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The First Frontier - D.J. Woolliscroft,B. Hoffmann

Book Review by Melvadius

The core topic of this book is the development of the 'massive and complex frontier system' by the Romans in Scotland. This system comprises three distinct elements; the Highland and Strathmore lines of forts and the Gask line of watchtowers and fortlets running in parallel between them. Although previously seen as separate phases (c/f Jones and Mattingly (1990), An Atlas of Roman Britain), this system is now becoming recognized as a unified whole and the prototype for all subsequent linear Roman frontiers including Hadrian’s Wall and the fortifications along the Danube.

The book has been written by the archaeologist co-directors of the Gask Project, run by the University of Liverpool, whose broad remit is the study of all Roman sites north of the Forth-Clyde isthmus and the second century Antonine Wall which crosses it. Between them they have carried out 27 excavations on 18 sites since 1996 as well as organising geophysical surveys on another eleven sites including six complete forts in the study area.

The book has two basic audiences; anyone with a general interest in Roman military history or interest in individual sites but equally for archaeologists it provides a comprehensive overview of the state of archaeological knowledge of Roman remains within the Gask Project study area. This is the first such study since Crawford’s Topography of Roman Scotland North of the Antonine Wall was published in 1949. The presence of some 70, poorly dated, marching camps in the area have long only added to the confusion about the sequence of events in this area. In this book the authors make a quantitative as well as qualitative study of the available evidence. Effectively they remove such confusing 'wood from the trees' to show what the evidence actually tells us about the activity in the area - both Roman military and to some extent the native civilian population interaction with the Romans. This is a field of study which has advanced enormously in the last 10 years, during which time the Gask Project has been operating. As such it is a long overdue update on the study of both the visible and non-visible and even in some cases no longer extant remains of the area.

An unusual and welcome feature of the book is the ability shown by the authors to deconstruct extant Latin historical texts covering the Roman occupation, before reversing the previously more common practice, and going on to fit those same texts around what the archaeological evidence proves.

As already noted despite much being written about the area, including Keppie’s excellent and frequently updated guide book to the visible Roman remains of Scotland, there has been no similar book written providing as complete an over view on the initial development of this part of Roman Scotland for almost 60 years. As well as their own in depth knowledge of their subject area, as the introduction indicates, the authors have used a multidisciplinary approach. They have drawn on the expertise of a wide range of archaeologists and historians working on different aspects of Roman Britain (including Birley and Keppie) to test and validate their theories before this publication.

The book is sumptuously illustrated with 95 text figures and 31 colour plates covering every major and minor known Roman military site in the study area. References are given to the appropriate large scale maps (preferable 1:25000) and the searchable database held by the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland is mentioned as a good resource c/f:


The book is written in two halves; Part 1 reverses the usual sequence of similar books by concentrating on the archaeology of the Frontier. This provides both a good general foundation on the background to the Roman military sites in Scotland, including their disposition and a reasonable refresher for the more experienced researcher. It points out such esoterica as local differences in types of ditches as well as between tituli, claviculae and the Strathcaro type gates found at Roman sites. This chapter would have made good research material for at least one recent author dealing with Roman activity in this area. In the following four chapters the authors proceed to look at the three key elements of the frontier in depth. They do this on a site by site basis using a combination of antiquarian and/or archaeological reports along with maps. In addition they use some geo-physical results and air photographs to provide as clear a picture as possible the development and chronology of each site along the frontier. They also consider the evidence for any Roman period roads connecting each site. Chapter 2 covers the Highland Line from Drumquhassie northeast to the abandoned legionary fortress at Inchtuthill. Chapter 3 similarly itemises the Gask Line: Camelon to Strageatha extending in Chapter 4 Gask Line: Strageatha to Bertha to the conclusion of the signalling system. Finally Chapter 5 on The Strathmore forts completes the picture of the known site in this area.

Forming little more than a quarter of the total book length Part 2 provides an interpretation of the authors' findings yet does stand by itself for anyone unwilling or unable to read all of Part 1. Chapter 6 on the History of the First century invasion of Scotland markedly departs from earlier interpretations of an invasion occurring in AD 79 followed by abandonment in the mid-80's based on a period in use of only 3 years for the northern forts and possibly as little as a single year for the Gask line of watchtowers. This departure from previous interpretations is most noticeable with the inclusion of Hoffmann’s earlier thesis on the inconsistencies in the historical record provided by Tacitus’ Agricola. The archaeological material and indeed other historical accounts have now provided compelling evidence for successive phases of construction and rebuilding over a much longer period than first envisaged by writers using Tacitus as a 'true' history of events. As connections were made between the archaeological and other evidence presented and the authors implications slotted into place I found myself laughing out loud at least twice in surprise and pleased anticipation amidst the dawning revelations.

Chapter 7 keeps up the pressure by re-evaluating the interaction between the Roman occupiers and the native population asking and answering the question of why the conquest failed. While chapter 8 points out the difficulties associated with interpreting the systems operations based on a modern landscape that only arose in the 18th century following land drainage and reclamation turning much of the previously marshy bottom land some of the most fertile land in Scotland and eminently suitable for growing arable crops.

The final appendix compares the construction methods of the different watch towers and their surrounding ditches on the Gask Line. The different methods used suggests construction was undertaken in at least four and no more than six distinct groups of towers which may fit in with separate working parties being used from each of the four legions then based in Britain.

As I have indicated above this book is written from the point of view of experts in their field, however it is eminently readable by non-experts. The archaeological evidence although taking prominence does not need to be read in its entirety to gain a flavour of the wealth of evidence for re-interpretation. However in the first part the authors have made extensive use of a wide range of illustrations and other materials to point out the difficulties in previous interpretations of individual sites. In some cases, where only incomplete excavation records survive of particular excavations, personal comments by excavators have necessarily been included.

On the whole I am convinced that the authors have presented their case well and made the best possible interpretation of a wider range of evidence than is usually provided for public consumption. Where there are alternative views they provide both, or in some instances, multiple arguments which have been made along with their own reasoning and interpretations. Their necessary re-evaluation of Tacitus' Agricola in my analysis does not really detract from his mastery of the use of Latin although it does question his historical veracity, rather it has the potential to expand general understanding of his 'real' intent in why he wrote as he did.

I have deliberately not used many quotations from this book as I feel that each reader should have the opportunity of finding his or her own moment of revelation, I would however recommend it without reservation to anyone with an interest in any aspect of Roman Frontier studies. If anyone wishes to extend their knowledge of how the system of watchtowers on the Gask Line actually operated I would refer them to Wooliscroft's earlier book Roman Military Signalling.

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Book Review of The First Frontier: Rome in the North of Scotland - Related Topic: Romans in Scotland


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