British Archaeology, no 14, May 1996: Features


Yes, the Romans did invade Ireland

And we don't need Roman forts as evidence, says Richard Warner.

So did the Romans invade Ireland after all, or not? This question, which has snoozed quietly in the background of Irish studies for decades, has recently leaped forcefully again out into the open.

There are two reasons for this: first, this year's announcement of the discovery of a `Roman fort' at Drumanagh near Dublin (see BA, March); and second, the almost hysterical attempt by some leading Irish archaeologists to rubbish the claim, in support of the non-invasion orthodoxy.

In my view, the answer is overwhelmingly `yes' - the Romans did invade Ireland. But this has very little to do with the discovery of Drumanagh, where a large amount of Roman material has been found by detectorists, but about which we do not yet have any satisfactory information.

There are plenty of other reasons for believing the Romans invaded Ireland. But first, we need to define what we mean by `Romans' and `invasion'. No one doubts that Caesar `invaded' Britain, yet his largely non-Italian army left few discoverable traces, remained only for a short time, and failed to incorporate Britain into the official Roman domain. If it wasn't for the fortunate survival of his Gallic War, no archaeologist would be so bold as to postulate a Roman invasion of Britain in the 1st century BC. So let us define `Roman' as implying an origin in the Roman empire, and `invasion' as intrusion by force of arms in fairly substantial numbers. Let us not fall into the error of understanding invasion to be synonymous with national conquest or incorporation into Empire, or that all the persons involved were Italians.

There is surprisingly little Roman material in Ireland, but what there is has a strange distribution. None has been found in association with native material. Indeed, to a great extent the distributions of stray Roman and native objects are mutually exclusive. In other words, those native Irish possessed of a rich, La Tene-derived, ornament industry seem to have been uninterested in Roman trinkets. Moreover in the South East, in Leinster, which has produced a fair number of Roman objects and even Roman- style burials and cemeteries, native material is surprisingly rare.

From the archaeology alone we would infer substantial intrusions into the South East around the beginning of the 1st century AD, an inference supported by the fact that tribal names recorded by Ptolemy in the early 2nd century are identical to the names of tribes in Gaul and Britain. Furthermore, the early medieval peoples of the area had a strong tradition of a British origin, as well as using Roman and British loan-words in their literature and place-names.

Ancient Irish literary myths are not, nowadays, accepted as `history', but some of Ireland's finest scholars have accepted them as a shadow of history. One myth tells of an Irish chieftan, Tuathal, who spent some time in Britain early in the present era and returned with an army to seize power in the Irish Midlands. Curiously, Tacitus tells us that Agricola, while pondering the invasion of Ireland, had with him an Irish chieftain for use in just such an exercise. At about the same time, Juvenal specifically tells us, Roman `arms had been taken beyond the shores of Ireland'. The myth of Tuathal connects him to a number of Irish places, some of which have been excavated and have produced Roman material of the late 1st or early 2nd centuries AD. Indeed, the sparse inland distribution of early Roman material matches Tuathal's `mythical' campaign remarkably well.

We may interpret Tuathal as an exiled warrior/adventurer seizing and keeping power with the aid of Roman arms, who was followed by a number of other exiles with similar support over the next couple of centuries. We can say this because the sites that produce early Roman objects also produce later Roman material. In particular Tara, the midland ritual complex, and Clogher, a northern hillfort, have produced early and late Roman material, but no native objects. Both became capitals of the new ascendancies whose ancient origin-tales derived them, with their armies, from Britain. Cashel, the southern capital of just such a group, has not only produced a stray late Roman brooch, but was named from the Latin castellum.

It is not acceptable to dismiss this concatenation of evidence simply on the grounds that neither a Roman stone fortress nor straight road have been found. Nor may we easily dismiss the extraordinary fact that the material and, to a great extent, social culture of the upper class Irish from the 6th century on owes far more to Roman than to native Irish precursors. To give just two examples among many: the favoured Irish cloak-fastener from the 4th-11th century, the penannular brooch, evolved from a Romano-British brooch; and the early medieval Irish sword was, both in form and in name, a borrowing from that of the Roman army.

In short, early medieval Ireland has all the appearance of being, culturally, an heir to the Roman world of which, we are supposedly to believe, it was never part.

