British Archaeology, no 27, September 1997: Features


Kingdom of Strathclyde’s final chapter

Scotland’s last British kingdom was influenced by the Vikings of Man, writes Stephen Driscoll

The final chapter in the history of the last surviving British kingdom in Scotland – the Kingdom of Strathclyde – has long been shrouded in obscurity.

In AD870 the kingdom, then centred on Dumbarton Rock, was comprehensively sacked by Vikings. But it was not fully absorbed into the Kingdom of Scotland until 1114–1118, when the Scots founded a cathedral at Glasgow. Between these dates, Strathclyde survived in nominal independence. But where the kingdom was based, and what its character was – all this was dark.

New archaeological discoveries in and around Govan Old parish church, however, now suggest that Govan – 11 miles upstream from Dumbarton – was the principal royal centre of Strathclyde during the period. A major administrative centre seems to have been constructed around the church of St Constantine, which housed a royal burial cult. Close to the church was an assembly place (an artificial mound known as the Doomster Hill), while across the Clyde was a royal residence at Partick.

This complex of religious, ceremonial and residential monuments mark Govan out as one of the most significant political centres in Scotland at the time – a rival to Dunadd in Argyll, centre of the first Scottish kingdom (but now beginning to lose its importance), and the old Pictish site of Forteviot in Perthshire, where the new Scottish kingdom was consolidating its power.

Much of the evidence supporting these claims is fairly well known (and was published in a recent book, Govan and its Early Medieval Sculpture, edited by Anna Ritchie). However, excavations undertaken by Glasgow University’s field unit (GUARD) have extended our knowledge of the site, and have allowed the pieces to be put together into an intriguing whole.

Both Doomster Hill, a large earthen mound with a stepped profile and level summit, and Partick Castle – two of the main elements of this whole – were swept away at the turn of the century to make room for Glasgow’s booming shipyards. Govan’s ancient churchyard, however, miraculously survived, its curving, pearshaped boundary an indicator of its Early Christian origins. The church building itself is not old, but it houses a remarkable collection of 31 early medieval sculpted stones – an additional 15 have been lost this century. In numerical terms alone this collection is amongst the most significant in Scotland (only Iona and St Andrews are better endowed). The cultural content of the stones is equally important. They are all carved in a British style, which has affinities with Pictish, Scottish and Anglo-Norse traditions. Amongst the collection are several monumental crosses and a unique monolithic ‘sarcophagus’ which presumably served as a reliquary. But most important are the grave stones – 5 hog-backs and 21 recumbent slabs with interlace crosses. These elaborately treated monuments probably marked burials of the Strathclyde royal house.

The recent archaeological work has confirmed the antiquity and integrity of the churchyard boundary by the discovery of a substantial ditch – the monastic vallum – on its south and east sides. Parts of the foundations of the original timber church, contemporary with the sculpture, also appear to have been found, as well as evidence for workshops or dwellings inside the churchyard boundary. These, together with related finds, suggest that one of the activities taking place here was the working of jet.

Most important, however, was the discovery of a metalled road in the south-east of the churchyard, which aligns with an existing street that leads directly to the former site of Doomster Hill. The impression given of a straight road connecting the court hill and church has its closest parallel at the Tynwald in the Isle of Man, where a processional way links the church of St John with the Manx parliament hill.

The historical implications are immense. The Norse kings of Man were the dominant political force in the Irish Sea during the 9th and 10th centuries, and the similarities between Govan and the Tynwald suggest a strong Norse influence in Strathclyde at the time. Some of the Govan tombs, particularly the hog-backs which in England are associated with Scandinavians, point to the same conclusion.

It used to be thought the Vikings disappeared from Strathclyde after their 870 incursion. It now seems more likely that the British kings of Strathclyde – their names, contained in king-lists, remain British, not Norse – intermarried with the Manx dynasty, as the coastal rulers of Wales and Ireland are known to have done. Some of the leading figures at the Strathclyde court may even have been Norse.

