References to the ancient past during the Roman period

The Roman military leaders and politicians were not normally interested in maintaining in their Western provinces a cultural memory which gave too much emphasis to the times before the Roman conquest. Instead, they encouraged the 'cultural forgetting' of such a past. As a result, any independent memory of the pre-Roman periods seems in fact to have been missing completely in areas such as Gaul, even though numerous pre-Roman monuments and other remains must have remained visible (Woolf 1996).

There is, however, some evidence in Britain that the local population under Roman control paid attention to earlier monuments which they came across in the landscape. Since similar evidence has also been found in nearby areas which were not under Roman control, such as Ireland, the question arises if the Roman occupation of parts of Britain had an impact on such practices of the native population at all. Later finds from the Roman period at pre-Iron Age prehistoric sites in Britain and Ireland include

These finds have often been interpreted as votive deposits at prehistoric sites, which may have been seen as entrances to the otherworld or sites of supernatural power. John Thurnam pointed already in 1869 (p. 241) to

"the beliefs and customs of Pagan antiquity, in virtue of which the tumuli were visited by worshippers of the manes, either from motives of natural affection or for the purpose of divination. On those occasions ... it was customary to take libations to pour on the tombs; and it is hence not improbable that many of the fragments of pottery, both primeval and Romano-British, so commonly found near the surface of tumuli, are those of earthen vessels in which such offerings had been carried. This explanation is applicable not merely to chambered long barrows, but doubtless, likewise, to tumuli of all description, both long and round. Such practices would be more or less rife, according as local memories and traditions obtained more or less credence."

The interpretation of the finds as Roman votive deposits can also be found in the work of Grinsell (1967: 2), Carson and O'Kelly (1977: 41, 45, 48), Burl (1979: 30-1), Bradley (1987: 13-14), Aitchison (1988: 277-9), Dark (1993: 141-3); Selkirk (1993), Raftery (1994: 210), and Darvill (2004: 228). Alternative interpretations for parts of the evidence which have been suggested include

  1. legitimation of a political elite by demonstrating their association with supernatural entities living in ancient sites (Bradley 1987: 14; 1993: 120);
  2. casual loss by visitors (Carson and O'Kelly 1977: 45; Burl 1979: 30; Gardiner 1995: 337; Darvill 2004: 227);
  3. the need to conceal treasures during periods of unrest (Grinsell 1967: 4; Burl 1979: 31);
  4. deliberately left excavation mementos (coins!) of Roman grave-robbers (Grinsell 1967: 4).

Prehistoric sites such as megaliths were also physically re-used during the Roman period, e.g. as shelters and dwelling places. Roman material has been found in several chambered tombs of northwestern Europe (Daniel 1972: 13-14), and in many of the Sardinian nuraghi from the Bronze Age (Blake 1997). While it is not completely clear in most cases what people associated with these monuments, in one instance in Plou-fragan near Saint-Brieuc, Brittany, there is evidence that a wealthy Gallo-Roman removed one of the roof-slabs to get inside the long megalithic tomb and subsequently adapted it as his dwelling. He converted parts of the grave chamber into a room with a brick floor (Daniels 1972: 14; cf. 22). Another monument that was broken into is 'Hetty Pegler's Tump' in Gloucestershire. Here Roman pottery was found as well as a superficially inserted human skeleton with some coins (Grinsell 1970). This ancient tomb as well as a number of other chambered long barrows in England seem to have been chosen deliberately as location for secondary burials during the Romano-British period (Darvill 2004: 227).

At other monuments, it is quite likely that during the Roman period people broke up stones to build new houses. Earlier prehistoric adaptations of the landscape, such as ringwalls and burial mounds, were also convenient for the shelter of whole communities and as 'natural' defences (Burl 1979: 31-2; Bradley 1993: 117). At Knowth in Ireland, at least one house was built at the beginning of the first millennium AD in the middle of the central barrow of the megalithic cemetery, which was transformed into a citadel by digging two concentric ditches (Daniel 1972: 14). At Maumbury Rings, Dorchester, the banks of a henge monument were found suitable for seating and the former ritual site was turned into a Roman amphitheatre (Bradley 1975; see also Daniel 1972: 21-2; Dark 1993: 139).

Finally, there is evidence that during the Roman period people were inspired to re-use ancient objects and copy ancient architecture. Neolithic axes were used as votive offerings in Roman Britain, Gaul and Germany (Adkins and Adkins 1985). Some members of Romano-British society also built huge barrows with grave chambers in South-East Britain as well as in Belgium, which may constitute rough imitations of megaliths or prehistoric barrows (Dunning and Jessup 1936: 47 and passim). Good examples are at Rougham (Henslow n.d.) and on Mersea Island (Warren n.d.). Darvill (2004: 229) also lists Romano-British round barrows at Tar Barrows, Cirencester; the Hyde, Minchinhampton; and Overton Down, Avebury. At Crickley Hill, a miniature Roman imitation of a prehistoric long mound has been found nearby (Selkirk 1993). The Nationalmuseet in Copenhagen contains a display (Room 16) about stone grave chambers built as collective burial sites for leading families during the Roman Iron Age. The chambers were up to 3m by 1.5m in size, with the walls made of massive upright stones and a roof consisting of enormous stone blocks. One such megalith was found in Løvel, North Jutland. An interesting discussion of Roman receptions of palaeolithic cave images in northern Spain and Roman reuse of megalithic tombs as burial sites can now be found in Bradley (2002: 116-9).

What lay behind such practices is unclear. Some of it can probably be explained as purely 'functional' re-uses of existing structures for new purposes. But at the same time, this may have had a larger significance too. Emma Blake argued (1997) that the re-use of prehistoric structures on Sardinia may have helped negotiating new identities of different members of the indigenous Sard population during the Roman occupation of the island. Such material culture narratives were about resistance, evasion, or collaboration, depending on context and choices made by the individuals concerned. Blake reckons (1997: 116) that the Romans authorities themselves may have encouraged such narratives, because "a 'little identity was a good thing', if it made the Sards work collectively and effectively."


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© Cornelius Holtorf, last updated on 26 October 2002