although other evidence of interaction indicates an altogether more complex picture in reality (see 6.3 and 6.4 below).

6.2.2 Relationships

One way of conceptualising and investigating this complex topic is as a series of relationships (Table 3). Any such attempt at summary is inevitably a simplification, but it serves to highlight the diversity of relationships within any frontier community, taken here from the soldier’s perspective. Although there are difficulties in investigating detail, many aspects of this are susceptible to archaeological investigation at some level.

Table 3: a model of relationships between people in the frontier zone, from a soldier’s perspective

Relations of … Such as…
Profession The army / wider military community The unit (at various levels – unit, century, contubernium) Rank Social class (careers of officers) Links to other units and/ competition, different unit origins, traditions and histories; detachments Veterans
Kin Current generation of family (common-law wife, children, nearby relations) Previous generations (veterans; more distant relations from homeland)
Sustenance Traders, craft-workers, suppliers of diverse origins and trades (shops, taverns, brothels etc) Slaves Indigenous population
Occupation Indigenous population (friendly, indifferent, hostile)

6.2.3 Advancing the debate

There are a number of ways forward in addressing social identities in Roman Scotland. The key thing is to approach the concept and data with an open mind and be willing to ask different questions of the existing data, building on the valuable datasets which are available. A good example is Swan’s (1999, 2009) and Willis’s (1997, 1998) work on pottery, which has highlighted its potential beyond mere dating evidence. The definition and identity of these groups, ‘the army’, ‘civilians’, ‘locals’, was not static; in these complex social settings, forms of hybridisation could occur between different social groups in what may be termed a frontier culture (Lightfoot et al. 1998; Hunter 2008), which may differ in different frontier zones.

A comparative approach is important here. How do different forts, or different areas of a fort, compare to one another? Can a difference between different garrison types, between primary / secondary Wall forts, or between different periods of occupation be seen? An area of great potential is studying the distribution of material. Hoffmann (1994) highlighted the potential of studying the distribution of finds in legionary barrack blocks, while Stoffels (2009) has looked at the distribution of locally-produced pottery within Roman military contexts; this approach could be readily applied to auxiliary forts to address issues of ethnicity, status, rank and gender. Are the high status goods coming from a specific area? Samian, for instance, was noted to be concentrated in the officers’ quarters at Bearsden (Breeze 1977). The work of Pim Allison in using GIS to analyse spatial patterns in Roman forts is directly relevant here (Allison 2006a, 2006b, Allison et al. 2005). She has focused on highlighting the presence of women in these social spaces, but the techniques could be expanded to address all the elements of social identity; although an important caveat is the need for careful study of the taphonomic pathways of finds into deposits, which in many cases may reflect demolition activities rather than use of the space.

A number of recent excavations present a good opportunity to address these topics: Strageath, Cramond, Elginhaugh, Inveresk and Newstead. In the particular cases of Inveresk and Newstead, the availability of assemblages from both inside and outside the fort walls gives a tremendous resource for comparative study. There is a great potential in the archaeological record of Roman Scotland to address these issues and it should be embraced enthusiastically.

Use of the existing resources may be able to illuminate more complex understandings of social identities on the Roman frontier, with analysis of the material from different forts, comparing the types, amounts, proportions and distribution against one another.

For more recently-excavated sites, the spatial distribution of finds offers tremendous potential, comparing between areas and buildings to see if different social spaces can be identified. Suggested sites include Strageath, Cramond, Elginhaugh, and Bearsden.

Inveresk and Newstead, where excavation has ranged widely across the fort complexes, are particularly rich in potential for study. Publication is awaited for Newstead, and for one of the major Inveresk excavations. These are key sites for further analysis of existing datasets. Such an approach needs to put the Scottish material in context. Comparison is needed to the Hadrian’s Wall area and to material from other frontiers around the Empire.

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