Monday, 14 July 2014

The Helix and The Antonine Wall 1

Happy Monday to you! 
This is another post in my series about The Helix Park in central Scotland.

The Antonine Wall – Part 1

One of the features of the Helix Park is very ancient - some 2000 years old - and dates back to Roman Britain. Many of my readers will know that I’m a lover of all things to do with Roman Britain, and have been for most of my life, so I was delighted to find that access to this very old part of Central Scotland - The Antonine Wall - is available via The Helix Park. Parts of the wall have always been available to walk on but not everyone who does this knows exactly WHAT they are walking on. The publicity regarding the Helix Park makes it clear what The Antonine Wall is about.

As a child of around 7 or 8, living in north-west Glasgow, my father would take me on country walks, often towards one which he called the ‘Roman Road’. At that age, all I knew was that it was a road about a mile from my house, and a road which eventually led into really open countryside. What I didn’t appreciate back then was that it was the ‘Roman Road’ near the Roman Baths at Bearsden - a site of some significance in archaeological terms- though I'm sure my father told me what he knew about it. 

Tepidarium - Roman Baths at Bearsden -Wikimedia Commons   Attr: Stephen Sweeney

In later years, I was to learn that my ‘Roman Road’ was at the western end of a Roman military road that was constructed almost 2000 years ago. It was, in fact, part of the ‘Military Way’ which ran behind The Antonine Wall.  

So, what was The Antonine Wall?

The Antonine Wall was a turf barrier across the narrowest part of Scotland and was formed around AD 142 or AD 143, during the reign of the Roman Emperor Pius. More of this later… but first the digging of some smaller trenches, which the Roman legions were experts at creating.

Antonine Wall - Wikimedia Commons   attr: BJ Smur

My own writing has, so far, concentrated on Roman activity in Central Scotland during the period AD 71-84, about sixty years before The Antonine Wall was constructed. My novels concentrate on the era when Agricola, the Roman Governor of Britannia, was literally putting his stamp on the land across present day Central Scotland - from the River Clyde in the west, to the River Forth in the east. Agricola’s legions were probably not the first Roman feet to tramp the soil, but according to writings by Roman historians, Agricola was set to officially claim the northern Celtic lands for the Empire of Rome.

In After Whorl: Donning Double Cloaks, Book 3 of my Celtic Fervour Series, my Celtic character, Brennus, makes his way northwards avoiding Roman Marching Camps which had been created across Central Scotland, as the armies of Rome investigated the territory. Some of those temporary camps were converted into permanent fort or fortlets as Agricola set about keeping the local natives subdued, and many of those are along the line of The Antonine Wall when it was constructed some sixty years later. In my novel, as the Romans march even further north to claim more territory under Agricola, Brennus also marches north to the battle site of the inevitable confrontation between large amounts of Celtic Caledonian warriors and Roman soldiers.

The Roman Marching Camp defences were basic, but sufficient to defend themselves against attack from the natives. The design of the Marching Camps, and indeed that of the permanent forts, didn’t vary much within the whole of the Roman Empire- set patterns perhaps slightly adapted to local needs. The evidence in Central Scotland of slightly non- regular dimensions seems to bear out this theory. The main differences in camp and fort constructions were: in how many soldiers the defences had to protect, thus determining the size and contours of the boundary; in how deep any trenches were dug, depending on the possible threat from the natives; and maybe how long it was expected to be used. Often the marching camp was only used for a day, other times for a few days or weeks.

At the temporary Marching Camp, a ditch was dug, to particular and measured lengths, by an experienced group of soldiers. The excavated earth was piled up creating a rampart behind which they defended themselves. Each soldier carried a stake which was strategically placed to make the rampart even more defensible and insurmountable by the attacking natives. 

Very temporary camps had fairly shallow ditches, but the techniques employed would have been the same, I believe, when they came to create The Antonine Wall where the ditch was much deeper and the rampart much higher. More of the dimensions of the wall in part 2 of this series of posts.

I, personally, am in awe that often a legion, or part legion, of Roman soldiers was expert at building these defences within a timeframe of an hour or two after having marched for miles already that day, specialist detachments involved in the digging. On striking the camp and before marching on, the soldiers collected their stake, leaving the turf defences and ‘bread ovens’ i.e. their cooking fire pits, as evidence of them having slept there.

North of the central belt of Scotland, it appears that there were few permanent installations built during Agricolan times - meaning only a few places to remove goods and personnel from – and no permanent forts north of Aberdeen.  There are, however, a good number of temporary Marching Camps of varying sizes.

More of this in Part 2 coming soon. 

You can read a lot of exciting times regarding these Roman Camps in Books 2 and 3 of my series!

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