6.3 Indigenous communities

6.3.1 Introduction

The impact of the Roman presence and proximity on indigenous societies has long been a major research question. As sections 6.1 and 6.2 indicate, it should be seen in the much wider context of the complexity of identities and perspectives among frontier groups, not simplistically as “Roman” and “native”. However, the impact on Iron Age societies is a major topic which merits specific consideration.

A number of datasets offer ways into this question, in providing insights into local societies and their workings over this period, such as changing settlement patterns or landscape use. However, proposals arising from these areas have been contentious and it is hard to demonstrate the impact of Rome specifically as distinct from wider indigenous processes, especially where dating evidence is vague. The key source material for investigating Roman impact is the presence of Roman finds on non-Roman sites in Scotland.

The long tradition of study was started by the enquiries of James Curle (1913) and then given a foundation with his major catalogue of Roman finds from non-Roman sites (1932). This was updated by Robertson (1970) and again in summary by Hunter (2001), while Wilson has produced a series of regional catalogues, looking at a broader range of material but including Roman finds from Iron Age contexts (1997, 2001, 2003, 2010).

The lasting impact of Rome has often been debated, with a major division between those scholars who see it as a fundamental phase in Scottish early history which induced substantial social and political reactions and change in many fields (e.g. Fraser 2009, 116-7), and others who see it as a passing moment of little consequence (e.g. Hanson 2004). Evidence from elsewhere beyond the Limes and from wider anthropological studies on the impact of frontiers, especially ‘asymmetrical’ ones in terms of organisational complexity of neighbouring groups, seems to support the former view, but the investigation of such contact situations requires a subtle and nuanced approach, for the reality will inevitably be complex.

There is a long tradition of identifying causative connections with Rome for any change in indigenous society which has a possible chronological connection to the Roman period. Rome has often been seen as a cover-all explanation of changing phenomena. In some cases this has been valid, but in many cases scientific dating has shown this not to be acceptable – e.g. the abandonment of hillforts, the building of stone-walled roundhouses or the construction of rectilinear enclosures.

A photograph showing four sherds of Roman samian ware, a blue ribbed bead and a fragment of a larger light blue ribbed bead

Roman finds from the Iron Age crannog of Lochspouts, Ayrshire ©NMS

6.3.2 Differing methods of analysis

Early works did not consider mechanisms behind the movement of this material in any detail. Macinnes (especially 1984) provided a key shift in interpretation, considering the rich Roman finds from the lowland brochs in the context of prestige-goods economies and socially-restricted access to this material. This attempt to embed the understanding of Roman goods in local societies was a major and highly influential step forward.

The broader study of Roman goods beyond the frontier has been dominated by areas with rich burial finds, such as northern Germany and Scandinavia (Wheeler 1954; Eggers 1951; Lund Hansen 1987). In contrast, Scottish finds are predominantly fragmentary objects found among settlement material, which has led to their significance often being overlooked or understated. Indeed, Alcock, coming from an early medieval perspective, argued that much of this material was residual, and may have circulated as tokens or charms long after the Roman period (e.g. Alcock 1963; Alcock and Alcock 1990, 115-6). Issues of taphonomy and life-cycle remain critical to such discussions and Hunter (2007a, 11, 91) has argued against Alcock’s minimalist perspective, seeing a clear selection of material types. These make little sense as fragments but form a coherent pattern if viewed as the debris remaining from complete prestigious objects. Thus have methods been developed to use the presence or absence of types, categories and the variety of material present to tease meaning from these settlement fragments (Hunter 2001).

There is no doubt that the taphonomic issues are complex, a topic considered for ceramics by Campbell (2011). In some cases Alcock was right to suggest that some material was clearly long-lived, and Wallace (2006) has usefully noted that elongated use-lives are found regularly, especially for samian, within the Roman world. Samian also seems to have been a particular target of reworking and reuse in indigenous contexts. The picture is undoubtedly complex, but close attention to material condition and context provide ways to take this topic forward.

