RGP Annual Report 2001

From the field archaeologist’s perspective, as for those engaged in farming and other rural activities, the year 2001 was dominated by the effects of the terrible foot and mouth outbreak which ravaged the British countryside until well into the autumn. The epidemic led to the slaughter of literally millions of farm animals and its economic effects may never be fully calculable. The Gask Project was far from immune to this catastrophe. We had two excavations planned for the year and it was immediately apparent that the disease would have a serious impact on the work. Both of the excavations were on Scheduled Ancient Monuments and the first, an April study of the temporary camp (or camps) at the Roman fort of Bochastle, had to be cancelled almost at once when Historic Scotland let it be known that they would not be granting consent for work on any rural sites until the situation became clearer.

The second excavation was to have been the third and final season at our native site at East Coldoch, near Doune, and was planned for the University summer vacation. As the end of the academic year approached, northern Scotland, including the whole of the Gask Project’s study area, still remained mercifully free of the disease and some signs began to emerge that it was starting to come under some degree of control elsewhere. As a result, both the farmer and Historic Scotland informed us that they were prepared to take the risk and allow the work to proceed. At the same time, however, we had been conducting informal consultations with the Scottish branch of the National Farmers Union and the Ministry of Agriculture and both bodies made it clear that whilst they had no power to prevent our work, they would much prefer that we stayed away, especially since our base area in Cheshire and Greater Manchester had been infected and we would have to travel through the most seriously affected region (Cumbria) in order to reach the site. This left us with a difficult decision, especially since by that time the complex logistics of organising finance, a dig crew and equipment had already been done, but ultimately we were very aware that we could not afford to take even the slightest risk with either the Project’s good name or with other people’s livelihoods. The risk of our own activities spreading the disease was almost certainly minimal but, under the circumstances, there was no room for complacency and events elsewhere had shown only too clearly how quickly the infection could devastate a region once it took hold. We were also planning to dig in a stock field on one farm, whilst camping on a second farm, which would inevitably add to the danger. Ideally, we would have preferred to put off the decision until the last possible moment and wait on events, but we also had a duty to our student volunteers. Many of these had compulsory fieldwork quotas to fulfil for their degree courses and so needed time to make alternative arrangements with urban excavations if the East Coldoch work was cancelled. With great reluctance, therefore, the decision was taken, at the start of June, to defer the excavation until 2002 and, as a result, the Project has not dug this year.


Cardean Roman fort
Only one aspect of our 2001 surface program was able to survive the foot and mouth outbreak: a large scale survey of the Roman fort of Cardean and its environs. The site lies on a promontory at the confluence of the Rivers Isla and Dean Water, near Meigle and the field is almost permanently in arable cultivation. This meant that, so long as proper precautions were taken, there seemed to be no danger of infection being caused.

The Project’s Deputy Director, Dr Hoffmann, who led the work, is currently on sabbatical from her University post to publish a report on Professor A.S. Robertson’s ten years of excavations at the fort in the 1960s and 70s. During the preparations for this work, a number of problems had arisen. Firstly it seemed to be impossible to accurately map the considerable air photographic evidence for the site onto even the largest scale OS maps, or to reconcile it with the trench location data preserved in the excavation records. There was also a certain amount of rather enigmatic information from both the excavation notes and earlier antiquarian reports relating to structures which had not been excavated and about which we wished to know more. Geophysical prospecting was chosen as the most cost effective and non destructive method of obtaining further information over the whole of such a large site.

The Gask Project has long believed in large scale geophysical surveys and past seasons have seen grids of over 1 ha in area being covered at both East Coldoch and Strageath. The operation at Cardean, however, was very much larger than anything we have attempted before: a resistivity survey of 7.3 ha (73,000 m2), with readings taken every square metre. This area was somewhat larger than we had expected to achieve in the time available, indeed it is probably the largest geophysical survey ever undertaken in northern Scotland, and the results obtained were superb. The computer plots reveal the entire ditch system of the fort itself (except for a small area at the south-west corner which has been eroded away by the Dean Water) and show it to be more complex than previous evidence had suggested, with up to six ditches appearing on the southern side. All four gates were visible, along with parts of the internal street system, and a number of other internal features, such as rampart ovens, were detected. This means that we finally have an accurate plan of the site (which differs noticeably from any previous attempt). The fort was known from air photography to have two substantial external annexes, one each to the south and west, and parts of both were also covered by the survey. The southern annex would seem to have significantly heavier defences than the western, but no internal structures were discovered in either.

