British Archaeology, no 6, July 1995: Features

The emperor Severus attempted genocide in Scotland, writes Colin Martin

To Scotland then they came, burning

The Roman historians Dio and Herodian were dismissive of the campaigns waged by the emperor Septimius Severus and his son Caracalla in northern Britain between AD208 and 211. No battles were fought, and following the death of Severus at York all the territories that had been campaigned over were abandoned.

Yet Dio and Herodian seem to have missed the point. Recent archaeological research in Scotland suggests that Severus had no intention of bringing the Caledonians to battle, but instead attempted to wipe them out by systematic devastation of the landscape. His policy, moreover, seems to have been successful, as peace beyond the northern frontier lasted for most of the following century.

The principal evidence consists of military bases associated with Severan activity. At South Shields, overlooking the Tyne estuary, a Hadrianic fort was reconstructed as a gigantic provisions depot. Up-river the great base at Corbridge, always a nexus for projected campaigns in the north, underwent major refurbishment which included the building of granaries. Far to the north, on the south banks of the Forth and Tay estuaries, forts were established at Cramond and Carpow. The purpose of these appears to have been to sustain by sea large armies campaigning north of the Forth, so avoiding the long and manpower-consuming lines of communication through southern Scotland which had characterised earlier Roman incursions.

In addition, a number of temporary camps have been convincingly identified as Severan. At Ardoch in Perthshire, for instance, two large camps (covering 25ha and 55ha) - which post-date the annexe of a fort in commission until the mid-2nd century - seem to represent successive seasons of activity, and the most likely recorded historical context is Severan campaigning in 209 and 210.

Fourteen other camps, similar in size, proportion and general layout to the 25ha camp at Ardoch, are known in eastern Scotland beyond the Forth. They trace lines north-eastwards through Strathmore towards Aberdeen, along the Angus coastlands, and into Fife. A similar pattern is followed by a series of 55ha camps, which thrusts inexorably from the Forth to the head of Strathmore. The camps are set on average 10 or 12 miles apart - a comfortable day's march for a big army.

What were these camps for? Contrary to general belief the progressive movement of a single large force through the landscape was not the normal method of Roman campaigning; and such substantial and coherent groups of camps as these are without parallel in the Roman world. Hostile territory was most readily dominated by ensnaring it in a web of strongpoints and roads, which allowed Rome's most powerful weapons - literacy and communication - to prevail. It seems therefore that Severus and his generals had something completely different in mind than the control and exploitation of a subjugated landscape.

When plotted against a modern map of agricultural potential the putative Severan camps run unerringly through the most productive land of eastern Scotland, and if a radius of 10 miles is drawn round each, virtually no hectare of prime agricultural ground remains uncovered. From the secure base represented by each camp, determined troops would have had little difficulty in systematically destroying the productive capacity of such an area - burning the standing or stored crops and killing the livestock. If the business was conducted around harvest time, the crops would have been at their most vulnerable and the army itself could live off the countryside it was laying waste. The American Civil War Unionist General Sherman pursued just such a policy during his infamous march through Georgia in 1864.

No direct contact with the enemy, whom Dio and Herodian describe as elusive, would have been necessary. Few would have survived winter in the devastated landscape; and in the following spring, competition for what little remained, combined with a chronic lack of seed and breeding livestock, would have made the catastrophe self-perpetuating. Severus's policy, in other words, seems to have been nothing short of an attempt at genocide of the Caledonian population.

Dr Colin Martin is a Reader in Maritime Studies at the University of St Andrews

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Newly-found cave art reflects man's conflict with wild animals, writes Paul Pettitt

Struggling artists of the Ice Age

In the flurry of excitement that greeted the discovery of a new set of Upper Palaeolithic cave paintings in southern France six months ago, the most interesting aspect of the paintings was rarely mentioned, let alone discussed at length. It is that the Grotte Chauvet, unlike any other known prehistoric painted cave in the world, is full of paintings of carnivorous animals.

Palaeolithic paintings 20-30,000 years old are notoriously hard to decipher, but on one matter nearly all scholars are agreed. In depicting a range of large herbivores such as ibex and reindeer, horses and bison, cave paintings in France and Spain reflect the main types of meat eaten by people in the period. Herbivores are depicted in the paintings at Grotte Chauvet too - recently dated to 30-33,000BP - but in addition there are numerous paintings of lions and bears, and perhaps the only Palaeolithic paintings in Europe of spotted hyenas and a panther. In one panel, several lions form a single composition, possibly stalking a herd of bison facing them. So what does it all mean?

