Construction of Hadrian’s Wall began in 122 AD in what is now northern England, and the wall was used to designate the northernmost boundary of the Roman Empire. As the ancient Romans expanded further, they built the Antonine Wall about 20 years later across what is now the center of Scotland. This was a brief expansion, however, and the boundary line ultimately became Hadrian’s Wall again.
Most research regarding this region has been focused on the Roman side of the story to learn more about their roads, forts, camps and the iconic walls they used in their quest to control northern Britain.
Manuel Fernández-Götz, head of archaeology at The University of Edinburgh’s School of History, Classics and Archaeology in Scotland, is interested in uncovering the other side of the story: how Roman rule impacted life for Britain’s Indigenous Iron Age communities.
“This is one of the most exciting regions of the Empire, as it represented its northernmost frontier, and also because Scotland was one of very few areas in Western Europe over which the Roman army never managed to establish full control,” said study author Fernández-Götz via email.
“So it’s a great case study to analyse the impact of imperial powers on societies at the edges of their political borders — a theme that is also relevant for later periods in history.”
He leads a project called “Beyond Walls: Reassessing Iron Age and Roman Encounters in Northern Britain,” which will explore an area from Durham stretching to the southern Scottish Highlands through August 2024. The project is funded by the UK’s Leverhulme Trust and began in September 2021.
The first phase of research has been focused on exploring 579 square miles (1,500 square kilometers) around the Burnswark Hill fort in southwest Scotland, which is where Roman legions focused their efforts as the Roman Empire pushed to expand northward.
This site is home to the greatest concentration of Roman projectiles found in Britain, a testament to the firepower that these legions carried with them. For centuries, northern Britain was a “fluctuating frontier area characterised by dynamic patterns of confrontation and exchange between Iron Age communities and the Roman state,” the authors wrote in the study.
While written sources from this time period are scarce, the landscape maintains human imprints that can provide more detail.
Fernández-Götz and a team of archaeologists studied lidar data of the area. Lidar, or light and detection ranging, uses lasers to capture an area in 3D. The lidar data revealed 134 previously unrecorded settlements, despite the fact that this area has been well studied in the past.
Lidar essentially reveals sites within a landscape that could be easily overlooked if you were to study it from the ground or the air, Fernández-Götz said.
“This is an area where new technology and new ways of looking are really making a difference, revealing a large amount of previously unknown information,” he said.
It brings the total of Iron Age settlements in the region to 704. Many of these newly found sites are small farmsteads. The structures — not just the fortifications of the wealthy and the powerful — were key to how these Iron Age people lived.
“In this way they help us to build a picture of how the mass of the population lived out their lives — how close their nearest neighbours were and how they may have used the landscape for farming and grazing animals,” Fernández-Götz said.
While it’s clear that there was considerable conflict between the local people and the Roman army, it’s possible that they also experienced times of exchange and collaboration “as local farmers connected to the large logistical supply lines that fed the Roman army, for example,” he said.
The placement of the sites indicates that there was a pattern of organization behind when and where these Indigenous communities settled, the researchers said.
“The important thing about the discovery of many previously unknown sites is that they help us to reconstruct settlement patterns,” said study coauthor Dave Cowley, manager of the aerial survey program at Historic Environment Scotland, in a statement. “Individually they are very much routine, but cumulatively they help us understand the landscape within which the indigenous population lived.”
As the archaeologists continue with their research, they will comb back over some of the notable discoveries made so far using geophysical tools and radiocarbon dating to better understand these settlements and the people who built them. Their findings could paint a portrait of what life was like before, during and after the Roman occupation — and just how much the imperialists disrupted life for local communities.