The fort ditches also suggest a more complex developmental history than had been expected. Until now the site had only been thought to have had a very brief occupation (perhaps 18 months), under the Emperor Domitian in the mid 80’s AD. The geophysical results, however, add to an expanding body of evidence to suggest that the fort had two building phases, and thus a rather longer occupation. This pattern fits well with the results of excavations by ourselves and others on a growing number of other first century sites in the area. It also complements studies by Shotter, Caruana and Dr Hoffmann herself, on (respectively) the coins, pottery and glass from the north, which are beginning to suggest a Roman presence in Scotland from the early 70’s AD, almost a decade earlier than had previously been thought possible.

Whilst the Roman installation was the primary object of study, extensive evidence was revealed for other periods. The Project is always keen to study signs of Roman/native interaction and this seemed to be a particularly good opportunity, for antiquarian accounts place a souterrain on the site, and Iron Age native pottery was found during the Robertson excavations. It came as no surprise, therefore, that the survey also produced evidence for Iron Age occupation, although we had not been expecting quite such intensive activity. The souterrain itself was not located and may lie a little to the east of the survey boundary, but the remains of numerous pits and roundhouses were detected over an area of several acres to the north and west of the fort. One group of round houses, in particular, appeared to have been cut by the fort’s western ditch and, although we do not yet have the dating evidence necessary to say more, future excavations might be able to gauge whether the fort merely occupied the site of an abandoned native settlement, or forced the relocation of a living population.

There were also signs of post-Roman activity in the form of a large rectangular enclosure inside the fort (with rigg and furrow cultivation to its west) which may be the late Medieval settlement shown on the maps of T.Pont. The enclosure itself was cut by the track of an 18th century road, which was already known to cross the site, and which has now been accurately traced running through the west gate of the Roman fort towards the old Bridge of Dean in the grounds of Cardean Mill.

The precise surveying needed to lay out a resistivity grid of this size also solved the long standing mapping problem on the site by revealing a major error in the Ordnance Survey, which has made the field appear a full 25m larger from north to south than it actually is. This explains why it has proved so difficult to rectify air photographic images of the site and also accounts for the problems with the excavation survey data, since some of the trenches were laid out with reference to the northern boundary whilst others were laid out from the south. Time did not allow us to conduct our own full survey of the field boundary and contours, but the RCAHMS is currently considering undertaking the work and it is to be hoped that future studies can be based on far sounder geographical data.

In addition to the geophysical survey, two additional exercises were run, both of which were undertaken in co-operation with the Field Archaeology Group of the Perthshire Society of Natural Science, led by Irene Hallyburton. The first was a fieldwalking survey. This was conducted in less than ideal conditions, in heavy rain with the field in stubble and did not recover Roman or Iron Age artefacts, but it did locate further evidence of 18th century activity on the site, including a concentration of burnt brick which may represent some form of settlement.

