Does Fife have a secret history of Roman links?

An artist's impression of a fort at East Lomond
An artist's impression of a fort at East Lomond

Looking out from the top of East Lomond, it’s easy to see how this could have been a site chosen by an ancient king; a seat which enjoyed views across much of what would later become Fife, and indeed far beyond.

The hill itself can be seen from miles around, a distinguished landmark visible even from as far as East Lothian.

Archaeologist Dr Oliver O'Grady, right, discusses the finds with, from left; Anne Campbell, Joe Fitzpatrick, Bob Nicolson and Helen Lawrenson,Centre for Stewardship director.

Archaeologist Dr Oliver O'Grady, right, discusses the finds with, from left; Anne Campbell, Joe Fitzpatrick, Bob Nicolson and Helen Lawrenson,Centre for Stewardship director.

But while it was known that there was a significant Iron Age fort on East Lomond, new evidence suggests the site, and the wider area as a whole, could have an untold history of trade, diplomacy, and even acceptance of the Romans.

This summer’s community excavation by Falkland Stewardship Trust has led to the project being chosen as one of Scotland’s archaeological highlights of the year for the BBC programme Digging for Britain.

The excavation uncovered previously unknown building structures and a wide range of artefacts dating from the period of the 1st to 7th Centuries, covering Iron Age, Roman and Pictish periods.

The Stewardship Trust appointed Dr Oliver O’Grady, director of OJT Heritage to lead the archaeological effort on the hill.

Some of the items found during the digs

Some of the items found during the digs

He confirmed the significance of the finds on East Lomond.

“We’ve uncovered some amazing finds at East Lomond from the Late Iron Age through the fantastic efforts of our community volunteers and school pupils.

“There are fragments of Roman glass vessels, beautiful blue ‘melon’ beads, parts of Late Roman coloured pottery drinking breakers, a fine bronze pin and later Pictish finds like pottery all the way from Frankish France.

“There were also reminders of the warlike times with several spearbutts and a finely made iron spear head. The quality and finery of the artefacts were a surprise even to our team of professional archaeologists.”

Joe Fitzpatrick.

Joe Fitzpatrick.

Taken together with the recent Roman silver find at Dairsie, there is scope now for rethinking Fife’s early history in the first few centuries AD – particularly how local people engaged with the Roman Empire as it came and went.

“There’s no evidence of Roman military conquest per say, in Fife,” says Project Director Joe Fitzpatrick of the Stewardship Trust.

“If you look at the line of Roman forts going up Scotland, it bypasses Fife.

“It’s almost sitting out there on its own. But you wouldn’t leave a powerful tribe before you marched north unless you had some accommodation.

“This is history that has yet to be written, and that’s why this is important, because we’re now speculating that there’s an unwritten history relating to the tribal peoples in Fife and their relationship with Rome, which might have been much more accommodating than perhaps other areas and certainly the Caledonian areas.

“That’s yet to be tested, but there’s a growing body of thinking. The Dairsie hoard, and the stuff that we’re digging up here is showing diplomatic gift-giving to local tribes, so there must be some accommodation going on.”

Oliver adds: “There’s an emerging picture, something particular is happening in this part of the world, in Fife, and the Borders where there’s a concentration of elite Roman materials start to be focused in this area.”

Among the finds which support the idea is the blue melon bead which was uncovered at East Lomond – something which was thought to be used as a toggle, by Roman officers on their cloaks.

“The Roman melon bead is made with glass with cobalt in it which gives it that really fine colour,” says Oliver.

“There’s some evidence from the continent as well that they may have been used on horseback to decorate military gear.

“It’s really great evidence that we’re not dealing with a barbaric community of Celts living a rough life on the hill. They had great connections, and they really linked into diplomatic relationships with the Roman world, and the military Roman world most likely.

“But let’s be clear this isn’t within the Roman Empire for a great period of time in the first millenium AD. It really suggests that Fife’s got a special status for some reason with the Roman power structure and the military governance of Britain.”

Oliver says one theory about that status involves the Caledonii, the ancient people of the Highlands.

“They’re kind of rejecting the north,” he adds, “because the Caledonii are famously causing a lot of trouble.

“One of the arguments being put forward by us is that Fife is perhaps a buffer state. So they’re keeping the Fifers happy in a sense to keep it as a safe zone for the frontier line to keep the Caledonii at bay.”

The area of the dig is a managed estate, and the core of the hill fort is a scheduled monument and is protected by law, so any amateur archaeologists or metal detector enthusiasts could find themselves in trouble if they disturb the area.

However volunteering to be part of the official dig can be quite rewarding, according to those who took part. Bob Nicolson (56) from Cupar took part in the summer dig.

“I’ve always loved seeing archaology on telly, but it never occurred to me that you could actually volunteer on these things,” he says. “From this one dig I’ve now gone on to do four or five over the summer. It’s fantastic. The range of people who volunteered, you had teenagers right up to pensioners. I’d recommend it to others.”

Ceres resident Anne Campbell (63) said: “It was the most fantastic opportunity.

“When you’re scraping back with the trowel and you see something that you know someone hasn’t seen in a couple of thousand years it’s a little bit like reaching back and touching somebody’s hand from the past.”

- The East Lomond excavation will feature on Digging for Britain on Wednesday, December 6, 9pm.