Caves commonly formed dens for large carnivores in the Palaeolithic period, and in the Grotte Chauvet the bones and paw-prints of carnivores have been found associated with - and dating from the same period as - traces of human activity, such as hearths, footprints, worked stone, and places where pigments had been grubbed up and rolled into pellets. Some cave bear bones lie intact in hibernation nests, suggesting that the animals died in hibernation; but in many instances, carnivore bones have been disturbed, and placed in what may be `privileged' positions - as with a bear skull positioned on a large rock slab in the centre of a large chamber. Cave bears have sharpened their claws on the cave walls, and the claw marks often deface the paintings.

However, the evidence of animal-bone assemblages from caves throughout Europe shows that by the Upper Palaeolithic carnivores were using caves considerably less than in earlier periods. Whereas Neanderthal bones from the Middle Palaeolithic are often found in caves with gnaw-marks, suggesting the Neanderthals had been eaten by animals, no known Upper Palaeolithic human bones have been disturbed by animals. Taken together, the evidence suggests that, over time, humans overcame - or at least contained - the threat of carnivorous animals; and by fire, projectiles and other weapons, generally kept them away from caves they were using.

It may well be that man's broadly successful struggle against carnivorous animals partly explains their presence in the Grotte Chauvet paintings. Most Palaeolithic paintings were in some sense `religious' - executed as they often were in dangerous and inaccessible places, where the experience of seeing them would have been heightened - and perhaps in overcoming the major threat posed by bears, hyenas and lions, humans invested these animals with a religious or mythological significance. Such Palaeolithic `carnivore myths' may have been told, enacted and reinterpreted in ritual ceremonies held in the mysterious confines of the cave.

Any such rituals would have involved `reading' the paintings and interacting with the animal bones; and the Grotte Chauvet raises many new questions about the mythological thinking of Palaeolithic people. For instance, did they read the claw marks, paw prints and bones of bears as they read their own art? What did they make of the claw marks scratched through paintings? Did people see themselves as carnivores; or did they rather project human attributes onto carnivores; or did they do both?

The Grotte Chauvet paintings suggest that Palaeolithic people had a complex imaginative relationship with animals, including carnivores, that went far beyond the need to eat meat, and the need to compete for food and shelter. The precise character of Palaeolithic carnivore myths - if they existed at all - will probably always remain a matter of speculation. However, further excavations are planned in the cave, and it may prove to have more secrets yet to reveal.

Paul Pettitt works in the Research Laboratory for Archaeology and the History of Art, at the University of Oxford

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We can learn much about the past by trying to relive it, writes Jacqui Wood

Reconstructing life in the Bronze Age

What was life actually like in the Bronze Age? How smoky, for instance, was the atmosphere inside a roundhouse? How did Bronze Age women keep flies away from cheese? How comfortable were Bronze Age shoes?

In the main, the only way to gain insight into these sorts of questions is not through conventional archaeology, or the painstaking analysis of finds, but through `experimental archaeology' - that is, by reconstructing a life-size model of a prehistoric settlement, and by attempting to solve through trial and error the day-to-day problems of prehistoric living.

By reconstructing a Middle Bronze Age village on my land near Truro in Cornwall, I believe I have been able to throw new light on numerous aspects of Bronze Age life: on architecture and the side-effects of house-building, on food preservation and storage, on cooking, on tanning hides for leather, on basket-making, and on weaving and other types of clothing manufacture.

Unlike most other experimental archaeology centres - such as the famous Iron Age farm at Butser in Hampshire - I have attempted to reconstruct all aspects of Bronze Age life, including all crafts, rather than just a limited number. I have found that different activities shed light on each other, and that insights often come from surprising quarters.

Some of my practical (or intuitive) solutions to prehistoric problems can in fact be backed up by traditional archaeological evidence. Others cannot, and perhaps never will be. In these cases, more rigorously science-minded archaeologists will have to choose whether or not to accept them as historically valid. However, in my view, if a solution can be shown to be both practical and effective, using only materials available in the Bronze Age, then there is a reasonable probability that the solution was indeed put into practice somewhere, at some time, during the Bronze Age period.

Having built four roundhouses (I am at present building my fifth), I am convinced that the pitch of roundhouse roofs was steeper, and that the thatch used was thinner, than most archaeologists currently suppose.

At Butser Farm, the roundhouse roof was pitched at an angle of about 45 degrees, and it was thatched by a skilled professional thatcher. This seems to me to have been a mistake, because it means that the thatch was put on in a modern way. On my roundhouses, by contrast, I simply tied layers of water reeds onto the roofs in the simplest way possible, and added a thatched cap to the top. In addition, I pitched the roofs at an angle of 50 degrees, taking my cue from the tiny ceramic house-shaped objects known as `house-urns' found at K”nigsaue in Germany, and dating from c 500BC.