The final operation was a metal detector survey. In Prof Robertson’s field notes passing reference is made to a fabrica/workshop area. This does not appear among the excavated structures but has to be assumed on the basis of high concentrations of metal and possible glass working waste among the backfill of the fort ditches. It seemed reasonable that a metal-detector might search for concentrations of metal signatures (‘bleeps’) which should give a clue to the site of any such workshop. Transects of the site were thus scanned and the location of the metal detector signals recorded with GPS. To verify the nature of a sample of the ‘bleeps’ this work was then followed up with localised explorations of the plough soil to a maximum depth of 6 in (the average depth of the plough soil in the 1970s excavations was 8-10 in), ensuring that intact archaeological deposits should not be disturbed. This exploration had the added benefit of recovering unstratified material which would otherwise be destroyed by ploughing. Natural magnetic disturbances within the rock and sand drift geology frustrated the original aim by masking everything except relatively strong metal signals (and also ruled out a magnetometer survey). There were, however, areas with a high concentration of heat deformed lead on the western promontory. The rest of the fort tended to be saturated with 18th – 20th century metallic agricultural waste (e.g. tractor parts, sheet metal fragments, a padlock etc). The only exceptions were two Roman coins, which have been provisionally identified by Dr David Shotter as ‘early Vespasianic’ and ‘Vespasianic’ (i.e. from the 70s AD). This sits well with the coins recovered from the excavations, all of which are pre-Domitianic, and again militates towards a longer occupation and an earlier foundation date for the fort than had been assumed hitherto. A re-evaluation of the excavation evidence, especially that concerning the one barrack and granary dug, bears out this evidence by suggesting that both structures had been completely rebuilt at some point during the fort’s period of use, which again suggests a longer operational life.

The survey appeared to stimulate a great deal of interest in the area and quite a number of local people visited the site or helped with the work. The full results will be published as part of the excavation report.

Air Photography
Foot and mouth disease may have made 2001 a frustrating year for surface archaeology, but the crop conditions in Perthshire and Angus brought the best air photographic season for a decade. As a result the Project flew twice as many hours as last year and took over 1,000 photographs, recording numerous sites, mostly of prehistoric and Roman date. In all, five flights were made at intervals through the main crop mark period, of which four were conventional low level survey flights with the Director as photographer. The work covered Strathmore, the glenblocker forts and, most of all, the Gask system itself.

In Strathmore most of the numerous temporary camps were showing well and, in particular, parts of Lintrose camp were showing with unprecedented clarity. The more permanent Roman installations were also clearly visible with Cargill fort and fortlet, Inverquharity fort and especially Cardean yielding useful results. Only Stracathro fort failed to show clearly, although good views the site’s temporary camp and native settlement were obtained. Other native sites were also recorded, including a number of superb views of the newly excavated souterrain at Shanzie, and what may be a wholly new Neolithic cursus near Coupar Angus.

On the glenblocker line, Dalginross fort was even more clearly visible than in 2000, and particularly good pictures were obtained of the small annex projecting from the inner fort, which we now suspect to be the 1st century installation. Many of the other permanent sites were in pasture and so not responsive, but again a number of native enclosures and Roman temporary camps were recorded.

The Gask itself also provided a far greater range of information than last year, with more of the temporary works showing and with the fort of Bertha visible for the first time in the Project’s history. Perhaps the greatest interest, however, was caused by an extremely faint ring ditch visible some 300m to the south of Huntingtower Castle (Perth), which just might be another Gask watchtower. If so, it would be the northernmost example yet discovered and would bring the tower line still closer to the Tay crossing at Bertha. Further work will be needed before the site can be identified with any certainty, however, and it is to be hoped that a geophysical survey can be conducted in the near future.

The fifth and final flight carried the Deputy Director as photographer and was initially intended as a short higher level reconnaissance of the area surrounding Cardean, to provide contextual data and photographs for the site report. Conditions on the day, however, made it still more useful, for torrential rain over the preceding 48 hours had caused heavy unseasonable flooding of the River Isla. The Project has long been interested in the flood plains of the region’s major rivers, for the simple reason that they should provide a guide to areas where we should not expect significant Iron Age settlement. The flight thus provided a valuable opportunity to record the flood patterns in detail and a subsequent correlation between this data and known archaeological sites in the Isla valley showed that many prehistoric settlements were carefully sited so as to be as close as possible to the water, whilst staying safely above flood level. This survey is also now helping to inform attempts to reconstruct the natural environment around the fort in the Roman/late Iron Age period by helping us to define the likely course of the river before the regulation work of the 18th and 19th centuries. In particular, the flood revealed an old arm of the Isla that flows right at the base of the northern front of the Cardean promontory and it is interesting to speculate whether this may have been the active channel in Roman times. This line apparently floods so frequently that the farmer has effectively abandoned farming the relevant part of the field. In addition local knowledge has it that even today the Isla is seasonally navigable for flat bottomed boats as far up as Balbirnie, upstream of Cardean. This raises the possibility that the forts of Bertha, Inchtuthil, Cargill and Cardean may originally have used the Isla and Tay as their main arteries of transport and communication, with the old arm providing a convenient landing point at Cardean. If so, this may help to explain the apparent absence of Roman roads in Strathmore outside the immediate Inchtuthil area.

