Views Of The Archaeological Landscape
by Kevin Fromings, Ba(hons) Ma
Too late to be included in this year’s Kent Archaeological Society Symposium comes a paper from the ubiquitous prodigy Nevada Smith, aged 13. He has recently begun a five year excavation programme to uncover the little known mile castle of Windolena on the Roman wall, in Durham.
While working on the commander’s room, the remains of a lead lined wooden box (or was it a wood lined leaden box?) came to light. The contents were revealed as a set of wax tablets. They appear to be either a personal diary of the commander, one Apullio Legus, or depilatory utensils belonging to his wife. Given that they contained writing, it was assumed they were the former. The story they tell may well rewrite a view of history that has remained unchanged since Ladybird Books published ‘Julius Caesar & Roman Britain’ back in the 1960s.
Not all of the inscriptions have been translated yet, as Nevada Smith is still taking the tablets. Some require extensive and imaginative conservation treatment. But a tale has unfolded, courtesy of Apullio and several bottles of gin (yes, I know Smith is only just into his teens, but he has very liberal parents). Here is that story…
In AD41 the central and eastern tribes of Caledonia were being harassed both by the Scotti from Ireland, and the Brigantes from northern Britain. To address the Meatae (another tribe) problem they formed a rough confederation of tribes, brought together under the leadership of one Gabba Din Mac, a clan chief pict for his fighting qualities.
One early summer’s night, during a fierce storm, a ship was spotted being driven ashore just up the coast from the Firth of Forth, and just down the coast from the Firth of Fifth (one for the Genesis fans, there). It contained a host of 50 men, dark and swarthy of appearance, who wore leather skirts and talked funny. Asked by Din Mac if they were from the south, the messenger replied no, they just wore leather skirts and talked funny. It turned out that they were a group of Roman legionaries in holiday attire, who had been blown off course during a day trip round the lighthouse at Boulogne. With them was an officer – Apullio Legus.
Thinking this must be Dover, they begged for shelter, and Din Mac entertained them until the storm passed. To quote Apullio “Gabba Din Mac certainly kept the rain off.” The Romans noted the warlike state of the Picts – the smelters forging iron and bronze, the smiths forging weapons, and the minters forging Roman coins. Apullio asked what was afoot. Gabba, ever the hardened northerner, immediately cut off one of his own and showed it to them as an example. As he now didn’t have a leg to stand on, they asked if they could do anything for Din Mac in return for the kindness (and the limb) he had shown them.
Unimpressed with their offering of little clay models of the lighthouse, inscribed ‘Munusculum de Gesoriacum’ (A present from Boulogne), the Picts pointed out that the problem was they couldn’t sustain a war on two fronts.
“When we face the Brigantes, we have the Scotti dogs nipping at our heels. We can’t afford mercenaries, and have to pay our own clansmen in ale. Or to put it another way: when two tribes go to war a pint is all that they can score. We need help.” Apullio could see that fifty men in mufti would not make much headway in a situation of this kind, so he struck a bargain with Gabba Din Mac that he would take him to Rome where he could seek assistance from the emperor. When asked why it was necessary for him to travel all that way to seek assistance, Apullio replied “Well, what assistance is required? It’s not simple; only a Pict knows.”
The next few tablets are indecipherable – this must have been a bitter pill for Nevada Smith to swallow!
Fast forward to the spring of AD42; a fleet of 400 ships, carrying 24,000 Roman legionaries, sailed from the mouth of the Rhine, crossed the North Sea, and made landfall in Caledonia at the Firth of Tay. From there they moved rapidly south, and encountered Gabba Din Mac’s brother – Whet Tah Mac – on the road. When asked what their progress was, Apullio announced:
“We have taken Tay, but are now a bit low on milk and sugar!”
At this point, they were suddenly attacked from the North by a combined force of Scotti and Caledones – who had been persuaded by a Scotti tissue of lies that Din Mac and his followers would be easy pictings. Earlier the Caledones had tried to make a truce (have a break, have a Pict Pact). However, the Picts knew their limits and did not want to head down the Caledonian road.
When Apullio saw the approaching hordes, he ordered his men to build a classic bank of turves strengthened with lateral wooden beams. In this he is credited with coining the immortal phrase “Beam me up! Scotti!” The Romans hurriedly threw up an earthwork, which the Caledones scornfully described as an ‘asinine wall’, and that name has more or less stuck down to the present day.
The Scotti, a characteristically short people, soon saw that they were no match for well trained legionaries. They set up a half-hearted attack, but were broken by the use of ballista and catapults. Many were so frightened by this new technology that they lost control of their bladders as they retreated in total panic and disarray. That night Apullio sent a carrier pigeon back to Rome with the message “The Scotti can be summed up in three words: weeny, weedy, wee-wee.”
After establishing a supply base at the asinine wall, the Roman force headed south, singing their famous marching songs ‘Vir unus ad metendo’ and ‘Genua usque brunneis matrem’ (work it out for yourself…) Some of the lowland Caledonian tribes put up a token resistance, but Apullio was able to save up the tokens and exchange them for a set of Samian tableware.
