Thick smoke penetrated the air, its grey plumes breathing heavily as it obscured the sun. The ashes heaved up and down on the wind and fell upon the dirt earth. Animals ran freely, their odour and that of their waste, entwined with every other stench. The bath house had a procession of oil-smothered men waiting for some poor wretched soul to scrape off the dirt, their unclean body odours drifting with those of the smoke and open sewers.
I scrunched my nose up like a rabbit then opened my eyes. Roman Britain at Trimontium had disappeared in an instant and I was now looking out at fields of turnips. The 2,000-year-old fort was under the soil, and the crops on top belied its once large-scale garrison.
“If you look in front of the viaduct, you’ll see a bowl shape in the ground,” said Martin Neilson, our guide for the afternoon. “That was once an amphitheatre, but without the lions!” I could make it out now, imaging what this would have been like 20 centuries ago. The smells, the noise, the bustling atmosphere. Today it is a sleepy countryside setting.
Our small group had walked down from the quaint village of Melrose in the Scottish Borders. We’d walked through the oldest continually inhabited village in Scotland, Newstead, and weaved past a river that had had its course moved by monks in the 12th century. (Agricultural reasons may have been the answer why.) I’d wandered by Melrose Abbey where the heart of Robert the Bruce was buried, his wish to be interred in the Holyland going haywire when the boat containing his body was attacked.
Forts in Fields
Now I was in Roman Scotland, looking at the country’s largest northern base. This once 1,000-strong fort would have had traders, potters and merchants bolstering the population to a possible 5,000. Trimontium was part of a large scale supply network, providing troops with both routine and luxury items imported from other parts of the Roman Empire. It later served as a camp for troops advancing further north to the Antonine Wall in a failed attempt to bring the whole island under Roman occupation.
Trimontium was built and rebuilt by Romans over seven separate periods, just as many of their forts were in Britain. Soldiers would receive orders to ship out, and then years later to return, depending on their current emperor’s wish. Scotland proved to be a resilient place for the Romans, they made several attempts to bring Caledonia, as it was then known, under their control. Each time they failed and in 184AD Trimontium was abandoned for the last time and in turn they left their furthest north frontier, the Antonine Wall, and gave up.
Currently Trimontium lies under fields, never having been fully excavated. “It costs huge amounts of money. Imagine how much it would cost to buy this land to excavate it fully,” Martin said as we all looked in wonder. Sections had been expertly excavated back in 1905-1910 by James Curle, a local solicitor and antiquarian, and later in the 1980s. But for now, the ground softly murmurs secrets that we are not yet, and maybe never will be, privy to.
I left Melrose with my bag and buggy and walked down sections of Dere Street, a Roman road that linked the strategic Roman town of York to the Forth River near Edinburgh. I was heading to Roman Britain’s most famous barrier, Hadrian’s Wall, England. Bobbing along undulating ground, it spans 73 miles and took around six years to complete, and was, like many other Roman places of occupation, abandoned and then reoccupied years later.
I cursed Hadrian and his wall as I dragged my buggy up and down and up again. I cursed modern farmers when I had to cross styles which denoted current boundaries, and could not imagine what it must have been like for the 5,000 men who built the brick barrier.
Vindolanda, a frontier settlement that served troops on the wall, was on my route. During winter, the land is frozen solid and has a white sheen from the frost, giving its name as white field (Vindolanda). So why would they choose this piece of land to build a village on?
“The natural springs would have been a major reason to settle here because rivers could be tampered with by the ‘barbarian natives’,” Andrew Birley, director of archaeology at the site, said. “It also had an excellent source of stone and coal up there,” he added, pointing to a hill behind the ruins. The excavations have been ongoing for 47 years and archaeologists have uncovered four layers of the nine reoccupations. A further 100-plus years may well be needed to excavate the whole area.
Lost Letters of Vindolanda
It was in Vindolanda that letters dating back nearly two millenia were discovered recently. One (probably very popular) general asked for more beer for his troops; another letter mentioned a gift of two pairs of socks and two pairs of underpants (probably the precursor to the underwear Christmas present we all receive today!).
I took in Housesteads fort on the wall itself and walked into the city of Newcastle, where pieces of Roman stone jut out here and there. Next to a bus stop, near a house, opposite a shop. It seemed strange to have such a thriving modern-day city living around such incredible relics, and yet no one seems to batter an eyelid at them. Roman Britain and their 367-year rule seemed to be well and truly buried.
Jane Batchelor is currently hiking 2,500 miles through Britain, looking at the history of the country in chronological order. For more photos, follow her Facebook and Instagram pages. To find out more about her journey, click here.