For most people, decolonial narratives are largely confined to the world of academics and cultural organisations getting on and doing this good work, except when government ministers and journalists decide to make a scary anti-woke fuss about it. However, in spring 2021, as we emerged from yet another lockdown, a carved critique of familiar colonial narratives was erected on a pavement in the centre of Falkirk, a statement in stone aimed at giving back agency to Iron Age people who once lived in this area. This public display of ‘flipping the script on colonial narratives’ as Louisa Campbell has so memorably put it has the power to open up new conversations about both Roman and ‘native’ relations, although there are problematic aspects of this new Antonine Wall distance sculpture that I want to reflect on here.
This political carved stone – a newly created distance sculpture for the Antonine Wall – was installed in central Scottish town Falkirk as part of the Rediscovering the Antonine Wall Project which is delivering a programme of instillations across the five council areas in central Scotland that the Antonine Wall traverses – from west to east, West Dunbartonshire, Glasgow, East Dunbartonshire, North Lanarkshire, and Falkirk. This has included Roman-themed children’s playparks and art installations as well as a series of replica distance sculptures.
For me (as I am not a 7 year-old child), the most exciting is the series of replica sandstone distance sculptures which are (almost all) copies of original carved stones found along the Antonine Wall. These iconic stones included information about the construction of the Wall in that location as well as a good deal of aggrandisement of the Emperor by blowing smoke up his ass in Latin abbreviation format. The Hunterian Museum has a fine collection of these stones, and a range of replicas. These objects are perhaps better known as ‘distance slabs’ but I am in agreement with Campbell’s deconstruction of this terminology.
While much ink has been spilt on the imagery, wording and position of these stones, their study has more recently been elevated by Louisa Campbell, based at the University of Glasgow, whose brilliant analysis using pXRF (portable X-ray fluorescence) and Raman spectrometry has shown that these stones were originally painted, adding to the psychological impact these stones would have had on the indigenous population.
The bold colours such as reds and yellows with white would have added to the effect of these stones as they often depicted poor Iron Age people being trampled under Roman horses or killed by their colonisers, making the locals face up to their trauma on a near daily basis. This was the Iron Age equivalent of the impact of the rich claret of a Hammer Horror film on a cinema audience in 1957 and I suppose in some cases would also have been ‘triggering’ for certain Iron Age people to use contemporary parlance.
The replication of a range of these distance sculptures over the past 18 months does not perhaps present the public with the bold colours of the originals, but nonetheless they do have an impact on the viewer even today as stunning and powerful pieces of art. These were all sculpted old-school style with actual hand tools and real craftsmanship, by artists including City of Glasgow College stonemasonry students. These are generally set into sandstone walls and have accompanying information boards. Jan and I managed to visit all of these, mostly during lockdowns.
I must admit that one of the things that always put me off Roman archaeology was the depiction of non-Roman people as ‘natives’, a term I have always found unsavoury. The terminology being used is now changing, and the Rediscovering the Antonine Wall team are doing their bit to humanise the ‘defeated’ locals who were no more and no less Iron Age people living a typical farming lifestyle who ended up in the path of an expansionist empire with a professional army. Think of the opening scenes of the movie Gladiator but set in Kilsyth. There is a little content on Iron Age people on the project website, and a wooden Iron Age ‘chief’ stands at the entrance to the Callander playpark. Also included is a (wooden) hoard of Roman coins, of more later.
But the most interesting element of this change in messaging about the militarised Roman focus on the Wall is the new Falkirk distance sculpture. This really rather special piece of art was commissioned by the Rediscovering the Antonine Wall project with the aspiration of disrupting the colonial narrative of Wall sculpture. The stone itself was designed and carved by Jo Crossland and Luke Batchelor. It depicts a subversion of the normal sculpture imagery, showing Iron Age people at peace in their daily lives or at war defending themselves. By depicting aspects of their lives that are not defined by their defeat and subjugation, it renders local people as active agents, not passive fools.
The sculpture knowingly adopts the tropes of the Roman originals, in terms of composition, writing and the Roman numeral dating (MMXX) but also subverts at every opportunity from language to the pictures. It shows a broch (and indeed there is a rare lowland broch near Falkirk, Tappoch) and a carnyx, the Iron Age battle horn. A Roman soldier is trampled underfoot by a horse, a direct reversal of imagery on stones such as Bridgeness. The stone also acts as a tribute to the ‘legion’ of volunteers who engaged with the project, although to me it works best as a political statement. The commissioning brief for this piece of work asked for such an approach: “The design should include reference to the local Iron Age population…”.
Louisa Campbell has written about the replica sculptures and in particular the Falkirk example. She notes that the images on this new stone directly respond to consultation responses from the public. “These images explore wider perspectives in the story of the Roman occupation of Scotland as requested by members of the local communities consulting on the project who expressed a desire to incorporate scenes of local people fighting back against hostile Roman attacks” (2021, 21). This is about a desire to see a community marginalised in Antonine Wall imagery and narratives given a voice; it shows an underdog story.
However, this aspect of the consultation does trouble me a little. Are we in danger of replacing one myth with another, the evil colonist replaced by the noble colonised? The violent imagery on the new distance sculpture may serve for some viewers as a revenge narrative: are you not entertained? This reminds me a little uncomfortably of what many kids who grew up in Scotland at the same time as me thought about the Romans in Scotland – something I recounted in a recent paper about the past and Scotland’s independence referendum:
“…..dogged Pictish resistance against Roman invaders, the unconquerable Scots, in contrast to the English
who folded at the first sight of a Roman ship (a silly mythology engrained in the minds of Scottish
school children of my generation!) (Brophy 2020, 59).
