Archaeologists Discover 134 Ancient Settlements North of Hadrian’s Wall

LiDAR helped researchers find sites once inhabited by those who lived outside Rome’s rule of Britain

Hadrian's Wall
Archaeologists have located 134 ancient settlements north of Hadrian's Wall in what is now Scotland. Pixabay

Starting around 122 C.E., more than 15,000 men spent at least six years building Hadrian’s Wall to mark the northwest boundary of the Roman Empire. Measuring 73 miles in length, the defensive fortification—made primarily from stone and turf—spanned the width of present-day northern England, with forts and observation towers occupied by Roman soldiers built along the way.

For three centuries, Roman troops used the wall to guard against invaders and control movement across the region. But how did their presence affect local communities along the northern frontier?

That’s a big question archaeologists hope to be able to answer after discovering 134 previously unknown settlements north of the iconic Hadrian’s Wall in what is now Scotland.

The findings, published in the journal Antiquity in May, offer a brief glimpse into the lives of people native to Britain before and after the invasion of Rome in 43 C.E.

“They help us to reconstruct settlement patterns,” Dave Cowley, an archaeologist with Historic Environment Scotland and one of the study’s co-authors, says in an e-mailed statement. “Individually they are very much routine, but cumulatively they help us understand the landscape within which the indigenous population lived.”

Part of Hadrian's Wall in England
Hadrian’s Wall represented the northern border of Roman-ruled Brittania.  Pixabay

Archaeologists believe there was some conflict between native islanders and Roman troops, but there may also have been periods of peace and collaboration. Farmers may have helped feed the Roman army, for instance, per the researchers.

The area is a “great case study to analyze the impact of imperial powers on societies at the edges of their political borders,” Manuel Fernández-Götz, an archaeologist at the University of Edinburgh and one of the study’s co-authors, tells CNN’s Ashley Strickland.

The study is part of the broader “Beyond Walls: Reassessing Iron Age and Roman Encounters in Northern Britain” project, which is funded by the Leverhulme Trust in the United Kingdom. For this part of the project, the researchers explored a 579-square-mile region in southwest Scotland.

Using LiDAR, a laser-mapping technology, the researchers created a 3D picture of the landscape. Though researchers had studied the region before, the archaeologists found a trove of previously unrecorded settlements, as well as 570 previously known sites, bringing the total number of known settlements in the area to 704.

The settlements were remarkably organized and often dense, per the statement—and the people who lived there never fully surrendered to Rome.

Research map
Researchers used LiDAR to find the settlements, bringing the total number of known sites to 704.  Antiquity

“This is one of the most exciting regions of the Empire, as it represented its northernmost frontier, and also because Scotland was one of very few areas in Western Europe over which the Roman army never managed to establish full control,” says Fernández-Götz in the statement.

Finding and mapping the settlements is just the beginning. With this data, researchers hope to eventually draw a more complete picture of interactions between the Romans and those native to the region with the help of geophysical surveys, carbon-dating techniques and other methods.

Though most research into the Roman Empire’s quest to control northern Britain has focused on Roman artifacts and settlements—the camps, forts, roads and walls they built as they tried to expand their territory—as the researchers write, “a holistic understanding requires paying greater attention to the indigenous evidence.” And if the project’s first phase is any indication, there will be plenty more to study and learn about the people Rome never quite subdued.

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