Septimius Severus

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.