bunn (bunn) wrote,
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Wrestlings with archaeology.

I'm trying, in what feels like roughly the 'bird files down mountain with beak' time (ie, it is taking me a long time to think about it), to write a story set about ten years after Eagle of the Ninth, in a Dumnonia that fits what we know in terms of today's archaeology.  I want to file off as much as possible of the rough edges created by the intervening 58 years since 'Eagle' was published.*

Sutcliff's Isca Dumnoniorum (Exeter) of around 129AD is a rough frontier town dominated by a fairly basic Roman fort.   There is a forum and a basilica (thank goodness, because explaining the absence of those would be tricky) , but the rest of the town is mostly roundhouses - and those got burned down during the punitive expedition after the revolt: only right at the end of the book do we hear that Isca Dumnoniorum is being rebuilt. 

  This probably feels a bit too new and full of culture clash for real Roman Exeter: the fort there was set up in AD50, so by the time Marcus got there, the fort on the Red Mount would be over 80 years old.  It was originally the Second Legion base, but they moved out in 67AD.  But I don't think there is a problem with assuming a continued presence of auxiliary troops, as in Sutcliff.  Marcus should probably have noticed his men rattling around a bit more in a fort that was originally built to house a legion, but perhaps as the fort has presumably been manned by auxiliaries for the last 40-odd years, the mothballed bits of it are tucked away and the working centre of the fort still operates normally. 

 People around Isca Dumnoniorum (henceforth: ID**) had been living with Romans for several generations. The time when the fort was built would be outside of living memory.  Sutcliff  leaves out the city wall, which would definitely have made life difficult for the chariot charge in which Marcus was wounded, and the bath-house, (but I think I can assume that the bath-house is just not mentioned). 

Fortunately, the building of the city wall doesn't seem to be precisely dated.  It is from around 120AD-ish, but there is wiggle room.  I'm therefore choosing to assume that the city wall was put up at the time when Sutcliff says ID was re-built.  Because, if Dumnonia suddenly turns out to be more rebellious than previously thought, then it would be a logical reaction, when rebuilding the town, to put a wall around it this time so it is less vulnerable in future. 

I find this quite a difficult situation to think myself into : a culture that has been living with a very alien occupying power for 80 years,  absorbing parts of it, no doubt trying to ignore other parts unless forced to confront them - and very little evidence about what the occupied thought of it all (there is evidence from Romans, of course -  but that only gives you one viewpoint).  

But it's not, for example, a situation comparable with early American history, because for one thing the power imbalance is more extreme (and no disease element), and for another thing the occupation is quite different : the Romans mostly don't seem to want British land (do they?), they want resources and security from attack -  and they seem to be quite happy to work with the locals to get that.  Maybe more like early British India, only, again, the military presence and the sheer impact of Roman technology seems more overwhelming, and probably there were less absolute barriers based on ethnicity.  Basically, comparative history : unhelpful. 

ID in Sutcliff is a frontier fort, but in reality it wasn't the westernmost extent of Roman endeavour in Britain by a long way. There are milestones West right down to Lands End, finds all over the place, and another, so far nameless Roman town a short distance West of Exeter.

 A couple of weeks ago I went to see our local Roman fort, which was dug up (to everyone's great surprise) in Calstock a couple of years ago, on a hill looking out over the Tamar, right on the Cornish border.   It is probably the Tamaris fort that was previously thought to have been somewhere further downstream. 

It was a BIG place - staffed by a double cohort of auxiliaries, or so the volunteer who told me about it said.    The shape of the fort was, a little unusually, square, rather than playing card shaped.  The river (which is wide, tidal and navigable now, and presumably was then too)  runs along the valley beyond the house in the distance, and makes a loop around the fort on the left, out of shot.  So this is a promontory, almost enclosed by the river on three sides. 

Those red striped poles mark out  part of the border, which went way over beyond the hedge on the right (you can just see the other poles if you peer!)   


Fort went way behind where I was standing and right around what is now the church - behind the church the land falls down to the river again.   Photo below shows the view looking roughly North, and the photo above, view South from the same spot, so I was standing on the Eastern edge of it, but roughly in the middle North / South. 



I was rather hoping that this fort would turn out to date to around the same period as the Exeter city walls or a little later, because that would fit in beautifully with both the book and my story idea, but no.  

They found what I can only describe as a Samianware teacup (OK, it wasn't a teacup.  But it looked like one!), plus various other bits of pottery that are quite definitely FIRST century, not second.   

My original idea was that the building of the ID city walls coincided with a (fictional) increased Roman mining activity in the land West of ID.  This would set up a nice tense situation for me to set a story in, with the locals being elbowed out of the way, and the Romans moving in in force.   The valley side opposite in the first photo has apparently got a seam of lead and silver running through it, which could fit in with that.  

