Everyday life in the Roman military community at Inveresk
Rome’s northern frontier could be a cosmopolitan place, with forts attracting bustling civilian settlements, visiting VIPs, and exotic religions. Excavations at Inveresk have teased out details of life at this tantalising site, as Fraser Hunter reveals.
Recent discoveries at Inveresk are casting vivid light on the realities of frontier life. The fort site lies 10km east of Edinburgh on the southern side of the Firth of Forth, that great sea inlet which bites into Scotland’s east coast. Directly to the west lies the narrowest isthmus across Britain. This is traversed by the Antonine Wall, a shortlived successor to Hadrian’s Wall in the mid-2nd century. At either end of the Wall, forts and fortlets guarded its coastal flanks, and Inveresk was one such fort, placed on high ground at the mouth of the river Esk.
A Roman presence here was long suspected. The first inscription was found on the site in 1565, and protected by royal command of Mary, Queen of Scots (it is now lost). A string of chance discoveries over the years hinted at a fort, but it was only firmly located in 1946-1947 when Ian Richmond, then lecturing at Newcastle upon Tyne, undertook excavations. Today, Inveresk is a highly desirable Edinburgh suburb, full of expensive houses. A boom in house-building and renovation has brought lots of excavations in its wake – over 30 since 1995 – which have produced some startling discoveries.
Finding the fort
Because the fort lies underneath a modern cemetery, very little was known about its layout – Ian Richmond’s detective work with tiny trenches in gardens and graves furnished a broad outline of its size, but few internal details. It was felt that the site had been largely destroyed. When the cemetery expanded, however, archaeologists led by Alan Leslie (now of Northlight Heritage) and Bob Will (of GUARD Archaeology) seized the chance to investigate the western fort defences and a substantial chunk of the interior. Survival was better than expected, with roads, ovens, a jumble of internal features, and the masonry foundations of the west gate, or porta praetoria, all detected. A road passing through this headed down towards the river, perhaps to a bridge or harbour. The fort was more heavily defended than Richmond thought – on its west side, at least – with a double ditch, not just a single one.
Disentangling the details of a complicated picture must await the final report, but there were at least two major phases – the earlier timber-built, the later stone – and evidence of other significant rebuildings. These modifications occurred over a very short timescale, as the fort was founded around AD 140 and probably abandoned c.AD 165, when the withdrawal from the Antonine Wall was completed. There is some evidence, though, that Inveresk was retained as an outpost fort at the northern end of Dere Street, a major military highway, until about AD 180.
Extensive middens lie on the slopes around the fort, and their contents, including rich assemblages of pottery and other artefacts, have revealed plenty about frontier life. Although the garrison is unknown, many finds of horse harness show it included cavalry at some stage. A few Samian vessels bear graffiti with Thracian or Dacian names, but these tantalising hints are not enough to be sure of the unit’s origins, as soldiers could be quite mobile. The most dramatic find from the fort excavations was a military dagger – although only a back-up weapon, this had a blade 30cm long, and was a vicious implement in its own right. It was also clearly a prized possession: the hilt had once been highly decorated with strips of wood, iron, and brass.
Thanks to two large excavations an extramural settlement or vicus that developed on a ridge to the east of the fort is now the best-known example of its type in Scotland. Timber and, later, stone-founded strip-buildings lined streets laid out in a regular grid pattern. Craft activities, including pottery production, were pursued in backyards. Although the kilns have not been located, the site had a distinctive local potting tradition, manufacturing a wide range of forms. Excavation of a barrel-lined well in one of the yards yielded a wealth of environmental evidence and organic finds, including a fine leather slipper and a bone whistle.
Extensive field systems were established around the site. Here, ditched enclosures created modest plots for animal-grazing and small-scale cropgrowing or market-gardening. Clearly the soldiers and the civilian community who followed them wanted to provide their own supplies. The range of pottery includes extensive imports from southern Britain, and it is likely that a harbour lay nearby.
