Rich Scots attracted the Romans

From The Times

Mike Wade

An
archaeological dig in North East Scotland has laid bare the quality of
the opposition the Romans faced at the very fringes of their empire.

The
discovery of a tiny piece of a horse’s harness at a site at Birnie near
Elgin shows the tribe that lived there had wealth and prestige enough
to warrant the attention of the would-be invaders from the south.

The
harness, which was found along with a dagger and sheath, was almost
certainly part of a fixing from a chariot, “the Ferrari of the Iron
Age”, according to Fraser Hunter, the leader of the dig.

“These
people were well connected and wealthy. It is no surprise that the
Romans should choose to do business with them. It was almost certainly
a means of keeping the boundaries of their empire intact,” he said.

Between the first and third
centuries AD, the Romans attempted twice to conquer Scotland, but in
the intervening years they tried to keep Scots at bay with bribes. Some
tribes were sweetened to fight others who were not so favoured – a
classic case of divide and rule, a policy beloved of dictators ever
since.

Dr Hunter, curator of Iron Age of Roman Collections at
the National Museums of Scotland, said it was plain that the Birnie
group was favoured by Roman patronage because of the influence it
wielded in the area.

“This was essentially a big powerful
family group. There would have been others living in the area, but this
would have been one of the most important. The range of finds is
spectacular,” he said.

The site, which lies on farmland, first
came to the attention of archaeologists in 2000 after the discovery of
two hoards of Roman coins there. Since then two ancient roundhouses
have been found, with a third likely to be uncovered on Monday. Dr
Hunter said that aerial photography had shown that 15 roundhouses, each
with a diameter of about 16 metres, had been built on the site. Other
discoveries include a gold torc, glass beads and quernstones for
grinding corn. There is also evidence of smelting, casting and of a
blacksmith on the site.

It is probable that the rich farming
countryside close by accounted for the wealth of the settlement, which
is likely to have remained inhabited for at least 1,000 years from
800BC. “It’s not a coincidence that this part of Speyside would
eventually become so famous for its barley and its whisky. This was and
is good land for growing crops,” Dr Hunter said.

Some of the
finds offered new insights into the lives of the inhabitants. The
dagger and sword were both found in the roofs of houses, suggesting
they might have been left as gifts to the gods when the houses were
abandoned. Likewise, broken quernstones had been found that had
probably been deliberately destroyed.

One building had been
badly damaged in a fire. Dr Hunter speculated that a house might be
burnt if it had become associated with bad luck.

The Moray
Forth represented the limits of the Roman invasion of Scotland. When
the bribes of silver coins proved insufficient to quell powerful groups
like those at Birnie, the Emperor Septimius Severus led his troops
north in the third century. “There was no climactic battle, but he
certainly got to Aberdeen and possibly as far as the Moray Firth. But
areas there were never settled; the Romans just campaigned right
through,” Dr Hunter said.

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