Further evidence is likely to emerge as excavations continue. The area around Doomster Hill will almost certainly be exposed in a new programme of urban redevelopment, and long-term excavations are planned in the churchyard. After almost a millennium of obscurity the mists shrouding Dark Age Strathclyde may soon be lifting.

Dr Stephen Driscoll is a Lecturer in Archaeology at the University of Glasgow


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Roman roads that reshaped the land

Roman roads may have been resented as symbols of Roman power, writes Rob Witcher

Mention the Romans, and one of the first things that people tend to think about is Roman roads. The perception is of precisely engineered, rigidly straight roads, cutting through the landscape – supremely functional objects, built to serve military and commercial ends.

It is, of course, too narrow a perception. Not all the roads of Roman Britain were new military highways – many were winding, unpaved, pre-existing routes, parts of a highly organised landscape. Nor were Roman roads used exclusively by the army or by Roman officials. In short, there is no definitive type of Roman road.

Above all, roads were more than just functional objects that allowed people to travel from one place to another. As recent opposition to modern road-building shows, roads can be ideological and political symbols too. Roads are important to people because they affect the ways in which the landscape is perceived, and in particular our understanding of who controls it.

This will have been true in the Roman period no less than today. Roman roads restructured the landscape of Roman Britain both physically and symbolically. They influenced the relationship between Rome and its subjects. They cut across pre-existing boundaries and landholdings, slighting tribal lands and their associated heritage. How did local populations respond?

Did they perceive the commercial benefits of the new roads, or did they sense an infringement of their freedom and identity? How did local populations feel about these new ways to move across their landscape? Did they consider the straightening and paving of some pre-existing routes as a benefit, or did they sense with resentment that Rome was trying to control and organise how they moved around?

An example is the Fosse Way, which ran from Lincoln to Exeter, and which cut across the tribal areas of the Corieltauvi, Dobunni, Durotriges and Dumnonii. It paid little attention to pre-existing boundaries between these groups, establishing new links, physically and figuratively. It also permitted Rome great control over its new territory. But would this ‘whole-province’ perspective have had any meaning to local populations? Would people living next to this new road have been aware that it stretched from one side of the province to the other? Would it have been viewed as a local benefit, providing access to markets? Or was it associated with the arrival of tax-collectors and other unwelcome government officials? Evidence from elsewhere in the Empire suggests that Rome was quite prepared to change existing landscapes – that is, to impose its power upon them and their populations – should it so wish. For example, the foundation of new colonies for veteran soldiers was accompanied by a division of entire landscapes into regular grids of land defined by roads and ditches – a process known as centuriation. The Po Valley of Northern Italy was altered completely as a result of this process.

No firm examples of centuriation have been identified in Britain (although some have been claimed). However, road-building, like centuriation, caused the landscape to be reshaped, and there is no reason to suspect the underlying Roman attitude towards changing the landscape either way would have been different.

Like modern roads, Roman roads could also lead to opposition and resistance. In AD60, Boudicca destroyed Colchester, London and St Albans in her rebellion against Roman domination. The order in which these towns were attacked suggests the rebels were travelling along the roads which linked them together. Even if the routes had pre-Roman origins, the fact that they joined together the three most Romanised towns in Britain may have helped to define them as ‘Roman’ to the people who used them. What a bitter irony Boudicca’s revolt must have seemed to the Romans – to have had their roads turned against them in an expression of savage resistance.

Beyond major military highways, we can also look at these roads on a more local level. It was the custom in the Roman period that roads leading up to city gates were lined with tombs. How would this have affected people’s perceptions of the roads and cities? It may have meant that anyone entering or leaving the town would have been reminded of its famous sons and daughters, and its collective ancestry. The social status, or ethnicity or gender of the individual will have influenced how he or she felt – they may have felt as if they were making a journey into their past and their identity, as if along an avenue of remembrance; alternatively they may have felt alienated from the dominant Roman establishment.