Three weeks after the landing at Tay, the Imperial army came one misty morning upon a wall, shoddily constructed from stone, and hindering their progress. Scouts were sent to see if there was a way round this obstacle. They returned an hour later, with a few Guides – and a couple of Cubs and Brownies – saying that they could not find the end. Indeed, when the mist cleared, the legionaries could see the piles of stones stretching to the horizon in either direction.
Apullio was now faced with a dilemma (no, it was a wall; Ed). His legionaries could have removed the stones… but it could be a trap, with the whole assembled host of Brigantia waiting behind it; or it may have been built by a neutral tribe, and he did not wish to create more opposition. After consultation with his generals Ominbus, Trolibus and Minibus, he ordered his trumpeters to blow their bucinas until someone was seen scrambling up the wall from the other side. At this the legionaries breathed a collective sigh of relief and removed their fingers from their ears.
Apullio addressed this rather skinny individual, and asked him what lay beyond the wall.
“The land of my people, the Brigantes,” came the reply in halting estuary Latin, “But they’re out raiding at the moment, and have left me to take messages. If you leave yer name and address I’ll tell ‘em you called, mate.”
“Is this some kind of joke?” cried Minibus so loudly that Trolibus started. “Do you dare to poke fun at the Imperial Roman Army?!”
“We don’t want the IRA round ‘ere, mate,” said the man. “I’ll ‘ave you know that this ‘ere is my wall. I built it with me bare ‘ands. You can’t just come roamin’ in the gloamin’ over ‘ere. This wall stays, and I shall protect it with me life!”
“But I have over twenty thousand men at my command,” cried Apullio. “You are getting on my wick, and I could snuff you out like a candle.”
“Yeah, an’ I bet I could take quite a few of you with me,” with that the man rolled up his sleeves. “Anyone want to be the first to try?”
Apullio opened his mouth to give the order, but something rang a bell with Trolibus.
“Wait sir! This foolish – but none the less brave – man puts me in mind of Horatio at the bridge. He is a worthy enemy. Is there another way that we could attack the Brigantes, and avoid shedding this man’s blood?”
Said Omnibus, “Stop, I have a request.”
“What is your request stop, Omnibus,” replied Apullio.
“How about keeping a small force here, so that the Brigantes think we are waiting for the right moment to attack. In the meantime send the rest of the army back to the ships, down the east coast of Britain and attack them from behind.”
“Aye,” said Trolibus.
“No,” chimed in Minibus, always opting for the short trip, “I say we work our way along this wall to wherever it ends, and then attack from there!”
“Well,” said Apullio, after a few moments thought, “I favour the Omnibus route. I shall send a carrier pigeon to the emperor immediately. We shall leave a legion here, and a legion at the asinine wall and take the rest of the men back to Gaul. Besides, I’ve lost my model lighthouse, and it was a present for my wife… Lull the southern tribes into a false sense of security, and let the Brigantes stay here watching the wall. Then next summer – Whammo!”
“Whammo?” asked Trolibus, skidding round.
“Yes, that tribal leader down in the south west. If we attack down there and work our way up, they won’t know what hit them.”
“But that’s four hundred miles away! It will take too long. We can’t finish it before winter; it can’t be done in time.” complained Trolibus. Apullio said nothing.
“I agree with the Trolibus timetable,” noted Omnibus, “After all, I am the route master…”
In Rome, a week later, the emperor Claudius was sitting down to an early mushroom supper. The weather was glorious, and he was dining al fresco. Al Fresco himself was already drunk, and snoring loudly. The evening had got off to a bad start because Claudius had asked for a risotto to be made up of some stringy steak he’d had for lunch, but instead they’d given him a mess o’ leaner; also last night’s fare of livia and bacon was repeating on him.
Suddenly a servant approached.
“Hail, Claudius,” he cried, and pointed at the sky.
“Nonsense, it’s a beautiful evening,” said the emperor.
“A carrier pigeon approaches,” said the servant.
“Where,” asked the emperor, peering vaguely upwards.
“High, Claudius,” said the servant, and then a look of horror crossed his face as the exhausted bird suddenly plummeted from the heavens. The next moment he doubled up in pain, much to the emperor’s amusement.
“Where did it get you?” he asked, taking the message from the bird’s leg.
“Well, go and find a physician; and take this pigeon. You can have it for your supper.”
“Aye, Claudius,” said the servant and stumbled out.
Claudius read the message “Hi, Claudius… etc…” It finished “I propose to remain in Caledonia to command the two legions and am sending the remainder back by Trolibus and Omnibus. And Minibus shall take the officers.”
And so, the next summer, in AD43, Claudius invaded Britain. By which time the Brigantes had made peace with Apullio. Their queen said “Legus, come to some arrangement”, which was sealed by ritually throwing some pulses into the nearest sacred river. The Brigantian chief declared “Peas in our Tyne.”
In the meantime the stone wall remained, cared for by the committed individual who had spent his whole life building it – Adrian.
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