by Grace Woolmer White
The Gask Ridge system was constructed in the 1st Century AD during the Flavian occupation of Scotland and is possibly one the earliest fortified land frontiers built by the Romans. Part of a fortification system which approximately follows the boundary between Scotland’s lowlands and mountainous highlands, the Gask Ridge comprises a line of forts, watch towers and fortlets. These run from north of Dunblane at Glenbank, to just upstream of Perth on the Tay, at Bertha, and follows the line of the Roman road into Northern Scotland. Possibly part of a larger ‘Highland Line’ stretching from the Clyde to Strathmore, there is debate whether the Gask System represents a ‘proto-frontier’ or if the Gask line was more logistical in nature. Among these fortifications is Ardoch, a fort which represents one of the best-preserved Roman military earthworks in Scotland (MPK665).
Ardoch is located north-east of Braco village and comprises a rectangular area of around two hectares enclosed by a complex ditch and rampart system. This is best and most impressively preserved on the eastern and northern sides of the fort, where five ditches survive up to 2m in height. The southern elements of the fort’s defences have been partly ploughed out, and only one ditch survives on the western side where it was cut by the modern road to Crieff, constructed in the mid eighteenth century. However, earlier accounts of the fort suggest that multiple ditches also existed on these sides as well as to the east and north.
While the complex of ditches and ramparts may appear to look like a single fort with multiple defence lines, these actually represent a series of superimposed forts with three phases of occupation. The first of these, and the largest of the forts, is Flavian in date (1st century), while two later forts of Antonine date (2nd century), grew progressively smaller, thus necessitating more ditches to be dug closer to the rampart, which are represented by those on the eastern and northern sides.
Half of the fort’s interior was excavated in 1896-7 by the Society of Antiquaries Scotland. This found evidence of long and narrow internal structures: barracks buildings. These clearly belonged to different periods, some being built on top of one another. Some were of stone construction, likely belonging to the two later Antonine forts, and some of timber construction, which were likely associated with the earlier Flavian Fort. Geophysical surveys undertaken in 2016 also detected long linear structures within the fort, which both matched with the positions of buildings recorded in the 1898 excavations and distinguished between timber and stone structures.
Additional enclosures are also present outside of the fort, to its north, with the Roman road running directly alongside the complex on its eastern side roughly north-south. The enclosures comprise a substantial annexe (2, figure below) containing a possible earlier fort, and a series five overlapping temporary camps (1, 3-5, 7, figure below; MPK689; MPK796-799). Visible as a combination of earthworks and cropmarks, these enclosures vary in size, with the largest temporary camp measuring 52ha. A watch tower (Black Hill) is also present on the east of the defences of the largest temporary camp, and was the first of the Gask towers to be recorded (MPK809). Rescue excavations in 1997, in response to extensive rabbit burrowing, revealed that this watch tower was defined by a circular double ditch, within which was a turf rampart and central timber tower represented by four post-holes. The defences of the 52ha temporary camp (which comprised a standard V-shaped ditch with an upcast inner rampart) were also found to cut through the watch tower, indicating that the camp was later than the tower. An oven, built into the outer ditch of the tower, probably also belonged to the camp.
There have been a number of finds recovered from Ardoch over the years, resulting from targeted excavations, chance finds and as a result of animal burrowing. These finds have dated to both the Flavian and Antonine occupations and have included denarii coins, sherds of samian ware and a stone from a ring, styled after the Goddess Fortuna. Perhaps the most significant of these finds was discovered sometime towards the end of the 17th century: a tombstone bearing a Latin inscription and the name of one of the soldiers who occupied the fort:
‘To the shade of the late Ammonius, son of Damio, a Centurion of the first cohort of Spaniards, who served for 27 years. His heirs set this up’.
Little else can be said about Ammonious, but the memorial, now on display on the Huntarian Museum, provides a remarkable direct and humanistic link across the span of two millennia to someone who lived and died at Ardoch fort.
Due to its excellent state of preservation, the site of Ardoch has been known for centuries and there has been numerous accounts and plans of it have been made over the course of this. A medieval Chapel built within the fort itself attests to both the recognition, and exploitation, of the fort’s prominence throughout history. Its significance now is recognised through its status as a Scheduled Ancient Monument, and it this remarkable site represents one of the most important for the study of Roman military expansion in northern Britain.
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Christison, D et al 1898 ‘Account of the excavation of the Roman Station at Ardoch, Perthshire, undertaken by the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland in 1896-97’, Proc Soc Antiq Scot 32, 399-476.
Fernández-Götz, M 2017 ‘Geophysical Surveys and Digital Elevation Modelling at the Roman Military Complex of Ardoch, Scotland’, 7th Developing International Geoarchaeology Conference [online], Newcastle University. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_8Ldc9JRL_Y
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