First Tartan? I Hae Me Doots

Hype for a documentary airing on BBC this Friday:

Remnants of a Roman statue in North Africa could be the “first-ever depiction of tartan”, according to a BBC Scotland documentary.

A piece of a bronze statue of the Emperor Caracalla contains the small figure of a Caledonian warrior wearing what appears to be tartan trews.

The third century Roman emperor Caracalla styled himself as the conqueror of the Caledonians.

A statue marking his achievements stood in the Moroccan city of Volubilis.

It stood above a great archway in the ancient city, which lay in the south west of the Roman empire, 1,500 miles from Caledonia – modern day Scotland.

A small piece of cloak from the monument still survives at the archaeological museum in Rabat in Morocco.

“It includes an early depiction of that great national stereotype – the long-haired Caledonian warrior,” says Dr Fraser Hunter, who presents the BBC Scotland programme.

The warrior is wearing checked leggings which, according to Dr Hunter, is “the first-ever depiction of tartan”.

It is thought the Celts have been weaving plaid twills for thousands of years and this is the earliest representation.

Dr Hunter adds: “The shield too is Celtic in style. You can see the warrior’s head with the cloak over the shoulders. The arms are bound behind the back.

“This guy is a captive. He’s a prisoner from the vicious campaigns of Severus and Caracalla.”

Septimius Severus, Caracalla’s father, led massive military campaigns into 3rd century Scotland.

The mighty Roman legions had conquered all before them but they stuttered to a halt when they took on the tribes of Iron Age Scotland.

Caracalla carried on his father’s fight, waging a brutal campaign.

Dr Hunter says prisoners could have been force-marched for months to other parts of the empire.

“They were living trophies of the emperor’s success. Some might have been traded as slaves in the great markets. Others would have been even less fortunate.”

Dr Hunter points to a mosaic from Tunisia which shows how one unfortunate Caledonian met his end.

“Captured, marched for months to this desert province, sent to the amphitheatre and killed by wild animals as exotic entertainment for the locals,” says Dr Hunter.

The expert says we have long had a curious “rather cuddly” relationship with the Romans.

“In the western world we often see ourselves as inheritors of Roman values and Roman culture,” he says.

“But this evidence from North Africa reminds us that the Romans were invaders and colonisers.

“Their strategies encompassed everything up to and including genocide.

“For the local tribes the Roman arrival in what we call Scotland must have been absolutely terrifying.”

The report includes a short excerpt from the doc and a quick view of the bits that supposedly show the tartan. I spent some time looking for a photo, but came up empty and for the life of me, I can’t see ‘tartan’ in what is in that photo. Whatever the case, amicus noster Adrian Murdoch expresses doubts over at Bread and Circuses rather more clearly than I could:

York Gladiators Redux

The BBC has a very nice little slideshow of some of the skeletons from that dig at York which are claimed to be of gladiating victims. There’s actually some good stuff here, and since I can’t really embed the slideshow, I do want to make some comments (the numbers refer to the slide):

1. 60 of 80 appear to have died violent deaths; the implication is that all sixty were gladiators?

2. The one arm longer than the other “being consistent with one-sided work from an early age …” I’m not sure how this fits in; I highly doubt we’re dealing with people ‘raised’ to be gladiators. If this is an indication they were non-Roman warriors or something, that could work.

3. Very impressive deep cut going upward; does seem consistent with a gladiator-fight-style wound …

4. Very impressive bite marks; it should be possible to identify the animal from these, no?

5. shackled burial; I really wish we’d stop getting this sensationalism like “yet he received a proper burial” … outside of tossing emperors into the Tiber, the Romans seem to have long allowed execution victims’ remains to receive a proper burial.

6. the ‘hammer’ victim … shouldn’t there be some ‘point of impact’ mark? And shouldn’t the cracks radiate therefrom? This looks more consistent with being hit with a large sword across the top of the head …

7. very nice vertebrae cut; They might be solid ground with this one, although the ‘dispatching’ cuts in gladiating situations tended to be down the windpipe toward the heart rather than across the neck, no? 50 of the 61 skeletons had been so dispatched. In some of the early coverage from this site, though, there was the suggestion that many of the marks indicate the cuts had come from ‘behind’.

Taken together, I think 3, 4, and 6 have me leaning toward the ‘gladiator’ theory. At the same time, though, I think we should remind folks of Anthony Birley’s theory from a few years ago, that these might be victims of Caracalla‘s ‘killing spree’ shortly after Septimius Severus‘ death in 211. This ‘killing spree’ is hinted at in the first three sections of Dio 78, but it’s not clear whether this ‘spree’ happened at York. The Historia Augusta hints similarly, but is far too compressed to be useful.  Again, I wonder aloud whether anyone has thought whether many of these victims might not be examples of decimation (although, of course, proving such would be difficult) Whatever the case, I think it safer to suggest that we’ve got a pile of execution victims … some of them might have died in the arena that hasn’t been found (yet?).

This Day in Ancient History: ante diem vi kalendas junias

Publius Septimius Geta. Marble, Roman artwork,...

Image via Wikipedia

ante diem vi kalendas junias

  • 270 A.D. — martyrdom of Restituta at Sora (?)
  • 302 A.D. — Martyrdom of Julius at Durostorum