During this third lockdown Jan and I have been travelling around locally quite a lot for walks to visit Roman sites associated with the Antonine Wall, creating some resources for teaching. Having lived in Airdrie for 15 years, it comes as something of an embarrassment to say that I have never fully appreciated that I live, metaphorically at least, in the shadow of the Antonine Wall. This is not something that has ever impacted on my urban prehistorian activities, although on reflection it seems that there is a chronological case to be made that Roman sites should fall within my purview. After all, when the Romans were in the place that we now call Scotland, everyone else belonged to Iron Age cultural traditions. I have blogged before about Roman sites in urban contexts, notably South Shield Roman Fort Arbeia, albeit in the context of this being constructed bang on top of a prehistoric settlement site. Maybe this urban-Roman thing is an itch I now need to scratch. And so this brings me to this blog post which is more of a muse than a focused piece of writing, so please do indulge me.
The street names around South Shields – Vespasian Avenue, Julien Street – came flooding back to me on a recent visit to Bearsden on the north side of Glasgow to visit the Roman bathhouse there. We parked on Roman Road, and at the junction with Roman Drive, turned left. Then we ended up at Roman Court, just across the road from the Antonine House Care Home.
What have the Romans ever done for us? They gave us plenty of ideas for street names.
I have blogged before about the power and potential of street names to capture the archaeology of a place, although usually I have reflected on this in relation to developer-funded excavations at housing estates such as Cowie and Glenrothes. The documentation of the use of Romanised street and business names was one element of an AHRC funded project called Tales of the Frontier (2007-2009). Howard Williams has written about heritage street names too, for instance in relation to Wat’s Dyke (and see Williams 2020) so I won’t say anymore about this although it is a theme that this blog will return to from time to time.
Bearsden Roman bathhouse is a site I have seen photos of many times before but not visited. It has always struck me as the most urban of sites, with pictures almost always taken from the south showing the footings of the bathhouse with brown suburban flats looming over them, residents in the upper floors having a perpetual aerial view of this site. This is the aforementioned Roman Court, private residences which looked to me like they could have been used in a episode of Poirot. Although they are unlikely to be Christie-detective vintage if this 1979 photograph is anything to go by.
The geometrically-shaped flats seem to complement the regimented nature of the bathhouse itself, both spaces that need to be traversed in the correct order of things within the bounds of social convention. The bathhouse itself was something of a disappointment, with only occasional glimpses of the depth of remains and the hypocaust beneath. I prefered the bathhouse at Bothwellhaugh, another recent visit.
Both of these bathhouses are stranded in space and time, with the forts that once accompanied them now lost, in the case of Bearsden beneath urban sprawl, in the case of Bothwellhaugh lost to the inundation of Strathclyde Park loch. The latter was so disturbed that the whole bathhouse was dismantled and rebuilt in 1975 in a location that would not be underwater. This was Antonine but set far back from the Wall and frontier, and now sits near the entertainment complex that is M&Ds, ‘Scotland’s theme park’, a venture now lost to the Covid flood.
Another day, another bathhouse, this time in a more standard rural location at Bar Hill, albeit it with spectacular views of the Kelvin Valley that might have occupied the tired soldiers as they dis-robed and prepared for the tepidarium. This structure is barely legible compared to the others, largely succumbing to grass and HES landscaping, but with the usual series of spaces of increasing warmth present and correct. It would not be fair to say that the Romans were predictable, but the presence of Mediterranean style principal’s houses in northern Britain as at Bar Hill and Rough Castle forts does suggest something of a lack of flexibility, maybe also an unwillingness to bend to local weather conditions, the kind of stubbornness that wins you, and the loses, empires.
Bar Hill is also a site that has re-assuring quantities of concrete, setting out the floor plan of the buildings, in a way that very much reminded me of the presentation of Doon Hill Neolithic timber hall in East Lothian, two sites separated by 4,000 years but now with a shared brutal educational aesthetic.
I’m sure plenty of concrete lurks within the fabric of the bathhouse in Bearsden, holding it together, binding together the ancient and the twentieth century. There is a synchronicity between the evolving form of these Roman sites and the demands of our modern world that very much interests me, and this had led to the Antonine Wall and its accoutrements having a fleeting presence across Scotland’s central belt, whether escaping in the parks of Falkirk or popping through a crack in a cemetery in Bearsden.
And it to Bearsden we return, to some modest prehistoric activity that is located in the shadow of the Wall, but dates back thousands of years before the relatively fleeting Roman presences in Caledonia. Ahead of the construction of a modest housing development (in size, not in terms of house style) on the very eastern fringe of the town a cluster of prehistoric pits were found by GUARD Archaeology Ltd in 2017-18 and the results of this work were published in the Scottish Archaeological Journal in the early months of this year (Kirpatrick 2021).
These humble and unspectacular holes in the ground could not contrast more with the might of the Roman wall that passes through a cemetery just a few hundred metres to the north, a cemetery that appears to have been laid out in the shape of a Roman soldier’s head (or is this my imagination?). These pits barely need a formal academic journal publication and yet I am glad they have, and they are sure to be of interest to members of the Glasgow Archaeological Society, which produces this journal.