Richard Warner is Keeper of Archaeology and Ethnography at the Ulster Museum


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Simon Clarke finds evidence for a slow pace of Romanisation in North Britain

When Romans and natives didn't mix

Ideas about how quickly Britain was `Romanised' after the Roman Conquest have been changing in recent years. It is now thought Roman habits and culture were acquired by the majority of Britain's population only very slowly in some areas, and remained skin-deep in many parts of the country throughout the Roman period.

An interesting example of this has been provided by recent excavations at the largest Roman military fort in Scotland, at Newstead in the Borders. Here, seven seasons of excavation and survey at the fort and neighbouring native sites, conducted by a team from Bradford University, have suggested that the Romans and natives had little influence on one another during the life of the fort, and perhaps even that there was little contact at all between the two groups.

Newstead was occupied for about 20 years after c AD80, in the period of Roman activity in Scotland initiated by Agricola, and then again for about 40 years after c AD140, when the Romans once again pushed into Scotland and the Antonine Wall was built. It was an unusually large fort, probably a base for up to 2,000 legionary and auxiliary troops, but it soon developed into much more than a simple garrison. It seems to have become the main supply and reinforcement centre for the Roman army throughout Scotland.

During the 2nd century military personnel were probably directly involved in a wide range of industrial activities, including pottery and tile production, iron smelting and lead working. In addition there were annexes on all four sides of the fort, often interpreted as open spaces for stockpiling military supplies or corralling herds. However, some were densely occupied by strip buildings, paralleled by civilian sites in southern Britain, and at the settlement's height these may have housed a population of up to a thousand people. This civilian community was dominated by traders and artisans servicing the needs of the soldiers, probably with a significant number of agricultural workers exploiting the field system around the complex.

Newstead's civilian population must largely have followed the army from the south of the province, however, as there is no evidence for local native artefacts or of a native (curvilinear) building tradition at the fort. The natives also seem to have kept to themselves, as on their sites - probably contemporary with the fort, though this cannot be proven - Roman artefacts are extremely rare: some pottery sherds, and a few items of Roman tableware, jewellery and coins. The fort also seems to have had no effect on native building or enclosure form, settlement size or density within the landscape.

This stand-offishness between the Roman and native populations is by no means unique to Scotland. Outside the South East of Britain, a very gradual assimilation of Roman material culture was the norm. A good parallel to Newstead is provided by the Late Iron Age and Roman period landscape at Naburn, south of York, which was also studied by a team from Bradford University during the 1980s.

In this dense concentration of fields and farmstead enclosures on relatively good agricultural land, we found that locally-produced hand-made pottery types were not displaced by more Romanised wheel- thrown products for at least two generations - in spite of the area's being close to the legionary base at York. The replacement of traditional Iron Age round houses by rectilinear buildings did not occur until the mid 2nd century and the pattern of isolated farms was probably not replaced by a single estate centre until the early 3rd century. Even then the Iron Age field system appears to have continued in use for some time.

These two projects suggest that the Romanised populations of Newstead and York, and the indigenous populations of their immediate hinterlands, appear to have lived parallel lives, each virtually indifferent to the presence of the other.

Dr Simon Clarke is an Associate Director of the Newstead Project at Bradford University


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There was no magic moment when humans evolved, argues Robert Foley

Searching for the elusive first humans

When did we become human? For many years, it was thought the answer to this great question could be found by tracing ever earlier species of hominid - the quest for the `missing link'.

However, as more and more hominids have been found - culminating in the discovery in 1994 of the oldest and most primitive yet, the four and a half million year old Ardipithecus ramidus - the answer to the question of when humans first emerged has grown more complex than was once thought. The gap between humans and living apes has now been filled by as many as 15 species of hominid, and they cannot all be stacked neatly on top of each other in chronological order. As a result it has become apparent that what makes a human is not necessarily what makes a hominid.

Which hominids we do consider to be human-like must depend upon what we view as distinctive and special in modern humans. There are a whole suite of such traits, and no general list is likely to be agreed, but bipedalism, tool-making, larger brains, hunting, co-operation, social complexity, language, culture and symbolic faculties would generally be included. It is now clear that these appear not as a package, but over the full range of hominid history.

Molecular biology indicates that the divergence of the lines leading to humans and chimpanzees occurred around six million years ago, a date not too distant from the dates for A ramidus. This suggests that we may not find many more species of hominid much older.

