KENNETH STEER ; Recorder of Scotland's Monuments
Breeze, David, The Independent (London, England)
Kenneth Steer directed the official recording of Scot-land's ancient monuments and historic buildings for 21 years and as an archaeologist changed our understanding of the history of Rome's northern frontiers. His work on the Antonine Wall, built by the Emperor AntoninusPiusonly20yearsafterHadrian's Wall, challenged the current chronology for both frontiers and led to a fierce debate on the chronology of the second century and, eventually, to a radical change in the dating of both frontiers.
His contribution to the medieval history of Scotland was equally important. In 1977, with John Bannerman, he published a corpus of the late medieval sculpture in the west of Scotland, which was the first attempt to come to terms with a body of material which had previously never been fully assessed.
Steer was born in 1913 and educated at Wath Grammar School and Durham University, where he fell under the spell of Eric Birley, lecturer in Roman-British archaeology and founder of a school of research into the Roman army. After graduation, Steer stayed in Durham to undertake research leading to a PhD awarded in 1938. The subject of his thesis was Roman Durham. This has not only been the starting point for all subsequent work on Durham's forts, but his field investigation approach was to stand Steer in good stead when he applied for a post of investigator at the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland.
War interrupted Steer's career. He served in Military Intelligence, was twice mentioned in dispatches, and, following peace, was Fine Arts and Archives Officer, North Rhine Region. Returning to Scotland in 1946 he was able to place his war experience with aerial photographs at the service of Scottish archaeology. He also undertook the first of many excavations on Roman sites. These included the first-century camp and fort at Oakwood in Selkirkshire, where he retrieved the surviving stumps of the gate timbers.
When the Royal Commission's attention moved north to Stirlingshire, Steer wrote the entries on the Antonine Wall for Stirlingshire: an inventory of the ancient monuments (1963). He also took up the challenge of trying to improve knowledge of this, the most northerly frontier of the Roman empire, through excavation. In 1957 he investigated the "expansion" at Bonnyside East, beside the fort at Rough Castle. Six of these enigmatic structures are known, always grouped in pairs. Steer was able to demonstrate that the structure was contemporary with the rampart of the Antonine Wall; that a quarry pit underlay the expansion, indicating, for the first time, an early date for the adjacent Military Way; and that the burning beside the site suggested the expansion was in fact a beacon- platform.
From 1958 to 1960, Steer directed excavations on the western defences and annexe at Mumrills fort on the Antonine Wall in advance of a new housing development. His findings provoked a debate that took over a decade to resolve. The problem lay with the different dates assigned to the three types of Roman pottery. …