Archaeologists identified various features associated with human activity in this housing plot, which was at the time a field. This included a group of six shallow pits some of which contained decent quantities of burnt hazel nutshells. Two larger pits were found towards the northwest of the excavation area (numbers 003 and 005) up to 1.65m across and 30cm deep, and nearby a small posthole (009) was found, containing flakes of quartz and quartzite. The former may have been used as a polisher. Radiocarbon dates showed that these features belonged to the sixth to fourth millennium cal BC (late Mesolithic into early Neolithic). Environmental evidence points to a woodland setting. Here we have evidence of a few instances of occupation of this location, with the lighting of fires and preparation of food, nothing more. These are the ghosts that walked this land when the Romans arrived with their disciplined building machine over 3,000 years later, and we might speculate that during wall building operations, the soldiers disturbed similar pits and postholes, churning hazel nutshells and stone tools into the fabric of the border of the Empire, colonizing even the rubbish of the ancestors of the locals.
Of course I had to visit, and so after exploring the bathhouse, Jan and I headed up to Crieff Avenue, the incongruous name given to this development’s single road (why not Campsite Crescent or Quartz Quadrant?). Like so many new housing developments, the place did not yet look worn in, and residents watched us suspiciously as we invaded their weekend peace.
Of course there was no indication that this self-contained little suburb on the urban fringe was once a location where holes were dug, fires were lit, and leather was polished. Why should there be? Bearsden has a heritage that is dominated by the Romans, to the extent that even here there seems to be a touch of their architecture in a children’s play park set up at the centre of this development. I am sure that there is similar wooden playground furniture in a park in the centre of Kirkintilloch, noticed on another recent walk. There are certainly genuine Roman-themed playgrounds across central Scotland thanks to the World Heritage Site delivery team for the Wall, one in each of the five council areas that are straddled by this frontier. But then on Crieff Avenue there is also a wobbly thing shaped like a seal and a cluster of random boulders, so perhaps I am starting to read too much into things. This stuff starts to get to you.
Spending a brief time in this estate-within-an-estate, I confess there was little sense of pastness or heritage here. This small development has radically transformed this location to the extent that former vistas have become impossible to experience, while older neighbouring houses that once had rural views now look onto shiny new houses with butterscotch walls. The excavation images from the report and site archive offer an archival insight into what this place used to look like, how we used to live. There is no point however in bemoaning the uniformity of contemporary housing developments and playparks; I am sure in the Mesolithic one pit looked pretty much the same as any other pit.
This Bearsden visit prompted me to look back on another old urban prehistory project, my quest to find and make sense of a giant head / boat that was eventually tracked down to a scrapyard on the Clyde. During some research into this, I acquired from my parents an old programme for the 1988 Glasgow Garden Festival from my parents. This included description of Roman elements in this gargantuan garden-themed event, also on the south bank of the Clyde, namely The Antonine Garden, partially based on the Bearsden bathhouse. So far as I can tell, some of the stonework here was from the actual fort and bathhouse.
The blurb accompanying this image noted that the ‘design emphasised the transition from Roman to Pict’. Other Roman bits and pieces were included here which is nice to know, but having visited this event many times as a 15 year-old I have no memory of this whatsoever.
Weirdly, the Antonine Gardens were then transferred to near Burnbrae Roundabout in Milngavie, another posh suburb of Glasgow near Bearsden. This was the fate of many elements of the Festival which are scattered across Scotland such as the aforementioned giant head or the huge garden tools visible from the M80 at Cumbernauld. This includes a replica mini distance slab and some nifty landscaping in a place that is essentially a busy traffic intersection. The reconstruction of this replica stone-by-stone has curious echoes of the movement of the bathhouse at Bothwellhaugh.
Visiting these gardens was the final element of my lockdown walk exploration of the bathhouse and brought home to me once again how entangled these Roman places were with the local Iron Age communities. Or as the noticeboard at the ANTONIVS PIVS garden suggests, the Picts (!?). In the weird internal logic of the noticeboard on site, their territory, ‘Pict Landscape’, is now Waitrose and Aldi supermarkets and a big car park.
To visit these gardens, I left the car (and Jan) in a nearby car park for a pub and Premier Inn. These were closed, the car park empty, a victim of Lockdown 3 regulations. It was an unsettling reminder of our current reality. Yet as I walked back to the car after visiting PIVS gardens, this deserted car park made me think of the empty forts, bathhouses and fortlets that were left behind as the Romans left after their brief occupancy of this area 1800 or so years ago. They left behind them prehistory, but this emptiness was not hopeless, but rather a void within which new opportunities would emerge, focused on a better future.
Sources and acknowledgements: thanks to Jan for accompanying me on these various walks and also for allowing me the chance to contribute to her teaching despite my obvious lack of knowledge about all things Roman.
I mentioned a few citations in the text:
Williams, H 2020 Living after Offa: place-names and social memory in the Welsh Marshes. Offa’s Dyke Journal 2, 103-40.
Kilpatrick, M 2021 When Birnam Wood rises: prehistoric activity at Birnam Crescent, Bearsden, Glasgow. Scottish Archaeological Journal 43, 69-78.