We don't know if the Romans mined  this particular seam or not, because loads of people have been mining it like mad ever since, thus helpfully removing all evidence of earlier mining.  But they certainly could have done, and if they had - well, silver is valuable.

The area just near the fort was swimming in copper and tin as well, which they definitely did know about and is probably what they were doing here, because, here is an excavation with a bowl furnace in it. 


This dig was to see if there was a road going East out of the fort towards the river. They didn't find one, but I understand the next plan is to check the river itself for any signs of Roman activity.  The fort is up on the hillside, but everyone who has mined this area ever since has used the river as a way to get things quickly in and out, and there seems no reason to suppose the Romans would not have done the same. 

So far they have found nothing that is clearly second century on this particular site - only first - but they might find some second century stuff once they start really looking at the finds.    So, now I need to account for a more significant Roman presence considerably earlier than I'd originally thought, and for the problem that when Marcus is defending Isca Dumnoniorum, Sutcliff thinks that there wasn't much going on West of there. 

There are second century finds not far away - there was a glass intaglio, probably 175-220ish, and a coin of Aurelian, 160-180.  Though, unlike a whopping great big fort, those are both small portable things that could just have been traded into the area - and they are at least 20 years after my story, which after all is a long time. 

On the whole, I think there is enough Roman evidence to make it unlikely that the whole Dumnonian peninsula was evacuated after the first century.   There's even a villa down in  Illogan, near Camborne on the North coast, although having seen the so-called 'mosaic' that was found there, I'm not entirely convinced that villa is really the right world.  It makes the marvellous wolf from Leeds look incredibly sophisticated.  And it has no hypocaust! 

So, I'm thinking that in the first century AD, I shall assume a Roman tin-mining presence, perhaps run by the Second Augusta Legion at ID.  But they don't know about the silver, and by the second century, they have *mostly* pulled out.  

So, when Sutcliff has Marcus arrives in ID with his lads,  the situation is as described in Eagle of the Ninth - the forts West of ID have been deserted for the best part of 40 years, there is perhaps a little tin being dug and traded by locals, but no major occupation.   Mines and buildings are taken by the wild very fast in the West, where it is warm and damp and if it isn't foggy or raining or dewy, it soon will be.  So it looks and feels more or less empty.   This should actually make it easier for me to write, because the country as I know it is all covered in centuries of grown-over mining scars.

And then I can have a good dramatic re-occupation, perhaps prompted by the discovery of silver,  around 140 AD, which will be just right for the idea I had in mind to make Marcus go back into Dumnonia, and will also fit in nicely with the evidence of later Roman presence in Dumnonia. 

Hurray. 

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I had a wibble that I was going to end up overstating the Roman presence, which most of the books say is minimal.
But, I'm convinced that a lot of the 'no Roman stuff' expectation is  because it's 'common knowledge' that there is nothing Roman West of Exeter. 
When you start looking at what is being found -  in the last few years, we've got a new Roman town in Devon, two new forts in Cornwall (Calstock and Lostwithiel) to add to Restormel and Bodmin and all the Devon fortlets, plus there are coins, brooches, pots, probable trading posts such as Ictis - and all this in an area where people have spent the intervening 1800 years burrowing around like giant greedy moles for silver, lead, tin, copper, china clay, arsenic, gravel... you name it, people have been digging it out and dumping their spoilheaps everywhere.  Most of the bits that aren't covered in spoilheap are moorland, thus increasing the likelihood that earlier remnants are covered up - and yet, there are really quite a few finds once you start counting them. 

None of it is exciting looking expensive stuff, but then in an exploited mining area, you wouldn't *expect* expensive high quality things.  Most of the 19th century mining remains that litter Devon and Cornwall  are pretty rough and primitive looking too.   The fact that some rich people are making money out of mining does not mean that mining areas are inevitably filled with luxury and decoration.  Look at South Wales. 

And yet... every news story about a new Roman thing found in the Southwest goes 'Shock!  we thought the Romans stayed East of Exeter!'... 

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* Before you ask, no, I don't know why I am doing this.  Apparently my brain has decided this is what it does now?  I sometimes think it only takes me along for company. 
me: 'BRAIN? What are you doing NOW?' 
brain:  'Ssssh, I am busy thinking about adventures!  archaeology!  adoption of dogs!   Other things beginning with A!   Make me some coffee and then make soothing noises or something'. 

** I keep wanting to call Isca Dumnoniorum  'Isca' but that's wrong because the main Second Legion Isca is the one up in Wales.  ID is a sort of secondary Isca, so I need to keep the D in there.  But Dumnoniorum is such a ridiculously long word!   And annoyingly hard to type. 

 
Tags: cornwall, eagle, history
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