Book Review: Bearsden – A Roman Fort on the Antonine Wall

9 mins read

Bearsden-coverBearsden: A Roman fort on the Antonine Wall
David J Breeze
Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, £30.00
ISBN 978-1908332080

Bearsden presents a challenge to anyone who believes that Roman forts are much of a muchness. This military base once formed part of a cordon of forts strung out along the length of the Antonine Wall, a frontier system held by the army from c.AD 142-158. Unlike Hadrian’s Wall, most of the military infrastructure along the Antonine Wall was built of turf and timber rather than masonry, leaving it far more vulnerable to the depredations of the plough. By the 18th century, the site was in a pretty sorry state, with long stretches of the defences difficult to trace on the ground. Ultimately, though, it was the growth of the Glasgow suburbs rather than agriculture that erased the last traces of the earthworks from the landscape. As such, it could not be more fitting that a housing project brought the fort to prominence once more.

Redevelopment of several neighbouring properties triggered ten seasons of excavations at Bearsden from 1973 to 1982. This campaign opened up almost a third of the fort site, and along the way laid bare a perplexing layout without ready parallel anywhere in the Roman empire, and discovered a fine bathhouse. For several decades this bathing suite formed the most visible legacy of the Bearsden excavations. The consolidation of the baths for public display in 1982 (a copy of CA can be seen clutched at the opening ceremony in a photograph on p.xxii) created what is arguably the most impressive masonry vestige of the frontier visible today. Now the publication of the excavation report by David Breeze, director of excavations and an eminent frontier scholar, together with a wealth of specialist contributors, has brought life within this most unusual fort into sharp focus.

Reconstruction drawn by Michael J Moore

Soldiering on
If the iconic playing-card shape layout of their defences is the most famous feature of 1st- and 2nd-century AD Roman forts, their comparatively standardised internal layout must be a close second. Although no two forts are identical, the front and rear thirds of the installations usually contain barracks, while the central range contained the core buildings that supported the soldiers and reinforced the military hierarchy: the granaries, the commanding officer’s house, and the headquarters building that formed both the ritual and administrative heart of the unit. The excavations at Bearsden swiftly established that this fort bucked the trend.

The installation was split in two by a turf rampart that separated the fort proper from a narrow annex, which held the bathhouse. Within the fort itself, one granary was arranged next to a group of what appeared to be timber barracks, while a second granary lay just off centre within the central range, an area that would normally be occupied by part of the headquarters building. Between the granary and the partition rampart lay a mysterious structure laid out around a courtyard. The explanation for this anomaly was eventually traced back to a change of plan while the fort was being built. Rather than being planned as a fort and annex from the beginning, the partition rampart divided what was originally intended to be the entire fort. This meant the central range courtyard building was in the right place to be the original headquarters building, leaving the other structures to make the best of the reduced space. As the excavation report emphasises, such adaptability is symptomatic of the Bearsden garrison’s pragmatic and flexible approach to the trials and tribulations of life on the northern frontier.

One of the great strengths of this volume is the way that it captures the intimate details of day-to-day life. You are what you eat, they say, and the discovery of the effluent from the bathhouse latrine (see the reconstruction illustration above left) provided a valuable opportunity to investigate the military diet. This sewage was flushed into the fort ditch, where it settled below the waterline. It is suggested that this liquid lens might have helped to dampen the odour, but your reviewer has visited towns where waste is still discharged into waterlogged ditches, and there at least the stench remained all too potent. The questionable hygiene regime implied by this flushing of raw sewage into the fort ditches seems to be confirmed by the presence of whipworm and roundworm, revealing that at least some of the garrison had themselves been colonised.

Bearsden2Traces of emmer, spelt, lentil, horse bean, linseed, fig, dill, coriander, opium poppy, wild celery, wild turnip, blackberry, raspberry, and hazel nuts, among other foodstuffs, were also recovered. This extraordinary survival indicates that the soldiers were sourcing produce from the immediate fort environs, southern Britain, and the Continent. One thing that the Roman garrison at Bearsden does not seem to have been consuming much of is meat. Although the absence of butchered animal bones can be explained by the acidic soils at the site, biochemical analysis of the effluent indicated that the bulk of the soldiers’ sustenance came from plants. As such, bread, broth, porridge, and pasta (durum wheat was found as a residue in a cooking pot) were probably staples of the military menu at the fort.

Plotting where different types of pottery vessel were found reveals that mortaria and cooking pots were only common in two of the barrack-block style structures. This implies both that the food was being prepared in those blocks, and that the three other buildings may have served a different role, perhaps as stores or stables. Over in the bathhouse, Samian ware and other vessels associated with food consumption rather than preparation are most common. Some of these diners, presumably taking advantage of the chance to relax in a heated environment, would have been watched over by a goddess whose head was executed in a strikingly ‘Celtic’ style (shown above right). A shortage of flagons and wine amphorae could suggest that the garrison preferred swigging beer from wooden tankards to sipping wine!

This volume is lavishly illustrated in colour at a very reasonable price, and as a scientific report of the excavations it does not scrimp on the detail. For a casual reader, its true power lies in the way that it teases out details that cumulatively offer a vivid impression of garrison life. From the aquatic beetles bobbing about in a depression within the fort to the apparent use of moss in lieu of toilet roll, the text conjures the everyday sights, assignments, and smells of what was probably a memorable posting. Anyone interested in what the Roman army was really like will find plenty to chew over here.

Review by Matthew Symonds
This review was published in CA 318.

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