Until recently there was very little evidence of burials – a common situation in Roman Scotland, where attention has focused on the forts rather than their surroundings. But excavations by CFA Archaeology to the north of the fort found a small, scattered cemetery of cremations and inhumations, as well as a horse burial. Four of the six bodies discovered were decapitated after death, perhaps to ensure that the dead person’s ghost did not return to haunt the living. Such burial rites were widely practised in Roman Britain, but it is rare to encounter such a high percentage of decapitations. It is also unusually early – decapitations are typically a Late Roman phenomenon. This graveyard developed from an Iron Age cemetery, a unique situation in Scotland where Iron Age burials are very rare.
Another recent find helps bring one dead soldier to life. A few kilometres south of the fort, a large inscribed stone was ploughed up in a field at Carberry. It proved to be half of a cavalry tombstone. The inscription was largely intact, but only a fragment of the upper portion of the stone, depicting the popular motif of a cavalryman slaying a barbarian, survived. The inscription names the dead man as Crescens, a trooper with the Ala Sebosiana. At the time of his death he was serving with the equites singulares, the governor’s bodyguard, which was drawn from the ranks of the provincial army. This suggests that the governor or another important official was nearby, inspecting the frontier. A good candidate is the imperial procurator (the Roman version of the Chancellor of the Exchequer), Quintus Lusius Sabinianus, who is recorded on two inscriptions from the fort. Perhaps he was here to assess the newly conquered area for taxes and other financial benefits – and perhaps Crescens accompanied him, losing his life but leaving this fine tombstone to be discovered 1,800 years later.
Mithras under the cricket pitch
The most remarkable recent find has come from an area to the east of the fort and vicus, where nothing was previously known. When a cricket pavilion burnt down, its footprint was excavated by AOC Archaeology prior to rebuilding. To their surprise, they discovered a large, rectangular, sunken feature in the corner of their trench. Within it lay two altars, buried face-down. These were gently lifted and, after conservation, turned over. Both had been dedicated by the same man, one Gaius Cassius Fla[-], perhaps Flavianus, a centurion. His tria nomina shows that he was a Roman citizen, and it is likely that he was a legionary centurion seconded to take charge of the fort’s auxiliary garrison. This would explain how he could afford such expensive altars.
One altar was dedicated to Mithras = making this the most northerly discovery of a Mithraic inscription from the whole empire, and the earliest known in Britain. The sculpture on the sides of the altar features a lyre and a griffin, typical attributes of Apollo, while the carving at the top of the altar includes two ravens, sacred to Mithras. This need not be contradictory: Apollo and Mithras were both gods of light, who could be conflated.
The second altar was even more dramatic. It was dedicated to Sol, the sun god, his face beautifully carved on the front of the altar. To the rear, the altar was hollowed out, while the rays of Sol’s halo, his eyes, and his mouth perforate the stone. In the dark of the temple, inserting a lamp into the hollow would have made Sol’s halo and face gleam and flicker with light. It would have created a dramatic impression. An iron peg was set just above and behind the mouth, as if to hang something from it – perhaps to move in the heat, making the light flicker and evoke the voice of the god? The capital has four female busts – the four Seasons, dressed accordingly, with Spring and Summer each wearing a garland of flowers in their hair, Autumn with grapes, and Winter wrapped up in a scarf against the cold Scottish climate. Traces of paint hint at their original appearance.
Unfortunately, only a small part of the pit where they were found was exposed, but its sunken nature and the careful placing of the altars at one end suggests this was the Mithraeum itself, built of timber, with the altars carefully buried when the fort was abandoned. The gods represented – Mithras, Sol, Apollo, and the Seasons – are all concerned with light, salvation, and the passing of time.
Inveresk is only surrendering its secrets slowly, but each excavation reveals more. While the fort itself is now inaccessible, work around it continues to reveal the community that came to the fort to support the soldiers, their houses, their craft skills, the fields that fed them, the temples where they worshipped, and the cemeteries that held their remains. Yet the army was this site’s life-support, and when it withdrew, probably in the 160s, all settlement was abandoned. It is a stark demonstration that this was an alien imposition on an occupied landscape. The local population had no interest in towns, kilns, or temples. They may have traded with the Roman community, and received diplomatic gifts (see CA 265), but when the army left the site faded from memory – until the work of archaeologists, gradually piecing together new discoveries, brought it to prominence once more.
This article appeared in issue 294 of Current Archaeology.