Wednesday, 11 August 2010

The Lost Fort

Beneath the school playground are the remains of Agricola's Lost Fort

ONE of the questions I’m most frequently asked is: Why did you choose the Romans? The answer’s simple. Dip your toe in the Roman Empire at any point over a period of a thousand years and you will find some fascinating event or some personality with the potential to provide you with a book.

From the early Republic through Julius Caesar to Caligula and on to Tiberius Constantine in the sixth century every period has a tale to tell. And we’re still learning about them.

That was what took me to Doune on Saturday for the archaeological dig open day at Doune Primary School. We know of literally hundreds of Roman sites in Scotland from Pennymuir in the Cheviots  to Cawdor outside Inverness, but the fort at Doune wasn’t discovered until 1983 when cropmarks showed the outline of its defences.

It’s in a classic elevated position guarding an important river crossing of the Teith only a few hundred yards from Doune Castle and would have dominated the surrounding area. Plans for building work at the primary school mean part of the complex will be lost when the foundations are dug, so a team from Headland Archaeology have been carrying out intensive investigations in what was the playground. They’ve made some fantastic finds, the jewel in the crown of which is a wonderful enamel-inlayed bronze mount for a horse harness of a type that hasn’t previously been seen in Scotland.
Doune is a classic Roman fort in a
strategic position above a river crossing
Archaeologist Paul gave me a tour of the site, along with a dozen other interested locals, showing the defensive ditches, the interior roadway and the pits which provided most of the finds. Only a small section of the fort has been investigated, but the foundations of several wooden buildings have been uncovered and it was amazing to think that what we were seeing had lain forgotten for two thousand years.

Doune would have played a key role in governor Julius Agricola’s invasion of Scotland around 84AD. Agricola’s campaign was recorded by his son-in-law, the historian Tacitus, and we know he spent six years subduing first the druids on Mona (Anglesey), then the Brigantes in northern England, before finally turning his sights on the troublesome Caledonian tribes. The governor’ three legions pushed relentlessly northwards until they finally brought the Caledonian alliance to battle at Mons Graupius, in Aberdeenshire. The Romans were heavily outnumbered but, in a one-sided contest, Tacitus claims the northern tribes suffered 10,000 casualties and the Roman auxiliaries less than four hundred. Only a single Roman citizen died.

Agricola drove the survivors into the mountains, but didn’t follow them. Doune appears to be one of the so-called glen-blocking forts which were built in the years after Mons Graupius to ensure the Caledonians were kept bottled up in their Highland hideaways. It would have been garrisoned by auxiliary troops, possibly Tungrians or Batavians, but Agricola is also known to have been accompanied by British auxiliaries, and was only occupied for a decade at most.
When the Romans withdrew from Scotland (Tacitus accused the Emperor Domitian of throwing away everything Agricola had won) the palisades were removed, the buildings destroyed and the Roman fort at Doune was lost to memory.

Until now.

One of the finds: a piece of decorated horse harness


Gabriele C. said...

Hey, you stole my title. :)

Isn't it amazing when new Roman sites appear out of the past, especially when they add to our understanding of history?

My favourite is the supply fort at Hedemuünden dating from Drusus' campaigns 11-9 BC. It's a lot farther east than expected. With that find and the 3rd century battlefield at Kalefeld, the Weser/Harz area has come into focuss of the archaeologists, and for a change there will be some extra money to further explore the area. Who knows what's going to pop up some day - one thing we know by now is that the sources are correct more often that they've been credited for. Cassius Dio's Roman towns in Germania Magna - well, there's Waldgirmes now. Or the Historia Augusta's claim that Maximinus Thrax marched some 400 miles into Germany (it had been 'corrected' to 40 in the 19th century edition) which is now backed up by the Kalefeld battlefield.

And of course, there are always novels hiding in those places as well. :)

BTW, the third book in my Roman series is going to deal with Agricola in Caledonia. Some time in the future ;) I'll have to tackle that epic A lLAND UNCONQUERED first, and then a second volume that snuck in, dealing with the Batavian revolt. Not to mention I'll have to find a publisher once those bad boys are written.

Doug said...

I did Gabriele, but I didn't realise it at the time. You're right, every time something new is discovered it provides you with inspiration.

I hope to write about Agricola's campaign as well at some point. Somebody asked me the other day if Scotland would have been different if it had been conquered by the Romans and I said that as far as I was concerned it had been. Agricola went as far north as he needed to go and destroyed the only major force opposing him.

I really enjoyed visiting the Doune site. It's nice when you get that feeling of electricity just from seeing a bunch of holes in the ground and stones that somebody says were once a road

Gabriele C. said...

I've been to Doune castle last year, but the fort was hiding from tourists. :)

I think Scotland would have been different if the Romans had conquered it. Probably there would have been a level of Romanisation that united Britain - no Bruce and all that. ;)

It would have had a considerabe impact on Germany, too. Not only culturally but in the way history developed. People like Chlodovic or Charlemagne would have had a different cultural background, not imitators of a Roman splendour gone, but its true heirs - if Rome had fallen at all, and not only adapted. There'd have been no Odovacar and proabably even the Gothic migrations that happened east of the territory between Rhine and Elbe which the Romans wanted to turn into a province, would h ave turned out differently.

There can't be too many novels set in Agricola's time. *grin* What I find interesting is to compare the two western countries Rome never managed to conquer: Germania and Caledonia. There were a lot of similarities: the Hadrian's Wall and the Limes*, raids and punitive expeditions (Septimius Severus in Caledonia, Maximinus Thrax in Germania ....) but also some differences. The Limes was abandoned in 260 AD and the frontier pushed back to the Rhine, German nobles started to play a larger role in the Roman army than any Caledonian chiefs as far as I know, both cultures are different ... Fun stuff.

* You should have a peek at my blog; I've a Limes fort up right now.

Gabriele C. said...

I should have said 'conquered and held as province'. That's one of the problems both Agricola and Germanicus (and Tiberius and Varus before him) faced: you beat those tribes in a battle, destroy a few settlements and all that, and they hide in their glens and woods only to come back the moment the Romans return to the winter quarters. Lack of infrastructure, no cities to conquer like in Gaul, shifting tribal alliances no Roman really understood, and lands that either were not apt for agriculture (like the Highlands) or would require generations of work (like Germania). The Romans wanted grain and ore. Well, there is ore in Germania but they didn't know that. ;)

Tacitus likes to use the jealousy topic, not only with Domitian and Agricola but also with Tiberius and Germanicus. But fact was that Germanicus lost more men than Varus had and couldn't come up with a real success after three years of war. It simply wasn't worth the hassle, and I can imagine that Caledonia was regarded the same way: Keep the lot out of the land we have conquered instead of having Jupiter knows how many soldiers permanently occupied with flushing those Caledonians out of their glens where you can't even grow some decent crops. :)