Current approaches to roads have been focused too heavily on those aspects most easily addressed through the archaeological or historical record, hence the emphasis on commercial, military and technological approaches. But by putting people back into these landscapes we can start to explore some new perspectives on Roman roads.

Rob Witcher is a post-graduate student in archaeology at the University of Leicester


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First farmers ‘were colonists after all’

Colonisation, more than the exchange of ideas, took farming across Eurasia, says David Harris

One of the great questions of prehistory is why, about 12,000 years ago, some human groups gave up hunting and gathering and took instead to an agricultural way of life. In retrospect we can recognise this change as the start of one of the greatest transformations in human society that has ever occurred – arguably the greatest since anatomically modern humans emerged between 200,000 and 100,000 years ago.

The transition from foraging to farming took place gradually, but it had revolutionary consequences for our species. Over several millennia, the seasonally mobile life of most foragers, who obtained their food from wild plants and animals, was replaced by the settled life of farmers, who cultivated crops and raised domesticated livestock. This shift from nomadic to sedentary life led to the growth of population and village settlement, the development of crafts such as pottery and metallurgy, and eventually to centralised city states which institutionalised social inequalities – in a word to ‘civilisation’.

It used to be assumed that agriculture was a ‘natural’, even an inevitable, stage in human progress – an idea that goes back to the ancient Greek philosophers. But in the 1960s, when anthropological studies of present-day hunter-gatherers showed that even in harsh environments they did not search unremittingly for food but instead had abundant leisure, this assumption came to be widely rejected, and replaced by a more fundamental question: why did foragers ever become farmers?

During the 1970s, researchers tended to answer this question by emphasising the similarities between foraging and farming, and by suggesting that transitions from the one to the other occurred almost imperceptibly in many parts of the world at approximately the same time, soon after the end of the last glacial period. This view, which is still widely taught and believed, assumes that there were many separate centres of origin: in western, eastern and south-eastern Asia, in New Guinea, in western and north-eastern Africa, in Mexico, South and North America, and even in Europe independently of SouthWest Asia.

New archaeological evidence, however, suggests it is a view that is increasingly difficult to sustain. This applies particularly to Asia and Europe, where we now have sufficient new evidence on the beginnings and early spread of agriculture and pastoralism to attempt a synthesis for Eurasia as a whole. The outcome has been to cast doubt on the prevailing notion of multiple origins and to re-instate diffusion as the main process that led to the eventual dominance of farmers over foragers throughout most of Eurasia.

The earliest firm evidence for agriculture in Eurasia comes from the western Fertile Crescent, principally from the ‘core area’ of the southern Levant and the middle Euphrates Valley, where remains of domesticated cereals (barley, einkorn wheat and emmer wheat), pulses (lentil, pea and chickpea) and flax have been recovered from archaeological sites and radiocarbon-dated to the ‘PrePottery Neolithic A’ between approximately 10,000 and 8500BC. By the end of this period these ‘founder crops’ of Neolithic agriculture occur more widely, from western Iran to Turkey, and domesticated goats and sheep also appear for the first time at sites in the Taurus and Zagros Mountains.

At such sites, outside the ‘core area’, there is no evidence for gradual, local transitions to agriculture. Instead, the domesticated cereals and pulses appear suddenly, implying that they were introduced as part of an already developed system of grain cultivation, which was later integrated with livestock raising in what became a highly productive system of agro-pastoral production.

Why did this novel way of life arise and progressively replace foraging as the mainstay of the human population? The most convincing, but still tentative, answer is that the environmental changes that followed the last ice age, particularly the cold-dry interval known as the Younger Dryas between c 9000 and c 8000BC, caused hunter-gatherers in the ‘core area’, some of whom were already living yearround in small villages, to concentrate their food quest on a narrower range of wild plants, notably the grasses and legumes that were the progenitors of the cereal and pulse crops.

Intensified annual harvesting and sowing of these plants led to selection of the domesticated forms, which proved more productive. Once these crops had become staple foods, and especially after their cultivation was integrated with livestock raising, the new agricultural economy expanded at the expense of the old foraging way of life.

