(ORDO NEWS) — Northern Britain, an unstable frontier during the Roman occupation of Britain (43-410 AD), was a struggle between Iron Age communities and the centralized power and strength of the Roman state.
Published in the prestigious journal Antiquity, a fascinating new study has explored the area north of Hadrian’s Wall and uncovered more than 100 previously undiscovered indigenous settlements dating back to the Roman occupation.
This is a breakthrough study, as the vast majority of archaeological attention has long been focused on the Romans in the region, rather than the natives that the empire sought to control.
Forget the Romans! Indigenous settlements on Hadrian’s Wall
Hadrian was emperor of the Roman Empire from 117 to 138 AD. In the middle of his reign, in 122 AD, work began on the construction of the wall of the same name.
It was supposed to represent the northernmost border of the empire, which it was for 20 years. By the way, northern England and southern Scotland are one of the few territories in Western Europe where the Romans could not establish full control.
With the safety and security of Hadrian’s Wall, the Romans pushed further north and built the Antonini Vallum or Antonine Wall as the newest northern Roman frontier.
Construction began in AD 142 under the command of Antony Pius and took 12 years (unlike Hadrian, Pius never visited Britain). Just 8 years after the completion of construction, in 162 AD, the wall was abandoned, and Hadrian’s Wall again became the boundary line.
Dr Manuel Fernandez-Goetz, head of archeology at the University of Edinburgh and lead author of the study, said:
“This is one of the most interesting regions of the empire, because it represented its northernmost border, and also because Scotland was one of the few areas in Western Europe over which the Roman army never managed to establish full control.”
Most of the research so far has focused on the region between the two walls and studied the Roman perspective, Roman fortresses, camps, roads and walls, which was definitely a top-down approach. Dr. Fernandez-Goetz and his team set out to focus on the indigenous communities that live in this frontier region, almost for the first time in history.
Search for settlements of local residents according to the maximum evidence of the Roman war
To undermine the dominant narrative and historiography associated with the Roman occupation, a new project funded by Leverhulme called Beyond the Walls: Reassessing Iron Age and Roman Encounters in Northern Britain (2021-2024) aims for a new approach.
The project is designed for a long-term perspective, based on a landscape approach, and covers the period from about 500 BC. to 500 AD The first pilot test of this approach was carried out in the area around the hillfort of Bernswark using Lidar drones.
Burnswark Hillfort is part of the project’s overall study area, which covers the area between Durham and the southern Scottish Highlands. The choice of this part of Roman Britain is due to the fact that it has the highest concentration of Roman shells in the entire region.
A 2016 Archeology UK report mentions that “Burnswark witnesses more and more variety of Roman projectiles at the local site than anywhere else in Britain”. This is a clear indication of the destructive power of the Roman legions, who mercilessly cracked down on any native tribe or group that tried to stop their expansion.
The 1,500 square kilometers (579 sq mi) area was surveyed in the area beyond Bernswark using LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) drones, which is essentially a 3D laser scan.
Support from the British Academy was brought in to uncover a total of 134 Iron Age “Hadrian’s Wall” indigenous settlements in the region that had not been previously recorded. Researchers believe that at least 700 such settlements are hidden under the project area.
“An important point about discovering a lot of previously unknown sites is that they help us reconstruct the structure of settlements,” said co-investigator Dr Cowley of Historic Environment Scotland. “Individually, they are very mundane, but collectively they help us understand the landscape in which the indigenous population lived,” he added.
The results of the study indicate a dense distribution of highly organized settlements scattered throughout the region. Small farms were the norm for most of these native settlers. The scientists will also analyze the radiocarbon dating of the soil at the sites of these settlements.
This will help establish elements of continuity and long-term development that will allow for a more subtle understanding of the indigenous people of this frontier region who prevented the Romans from advancing further north.
At the same time, this landscape approach to research gives us a more complex view of Iron Age Britain, including the Romans and local native settlers.
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