Gateway to Rome
Great Sites: Traprain Law
Ian Armit recalls the discovery of an Iron Age 'tribal centre' in East Lothian which flourished during the Roman period.
On Monday 12 May 1919 a small group of workmen was busily engaged on the western shelf of Traprain Law, the great volcanic hill that dominates East Lothian's coastal plain. Their foreman, George Pringle, had already spent the summers of 1914 and 1915 supervising excavations on the site, before the war put a temporary end to the work.
He had since been severely wounded fighting in France, but was now able to return to the quiet and calm of the hilltop.
On this particular afternoon a discovery was made which shattered the usual routine. So dramatic was the find that one of the workmen was dispatched to nearby East Linton to make a telephone call to Edinburgh, to alert the director of the excavations, Alexander Curle, whose weekly inspection of the site was not due until the following Saturday.
Such was the level of secrecy over the discovery that it was judged unwise to be too explicit over the telephone, and the full urgency of the situation was not conveyed. As a result Alexander Curle spent part of the next day engaged in his normal duties as Director of the National Museum of Antiquities of Scotland, before travelling the 15 miles east to Traprain and beginning his ascent of the hill.
The sight that met him was quite extraordinary. Open and exposed on the windswept hillside was a pit brimming with fine Roman silverware. There were more than 100 objects - bowls, cups, flagons, coins, spoons, and mounts, some decorated with Christian scenes, others with rich and exotic Mediterranean motifs, handles in the form of dolphins and panthers, nearly all folded and cut up as if for melting down. The coins suggested a date for the hoard during the reign of Honorius, between 395-423 AD. Traprain's place in the history of Scottish archaeology was assured.
The discovery of the 'treasure' was the highlight of a long campaign of excavation on Traprain Law directed by Curle and James Cree in 1914-15 and 1919-23, although Cree had the misfortune to be absent in America on business during the momentous 1919 season. Before their work the site had been recognised as an exceptionally large hillfort, with several visible rampart lines enclosing an area of more than 40 acres (16 hectares). Its date, however, was completely unknown before the excavations of 1914 began to yield a wealth of later prehistoric and Roman finds.
Indeed, even before the discovery of the treasure it was obvious that the inhabitants of Traprain Law enjoyed a special status during the Roman period. Numerous Roman brooches, fragments of pottery, glass, and metalwork including such exotic items as tweezers, nail cleaners and 'earscoops', were discovered, seemingly representing the debris of a community who maintained close contacts with the Roman world over several centuries. The scale of contacts with the 'civilising' influence of Rome far exceeded anything that Scottish prehistorians had previously imagined.
From Curle and Cree's work emerged a picture of Traprain Law as a central place in this part of Scotland in prehistory, occupied and used over nearly 4,000 years. The earliest occupation appears to have been in the Neolithic, judging from the numbers of stone axe fragments found on the hill. Later, during the earlier Bronze Age, the site was used as a place of burial and ritual, but not necessarily settlement.
A series of elaborate rock-carvings, now destroyed by 20th century quarrying, seems to date from this period.
Dense settlement is first attested in the later Bronze Age, perhaps from around 1000-600 BC. Numerous fragmentary structures, midden deposits, and metal-working remains, including moulds for swords, spearheads and axeheads, suggest that the western shelf was the site of major domestic and industrial activity during this period. Between 600 BC and the Roman incursions at the end of the 1st century ad, clearly datable artefacts are harder to identify, but it seems probable that at least some of the visible ramparts belong to this period. Indeed, the site has tended to be seen as the fortified Iron Age capital of the Votadini, a tribe recorded by the Greek geographer Ptolemy who wrote in the 2nd century AD.
During the first four centuries AD, Traprain was variously inside and outside the fluctuating boundaries of the Roman Empire, being located between Hadrian's Wall and the Antonine Wall. Several factors suggest that the upper strata of Votadinian society (ie, those resident at Traprain Law) enjoyed a special relationship with Rome at this time. Evidence from the hill suggests they enjoyed apparently unequalled access to Roman goods of the highest quality. Also, the survival of this fortified native centre implies they were not perceived as a threat to Rome.
Furthermore, the absence of Roman marching camps and military installations in the agricultural heartlands of East Lothian suggests that authority continued to be asserted from Traprain itself. It would seem, therefore, that the Votadini had allied themselves with Rome and may even have been, at certain times, a buffer state on the edge of the Empire. Thus the excavations at Traprain Law are highly significant for interpretations of Roman frontier politics.
Ultimately, the Votadinian alliance with Rome may have been their undoing. In the decades around AD 400 a final rampart was erected at Traprain Law, and at more or less the same time the great treasure was buried beneath the floor of a house. Both may well have been signs of stressful times, for after AD 400 occupation appears quite abruptly to cease. It is tempting to link the final abandonment of this long-lived native centre with the disintegration of Roman Britain during the same period. Perhaps the same pressures, particularly from northern and western aggressors, affected both.
Important as Curle and Cree's excavations were, however, they left many questions unanswered. Even by the standards of the day their methods were unsophisticated. The excavation was conducted by workmen with no archaeological training beyond what they picked up on the site itself. They worked with picks, breaking up the soil which was then passed through a riddle to recover artefacts. Curle and Cree found it impossible to recognise stratigraphic layers on the site, and also failed to recognise buildings, despite the numerous hearths that were excavated and planned.
In the end, therefore, although the western shelf was clearly an area of dense and prolonged settlement with important artefact assemblages from both the Later Bronze Age and Roman periods, the nature of the occupation remained obscure.
Later work on Traprain Law was generally small scale and concentrated mainly on narrow trenches excavated through the various ramparts by such figures as Stewart Cruden in the 1930s and Gerhard Bersu in the 1940s. Other notable contributions included a splendid and detailed plan of the site by Richard Feachem in the 1950s, and a major reassessment of the site sequence by George Jobey in the 1970s.
Yet the weaknesses of the early excavations continued to allow multiple conflicting interpretations of the site. Peter Hill, for example, has argued that the nature of the Roman coin assemblage and the 'magpie collection' of Roman metalwork are reminiscent of material from temple sites. Rather than being a densely occupied tribal capital, therefore, Hill has suggested that perhaps Traprain Law was a sparsely-occupied religious site during the Iron Age and Roman periods, drawing its sanctity from its long tradition of earlier occupation and burial. The imprecision of the early excavations certainly does not rule out an interpretation along these lines.
The only way to address the many unanswered questions on this site has been through a new campaign of excavation. A start has been made over the past two years with the Traprain Law Summit Project, which I direct jointly with Fraser Hunter of the National Museums of Scotland and Andrew Dunwell of the Edinburgh firm CFA Archaeology. Early results have been promising.
Dense occupation dating broadly to the Roman period extends over much of the summit, in some areas overlying potentially Iron Age occupation.
We have also discovered a previously unattested episode of early Christian burial on the summit, as well as the first examples on the hill of waterlogged bone and other organic remains.
The significance of these finds is not yet fully clear, and they mark only a small beginning - but one we hope that will eventually lead to a fuller understanding of this great site.
The recent work on Traprain Law has been funded by the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, the Society of Antiquaries of London, the Russell Trust, the Munro Fund, and the National Museums of Scotland, and has been carried out with the cooperation of the site's owners, East Lothian Council
Ian Armit is a Senior Lecturer at Queen's University Belfast