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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. 



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!'... 

* 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. 



( 18 comments — Leave a comment )
6th Nov, 2011 22:21 (UTC)
and probably there were less absolute barriers based on ethnicity

I have a school friend who married an extremely non-practicising Bosnian Muslim and, I guess like many europeans bewildered by how the former Yugoslavia could suddenly erupt into ethnic conflict as it did I asked him how anyone possibly knew who was bosniak, serb or croatian within Sarajevo where they had all lived for generations - especially when so many of the bosniaks were not practising muslims any more than the serbs and croatians were practising christians. Rather unhelpfully he just shrugged and said everyone knew. If I were guessing I imagine there were cultural markers which singled out which group you should be identified with, even if there were no discernible genetic differences between them and they had been living cheek-by-jowl and intermarrying for generations and I imagine the same might be true of Romans and Britons.
6th Nov, 2011 22:40 (UTC)
I was thinking less in terms of there being a visible difference between peoples, and more that Rome seems to be a culture that is quite keen to gulp down other peoples and cultures and cheerfully re-use them without a lot of prejudice, as long as they are digestible (unlike Druids). Like the way they grab gods and assimilate them. Romanisation as a deliberate policy etc. But again, since one only has the Roman viewpoint of this, it's hard to say how people felt about becoming Romanised...

That's an interesting comparison and way to think about this - thanks!
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7th Nov, 2011 19:50 (UTC)
I think when I wrote that I was trying to think how it might feel from the other side? I was thinking that there be people who saw the expanding empire as carrying out a series of grabs... Our tin, our silver, and oops, suddenly there's a temple over the pool my grandad sacrificed at and suddenly there are all these people calling the goddess Minerva...

But presumably there were also people who could see the rewards of the Roman approach? - ie, make a few small compromises, and have the benefits of new technologies and an industrialised economy - potentially also wealth and positions of authority from which the rebellious had been removed..? And those would be the Romanisers? Wrong or feasible?

I can see that from the internal Roman point of view it's not a matter of subduing the alien so much as keeping things appropriately civilised...
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8th Nov, 2011 11:43 (UTC)
Thanks! Yes, I have read it (in translation only though, I fear)... I've also had a good rummage in Cassius Dio's Roman History.

I'm not sure I've read it in a very *informed* way though, and am probably missing nuances because I don't really have much background in this period beyond what I have read in a sudden flurry of enthusiasm this year.
8th Nov, 2011 11:47 (UTC)
... good thought about the temple upkeep cost. It's easy to focus on Boudicca's personal story when reading about that particular episode, but the revolt seems so widespread that it's probably important to bear in mind all the other irritant factors.
7th Nov, 2011 02:51 (UTC)
You could call it Isca D?

This story sounds utterly fabulous, and I always love reading about your adventures in archaeology.
7th Nov, 2011 15:33 (UTC)
So I could. That is better than ID, which has annoying Freudian echoes and also makes me think of Ian Duncan Smith (minor politician often referred to as IDS).

I am fretting about the story because it starts out all Marcus Marcus Marcus, and do find Marcus hard to write and thus am overanalysing the background as a distraction. Once Esca and Cottia turn up it should get easier. I hope.
7th Nov, 2011 07:36 (UTC)
Some interesting thoughts there; which, unfortunately, I am entirely lacking in time or brain power to process right now :-(
7th Nov, 2011 15:33 (UTC)
I wish my brain would accept that sort of excuse. Bloody thing.
7th Nov, 2011 08:32 (UTC)
Oh, I love theorising about archaeology - trying to picture what would have been happening at the same time as what else, and what life would have been like... I am really looking forward to reading your story!
7th Nov, 2011 15:35 (UTC)
I love the research! so much easier than characterisation... :-D I hope it ends up working. At the moment it's at that awkward stage where there is a big pile of ingredients and I am not sure quite what order to chuck them in the cauldron...
7th Nov, 2011 16:27 (UTC)
I tend to write like that too - get it all on the page in a big pile and then stir it round until it settles down into some sort of order. (Oh, the joy of a word processor. That sort of thing is a complete pain in longhand!) You've got some wonderful ingredients there. Sounds to me as though it's going to be delicious when it's cooked...
7th Nov, 2011 21:07 (UTC)
This is all very interesting and in a way [for a non archaelogist] a little daunting! You see, I have this vague long term plan, should I ever actually have the time and energy to write an original tale, that it should feature the people who lived at our local hill fort at the time the Romans moved in. The research alone will be a major challenge!

Good luck!
7th Nov, 2011 22:09 (UTC)
To be honest, it's the research I enjoy probably as much as the writing. Not that I'm an archaeologist or a historian, but I do enjoy reading up on this stuff!

I am dreadful at original fantasy or modern setting fiction. I always seem to get 2/3rds of the way through and get stuck, whereas I've just discovered that I can actually finish historical stories because I can look at the history and archaeology as a sort of cribsheet. :-D
8th Nov, 2011 12:36 (UTC)
I can relate to that which is why fan fiction is so much easier!
8th Nov, 2011 19:51 (UTC)
Sounds like a fascinating exercise! And well worth doing. I dread to think what that mosaic looks like!
8th Nov, 2011 21:30 (UTC)
Pebbles in mud, if I remember rightly ;-)
8th Nov, 2011 22:04 (UTC)
I'm sure the pebbles in mud look is appealing in its own way...
( 18 comments — Leave a comment )

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