My roofs seem to work extremely well, for three reasons. First, because rain runs off them quickly before it has a chance to seep through; second, because they require about a third less thatch than those at Butser Farm; and third, because they are thin enough to allow smoke from inside to filter through, keeping the air inside the roundhouse clear.

Most archaeologists assume roundhouses had no windows, but it seemed reasonable to me, when I was building my roundhouses, to cut windows in the daub walls, not just for light but also to provide a draught for the central fire. I found that reed blinds could be dropped depending on the direction of the wind. A year after cutting my windows, I read of the discovery of `pieces of daub with rounded cut-outs' found on Otomani (Bronze Age) sites in Rumania, and at Fort Harrouard in Eure-et-Loir, France, considered perhaps to have been window edging (cf Audouze and Bchsenschutz, Towns, Villages and Countryside of Celtic Europe, 82). If nothing else, this suggests that intuition is not always wildly wrong.

At several Bronze Age settlement sites (for instance, at Trethellan in Cornwall), pits have been found in a row, each one relating to a house. In general, excavators have been baffled by them, describing them as having some unknown ritual function. In my view, however, they were daubing pits, created as a by-product of mixing daub in the construction of houses. I have found from experience that each time you mix clay, soil and straw on the ground for daub, and shovel it up to add to the wall, inevitably you also shovel up a bit of soil from the ground underneath the daub, and after a few batches a pit has been formed. The pits are next to the houses because naturally you mix the daub as close as possible to the house you are building.

Another peculiar feature at Trethellan (also found elsewhere) is a `pebble mound' inside one of the houses - a pile of burned pebbles in a mound of baked clay, sloping back against a wall - considered by the excavator, Jacqueline Nowakowski, to have been possibly a hot-plate for cooking bread. I have built a pebble mound myself, and found that it does not retain heat, so could not possibly have been used for cooking. However, if you spread a few glowing embers on the mound, and set a line of gorse sticks on top, very quickly you have intense heat from a roaring fire. The angle of the mound aids the fire, in the same way as an old-fashioned sloping fire-back. In my view, pebble mounds were simply warm-up fires for Bronze Age farmworkers on their way to or from the fields.

We know from finds of `bog butter', especially in Ireland, that Bronze Age people used bogs as natural refrigerators to keep butter fresh. However, bogs are no good for storing maturing cheese, which needs to be kept in a cool but airy place, such as a cave. It strikes me that the man-made caves, or fogous, found in several parts of Britain without natural caves (such as western Cornwall) might have been constructed for just this purpose.

Both butter and cheese need to be strained, and I have found that a durable, non-rotting strainer can be made out of green marsh rushes. For storing cheese, however, very useful baskets can be made out of mint stems and bog myrtle, which have the dual effect of flavouring the cheese and keeping flies away. Bog myrtle can be found in marshes all over Britain, and there is some evidence for its use in the Bronze Age. Traces were found in a birch-bark container, together with wild cranberries and honey, in a barrow at Egtved in Jutland, Denmark.

How did Bronze Age people tan hides for leather? It occurred to me that you would have to keep your tanning hides away from hunting dogs (for which Britain was famous, in the Late Iron Age at least), and that hanging the hides from trees was a possible solution. I have found that if you sew up a sheep's hide into a bag (with the wool-side out), fill it with water and oak chippings, and leave it for a while, the bag eventually falls to the ground, the wool drops straight off the skin, and you are left with a well-cured piece of sheep's leather. There is no archaeological evidence that this was done in the Bronze Age, but I'd wager that it was, all the same.

As for clothing, I am at present trying to recreate the entire outfit of the Copper Age Ice Man, found in the Alps in 1991. His shoes are particularly interesting. Each shoe consists of an immensely complicated string net, which I never properly understood until I reconstructed it (using twine made from lime bark). The design of the net means that all you need to do is to pull one string at the top, and the shoe closes over the ankle and fits all sizes of foot. The Ice Man's shoes had soles of bearskin, with deerskin panels over the top for insulation - an extremely sophisticated design.

We may never know whether some of my experimental solutions are historically valid or not, but they provide new ways of looking at the past. If hard evidence is found by conventional archaeology that backs them up, then genuine progress will have been made.

Jacqui Wood is a member of the Cornwall Archaeological Society, and runs the Cornwall Celtic Village at Greenbottom, near Truro

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