The Cairns Excavation Site Director & University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute Lecturer Martin Carruthers talks about the multi cultural experience of Iron Age society in Orkney as the exploitative Roman Empire appeared in Britain.
In the Mid-First Century AD, historical circumstances conspired to bring together, for the first time, peoples and creatures from continental Africa, Asia, and Europe with Islanders from the Atlantic Islands of Northern Scotland at a single event.
Assembled by the cosmopolitan, but highly exploitative, Roman empire, the meeting of this diverse bunch signals the beginning of the British experience of Africa, and, intriguingly, caught up at the centre of it were Iron Age people from Orkney.
It is late Summer AD43 and the world superpower Rome has invaded Iron Age Britain. After several weeks of hard campaigning by four legions, and thousands of ‘auxiliary’ troops drawn from far corners of the empire, the resistance of the Southern tribes has been worn down, its leadership subdued.
Now the Emperor himself, Claudius, steps ashore on British soil. As he triumphally enters Camulodunum (Colchester) the biggest and most important population centre in southern Britain, he does so with a theatrical flourish designed to intimidate and entirely overawe local Iron Age peoples. He enters the major settlement with creatures from the African continent – he has elephants in tow.
Along with the fabulous beasts, there are African and Asian men present amongst the Roman troops. Indeed, it is a hallmark of the Roman state that it heeds no ethnic and racial boundaries when it comes to those who may be considered useful to the Imperial project. This highly manipulative form of multi-culturalism led to Iron Age Scots appearing in amphitheatres in Morocco and African Emperors leading armies of conquest in Scotland! In this blog we can look at a few details of these ancient African, Caledonian, and Roman lives and why they matter.
Today, one can only imagine what sort of impression the strange and exotic sights of Claudius’ army and his elephants made upon the locals of Iron Age Colchester! But amongst the local Britons watching, there were also some far-travelled visitors. A surprise deputation was present and shortly thereafter met with the emperor himself. These were Orcadians, inhabitants of the far Northern Isles. Orkney at this time was only very dimly known to Rome and seems to have been a by-word in poetry, and prose for the ends of the earth! The Orcadians, described by Eutropius, were led by no less than a Regulus, a King of Orkney, and they were on a diplomatic mission.
That mission and the journey that facilitated it must have been undertaken with a remarkable acuity and forward planning, to synchronise with the mere 16 days spent in Britain by the Emperor! We know little of the detail of the discussions between the Emperor and the Orcadians, but for generations afterwards, Roman authors and monumental inscriptions referred to the submission of eleven British kings to Rome, including that of Orkney. Certainly, it seems treaties were initiated, which, apparently, set up Orkney, for a time, as an unlikely client kingdom to the Empire. In the Roman era, such a status often conferred massive privilege and advantage for some within the client state, but it was also an delicately balanced relationship on a knife edge. Eventually, such client treaties could be summarily revoked by Rome on a whim and clients could be suddenly subsumed as direct possessions of the Emperor, as happened to other British Iron Age client kingdoms.
From the outset of the Roman period in Britain, Africans and Asians were present amongst the soldiery, the merchants, and the administrators of the new power in the land. It may have been in the later 1st century AD that the first ‘persons of colour’ appeared in Orkney itself, and this would have been with the Roman navy and elements of the army who circumnavigated Orkney in AD 83 after the battle of Mons Graupius, which had just taken place on the Scottish Mainland. Their aim, we are told by the Roman historian Tacitus, was to renew the now-lapsed treaties between the leadership in Orkney and the Empire, which had been made with Claudius two generations before. The real purpose of the naval crossing to Orkney was probably to cow the powerful Northern Isles Iron Age powerbase, who had probably contributed to the resistance to Rome on the Scottish Mainland, and to achieve a renowned propaganda coup back home in Rome.
