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Scottish forts were the first frontier of Roman empire

SCOTLAND has the earliest frontier in the Roman empire, according to new evidence that shows they colonised Perthshire 15-20 years before previously thought.

The study suggests that Scots engaged in trading with the Romans, giving them beer and mutton in return for the Mediterranean delights of wine and olive oil.

Traditional academic research had indicated that Gnaeus Julius Agricola, who became the Emperor of Britain in AD78, headed Rome’s first futile push northwards after his Welsh campaign.

After getting past Dunblane and Perth, his troops were thought to have built a 20-mile long series of wooden forts and watchtowers - known as the Gask Ridge - about AD80.

The Romans were assumed to have then only managed to stay in Scotland for about 18 months.

However, archaeologists from the University of Manchester have uncovered evidence that shows the ridge, known to be Britain’s oldest frontier, was actually built at least a decade earlier - pre-dating a barrier in Germany and making it the oldest such structure in the whole of the Roman Empire.

Dr David Woolliscroft, the director of the Roman Gask Project, a long-term archaeological study which started in 1995, said his team’s research has uncovered traces of rebuilding work and artefacts showing the Gask Ridge was, in fact, built in about AD70.

Dr Woolliscroft added: "We’ve found lots of coins and bits of pottery from the AD70s, and, because the average Roman army tended to bring new stuff with them when they invaded new lands, this gives a fairly good date."

Previously, historians had believed the Wetterau Limes, north of the German city of Frankfurt, which was built in the early AD80s, was the first great frontier ordered by Rome. Studies now place this structure, which had similar wooden watchtowers to the Gask Ridge, at about AD105.

With the Antonine Wall built a good 60 years later than the Gask structure, and construction on Hadrian’s Wall started some 40 years afterwards, this would make the Gask Ridge the oldest by a fair margin.

Dr Woolliscroft said their studies have found that the wooden watchtowers on the wall, which stretched for 20 miles through the Perthshire and Stirlingshire countryside, were rebuilt, sometimes twice or more, suggesting that the Romans had stayed there for up to 15 years.

If true, the archaeological finds cast doubt on Agricola being the first Roman governor in Scotland.

This, Dr Woolliscroft says, points to an earlier invasion by Petilius Cerealis, probably the greatest general in the entire Roman Empire at the time, who he believes arrived fresh from putting down a bloody uprising in Holland.

However, rather than the previously-held belief that a bloody conflict ensued, Dr Woolliscroft says, scientific evidence also points to a relatively easy conquest of Scotland.

Organic remains in the native settlements show no sign of being destroyed, while farming appears to have flourished.

This is shown by the remains of pollen buried in the soil, which indicate that, soon after the Roman conquest, the numbers of weeds started to fall, suggesting cattle were grazing the land more intensely.

Dr Woolliscroft said: "You can tell from the number of weeds it was low-level grazing before the Romans arrived and afterwards more animals must have been raised, leading to more grazing. The surprise is how peaceful it all seems to be. Wherever we’ve looked, we’ve found peace, tranquillity and prosperity, which is not all what we were expecting.

"If it had been a bloody war of conquest we would have expected agriculture to go into decline because many of the farmers would have been killed, but we find it was flourishing."

Dr Woolliscroft added their research suggests that the Gask lime was built not to keep the Scottish nation at bay, but to protect their newly-found trading partners - the farmers - from roaming gangs of thieves sweeping down from the Highlands.

Wednesday, 26th February 2003

The Scotsman

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