Thursday, September 18, 2008

Romans helped the barbarian Scots with prosperity

Why life was sweet for Scots at edge of the Roman empire
Mike Wade
An archaeological dig in North East Scotland has laid bare the quality of the opposition the Romans faced at the very fringes of their empire.

The discovery of a tiny piece of a horse's harness at a site at Birnie near Elgin shows the tribe that lived there had wealth and prestige enough to warrant the attention of the would-be invaders from the south.

The harness, which was found along with a dagger and sheath, was almost certainly part of a fixing from a chariot, “the Ferrari of the Iron Age”, according to Fraser Hunter, the leader of the dig.

“These people were well connected and wealthy. It is no surprise that the Romans should choose to do business with them. It was almost certainly a means of keeping the boundaries of their empire intact,” he said.

Between the first and third centuries AD, the Romans attempted twice to conquer Scotland, but in the intervening years they tried to keep Scots at bay with bribes. Some tribes were sweetened to fight others who were not so favoured - a classic case of divide and rule, a policy beloved of dictators ever since.

Dr Hunter, curator of Iron Age of Roman Collections at the National Museums of Scotland, said it was plain that the Birnie group was favoured by Roman patronage because of the influence it wielded in the area.

“This was essentially a big powerful family group. There would have been others living in the area, but this would have been one of the most important. The range of finds is spectacular,” he said.

The site, which lies on farmland, first came to the attention of archaeologists in 2000 after the discovery of two hoards of Roman coins there. Since then two ancient roundhouses have been found, with a third likely to be uncovered on Monday. Dr Hunter said that aerial photography had shown that 15 roundhouses, each with a diameter of about 16 metres, had been built on the site. Other discoveries include a gold torc, glass beads and quernstones for grinding corn. There is also evidence of smelting, casting and of a blacksmith on the site.

It is probable that the rich farming countryside close by accounted for the wealth of the settlement, which is likely to have remained inhabited for at least 1,000 years from 800BC. “It's not a coincidence that this part of Speyside would eventually become so famous for its barley and its whisky. This was and is good land for growing crops,” Dr Hunter said.

Some of the finds offered new insights into the lives of the inhabitants. The dagger and sword were both found in the roofs of houses, suggesting they might have been left as gifts to the gods when the houses were abandoned. Likewise, broken quernstones had been found that had probably been deliberately destroyed.

One building had been badly damaged in a fire. Dr Hunter speculated that a house might be burnt if it had become associated with bad luck.

The Moray Forth represented the limits of the Roman invasion of Scotland. When the bribes of silver coins proved insufficient to quell powerful groups like those at Birnie, the Emperor Septimius Severus led his troops north in the third century. “There was no climactic battle, but he certainly got to Aberdeen and possibly as far as the Moray Firth. But areas there were never settled; the Romans just campaigned right through,” Dr Hunter said.

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