Orkney, in those days, was exotic and remarkable for its remoteness amongst Roman writers! The fleet’s Orcadian journey has left no known archaeological traces. We know, however, that The Cairns broch (the subject of ongoing excavations by UHI Archaeology Institute) was the centre of a thriving Iron Age community at that very time. Whichever route the fleet took across the Pentland Firth, whether through Scapa Flow or along the North Sea east coast of Orkney, the elevated position of The Cairns overlooking the Pentland Firth, means the community must have seen the fleet coming. What must the ordinary folk of the community have thought of this strange and sinister swarm of sails.
The Romans didn’t stay long in Orkney, just long enough to ‘renew the treaties’, but it was the first direct appearance of the diverse but exploitative world power on the actual shores of Orkney. One of the things that such treaties with Rome often involved was some measure of taxation in goods, produce and quite often levies of men to serve in the Roman army, and indeed slaves, so it is possible that young Orcadian men may have found themselves departing with the fleet to begin 25 years’ service in the auxiliary regiments of Rome, and young men and women in much more unfortunate roles! Another feature of Roman treaties with foreign powers was the ‘fosterage’ of the sons of powerful elites, essentially sons of important local leaders taken off to be ‘educated’, often in Rome itself, and returned at a much later date, having been useful hostages effectively kerbing the likelihood of resistance on the part of ‘barbarian’ elites, and also often securing that the next generation of leadership held a pro-Roman outlook. One can imagine the remarkable multi-cultural experiences and sights witnessed by any such young fostered boys, and probably some horrific ones too! It may, indeed, partly explain the major changes that began to occur in the architecture, and material culture of Iron Age Atlantic Scotland from the later 2nd Century AD onwards.
For several Centuries, from the 1st century AD onwards, a steady but small stream of high-status Roman materials made their way into Iron Age Orcadian communities, including The Cairns, where Roman beads, and recycled Roman glass and metalwork have been found. Other finds from Orcadian sites such as high status Samian pottery, further indicate that the relationship between Orkney and Rome was carried out in the domain of the higher echelons of Iron Age society.
After the end of the First Century AD, the Roman army retired from Scotland for more than a generation to the Tyne-Solway frontier and what became Hadrian’s Wall in AD 122. With the accession of a new Emperor, Antoninus Pius, in AD 139 preparations were immediately made for a renewed burst of intervention in Scotland. The Emperor sent a new governor to Britannia, Quintus Lollius Urbicus, who was a North African of Berber descent! Over 3 or 4 years the African governor campaigned in Southern Scotland and then up the northeast Scottish mainland, replicating the Roman line of advance in the preceding 1st Century AD. By AD 142, the army had laid down a monumental marker of the frontier across the central belt of Scotland in the form of the Antonine Wall and for around twenty years it was garrisoned by the densest concentration of troops ever deployed in Roman Britain.
The occupation of the Northern Wall was short in archaeological terms and in the history of Roman Britain but, importantly, it was substantial and intense enough to have left remarkably vivid archaeological traces of the everyday lives of the garrison including aspects of their identities and ethnicities. We know that ordinary Africans and Asians served in the Roman army on the Antonine wall during the 2nd Century AD.
Special ceramics found at several of the Antonine wall forts were made in the style of African pottery; effectively these crocks relate to a form of cuisine very similar to modern North African tagine cooking. It has been suggested that the African pottery may represent the actual presence of African units serving in the garrison of the Northern frontier of Scotland, or that certain regiments had gained a taste for such spiced cuisine from having been earlier stationed in the African provinces. It is a scenario reminiscent of the way that, via the British army, Indian curries have been injected into the post-colonial bloodstream of the UK. Certainly, many different ethnic groups are represented by regiments such as the Syrian Archers from the ancient city of Palmyra, attested at Bar Hill fort on the edge of modern Glasgow.