Perhaps unsurprisingly media coverage of this new carved stone focused on the ‘fighting back’ narrative, such as a headline in The Scotsman on 30th April 2020, Northern warriors who fought the Romans in Scotland to be celebrated at Antonine Wall. So there could be a problem with the messaging here. On the other hand perhaps my stance here could be interpreted as victim blaming, not my intention. This is about nuance.
For me, the most significant element of the sculpture occurs in the bottom right-hand corner. Here we have a scene showing the handing over of the hoard of coins from Romans to locals (rendered in wood in the new playpark). This can be interpreted in a number of different ways – a bribe, a payment for services rendered, a transactional arrangement, a gift perhaps creating an obligation. Here we have in one image all of the complexity of the Roman-Iron Age relationship that is not truly reflected in images of violence regardless of who the perpetrator is, because not everyone who lived here when the Romans were about was killed, and some may have done rather well out of the situation. This is not to downplay the physical and psychological violence of colonisation, but the hoard does allow I think a springboard to open up new conversations amongst the public about the short occupation of southern Scotland. Perhaps more broadly it forces reflection on other colonial narratives, where Scots were the colonists and did the trampling underfoot.
And this is rooted in archaeological reality. The hoard is a real thing, a clay pot found in 1933 containing 1925 Roman silver coins the latest of which date to the 3rd century AD, which is incidentally long after the Wall was built and in use. Were the locals ‘paid to behave‘? Todd in 1985 argued that the hoard “represents payments to a barbarian leader or dynasty in return for the maintenance of peace and order north of the Antonine Wall in the period c AD 160-230” suggesting how complex these colonial relationships probably were. The deposition of these coins, perhaps with ritual overtone as suggested of such hoards in the ScARF Roman panel report, adds another dimension to the significance of this deposit.
A fragment of textile – a ‘tartan’ – was found with this hoard and this informs the clothing worn in this sculpture by the non-Romans which is a nice touch, but perhaps adds another layer to the rebellious free-spirited Scot narrative that lingers in our national consciousness.
This new distance sculpture is located on Cow Wynd, a street than runs south from the pedestrianised heart of modern Falkirk. This is also the location of a Roman Fort that once stood here, but now it sits surrounded by a tattoo parlour, a cafeteria, a hair salon and a ladieswear boutique. The closeness to the main shopping strip in town and the thoroughfare of commuters and walkers will ensure that this new monument gets plenty of glances. Those who pause to read the noticeboards and take in the powerful images on the stone might also pause to think, be provoked, by the message that it conveys, propaganda of a very different type to that practiced by the Romans.
However, the information board to the right of the sculpture notes that this stone celebrates the native people, a phrase I am uneasy with and I am surprised was included. Indeed I think that more information could have been included here to help the casual passer-by to have an informed perspective on what the carved stone is signifying and how subversive its message actually is. There is no doubt this carved stone will provoke shoppers and commuters as they pass by – exasperans transeuntes – but what message will they read into the scenes depicted?
As Campbell notes, “The depicted scenes conflict with the originals as a means of eliciting an emotional response in the viewer … inviting them to consider different dynamics and new dimensions from the contradictory perspectives of local Iron Age peoples who had a different experience of events than the Roman military personnel that typically frames the narratives of existing scholarship” (2021, 23-4). It would be interesting to do some research around how this carved stone is consumed and what message punters take from it; as ever, texts of any kind convey messages that are difficult to control. There is also an assumption that the reader of this stone has a familiarity with the other distance sculptures and their imagery that are being subverted.
This is an interesting intervention and an innovative way to re-present an often mythologised and misunderstood period of the past of this part of Britain. As a means to challenge colonial narratives I think it is partially successful although it presents a white – and still largely male – version of this story and simplifies some complex issues. This is inevitable given the format that has been chosen to convey the message. Perhaps the contextualisation around this could be stronger, and more scenes that convey non-violent relationships would also have helped.
Heritage is at its best when it discomforts us and forces a re-evaluation of what we think our past was, and so in many ways this carved stone is a success at telling a story about the ancient beneath our feet – antiqua sub urbana. How the stone is consumed by locals and visitors remains to be seen.
Sources and acknowledgements: this blog post owes a lot to Dr Louisa Campbell who brought the Falkirk stone to my attention and shared her expertise with me. Her papers were also very helpful (full references below). Louisa, Jo and the Rediscovering the Antonine Wall project gave me permission to reproduce images in this blog post for which I am grateful. I would also like to thank the Rediscovering the Antonine Wall project and Emma McMullen for help in writing this post.
Sources mentioned in the text (all are open access and available online via links or googling):
Brophy, K 2020 Hands across the Border? Prehistory, Cairns and Scotland’s 2014 Independence Referendum. In Howard Williams, Pauline Clarke and Kieron Gleave (eds) Public Archaeologies of Frontiers and Borderlands. Archaeopress. Download here.
Campbell, L 2020 Polychromy on the Antonine Wall Distance Sculptures: Non-destructive Identification of Pigments on Roman Reliefs. Britannia 51, 175-201.
Campbell, L 2021 Flipping the Script on Colonial Narratives: Replicating Roman Reliefs from the Antonine Wall. Public Archaeology DOI: 10.1080/14655187.2021.1961438
Todd, M 1985 The Falkirk hoard of denarii: trade or subsidy?, Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland 115, 229-32.