Increasingly subtle approaches are allowing more detailed appreciation of the potential meaning, and current approaches take advantage of this long tradition of cataloguing to consider local populations as an active agent in this interaction, and Roman material as a powerful social tool and catalyst (e.g. Macinnes 1984; Hunter 2001, 2007a). Key issues for consideration are the range of material and its social impact. The widespread distribution of Roman finds indicates its desirability to local societies across Scotland (suggesting “resistance” is too simple a concept), but with clear signs of local variation which probably reflect local social differences and attitudes. There is a marked selectivity in the material, with a strong bias towards types which were locally useful in displaying social status (notably jewellery and feasting gear). There are also signs of emulation or other forms of copying, for instance in styles of finger ring or rare ceramic vessel forms which show the influence of Roman forms (Campbell 2011; Hunter forthcoming).

Although in some areas Roman material was clearly widespread, it was not always abundant, and in southern and eastern Scotland shows a marked focus on only a few sites. These may be seen as local or regional power centres or elite sites – although regional variation indicates that the nature of any such ‘elites’ varied widely. Here Roman material serves a valuable role in making local social systems visible.

Detailed analysis has suggested changing patterns through time, and arguably the deliberate ‘targeting’ of particular areas or groups for Roman diplomatic attention, possibly in the face of local instability; this has been linked to social collapse in NE Scotland and the rise of the Picts (Hunter 2007a, 2010). This is a useful reminder also of the varied relationships which must be expected between the Roman and indigenous worlds, as circumstances and motives changed and it is in the context conflict and coexistence, that attribution of social and / or economic value to this material should be expected (and hints of these are apparent).

The increasing evidence for Roman interference in local politics at some stages, and the apparent desire for Roman goods on the part of local inhabitants, suggests this relationship is likely to have had significant social effects, and the continuing study of these undoubtedly will see much controversy to come. Macinnes’ discussion of the lowland brochs in relation to their clear access to Roman material remains seminal (1984) and these sites and Traprain Law (Jobey 1976; Hunter 2009) are pivotal to understanding interactions at the upper end of the scale. In the case of Traprain, the existing archive (both field records and finds) hold considerable potential for renewed analysis, while further fieldwork on the site would be of great value. The most recent campaigns have confirmed the virtual absence of Iron Age activity on the site before the Roman period; how then should its emergence and pre-eminence in the Roman Iron Age be understood? Should potential parallels for power centres emerging in the context of client kingdoms, such as the oppidum of Stanwick (N Yorks), be sought)?

It is equally important to seek out sites which can broaden horizons – as the case of Birnie (Moray) demonstrates, an outwardly unprepossessing site marked out by the chance metal-detecting find of a substantial hoard of denarii (Hunter 2007c). Indeed, the investigation of “stray finds” has a key role to play, in giving them an archaeological context beyond simply strays, and (in some cases) in providing springboards to much fuller investigation and consequent information.

Another factor in the use of Roman finds was their value as raw material sources. This is one end-point of the processes of adaptation, which could also include the reshaping Roman vessels to more locally-useful forms, for instance, or adapting samian sherds as polishers or pigment sources. Remelting and reuse was clearly demonstrated by Dungworth’s analysis of copper alloys (1996), and is often suggested as the source for the glass for beads and bangles; in the later and post-Roman period, and it is very likely that silver was recycled (Stevenson 1956).

Scotland is one part of a much broader picture, and comparison with other situations around the Roman frontier, and indeed analogy to frontiers of other periods, are important to contextualise and interpret the Scottish evidence of purpose, function and interaction.

A photograph of an excavated broken ceramic pot containing two clusters of corroded coins with some very degraded organic remains

One of the late second century denarius hoards from Birnie, Moray.©NMS

An updated and discursive corpus of Roman material from non-Roman sites is a key desiderata; such a volume has been commissioned for the Romisch-Germanisch Kommission’s “Corpus der Romischen Funde im europaischen Barbaricum”, though further 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 (eg Erdrich et al. 2000; Ingemark in press).

Lists of coin finds in Scotland have been an invaluable resource back to the days of Haverfield and Macdonald. The National Museum no longer employs a numismatist, leaving only one specialist in Scotland and putting this tradition at risk. Efforts are needed to ensure a continuing publication of the material.

The 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.

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

The life-cycle of the Roman material (covering evidence for its 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?

Significant stray finds should be followed up in the field wherever possible in order to retrieve their context. This need not always involve excavation – but study of existing aerial photos, geophysical survey results and fieldwalking can provide an understanding of the setting of such finds, and in many cases guide attention to sites which were previously unknown.

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