The flight also revealed a number of other features including what might be the remains of a Hanoverian fortification at Kinclaven just west of the Tay/Isla confluence, although again follow up work on the surface will be needed in the post foot and mouth era before this identification can be tested.

All five flights were made from Scone airfield, and we are again extremely grateful to Bill Fuller for volunteering his services as pilot. As before, Mr Fuller’s expertise and professionalism allowed the maximum value to be gained from each hour of flying time. The air photographs are currently being indexed and digitised, and a double CD-R will be produced shortly to allow for their distribution to other interested bodies.

Desk Assessments and Collaborations
The Gask Project has again been able to work with a number of specialists and other workers during the year to gain additional information from both our own expeditions and those of others.

Roman Roads
The Project has continued to co-operate with Roman road hunters Dr T.M. Allan (Aberdeen) and Dr D. Simpson (Stirling). As in previous years, their advice was of great help in planning some of the details of our Air observations and they will hopefully be able to conduct follow up surface work armed with digitised versions of our air photographs.

The Ancient Environment
We have now received the final report from Dr S. Ramsay (University of Glasgow) on the environmental samples taken during last year’s ditch section at the Gask tower of Peel. This has added one extremely valuable piece of information to the picture we already had because a comparison of the pollen extracted from the Roman period ditch silts with that from dumped turf from the tower’s internal rampart (which should represent the turf growing when the Romans first arrived) has shown that farming intensified during the occupation. The landscape continued to be open and virtually treeless, and the agrarian economy continued to be based wholly on pastoralism, with no sign of cereal cultivation, but the weed species represented suggest that grazing levels increased noticeably. This provides at least a localised answer to an important question concerning Roman/native relations. It has long seemed likely that the Roman incursion would have had one of two diametrically opposed effects on the native economy. On the one hand, the disruption caused by the invasion itself could have caused a decline in agriculture, as a result of war casualties and starvation due to the destruction and/or expropriation of agricultural produce. On the other hand, the arrival of a large garrison force might have applied a significant stimulus, thanks to the Roman army’s huge logistical needs. It seems likely that the army would have wished to satisfy as many as possible of its requirements locally, through taxation in kind and/or market mechanisms, and its demand for food, draught animals and products such as leather and wool would have been enormous. The results from Peel have finally allowed us to say that the stimulus could outweigh the effects of disruption, although we will need to obtain similar results from other sites before we can begin to gauge whether or not this is typical.

The Project has also received reports from both Dr Ramsay and Ms J. Huntley (University of Durham) on (respectively) the pollen samples and floatation bulk samples gathered last summer at East Coldoch. Taken together, these reports provide a wealth of detail and show that this slightly more southerly site also had a similar open, grazed landscape to that on the Gask itself. One point, however, was of particular interest for, although the site produced plentiful quantities of carbonised food grains, there was no trace whatever of cereal pollen. This means that the grain was not grown on or near the site and so may show that Iron Age societies traded in bulk goods, albeit we have no indication, as yet, of the distances involved.

Peel fieldwalking
Gamekeeper, Mr B. McIntosh, has very kindly sent us a collection of ceramic material picked up on the fields surrounding the Gask tower of Peel. This has been analysed by Alex Croom (Tyne and Wear Museums) and, although most of the finds are early modern in date, one extremely interesting discovery was a sherd of mid to late third century Roman pottery. This appears to show that Roman material was still reaching the area in a period during which there was no known Roman military activity, and presumably points to native settlement in the vicinity.

