The Roman fort of Ardoch, Braco - part of the Gask Ridge Frontier. © The Roman Gask Project
Asked to name a Roman frontier in the north of Britain and you'll probably come up with the World Heritage Site Hadrian's Wall, famous for keeping pesky Scottish tribes on one side. The Antonine Wall also has a certain status, being the northernmost frontier in the Roman Empire, dissecting modern day Scotland between the Clyde and the Forth.
The lesser known Gask Ridge Frontier deserves a high profile, too, as it is the oldest known fortified frontier in the Roman Empire. It predates Hadrian’s Wall by 50 years, and the Antonine Wall by 70 years, having been built between 70 and 80 AD. Comprised of forts, watch towers and a connecting road, it runs from around Dunblane in Perthshire to the north of Perth.
However, it now looks like the Ridge’s forts and watch towers were incorporated into the Antonine border, as archaeologists from the University of Liverpool have found evidence that part of the visible Roman road linking the structures is actually 70 years younger than previously thought. This puts it in the Antonine period, dating to 140 AD.
The Roman Gask road at Huntingtower revealed by cropmarks caused by its parallel lines of quarry pits. © The Roman Gask Project
The new research shows that the Gask Ridge was being used well after the time it was built, and throws up the question – where is the road that originally linked the Gask Ridge forts and towers?
“The archaeology of the Gask is becoming more complex than originally believed and shows that it played an active part in the military history of Roman Scotland for a considerable time,” said Dr David Woolliscroft, Co-Director of the project.
“The watch towers must have been linked by a road of track, to allow the tower teams to reach their posts from the nearby forts, but that road remains to be found. The wonderfully engineered road we see today was built later when the forts came back into use in the mid 2nd century.”
The Roman Gask tower of Kirkhill. © The Roman Gask Project
Tacitus wrote that the Roman soldier and governor of Britain, Agricola, was fighting in the Gask Ridge area in 80 AD, and evidence including coinage found in the area suggests that the forts were only occupied for six years. However, ongoing archaeological investigations show that many of the forts were rebuilt over time.
During the Antonine period Hadrian’s Wall was abandoned and a new frontier – the Antonine Wall – was built between the Clyde and the Forth. At the same time, the Gask forts were resurrected as outposts of the Antonine border.
Research in the 1990s showed that the German Limes – the Roman frontier built from the Rhine to the Danube – was constructed about 20 years later than the Gask, meaning it could be this British string of forts that provided the blueprint for all the others in the Empire. The leaders of the Gask archaeology project are therefore hoping that their work will bring greater awareness of this pioneering reach of the Empire.
“…against all expectations, Scotland’s Cinderella system can now claim to be the prototype Roman land frontier and a monument of international importance,” comments David Woolliscroft.
See www.theromangaskproject.org.uk for more information on the project.