Later still, at the very beginning of the 3rd Century AD the so-called African Emperor, Septimius Severus renewed Roman attempts to bring to heel the Northern Iron Age peoples, Caledonians and others. Severus had been born in North African at Leptis Magna in present day Libya. Possessing Punic descent on his mother’s side, he was, therefore, descended from the North African state that had once seriously threatened the existence of Rome itself under Hannibal, and he has been called ‘the black emperor’. Severus was not ‘born into the purple’ but had fought a bitter civil war, in part, against the pretender Clodius Albinus, governor of Britannia, to ascend the imperial throne in AD 193. In AD 209, taking personal charge of the Scottish campaign, he assembled an army of over 40,000 troops and overran southern Scotland and, again, campaigned up the northeast mainland of Scotland. He established a legionary base at Carpow on the Tay estuary, an intended springboard for further Scottish conquest. That was curtailed by his death of a sudden illness in AD 210. Here was a man who had been born and grew up in Africa, spent the last years of his life on campaign in Scotland, and died at York in Northern England. A remarkable story of pluralism, power, social and actual mobility in the ancient world.
The presence of the Emperor and his family in Scotland gives us interesting opportunities to consider the interaction between this Afro-Roman family and the local Caledonians! The Roman historian Cassius Dio tells us that the Imperial family actually met socially, with Caledonian aristocracy. On one such occasion Severus’ wife, Julia Domna, apparently made inquisitive small talk with the unnamed wife of a Caledonian noble called Argentocoxos (‘Silver Arm’!). Beginning to challenge the apparently loose sexual morals of Caledonian women, Julia Domna was met with a short critical rebuttal from the woman: “We fulfil the demands of nature in a far better way than you Roman women, for we consort openly with the best of men, whereas you let yourselves be degraded in secret by the most vile”. It is, perhaps, a very knowing and sharp critical commentary on the plight of the majority of ‘free’ women in Roman patriarchal society as chattels of their husbands, or fathers, and as bargaining collateral in the great game of Roman politics and alliances.
The actual physical mobility brought about by the exploitative networks of the Roman empire also meant that there were Iron Age Scots present at corners of the Empire very distant from their Caledonian homeland. Shortly after Septimius Severus’s campaigns in Scotland, a massive bronze statue was erected in the city of Rabat, Morocco, as part of a triumphal arch in honour of Severus’ son Caracalla, who took part in the Caledonian campaigns, and who himself took the throne after his father. Only fragments survive of the bronze statue but just a few years ago one of the pieces was recognised as depicting a defeated Caledonian warrior, arms bound. He is bare-chested but wears a cloak and plaid or tartan trews! Now, one wonders what impact these strangely clad ‘barbarians’ would have made on the locals.
It is clear, however, that more than mere depictions of Iron Age Caledonians appeared in Roman Africa. For another piece of Roman art, a mosaic from Tunisia shows another Caledonian being killed by wild animals in the local amphitheatre, an exotic entertainment for the Roman African locals.
What all of this strongly suggests is that the lives of Romans, Caledonians, Africans, Asians, and even Orcadians, were strangely entangled in many various ways much earlier than people tend to think possible, via the networks of opportunity and exploitation that connected the far-flung Roman Empire and the Roman Iron Age world. Sometimes, as with the Claudian invasion, Africa was deployed very deliberately in a form of intimidatory exoticism (a trope familiar from our own imperial past), impressing Iron Age Britons, and Orcadians.
At other moments, the exoticism lay in the other direction with exotic noble captive Caledonians executed in the amphitheatres of Roman Africa and depicted in Roman African art. Between these dramatic polarities we know many Africans and Asians were present in Roman Iron Age Britain and Scotland, ordinary soldiers, merchants, husbands, wives and, yes, probably also slaves, were present at times. And more elevated Africans: governors, generals and even a black emperor spent major parts of their military and political careers engaging with Caledonia. Black lives were lived in Britain and Scotland almost two thousand years ago. Remarkably, it is possible to reach out and touch those lives through archaeology and ancient history. In the ancient world those black lives mattered, in the present day those past Black Lives Matter.