Archive Work
Since its foundation, the Project has been involved in tracing and publishing earlier work in our study area, whose original instigators were, for whatever reason, unable to publish their results themselves. This has continued in 2001. The Deputy Director has just completed a report on the glass finds from 19th and early 20th century studies at Ardoch, Bertha and the legionary fortress of Inchtuthil, which have been traced in the National Museum of Scotland. She also continues to track down material pertaining to the Cardean excavations and we are extremely grateful to Prof J. Robertson for locating significant quantities of finds, notes and soil samples which we had thought lost, and to a number of the original excavation crew who have looked out site photographs and diaries or shared their memories with us.

Some years ago we excavated the Gask tower of Shielhill South and published our own results along with those of an earlier, smaller scale, excavation by the late Prof J.K. St.Joseph. St.Joseph reported finding a piece of pottery on the site which he described as “native” and his field notes suggested that this might show that the Roman army was making use of local ceramic products. At the time of our own work the piece could not be located and no more detailed report was available, but the sherd has now been traced in the National Museum of Scotland and our new Project Prehistorian has produced a report identifying it as late Bronze Age or early Iron Age. The piece is thus presumably residual on the site and not connected with the Roman occupation.

Past air photographs also continue to come to light and the Director has had access this year to the collection of the late Prof G.D.B. Jones which is yielding useful material, including another image of our possible new Gask tower at Huntingtower.

Publications and Publicity
2001 has seen the publication of a number of Gask Project reports. In addition to our usual short notes in “Britannia” and “DES”, a substantial interim report on the Project’s work appeared in N.J. Higham’s book “Archaeology of the Roman Empire”. The report on our excavations at the Gask tower of West Mains of Huntingtower should appear in PSAS at the end of the year and a paper entitled “More thoughts on why the Romans failed to conquer Scotland” was published in SAJ. In addition, a substantial update has just been sent to our Web Master, Peter Green, and should soon appear on line. This update includes a new departure, for increases in hard disc sizes and Internet bandwidth are finally allowing us to put parts of our air photo collection on line. Only a selection is being included for now but, hopefully, this should increase the site’s usefulness to students and other interested parties.

The abandonment of so much fieldwork in 2001, thanks to foot and mouth disease, did at least free up a great deal of time to allow us to write. In particular, the Director has completed three books during the year, two of which have now been published. The first was the monograph on the Project’s results commissioned by the Tayside & Fife Archaeological Committee. This had been due in at the end of 2000, but was delayed slightly thanks to the failure of a third party author to produce a promised chapter, which meant that additional material had to be produced in house. It was finally submitted in January and is due to appear next spring as TAFAC Monograph No’ 4. In addition, the Director produced two books which, although not primarily about the Gask, contain sections on it. These were “Roman Military Signalling” and “Hadrian’s Wall from the air” (the latter co-written with Prof Barri Jones) both of which are now published by Tempus. As already mentioned, the Deputy Director is currently on a sabbatical from her University post and is working full time on the preparation of what will be a book length report on the Roman fort of Cardean. She has also produced a paper for PSAS during the year, entitled “Roman Glass from Perthshire”.

In addition to paper and electronic publications, Project members have continued to give lectures to a variety of academic, student and amateur bodies. The Director has given talks on the Gask to the Stirling Archaeological Society, the Dunkeld Historical Society, the Antonine Guard and the Strathearn Archaeological Conference, along with our annual talk for the Perth “Doors Open” day, and the Director and Deputy Director delivered a joint paper to the Roman Archaeological Conference (held in Glasgow). The Deputy Director gave papers on Glass in the north and on Tacitus’ “Agricola” to (respectively) the Glass Association conference (held in New York) and the Theoretical Archaeology Conference (held in Dublin). Both of these papers will be published as part of the conference proceedings volumes and she has also given papers on the Cardean survey to both the Roman Northern Frontier Seminar and the TAFAC conference. The paper on the “Agricola” is of particular importance for the future of Roman studies in Scotland and Dr Hoffmann intends to develop it into a book. Almost the entire historical narrative for the first century invasion currently depends on Tacitus’ account, but work by ourselves and others is increasingly revealing major problems, which cast serious doubts on its reliability.

