Meeting Report: The Romans in SW Scotland: a view from geophysical survey

30 November 2018
James Williams Lecture
Dr Richard Jones, University of Glasgow

At a packed meeting on Friday, 30 November 2018, over 100 members and guests of the Dumfriesshire and Galloway Natural History and Antiquarian Society heard Dr Richard Jones give the James Williams lecture on The Romans in SW Scotland: a view from geophysical survey. Dr Jones began by identifying the Roman sites in our region where Glasgow University has carried out geophysical surveys in recent years, namely Burnswark, Dalswinton, Birrens, Broomholm and Carzield. His talk focused on the last four sites, and involved the investigation of forts, temporary camps, fort annexes and associated civilian settlements. Before presenting each site in detail, Dr Jones outlined the methods currently available for archaeological investigation, namely excavation, aerial photography, geophysics and lidar (light detection and ranging). Geophysical survey includes both magnetometer (where local variations in the ground’s magnetic field intensity are detected, for example over a ditch or, better, an oven or fire pit) and resistivity (where variations in the ground’s resistance to an electrical current can indicate buried walls or ditches for example).

At Dalswinton, there is Flavian (first century A.D.) period fort at Bankhead and temporary camps at Bankfoot adjacent to the River Nith. Geophysical survey has confirmed that Bankfoot was a Stracathro-type camp rather than a permanent fort. Perimeter ditches and fire pits or ovens were located, and two phases of occupation were indicated. The Bankhead fort had been interpreted as having two phases by St. Joseph and Richmond. Magnetometer survey found two annexe phases, with scattered pits for burning. The fort was confirmed as two-phase; it was expanded in the second phase but probably not turned through ninety degrees as St Joseph and Richmond had proposed. Roadways were also evident, and in the north part of the site were found rectangular structures typical of legionary buildings, implying the presence of legionary detachments in the second phase of occupation. The south part of the fort site has not been ploughed resulting in better survival of the archaeological evidence. Here the commandant’s house can be provisionally identified. An east annexe showed evidence of expansion, but with little detail of the interior, suggesting that the annexe was used largely for workshop activities. In the south annexe was evidence for the existence of the fort’s bath-house. Geophysical survey has confirmed that Dalswinton was a large fort requiring the provision of three annexes for storage and workshop activities.

The Flavian fort of Broomholm was investigated in the 1960s by Charles Daniels (University of Newcastle) by the excavation of narrow trenches. The evidence found was interpreted to indicate a first phase involving a fortlet with a south annexe. In a second phase the annexe area was taken in to form a larger fort with a new south annexe added. The more recent geophysics survey confirmed the existence of the phase 1 fortlet and annexe. In phase 2 the fortlet was expanded to become a fort which incorporated and built over the previous annexe. At the fort’s northern end and leading to the gate there appeared to be an area of ‘unused’ space. Hints of later post-Roman buildings were evident here.

Birrens fort has a classic layout and was occupied in two Antonine phases. A geophysical survey was carried out immediately to the west of the fort, and found evidence of roads and buildings to suggest a ‘vicus’ or civilian settlement lying adjacent to the fort, comparable with the ‘vicus’ at Maryport.

The most recent geophysical survey has been carried out at Carzield. Here there was a large cavalry fort in the Antonine period, which probably replaced Dalswinton as the cavalry fort in the south-west. It was excavated by Birley and Richmond in 1939, Alf Truckell in the 1950s and 1960s, and there have been subsequent watching briefs. Recent surveys have investigated the areas around the fort. In Area B, where Truckell found a significant amount of general debris, geophysics has confirmed that this is a very disturbed area, probably indicating workshop activity. There is also a strong suggestion that the fort’s bath house is in this area, and possibly parts of a civilian settlement. To the east in Area C, curved ditches were found which may be pre-Roman, and moving westward up the slope to the fort aerial photography suggests the existence of an annexe here. The area was generally disturbed suggesting workshop activities.

Dr Jones concluded his lecture by observing that recent geophysical surveys of these four sites made it clear that these forts were constantly changing to adapt to circumstances and that different phases within and outwith the forts could be identified. New evidence for civilian settlements had been found at Birrens and Carzield, comparable with that known at Inveresk fort. Survey had also indicated pre- and post-Roman activity on these sites. He thanked the various agencies which had supported the work, including the DGNHAS, Mouswald Trust, Historic Environment Scotland, Liddesdale Archaeological Society and Kirkmahoe Community Council.