On October 29 (a while ago, I know) I accompanied a group of archaeologists on a one-day tour of the Antonine Wall. Oh? You’ve never heard of the Antonine Wall? Well, let me rectify that fact.
The Antonine Wall is/was a turf rampart stretching from Carriden on the Firth of Forth to Old Kirkpatrick on the Clyde Firth, the narrowest bit of Scotland, a mere 60 km (aka 37 miles). To give you an idea, Carriden is in Bo’ness, 16.9 miles northwest of Edinburgh, and Bearsden, a few forts east of the western terminus of the Wall, is in the suburbs of Glasgow.
This rampart was constructed in AD 142 following an invasion in the rule of the Emperor Antoninus Pius in 138/9 under the governor Quintus Lollius Urbicus. We know that the Wall was constructed during Q. Lollius Urbicus’ governorship of Britain because in 1699 a stone was found on the Wall that cites him as governor. The Antonine Wall was held until 158, when it was abandoned, a fact we learn from an inscription on Hadrian’s Wall, the more famous Roman fortification in Britain. Nonetheless, Roman artefacts have been found in Scotland and on sites of the Antonine Wall from 162 (dated by a coin find honouring the daughter of Marcus Aurelius, Lucilla).
I don’t recall if anything later has been found (not counting the fort at Cramond, which will be the subject of another post).
But what does the Wall look like? What on earth is a turf rampart, Matthew?
Good questions. It looks like this:
From left to right, in the above photo you are seeing an upcast mound, a ditch, and then a turf rampart. The Romans would dig the ditch, and the dirt from the digging would be cast up to the north of the rampart. And then, on the other side of the ditch, they would build the rampart itself. This was constructed on a stone foundations and was itself built of turves cut to the size of bricks up to a height of two metres at some places.
The use of turf on the Wall is evidence for the extensive farming by the Iron Age Scottish people before the coming of the Romans. As Greg Woolf notes in his recent book Rome: An Empire’s Story, temperate Europe was not as wild and woolly before the arrival of the Roman Empire as we like to believe. Then, as now, these people were farmers.
Here’s another photo:
In this photo, you can see an archaeologist standing on top of a high point on the wall. This high point is purposeful, actually rising up considerably more than your average stretch of Antonine Wall. It’s hard to tell, of course, because — as well as turf ramparts can age — it’s over 1800 years old and slopes gently like a hill. Anyway, this high point is possibly a place to post a beacon. Maybe. Who knows?
They were also, of course, raiders. This would help explain the function of the Wall. It is a deterrent to any border raids. Well, that’s one theory. It’s probably not to keep every Pict on earth across the other side, though. Rome doesn’t really have the manpower for that.
There’s another element to the purpose of the Wall, though. The Wall is there to demonstrate to all and sundry that Antoninus Pius means business. He may not have been well-liked at his accession in 138, but by conquering southern Scotland, he would demonstrate that he was a military man with great success. He issued coins and left behind a turf rampart to prove that he was the man to be your very own Augustus.
And if you’re a local Pict living in your round tower broch, this turf rampart reminds you of who is in charge. So do the various forts, not just on the Wall but scattered throughout Scotland and connected by Roman roads.
So the Antonine Wall.
The photos posted thus far are from Rough Castle, the first stop on the trip (although we did drive the bus through Falkirk where we were shown the Wall as we drove along). Rough Castle itself looks like this:
Next on my Antonine Wall tour, Bar Hill Fort. And if time allows, Bearsden to boot! Then, the Distance Slabs. Because there’s not a lot of Roman stuff in Scotland, so, by golly, I’ll drag this out!