Zones of Interaction: Roman and Native in Scotland

By Hanson, W. S. | Antiquity, September 2002 | Go to article overview

Zones of Interaction: Roman and Native in Scotland


Hanson, W. S., Antiquity


Northern Britain is one of the best known and most extensively researched frontier regions in the Roman Empire. The fluctuations of Roman occupation in the late 1st, mid 2nd and early 3rd centuries AD are quite well understood and emphasize the peripheral character of the area, which never completely succumbed to Roman conquest. It also offers the opportunity to study the processes of interaction between Rome and indigenous peoples at the limits of empire. Too often, however, these have been seen as incidental to the main action, as if the local people were only the supporting cast for the foreign stars. If separately considered at all, the indigenous population has tended to be relegated to discussion of the native background, but over the last decade or so research has moved them more strongly into the foreground.

Material culture

By comparison with their southern neighbours, the Iron Age peoples of the north have tended to be regarded as culturally impoverished, primarily because of the comparatively poor recovery of material from excavated sites. But this value judgement has been reinforced by past interpretations of the fine bronzework, which has tended to be attributed to diffusion from the south despite in some cases a distribution which is almost exclusively Scottish. Recent analytical work has, however, served both to emphasize the local origin of much of the material and to demonstrate a greater emphasis on re-cycling in native society linked to an increase in the availability of raw materials derived from the re-use of Roman artefacts (e.g. Tare et al. 1985; Dungworth 1997: 48-9). By contrast, comparative analysis of iron knives from Roman and native contexts indicates little re-use of Roman iron or transfer of either smelting or smithing technology (Hutcheson 1997). This may have been reinforced by a deliberate strategy on the part of the Roman forces, for a second example of the deliberate burial of a large quantity of iron on the abandonment of a Roman fort has come to light (Hanson forthcoming a).

The presence of Roman finds on native sites or from unprovenanced locations has long been the subject of record in Scotland. Unfortunately this tradition has never extended south of the present political boundary, making potentially important cross-frontier comparisons impossible. The actual quantity of material appears to be quite small, though a recent re-assessment has prompted the suggestion that the volume of Roman metalwork in circulation may have been considerably underestimated (Hunter 1996; 2001: 290-91). Early approaches went little further than data collection, but more recently attempts have been made to draw wider conclusions from the distribution patterns (e.g. Macinnes 1989; Hunter 2001). Material of Flavian date seems to be found mainly in the southern and eastern lowlands and in quantity on only a few sites. In the Antonine period both the quantity and geographical distribution of Roman artefacts is greater, though the range of types does not change. They appear also on a greater variety of settlement types, though their distribution is still biased towards the more elaborate and presumably higher-status settlement forms such as brochs, duns, crannogs and souterrains. The large hillfort at Traprain Law, East Lothian continues to be pre-eminent in the range, quality and quantity of material received, including some highly Romanized items. It is also one of the few sites which continues to receive Roman material in the later 3rd and the 4th centuries (Macinnes 1989: 112-13; Erdrich et al. 2000). Overall, this distribution pattern suggests that contact with the occupying forces was limited, and largely confined to the upper elements within the local social hierarchy, and does not entirely support the supposed stimulatory effect of monetary taxation and a market economy (contra Breeze 1989: 228-9; Hanson & Macinnes 1991: 87-8).

Access to Roman goods is frequently regarded as contributing towards maintenance of a prestige goods economy in southern Scotland (Macinnes 1984: 241-2). …

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