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BRIBING THE BARBARIANS:

Excavations at Birnie and the impact of Rome on the Highlands

by Dr Fraser Hunter (from Electric Scotland 2005)


   As part of Highland Archaeology Week programme, Inverness Field Club invited Dr Fraser Hunter of the National Museums of Scotland, Edinburgh as Director of the excavations at Birnie, Elgin over the last few years to present this special annual lecture. His colleague, Mr John Wood, formerly Senior Archaeologist with Highland Council, now freelancing as Consultant set the scene relating to the Romans in the North -  Scotland being on the frontier of the massive Roman empire for 400 years, and introduced the speaker. Dr Hunter said he would address the question of Romans in Scotland, particularly in the part of Scotland they never conquered; from the time of Agricola 79-84 AD who campaigned up to somewhere near Inverness to the time of the Emperor Septimius Severus 208 who led the last invasion of Scotland.


  In 1999, ten coins were found, so in 2000 they put in a trench at this point. Another eleven coins and pieces of pottery were the clues to a hoard of 315 denarii, equal to a year's pay for a soldier, found buried in the heart of the settlement. It dated to 197, ten years before Emperor Severus invaded. One coin had a fingerprint on it; another was fake lead with silver foil over it. The hoard was in a pot, lined with bracken, a whole range of material was preserved, including a leather pouch, a very rare occurrence.

In 2001 excavations found the top of a pot - another hoard of Roman coins - 310 coins buried in two leather pouches with knot surviving, dated to 193, four years earlier than the other hoard. Dr Hunter saw this as representing a series of regular offerings, bribes or gifts. The hoards date to a decade before Severus invaded - were the Caledonian tribes causing trouble on the frontier?


Emperor Severus crossed the Forth, and may have campaigned up to the Moray Firth but his campaign was not much of a success. Emperor Severus died at York in 211; the Roman propaganda recorded success - his monument showed the first depiction of tartan trousers - Caledonian fashion 2000 years ago!


The Birnie finds are not unique - silver hoards are found elsewhere - at Nairn, Deskford, perhaps at Tain sands - the trace of Roman diplomacy archaeology tells us about. These hoards do not stand alone but are part of a pattern which stretches from Ireland to the Black Sea, right across barbarian Europe. Strong local chieftains were being bribed; at Birnie the whole drama is revealed indicating what was happening was on European scale - that is the importance of Birnie.


What use were denarii around the Moray Firth? There was no money economy in the Iron Age.


Dr Hunter is of the view the coins were for a special purpose, not for melting down (to make jewellery), but stuff to show off, sealing alliances, hiring mercenaries, making votive gifts to gods, similar to the earliest Celtic coinage in Europe. Why were they buried? -<wbr> to keep safe using the earth as a temple, as offering to gods?  Looking at the wide picture, Roman finds have been made in the area from Strathmore to Shetland, Skye to Peterhead; there was no Roman Settlement, but no part of Scotland was left untouched. Romans have been around but not waging war. The main use was as status goods; all over the Empire -<wbr> Germany, Denmark, Poland burials have been found, for instance with wine-<wbr>serving items. Burials show wealth but in Scotland they did not bury their dead.

Dr Hunter examined the evidence of finds from beyond the frontier looking especially at Birnie. In 1966 Roman coins (denari) were found at Birnie, which was a long way north of the Roman frontier in Scotland. An aerial photograph in 1980s showed a settlement site with pits, postholes and marks of round houses. Our  speaker wanted to research the connection between the coins and the settlement. With funding from the National Museum and Historic Scotland, and with responsible metal detecting by Hamish Stewart, the dig was commenced. They found many prehistoric round houses - big impressive houses - and began to disentangle the history of the settlement with a stock enclosure and workshops - a busy, bustling site. - Finds included querns for grinding grain, whetstone for sharpening implements and jewellery such as glass beads. There was evidence that it was an important site; part of a sword, indicating a warrior people of importance; a crucible for melting bronze and a bellows shield; and this year, part of a chariot, a rein-ring.

This was not local, showing the group were in contact with other Iron Age groups. They also had links with the Romans as shown by top of the range brooches decorated with enamel or silver, and a fragment from a high status box or piece of furniture; the Birnie 'budgie', one inch high lovely piece of enamelling with the eyes, feathers and webbing of feet all showing.


Photos: Elgin Museum Display

Village of Birnie