Lastly, the Project was given a seat on the Scottish Archaeological Air Photographic Committee during the course of the year. The Director’s TV appearance on “What the Romans did for us” was repeated and our civilian expert, Dr N.J. Lockett, completed his report on our geophysical survey of the annexes of Strageath Roman fort.

Sponsorship and Acknowledgements
The Project continues to be sponsored by the Perth & Kinross Heritage Trust, whose support has been both indispensable and deeply appreciated. In 2001, the Trust funded our air photographic flying program, the purchase of additional air photographs and almost all of our specialist reports for sites other than Cardean.

In addition to this long term funding, we must also express our gratitude to Historic Scotland who are funding the Deputy Director’s sabbatical, and who have also been kind enough to fund the Cardean geophysical survey, some finds conservation work and a number of specialist reports vital to the completion of the site report. Our long standing corporate sponsor (which continues to insist on anonymity) has again provided material support in the form of an indefinite loan of a state of the art laptop PC, to replace an older model (also on loan from them) which expired during the year. This new machine has been a revelation, for as well as being over ten times more powerful than its predecessor, which was of great help during the field processing of the Cardean geophysical data, a more than 60 fold increase in hard disc capacity meant that it is now possible to take the Project’s entire data base into the field, including our considerable photo archive.

The Project continues to owe thanks to Stirling based doctor and amateur archaeologist Dr David Simpson, who has again made himself available to provide medical services during our fieldwork, and to Frazer Hunter who has been of enormous help in tracking down small finds and other material in the National Museum of Scotland. Douglas Wares of Cardean Mill provided wonderful bed and breakfast accommodation and a great deal of other help during the Cardean survey and, as always, we are more than grateful for the help of our many field volunteers and to the farmers and land owners who have allowed us access to sites, sometimes for weeks at a time.

The Gask Project has had one change of personnel during the year and we welcome Catherine McGill (University of Edinburgh) as our new Project Prehistorian. We also congratulate our founder member and Roman civilian expert, Neil Lockett (Worcestershire Archaeological Service), for passing his Ph.D viva.

The Future
2002 should be another busy year for the Project with a number of ventures in preparation. In the field (assuming no recurrence of foot and mouth), the most important activities will be the completion of the delayed operations originally scheduled for 2001, i.e. the third excavation season at East Coldoch and an investigation of the Bochastle temporary camp. The success of our vast resistivity survey at Cardean has confirmed that we are able to scan entire Roman fort complexes in a reasonable time and, if funds can be raised, we are hoping to conduct similar surveys at other forts in the area. There are a number of large Roman military installations in Northern Scotland which remain virtually untouched by archaeology, and surveys of sites such as Malling, Cargill and Bertha would be extremely valuable. One fort that we would particularly like to investigate is Inverquharity and it is be hoped that work may be possible there in the coming year. Our air photographic program will continue and we should also now be able to follow up on the results of the last two flying seasons by carrying out geophysical work at our two new putative Gask towers at Crosshill and Huntingtower.

On the publication side, the Gask monograph should be published in the spring; the Cardean report is scheduled to be completed by early autumn and the Project has been asked to produce an article on the Gask for Scotland’s new history magazine, “History Scotland”. The Deputy Director is planning a paper on the use of Gask period Roman artefacts on native sites and, in particular, their appearance in votive contexts (e.g. Stormont Loch), and the Web site will continue to be kept up to date.

Finally, public lectures by the Director have already been booked by Liverpool Archaeology Society and Innerpeffray Library, whilst the Deputy Director has contracted to give a two day school on Roman Scotland for the University of Manchester and a talk on Cardean for the 2002 Perth “Doors Open” day. Other such lectures will no doubt be scheduled as the year progresses.

Dr D.J. Woolliscroft.
Director Roman Gask Project

A long term research project to study the Romans north of the Antonine Wall