2.2 Pre-Roman and Roman Iron Age around the Wall

State of knowledge

Study of the Iron Age in the Wall zone has followed wider Scottish habits but has never been a focus of investigation in its own right. Research work has been site-specific, focused on hillforts such as Meikle Reive (Fairhurst 1956), lowland brochs (Main 1998; MacKie 2016; Poller in prep), and crannogs (Hales and Sands 2005; Hanson 2022 b). Excavations in advance of development have added individual site stories (eg Braehead: Ellis 2007), but only the RCAHMS surveys of Stirlingshire and Lanarkshire (RCAHMS 1963; RCAHMS 1978) have provided a broad overview of a large portion of the Wall zone, though these are limited by modern county boundaries and mostly to one side of the Wall or the other. More recent research in nearby areas may throw light indirectly on the Wall corridor (eg Cook et al 2019).

Landscape image looking over the inside of a low broch wall, separating the moss and stone-covered internal area of the broch and the forest outside the broch. The sky is pink, purple and blue, creating a pink hue across the image.
Tappoch Broch, an Iron Age lowland broch located in Torwood, Larbert
© Kyle Stewart

Our understanding of the pre-Roman and Roman Iron Age has also been limited by the techniques deployed at the time of the research. However, more extensive array of techniques, especially scientific and remote sensing, are now available and could be more widely used both for research and in advance of development (see Application of scientific-based techniques).

Physical geography and political structure

The classical documentary evidence, particularly Ptolemy’s Geography (written around 150 AD), suggests that some tribal groupings were known to Roman sources around the time of the Wall’s construction, though these are not readily identifiable in the archaeological data and the potential level of political cohesion involved is debated (cf Hingley 1992: 42; Armit 1997, 78–9). There is a tendency to split research at the Wall which may reflect a broader physical and political division. To the south there is no such natural barrier until the Southern Uplands. However, there is no up-to-date, comprehensive survey of the Iron Age settlement pattern in the Wall zone on which to base an assessment. As a result there are different interpretations of the likely intensity of settlement across the isthmus (Breeze 1985, 225–6; Hanson and Maxwell 1986, 164; Macinnes 2020, 52). Various strands of evidence suggest a persistent cultural difference north and south of the Forth-Clyde isthmus (eg Hunter 2007b, 288, 290–2), but the overlap in the distribution of the different forms of metalwork involved hints at a contested zone (Hanson 2020b). The apparent geographical division provided by the Forth-Clyde isthmus is also contradicted by Ptolemy’s comments on the Dumnonii tribe, which is depicted as spanning the Wall zone from Ayrshire or the Clyde to the south-west of the Wall, and as far as Perthshire to the north-east of the Wall (Rivet & Smith 1979, 343–4; Mann and Breeze 1987, 89; Fraser 2005, 35; Fraser 2009, 16–17). However, the validity of reconstructing tribal geographies from scant external sources and place-name hints is open to question. Nonetheless, the assumption that the isthmus was a cultural divide is worthy of reassessment using more modern techniques (cf Macinnes 2020).

Photograph of a printed line map with area outlines and land in black lines with labels across the map. The map appears to have flipped Britain clockwise 90 degrees, with what is now scotland on the right and England on the left.
Ptolemy’s map of Great Britain © Highland Life

Social models

Data from the Forth-Clyde zone are currently too poor to sustain independent assessment, but wider southern Scottish models are likely to be relevant. Hillforts may dominate the surviving picture, but the main era of rampart construction was long gone by the time the Wall was built. However, analogues suggest they may have stayed in use, though not defended as, for example, in the Broxmouth sequence (Armit and McKenzie 2013), while the numbers of known hillforts may indicate that these were community structures rather than elite residences. By the late pre-Roman Iron Age, it seems society had shifted to a more individualistic or family-focused structure where individual households held sway. This is evident in large stone roundhouses, including lowland brochs; these are architecturally dominant structures whose residents had access to considerable wealth (cf Cook et al 2019). Palaeoenvironmental research shows that the landscape was intensively used for agriculture and that large-scale clearance of woodland took place some centuries before the Roman army appeared on the scene (Tipping and Tisdall 2005) (see Landscape and environment).

Relations with Rome

Distance Stones, historically referred to as Distance Slabs, (see Planning and Building the Wall and The Distance Stones) give a very one-sided view of relations. Studying interaction via Roman finds from non-Roman sites is a way of rebalancing this. North of the immediate Wall zone, the lowland brochs of the Forth Valley play a key role in interpretation (Macinnes 1984). These architecturally-exotic sites, often rich in Roman finds, may represent the centres of key local actors in this story, though much evidence suggests a Flavian rather than an Antonine date. Yet the presence of plentiful Roman finds at other sites such as Hyndford crannog, Dumbarton Rock and Traprain Law indicates these were not the sole focus (Campbell 2011). 

Museum image of a large, recatngular carved stone on display with a metal pedestal and spotlights highlighting the details. The stone has a central square of writing and two crescent shapes on wither side. It is likely sandstone and has a large crack through the writing.
Distance slab of the 6th Legion, Eastermains, Kirkintilloch
© Rediscovering the Antonine Wall

In recent years, valuable new perspectives have shed light on these Roman ‘import goods’ by considering their social impact, use, perception, and fragmentation (Campbell 2012; Hunter 2001; Ingemark 2014). As yet no studies have focused explicitly on the Wall zone (but see Macinnes 2020), nor compared it to adjacent geographical areas, so the specific question of the Wall’s impact remains under-explored.

An arranged assemblage of the Traprain treasure in a long, forward facing row with some items spread to the front and the larger items piled together in a row at the back. Jewellery, small metal objects and cutlery make up the hoard. The image is in black and white with a white background.
Traprain treasure. From a photograph album of the Curle family,1911-19
© HES (Curle Family Album)

Research Issues

  • Review the evidence for indigenous Iron Age sites in the vicinity of the Wall and their dating and develop a clearer view of changes to settlement patterns and social structure. Is the “gap” identified by Breeze (1985) still plausible?
  • Consider how native settlements in the Wall zone compare with those in all adjacent areas and assess the significance of any differences.
  • Try to refine the chronology of native settlements in relation to the Roman occupation and its impact.
  • Deploy new techniques to investigate the area around the Wall including utilising advances in remote sensing and dating.
  • Take any opportunities to investigate contemporary Iron Age sites in the general vicinity of the Wall in order to establish the nature of their relationship with Rome.
  • A long view of cultural politics north and south of the Forth-Clyde line should be taken. Where did local social and political boundaries lie and how did they change?
  • What impact did the building, and subsequent abandonment, of the Wall have on local societies to the north and south, and did it vary?
  • The time is ripe for a reappraisal of Roman-local relations from the finds evidence, specifically a fresh view of the lowland brochs in the light of more recent work on non-broch contact sites.



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