Previously unknown Roman marching camp discovered at the site of new Ayr Academy


24 May 2019
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Archaeologists working at the site of the new Ayr Academy have discovered a hitherto unknown Roman marching camp that was constructed during the Roman conquest of Scotland, new publications reveal.
Previously unknown Roman marching camp discovered at the site of new Ayr Academy Images

Archaeologists working at the site of the new Ayr Academy have discovered a hitherto unknown Roman marching camp that was constructed during the Roman conquest of Scotland, new publications reveal.

The discovery was made during archaeological excavations undertaken by GUARD Archaeology prior to the building of the new Ayr Academy in 2015. At the time it was not obvious that a Roman camp had been found, because there were no Roman artefacts present, only fragments of much earlier Neolithic pottery and an Iron Age bangle from a seemingly random spread of pits and post-holes. However, during the subsequent post-excavation analyses, radiocarbon dates revealed a regular pattern of features that date to the Roman conquest of Scotland in the latter part of the first century AD.

A new west coast Roman route

‘The Roman features comprised 26 large, often double, fire-pits that were distributed evenly in two parallel rows 30m apart,’ said Iraia Arabaolaza, who directed the excavation. ‘The arrangement and uniformity of these features implies an organised layout and the evidence suggests that they were all used for baking bread. The location of the oven was recognised by the scorching of the subsoil base, stone slabs and burnt clay fragments, some with wood imprints and with dome moulding. Ash pits were identified at the opposite end to the ovens within these figure-of-eight features, filled with burnt and charcoal-rich soil comprising the raked-out material from the clay-domed ovens.’

The radiocarbon dates from these fire-pits overlapped between the years AD 77-86 and AD 90, which accords with the conquest of Scotland by the Roman general Agricola from AD 79 until AD 88. Agricola’s son-in-law, Tacitus, who wrote an account of the yearly campaigns, reported that “in the fifth campaign, Agricola, crossing over, subdued, by frequent and successful engagements, several nations till then unknown; and stationed troops in that part of Britain which is opposite to Ireland.”

Until now, the only two known routes for the Roman invasion of southern Scotland were further to the east; the present-day M74 and A68 roads follow these same courses. But the new marching camp at Ayr reveals another route down the west coast towards the south-west tip of Scotland, from where Ireland is readily visible. 

Pre-Roman activity

Evidence for Bronze Age ritual activity from the late third and second millennium BC, a Neolithic settlement from the fourth millennium BC and a Mesolithic hunter/gatherer camp from the sixth millennium BC was also discovered, revealing this to be one of the earliest and most complex prehistoric sites in this area of the west coast of Scotland. To put this into perspective, the earliest occupation of the Ayr Academy site goes back to around 5200 BC, roughly 2½ times as old as the Roman Marching Camp is to us. As the excavation at Ayr Academy demonstrates, Scotland was not an untouched wild landscape that the Romans marched into in AD 79 but already an ancient land inhabited by communities whose culture and heritage stretched back millennia.

The archaeological work was funded by Kier Construction Ltd and was required as a condition of planning consent by South Ayrshire Council who are advised on archaeological matters by the West of Scotland Archaeology Service, who considered there to be a potential for hitherto unknown archaeology to be buried at the site due to the proximity of known prehistoric archaeology.

A Roman Marching Camp in Ayrby Iraia Arabaolaza is published in the Britannia Journal, while ARO33: Beside the River Ayr in prehistoric times: excavations at Ayr Academy by Iraia Arabaolaza is freely available to download from Archaeology Reports Online.

Discover 19 archaeology digs and projects you can take part in this summer in the Jul/Aug issue of History Scotland, available to pre-order now.

(Images © GUARD Archaeology)