It took some 2,000 years for agro-pastoralism to spread throughout South-West Asia. Probably this process depended more on colonisation by farmers than on the adoption of agriculture by foragers because the settled agricultural populations would have tended to expand both numerically and territorially at the expense of the hunter-gatherers. Population growth is higher among sedentary communities, and the crops would have provided the farmers with more dependable supplies of grainbased weaning foods such as gruel and porridge, as well as milk once the goats and sheep began to be milked.

These weaning foods would have shortened the length of time women suckled their infants, and the average interval between births would have been reduced, thus further accentuating population growth. Furthermore, the cereals and pulses provided a well-balanced dietary combination of carbohydrate, protein and fat which would have effectively sustained the farming groups as they moved into new areas, and also freed them from dependence on wild resources for their staple food supplies.

Within South-West Asia the spread of agriculture is witnessed archaeologically by a progressive increase in the number and size of village settlements with rectilinear mudbrick architecture which took place during the ‘Pre-Pottery Neolithic B’ (c 8500–6500 BC), many of which have yielded remains of the ‘founder crops’. The same process is evident in the spread of Neolithic settlement (mostly with pottery) west across Turkey into Europe, north-east into Central Asia and south-east into the Indian subcontinent.

That we are observing the diffusion of agro-pastoralism by farmers rather than its adoption by foragers is suggested by the comprehensive nature of the changes in material culture that accompany the appearance of the crops and domestic animals at Neolithic sites. For example in Central Asia, on the piedmont of southern Turkmenistan, villages, such as the early Neolithic site of Jeitun, with rectilinear mudbrick architecture, pottery and domesticated barley, wheat, goats and sheep, appear suddenly at c 6000BC. The existence of slightly older Neolithic sites in north-eastern Iran with similar architecture and Jeitun-type pottery strengthens the probability that agriculture spread there from the Fertile Crescent rather than originated independently in Central Asia.

Comparable evidence suggests that agro-pastoralism reached South Asia and Europe by a similar process of expansion. For example, domesticated barley and wheat are present (outside the range of their wild progenitors) at Mehrgarh in western Pakistan by c 5300BC, and the early Neolithic ‘package’ of cereals, pulses, goats and sheep appears at numerous sites on the Thessalian Plain in eastern Greece during the 7th millennium BC. Thus, the evidence as a whole points strongly to the conclusion that agriculture developed throughout western Eurasia not as a result of a series of independent shifts from foraging to farming but by a process of diffusion from a single area of origin in the Fertile Crescent.

For the eastern half of Asia the evidence is more meagre and uncertain. But recent discoveries of domesticated rice together with dogs, pigs and possibly water buffalo at sites such as Pengtoushan and Hemudu in the Yangzi Valley suggest that mixed farming based on rice had begun in southern China by c 6000BC, independently of the earlier development of agro-pastoralism in western Asia. Rice spread later to northern China where it was incorporated into pre-existing systems of seed-crop cultivation based on three types of millet (species of Panicum, Setaria and Echinochloa). These crops were probably domesticated in East or Central Asia, but their origins remain obscure and we cannot at present judge whether their cultivation in northern China began independently of influences from the West.

In South-East Asia rice appears not to have become a staple crop until after c 3000BC, and it is possible that root and tuber crops, such as yams and taro, were cultivated much earlier in this region, as they may also have been in New Guinea. But so little is firmly known about the prehistory of crops in South-East Asia that whether some form of agriculture began there independently remains an open question.

Across Eurasia, therefore, the initial shifts from foraging to farming ‘need’ never have taken place. They resulted from particular and rare conjunctions of cultural and ecological conditions, in which climatic change probably played an important part. Yet for all the chanciness of their origins, these changes were fraught with revolutionary consequences for humanity.

David Harris is Professor of Human Environment at the Institute of Archaeology, University College London. A new book, The Origins and Spread of Agriculture and Pastoralism in Eurasia, edited by David Harris, was published recently by UCL Press at £19.95.


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