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Soldiers to Warriors: Renegotiating the Roman Frontier in the Fifth Century
By Rob Collins
Late Roman Silver: The Trapriain Treasure in Context, ed. F. Hunter and K. Painter (Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, 2009)
Introduction: By the time the hoard at Traprain Law was deposited around the mid-fifth century, the Romans no longer ruled Britain. The material in the hoard is Roman in origin; but the manner in which the material arrived at Traprain and its use are only now beginning to come to light. This volume attempts to set the Traprain hoard in context, and an important aspect that must be considered is the proximity of Hadrian’s Wall, and Traprain’s situation in the broad frontier zone of northern Britain that stretched from the Humber to the Forth .
The northern frontier of Britannia was consolidated in the early second century under Hadrian, and geographically it remained the same until the end of the Roman period in the early fifth century, with a brief occupation of southern Scotland in the mid-second century. Military occupation of the frontier shifted over the centuries, with new forts constructed and others abandoned. Hadrian’s Wall served as a linear and monumental focus for the frontier, and in the fourth century there were twenty forts occupied in the Wall corridor and an unknown number of smaller installations (milecastles, fortlets and turrets). The outpost forts north of Hadrian’s Wall were abandoned in the early fourth century; but the forts south of Hadrian’s Wall continued to be occupied, with approximately thirty of these sites known as far as the Humber estuary.
There has been a presumption that only the poorest soldiers remained in very small numbers by the end of the Roman period, c ad 410, if not withdrawn completely at the command of an emperor or usurper; but there are no documentary sources that validate this, and there is a considerable amount of archaeological evidence that disproves it. The frontier does not collapse in any discernible pattern in the early fifth century. There are no widespread abandonment deposits that can be associated with a large-scale military withdrawal, nor are there widespread destruction deposits that would indicate assault on the garrison by Picts, Scots, or Anglo-Saxons. In fact, where modern excavations in the frontier have taken place, general continuity of occupation beyond the early fifth century is observed if not entirely understood, providing the late Roman and post-Roman strata have not been previously disturbed or destroyed.