4.1 Life and Society

The Roman presence in Scotland had a significant impact on the existing indigenous population as well as on Roman military personnel and the wider military community. In common with Roman literary accounts, monumental inscriptions and sculpture are invaluable sources for identifying individuals or military units. However, their inherent bias in favour of the Romans who commissioned them with the depictions of Roman domination over submissive ‘barbarian’ captives does not shed much light on life and society in this changing world. They do not generally cover the lives of lower-ranking personnel; we lack information about their ethnicity, gender, and age as well as about the realities of the lives of the Iron Age communities who interacted with the Romans. For that we must turn to the material evidence and exploit the latent potential of existing museum collections.

A tall, orange-brown carves stone with a crouching person in relief at the bottom, and curved tendrals in relief towards the top. The rough edges on the right suggests this is onle a fragment of a larger stone.
Arniebog distance slab showing depiction of ‘barbarian’ captive
© The Hunterian, University of Glasgow

Though material remains are fragmentary, widely scattered and generally restricted to southern Scotland, they have proved to be important cumulatively. Catalogues of Roman objects found in non-Roman contexts are an invaluable data resource that has been long-studied, even if early works lack detailed interpretation of the finds or their potential social implications (eg Curle 1932; Robertson 1970; Hunter 2007a). The dataset has been considerably enhanced through recent work that has investigated material connections, status, identity, hybrid practice, artefact distribution, and the contentious issue of chronology through taphonomy and depositional contexts (Campbell 2011).

Avocado shaped object, with a central hole and a larger hole to the right side. It is orange-brown and the right hole is singed from flames.
Lamp from Cadder fort, East Dunbartonshire © The Hunterian, University of Glasgow

Detailed analysis of ceramics from the Wall has identified vessels with North African affinities, some of which were locally manufactured (Swan 1999). This may imply the presence of troops and/or camp followers of North African origin, perhaps detachments returning from Pius’ Mauretanian war, who commissioned vessels to fulfil particular culinary tastes and cooking traditions (see The Wall in its Historical Context). Alternatively, Bidwell and Croom have argued that such pottery simply reflected the exploitation of the new market on the Antonine Wall by potters and merchants (2016, 180–1). The recent publication of a diploma dating to AD 152/3 recording the discharge of soldiers from two British regiments has supported Swan’s hypothesis (Eck and Pangerl 2016). One of the regiments was the First Cohort of Baetasians based at Bar Hill, where Keppie’s excavations revealed a kiln making pottery for use in cooking in the North African style on a brazier (1985, 60 and 76–8).

Black and white excavation image of a circular feature lined with small, angular stones. It resembles a small well, but the singing suggests use a a kiln.
Pottery kiln excavated at Bar Hill © HES
Image of a vase-shaped pot in orange clay with a thick rim against a grey background.
Small pot, found at Bearsden Bathhouse, Antonine Wall © HES

Residue analysis could aid the debate, and determine how consumption practices and changed eating habits contributed to communal military identities, as well as providing information on supply (McLaren 2016). A detailed study of personal possessions and beakers likely to have formed part of a standard ‘military kit’ could further enhance our understanding of individual identity and ethnicity (Swan 2009), since they may have been manufactured following the ethnic traditions of their owners or be marked with graffiti denoting their owner.

An aerial image of a peetree dish with hundreds of grains of burnt wheat, mainly black and dark brown.
Wheat sample from Castlecary, North Lanarkshire © The Hunterian, University of Glasgow
A large barrel on its side against a light grey background. The word Janarius is carved on the side.
Small personal drinking barrel with the name Januarius inscribed on it, from Bar Hill © HES

Because of their diverse and often fluctuating populations, frontier zones are particularly important areas not only for the study of cultural interaction, but for the identification of distinctive frontier styles of material culture (Hunter 2008; Hoss 2016). More specifically, the spatial analysis of the distribution of specific artefact types across different areas of forts is beginning to provide insights into the more varied character of the inhabitants of Roman forts (eg Allison 2013). As yet, however, there has been limited use of such approaches with regard to the Antonine frontier; this is partly because of the early date of many of the excavations and the general paucity of artefacts from many sites.

Innovative analytical techniques are being employed to identify and recreate colours originally applied to the Distance Stones (Campbell 2018). This work will facilitate exploration of the wider meaning, reception, performance and impact of monumental sculpture on both Roman and indigenous audiences. It will also contribute to a major new project designed to engage local communities in cultural heritage through a rediscovery of the Wall (see Contemporary values of the Antonine Wall).

Image of a long, rectangular carved stone placed horizontally against a black background. The centre is a rectangle filled with carved writing, and on each side is a relief carving of a scene. The left, which has been partially coloured, is a warrior on a horse attacking three peope below. The right scene is not coloured, and depicts six people and three sheep gathered together under an arch.
Digital reconstruction of the Bridgeness sculpture with colour © Louisa Campbell

Roman political influence has been inferred from probable diplomatic gifts, such as coin hoards, and reused Roman raw materials at high-status sites (eg Hunter 2007b; Hunter 2009). Rich assemblages of Roman artefacts from lowland brochs, including those in the Forth Valley, may indicate socially restricted access to exotica (Macinnes 1984; see Pre-Roman and Roman Iron Age around the Wall). Romano-British objects are the manifestation of hybrid practices – that is the combining of elements from two or more cultures – that demonstrate that new hybrid identities emerged in this unique cultural and geographical setting of Rome’s north-western frontier (Campbell 2011; Campbell 2012). Other mechanisms for the wider movement of Roman material through local communities and vice versa could be usefully explored through a comparative study of availability, selectivity, reuse and hybrid practice beyond ‘elite’ sites in the vicinity of the Wall. Detailed contextual analysis of their distribution in Roman sites, including from the vici and annexes of Wall forts, could cast light on the Roman reception of local influences, as well as who was manufacturing and using these objects. Careful GIS mapping of the material remains set within a theoretical framework will determine whether age, gender or status can be attributed to the users or manufacturers of particular artefact classes and where they were being made or used.

Image of a round pot with a broken rim facing the camera, with hundreds of silver coins inside and spilling out onto the black backing paper.
Birnie coin hoard © National Museums Scotland
Image of a stone board with hashed carvings to create a game board. Diferent coloured discs sit on the board and next to it, as gaming pieces.
Latrunculi gaming board and counters from Bearsden Bathhouse, Antonine Wall © HES

Research Issues

  • Make better use of museum collections for understanding non-military life and society, and as an important dating horizon in the context of the wider Roman Empire. Research topics will need to explore the situation on the Antonine Wall in relation to the wider Scottish context and might include:

 – identifying hybrid practice through an examination of Romano-British objects from both indigenous and Roman contexts;

 – a comparative review of coin hoards and reused Roman material from non-Roman sites and other Roman frontier contexts to consider the wider social impact of Rome’s interference in local politics, and the tactics employed therein.

  • Military installations should be considered in relation to their wider physical and social environment with more landscape-oriented studies.
  • Undertake spatial analysis of the distribution of the range of artefact types across different areas of forts and other structures along the Wall.
  • Investigate the reasons for the differences in the quantity and quality of artefact assemblages at forts along the Wall, and elsewhere in Scotland.
  • Carry out further research into the mechanisms behind the occurrence of Roman material on non-Roman sites and on comparison between Roman and non-Roman assemblages.
  • Carry out further work on the ethnicity and identity of the soldiers and regiments, including through the study of diplomas.



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