Rebecca Jones

Rebecca Jones (Historic Scotland) – Scottish Borders

Borders ‘Contains Ordnance Survey data © Crown copyright and database right 2011’

Borders ‘Contains Ordnance Survey data © Crown copyright and database right 2011’

Rebecca Jones, Historic Scotland

Rebecca Jones, Historic Scotland

Carry on Camping in the Scottish Borders

I’m Rebecca Jones and I used to work at RCAHMS but since August 2012 have been on secondment to Historic Scotland where I am now Head of Archaeology Strategy.

I have picked what appear to be a series of empty fields in the Scottish Borders, not far from Lauder on a hill above the Leader Water. These unassuming fields, now home to various sheep and crops, once held an army of around 40,000 Roman soldiers and probably the Emperor Septimius Severus and his entourage campaigning in Scotland in the early 3rd century AD with the specific aim of completing the conquest of Britannia (he did not succeed…).

All that we can see now at St Leonards is the differential growth of crops over the buried features (‘cropmarks’), best recorded through aerial photography.

North-east side of camp and one of its entrances, together with a settlement and enclosure which intersect the camp’s perimeter. Copyright RCAHMS (SC882008)

North-east side of camp and one of its entrances, together with a settlement and enclosure which intersect the camp’s perimeter. Copyright RCAHMS (SC882008)

We can recognise these linear cropmarks as being of Roman origin due to their characteristics: rounded corners, entrance gaps protected by additional stretches of ditch. In the case of St Leonards, this camp site lies close to the Dere Street Roman road, midway between two probably similar sized camps at Newstead (near Melrose) and Channelkirk (near Oxton). At 173 acres / 70 hectares, it is the largest camp recorded in the Roman Empire in Europe. Larger camps have recently been discovered in Syria: these may not have held a larger number of troops than St Leonards but perhaps needed a buffer within the perimeter to counter the threat of hostile Syrian archers.

Plan of St Leonards. ‘Contains Ordnance Survey data © Crown copyright and database right 2011’

Plan of St Leonards. ‘Contains Ordnance Survey data © Crown copyright and database right 2011’

Archaeology has a challenge when it comes to enthusing people about buried remains that they cannot see, particularly if there is no excavation in progress to show the depth of the ditches dug around the perimeter of the campsite, the fragmentary remains of ovens where they baked their meals and the rubbish and latrine pits where they disposed of… well, anything needing disposal! Yet we can fire imaginations by inviting our audiences to conjure up images of rows upon rows of tents housing soldiers who originated from around the Empire and spoke a variety of languages, not just Latin. The Emperor Septimius himself was from Libya in Northern Africa. We don’t know for definite that Septimius was here – we have no dating evidence from the site – but the most likely context for such a huge camp is the presence of the Emperor and his bodyguards and administration. I certainly love the idea that, for a few days and nights at least, the whole of the Roman Empire was run from these fields in the Borders.

This is what I’ve chosen for Day of Archaeology, but why not tell us your favourite archaeological sites in Scotland on Twitter using #MyArchaeology.

 

Rebecca Jones RCAHMS Day of Archaeology

My name is Rebecca Jones and I’m a Romanist. My regular work at RCAHMS is as an Operational Manager in the Survey and Recording group where I am responsible for Data and Recording, overseeing a range of projects relating to the data in our online database, Canmore, and its mapping application, and working in partnership across the sector to deliver information to the public. Information Management is one strand of my research interests but another is very firmly placed in Roman military archaeology.

View of the eastern defences of the Roman fort at Ardoch (©Rebecca Jones 2008)

Scotland is one of the best places in the Roman empire to study the archaeology of the Roman army. Repeated attempts to conquer Scotland left a legacy of remains that are the envy of the rest of the Roman world. One of the places where this is most evident is the Roman fort of Ardoch in Perthshire.  This is the location of one of the best earthwork Roman forts in Britain, and the plain to the north of the fort was a marshalling ground for large armies on campaign through Perthshire to the north.

The fort itself was occupied several times leaving a legacy of multiple ditches still surviving as earthworks. I have accompanied several tours of the site and visitors never fail to be impressed by the scale of the defences. Some of these were excavated in the late 19th century by the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland and some of the photographs from those excavations are amongst the most fascinating early excavation shots held in the Collections at RCAHMS.

But not only is the fort an amazing site. To the north lie at least five marching camps. These were temporary structures occupied by invading armies who were housed in rows upon rows of leather tents. We are fortunate that they built ramparts and ditches around the perimeter of their encampments, for it is these that leave visible archaeological remains. Imagine a field of tents from T in the Park or Glastonbury: after the weekend is over and the tents have gone – what have you left? No doubt a sea of litter but the Roman’s did not live in our disposable culture. Once the litter is cleared you probably have a muddy field. But then six months later? Is there any evidence that those tents were there? But if a regular perimeter rampart and ditch with particular rounded corners and entrance protection is built, then that leaves an archaeological footprint that we can detect as Roman. The majority of the camps at Ardoch have been levelled through centuries of ploughing and only the perimeter ditch can be seen from the air through differential cropmarkings in dry summers, although stretches of three still survive as upstanding earthworks.

Rebecca Jones explaining the camps at Ardoch

A handful of other camps in Scotland have revealed internal rubbish pits and ovens through aerial and geophysical survey and excavation but for most camps, it is the perimeter which we can identify. The camps at Ardoch witnessed one of the largest Roman forces that ever took to the field in Britain, with the largest camp enclosing over 54 hectares / 130 acres.

It’s this combined evidence of the transient Roman army plus the troops stationed in the fort here for several years, that make these seemingly peaceful fields in Perthshire so fascinating.