Evidence for A ramidus is extremely fragmentary, but the species is distinctive for possessing a mixed suite of ape-like and human-like characteristics. Its canine is reduced, which makes it closer to humans, but the structure of its tooth enamel reflects its evolutionary proximity to the African apes. It is unclear whether it is bipedal, but there is no sign of any other traits we would associate more closely with humans than with chimpanzees. In this way, A ramidus appears to indicate that divergence from the other African apes may have occurred, but in terms of significant evolutionary change towards humans, nothing much had happened.

The next oldest group of species are the australopithecines, including the four to three million year old Australopithecus afarensis, found in East Africa by Don Johanson and colloquially known as Lucy, and the three million year old Australopithecus africanus, which was the first of the African fossil hominids to be found, by Raymond Dart in 1924. This group of species, occurring up to one million years ago, does show one marked change - they are all able to walk bipedally, and may perhaps have had to do so.

Upright walking appears very early in the hominid ancestry, and is probably the characteristic that unites the hominid family. In other ways, though, the australopithecines are distinct from humans: there is no evidence for an increase in brain size, no technology, they appear to evolve into new species and become extinct like any other primate. The australopithecines are best thought of as bipedal African apes, with their own distinctive traits. Indeed the evolutionary trends they display over the several million years in which they are in existence is not towards humans, but simply towards larger teeth.

Even when the first evidence for brain expansion does occur - around two million years ago - it is clear that these first members of the genus Homo are still very much like their australopithecine relatives. It is only at about one and a half million years that there is a significant change, with the appearance of Homo ergaster, a species of hominid closely related to the better known Homo erectus, which has a relatively large brain, has essentially modern body proportions, and apparently made greater use of technology and the exploitation of animals for food.

In addition, for the first time there is evidence for another characteristic shared with modern humans - the ability to live in a wide range of habitats - for it is only after two million years that hominids are found outside Africa. It is to this group of hominids that the earliest known Eurasian fossils belong, such as the 1.8-1.5 million year old finds from Dmanisi in Georgia and in Java, the approximately 1 million year old finds from Ubeidiya in Israel, and even the 500,000 year old hominid fossils found at Boxgrove in Britain.

Although H ergaster and H erectus are more human-like and clearly represent a new evolutionary trend, nonetheless they are still distant from modern humans. Their technology is simple, remaining unchanged for over a million years, and they appear to have survived in relatively small isolated pockets. Indeed, local extinction may have been the fate of most of them.

It is only in the last 300,000 years that there is significant change. Brain size begins to expand far more rapidly and reaches levels found in modern humans; technology becomes more complex (such as prepared stone cores for tool-making) and more variable, and it is clear that there is considerable ecological and evolutionary specialisation among these hominids, with distinct regional trends, of which the European Neanderthals represent the best known.

In this context, anatomically modern humans make their appearance, in Africa and adjacent areas by around 120,000 years ago, and from 50,000 elsewhere. There is little evidence for any major changes in behaviour at this time, but at around 40,000 years ago, in some parts of Eurasia and Africa only, there is some archaeological evidence for the development of rapidly changing, highly localised, symbolically rich, cultural behaviour.

So when in this palaeontological and archaeological record can we find the origins of our species and the things that make us distinctive? When did we become human? The answer depends on what criteria we use. Although the age of the first hominid has gone further and further back, as more hominid fossils have been discovered, there is little in these bipedal apes to make us think of humans. A distinctive trend towards the morphology and behaviour of Homo sapiens may have begun around one and a half million years ago, but the trend was extremely diverse.

Around 300,000 years ago both technology and morphology change in interesting ways. Anatomically modern humans occur in Africa over 100,000 years ago, but their technology was no different from that of Neanderthals who survived to at least 30,000 years ago. Art is only found sporadically from 40,000 years ago to 20,000 years ago, after which time it is clear that there is a major expansion of populations, and the rapid development of food production in some parts of the world.

The fossil record shows that there is no magic moment when we became human. The wealth and diversity of both the palaeontological and archaeological records indicate that the origin of humans is complex, lying neither back at the end of the Miocene period (about five million years ago) in remote climatic changes, nor in an explosion of symbols in the last 40,000 years.

Human evolution is made up of multiple events, occurring cumulatively and haphazardly, but all under the shaping hand of selection and adaptation. The Darwinian legacy may be the great antiquity of the hominid lineage, but becoming human has been a much more recent and complex process.

Dr Robert Foley is a University Lecturer in Biological Anthropology at Cambridge. His book, Humans before Humanity, was recently published by Blackwell at UKP25.00. The First Humans, by Herbert Thomas, is published by Thames and Hudson at UKP6.95.


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