2.2 Roman

Roman military intervention in Scotland has left behind a rich legacy of carved stone monuments dating from the late 1st to the early 3rd centuries AD (Keppie 1998a). The majority are formal, inscribed public monuments, made by and for non-local military personnel, or civilians operating within a military milieu. These include: stone altars (erected in fulfilment of a vow to native and non-native deities), tombstones, milestones, dedications to the Emperor, architectural pieces, and the distance slabs (of which 19 survive) carved to commemorate the completion of different sections of the Antonine Wall by various legions in AD 142–3 (Keppie 1998b; Breeze 2006). In form and decoration, most of these monuments are of a type familiar from elsewhere in the Empire, however, the Antonine Wall distance slabs are unique—nothing similar has been found on any other frontiers of the Roman Empire (Keppie 1979).

Inscriptions―in Latin and often highly abbreviated—dominate most of these monuments, and their testimony has been crucial to efforts to understand the military and religious history of the Romans in Scotland. Not all monuments are inscribed and, even those which are, frequently also feature a range of decorative motifs and classical imagery designed to convey statements about military might and religious piety. The finest are indeed splendid monuments, elaborately decorated and exhibiting very high levels of workmanship. The corpus also encompasses much humbler material, of cruder (presumably non-professional) quality. These include informal doodles and scratched inscriptions, for instance those recording work done or loads delivered on building blocks from Easter Langlee, Roxburghshire.

Scholarly interest in Scotland's Roman period carved stones dates back at least to the late 17th century, when the University of Glasgow invited landowners (many of whom were alumni) to donate Roman stones in their possession. These gifts formed the nucleus of the significant collection of Roman sculpture, particularly from the Antonine Wall, housed in the University's Hunterian museum (Keppie 1979; 2014a) (Figure 9). Although some Roman altars are still landscape features, and a few remain in private hands, the great majority of Roman carved stones are in museums. In addition to the substantial collection in the NMS, there a number of pieces in museums in Dumfries, Dundee, Perth, Melrose and Falkirk.

Figure 9: Antonine Wall distance slab from Hutcheson Hill, Bearsden (RIB 2198), commemorates work on a 3000 ft section by the Twentieth Legion in AD 142–3. Discovered in 1865 it was taken to North America in 1871 where it was destroyed by fire. It is known only from this plaster cast. H. 0.67m. Hunterian Museum. © Sally Foster

Sculpture, especially inscribed sculpture, is fully integrated into wider studies of the Romans in Scotland and has often played a crucial role (as the Antonine Wall slabs did in piecing together the making of the wall). Usually, however, Roman carved stones have been employed to answer questions arising in other fields rather than be a focus of research, generating new questions, in their own right. The predominant approaches are iconographical and epigraphical. Accounts of individual inscriptions have typically been published in specialist journals but an overview of the Scottish material is most easily gained from the standard corpora: the total of 125 inscriptions then known from Scotland were included in Collingwood and Wright's definitive corpus of Roman Inscriptions of Britain (1965), updated by Keppie (1983) to include a further 19 found between 1954 and 1983. Approximately half the total of inscribed stones are also sculptured, i.e. bear figural or abstract decoration, and these, together with a further 100 or so uninscribed sculptured stones (including architectural fragments) were published by Keppie and Arnold (1984) as fascicle 1.4 of the Corpus Signorum Imperii Romani (Corpus of Sculpture of the Roman World): Great Britain.

Figure 10: Cramond lioness. Roman funerary monument in the form of a tomb guardian lioness. Local features include the savage jaws of the creature and the fact that its prey is a captive male barbarian. Found in the vicinity of the Roman fort of Cramond, it is presumed to have marked the grave of an important dignitary stationed there. Late 2nd/early 3rd century AD. Now in the NMS. L 1.51m. © Trustees of the National Museums of Scotland

Since the publication of these corpora, new finds have continued to be made and are typically reported in the journal Britannia. Notable discoveries include the two highly accomplished altars discovered in 2011 during grave-digging in a cemetery that lies within the site of the Roman auxiliary fort at Inveresk, near Musselburgh. Surely the most spectacular recent find is the so-called 'Cramond lioness', a monolithic 'tomb guardian' found in silt at the mouth of the river Almond (Midlothian) in 1997 (Figure 10). It is a local variant of a typical Roman form but differs in depicting a bound male prisoner being devoured by a lioness. It dates to the late 2nd or early 3rd century AD and would have served as part of the tomb of a Roman military commander or dignitary, connected to the nearby Cramond Roman fort.

Monuments such as these provide firm evidence for the occupying forces of an imperial power—there is no evidence that stone carving was adopted by the local population, even though many of these monuments would have been visible to them in the landscape. Not until the 5th century does stone carving become established in Scotland. The earliest post-Roman carved stone monument from Scotland—the 5th-century Christian inscribed pillar from Whithorn, Galloway—is a product of a continuing Roman tradition lingering on in the zone around the Hadrian's Wall frontier (reflected in aspects of its lettering, spelling and layout: Forsyth 2009).

For further reading, download the Section 10.2 pdf ( 272kb).