Roman marching camp revealed in Ayr

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Excavation of one of the Roman ovens recovered during the dig. (IMAGE: GUARD Archaeology Ltd)

A previously unknown Roman marching camp has been discovered in Ayr, adding new evidence to our understanding of the Roman conquest of Scotland.

Excavations of the camp were carried out by GUARD Archaeology in advance of construction of the new Ayr Academy in 2015. At that time no Roman activity was evident and no artefacts of this period were recovered – rather, the team recovered pieces of early Neolithic pottery and a fragment of an Iron Age bracelet. But post-excavation analyses of the site, along with radiocarbon dating results, have since revealed that a series of fire-pits and post-holes all date to between AD 77-86 and AD 90, which closely corresponds to the Roman general Agricola’s Scottish campaign.

Roman marching camps are usually identified through the regular linear ditches that enclosed them, but such features were not found at the Ayr site. (The GUARD team suspects that they were probably destroyed by ploughing.) There were other features, though, that suggested striking similarities to other known Roman camps in Scotland, including the distribution of the site’s fire-pits.

In total, 26 large fire-pits were excavated, all evenly distributed in two parallel rows spaced approximately 30m apart. They were defined by scorched subsoil, stone slabs, and burnt-clay fragments, and the lack of burnt grains within them suggests that they were used for baking bread, not corn drying. This number of pits could have accommodated up to 640 legionaries, but it is possible that the excavated area only represents part of the camp, and it may have extended further to the north.

Previously, it was thought that the Roman army had only used two routes to invade southern Scotland, both of which lie much further to the east. The presence of a new camp in this area now suggests that there was another route along the west coast.

As Iraia Arabaolaza, who led the dig, explained: ‘There was a ford across the River Ayr just below the Roman marching camp, and ships may have been beached on the nearby shoreline. The Ayr marching camp is 20 miles from the nearest Roman camp to the south at Girvan, which corresponds to a day’s march for a Roman soldier. There is a little more distance to other Roman camps to the northeast near Strathaven. Altogether this suggests that this site was chosen as a strategic location for the Roman conquest of Ayrshire.’

This article appeared in CA 353.

1 Comment

  1. I wonder if it is really correct to say “the Roman conquest of Scotland” since the Romans won a big battle at Mons Graupus but then didn’t hold onto territory in Scotland for very long? Maybe “Roman invasion of Scotland” would be better.

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