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The best seat, nearest the fire - in a chilling Dark Age world, it would have been the warmest, though not necessarily the safest. So was it, as this evocative phrase suggests, all about hearthside place settings, the positional symbols of high rank that instantly summon up an engaging image of life at the top in the late and post-Roman periods? Uniquely, Hadrians Wall may offer a tangible key to this - and a number of other related questions - about the nature of life on the northern frontier after Rome.
Research work on recent discoveries on the Wall and its hinterland is now offering some pointers to enable scholars assemble a picture - no more than a glimpse, it has to be said - of life in the region some 1,600 years ago. It is in this context that the chieftains-at-the-hearth model emerges. And the scenario that it suggests is a convincing one: military commanders of the late fourth century slowly taking on the all-purpose functions of civil magistrates and evolving imperceptibly into chieftains or petty kings with dynastic aspirations.
So much for the speculative theory, for the evidence on this key frontier- the inhospitable northernmost outpost of the Empire is as elusive as it is suggestive. And even when that evidence has emerged following long-term archaeological investigations - it has only done so fitfully and in piecemeal fashion. Yet when taken together the findings point to a pattern of social/political evolution at certain former Roman forts. Sometimes newly shored up defended sites, they effectively became citadels for communities largely formed, or forged by the changing military circumstances of the third/fourth century at frontier posts on the 73-mile long Wall.
Despite the dating difficulties, these centres of power housing the descendants of the fort people, are crucial to our understanding of the post-Roman/early medieval period, certainly as that era might have been experienced on this northern frontier and adjoining tribal lands where, paradoxically, pre-Roman Iron Age-style traditions lingered on, no doubt largely through the efforts of those zealous custodians of the culture and unflinching upholders of ancient values - the bards.
Signposts in the Gloom
Given the growing amount evidence, it is worth taking stock of what has emerged from a range of separate excavations over the past decade or so - signposts in the gloom, as they have been described. Signposts they may be, but even this term is an inadequate description of the flimsy and, in the past, often missed clues tantalising remains sometimes represented only by mere socket gaps left by decayed timber uprights, the huge log supports that once held aloft rectangular halls.
So what is this about fireside politics? It instantly raises a compelling image of life at the top in a brutish world of unfettered governance, as wielded by those holding the reins of power in the post-Roman timber hall. This, we might legitimately speculate, would have been the base for a strongman, more war band chief enforcer or community leader than commander, who took up his appointed place at the hearth, surrounded by his band of brothers- the followers from whom, in the manner of the age, he would have demanded unquestioned loyalty.
Tempting and fanciful images abound, yet whatever their form, the findings from which such ideas spring dispel the general perception - prevalent less than 15 years ago - that there was little evidence for later occupation on Hadrians Wall and that the forts on its line were largely abandoned.
The radical military changes of the fourth century are the key to the background. The frontier troops recruited locally and from elsewhere - the late Roman army limitanei (the frontier people) - were apparently supplied and paid, in cash or kind. Serving and living in their forts, the troops on the Wall garrisons, it is argued, would have become an almost hereditary force, with the regular recruitment of the sons of soldiers who, from AD 313, were under an obligation to serve in a form of militia or military police-role in defence of the Hadrianic frontier.] Crucially, these men would have been the most visible consumers of the locally supplied requisitions in kind or food rents.
As the money economy broke down, circumstances changed markedly, further hastened by troop reductions and, finally, by the official withdrawal of the Roman administration from Britain in the first decade of the fifth century. But it is now evident that the Imperial army on the Wall did not, as the earlier consensus suggested, simply melt into the soil from which it had sprung. Evidence overturning the general idea that the forts were thus largely abandoned has emerged in separate excavations at such Wall sites as Birdoswald and Arbeia at South Shields (where there were identical traces of timber rebuilding of the fort gates), Wallsend (the eastern terminal fort of the wall), Housesteads and, indirectly, at the Roman fort at Binchester, to the south, in County Durham.
It was Tony Wilmott of English Heritage who underlined the significance of these finds and, importantly, raised the spectre of the archetypal chieftain of the time with that compelling hearthside image. But the conjectural figure whether commander-magistrate, warlord in his bearskin cloak, petty king or simply a predatory leader of the pack - to emerge from this evocative reconstruction does so most readily from the ruins of the five-acre fort at Birdoswald, on the Wall. This is where Wilmott carried out a highly productive programme of excavations from 1987-1992 work to which he first drew broader public attention in 1989.
Birdoswald, east of Carlisle in Cumbria, occupies a commanding position on an escarpment overlooking the river Irthing. In the third century, it was home to the First Aelian Cohort of Dacians, originally raised in Romania. And it was here, at the end of the Roman period (officially AD 410) that the southern granary at the fort (one of three Wall forts later refurbished in earth and timber rather than stone) became a long rectangular timber building of a type detected at certain other sites.
The large granaries at Birdoswald went out of use about AD 350 and were never rebuilt. But the occupation sequence was found to have continued beyond the time of the circulation of some of the latest Roman pottery and coins. Crucially, the excavators unearthed what they term high status finds - a fourth century gold earring, a jet ring and a late fourth/early fifth century Theodosian silver coin in the soot and remains of a large hearth at one end of the rectangular building of the reused southern granary. It is tempting to imagine the sort of revelry that led to the loss of such valuables. But the period of building reuse reflected by the finds was followed by two further phases of timber structures, each including one of hall size and two or three smaller, possibly service buildings - taking the occupation to around AD 480, possibly longer.
The implication of the hearth finds, in Wilmotts view, is that high status individuals enjoyed the best seat, nearest the fire. As a snapshot image, it is an engaging one. More than that, it has authentic feel about it. And the excavator takes the argument a stage further: At Birdoswald, I would argue that the only change in the early fifth century was that the troops of the fort were no longer paid or supplied by central authority. The unit was still there. Further, he suggests that the old system of coercion must have been replaced by a symbiosis whereby the territory from which grain supplies had been previously drawn, as part of the Roman corn tax, continued to sustain the fort in return for the assurance of protection in troubled times. And Birdoswald, he believes, might have become the centre of a small petty kingdom, indistinguishable from others with totally different antecedents, to the north of the wall or to the west of Britain. The large (23m by 8.6m) timber building suggests, in his view, the type of rectangular timber buildings broadly of uniform size - found in other sub-Roman contexts such as the central 19m by 10m structure at the celebrated South Cadbury reoccupied Iron Age hill-fort in Somerset, or much more geographically closer a 20m by 10m hall comprising massive squared uprights at Doon Hill. The latter site, near Dunbar, East Lothian, Scotland, lay in the territory of the Votadini tribe, to the north of the Wall.
Further 4th century building activity probably running well into the fifth century has been identified at Binchester and two important towns (also former fort sites) in the region: Carlisle and, to the south east, Catterick in North Yorkshire, both of which shows signs of late Roman army activity and longevity. The latter, some 20 miles south of Binchester, was also a highly strategic late Roman base with direct Roman road links to the north and west to Carlisle, the Wall and present-day Scotland. Roman Cataractonium was furnished with a stone defensive wall in the 4th century. Significantly, it features in what is known as the earliest poem in Welsh poem, where it appears as Catraeth and the site of a battle circa AD 600.
The other important strategic site, Carlisle, to the west of Birdoswald, was most likely the seat of Rheged, the kingdom traditionally associated with the Solway area. Rheged seems to have risen to leadership if not hegemony in the late sixth century under its most powerful king Urien. Urien was the leader praised by the celebrated court poet Taliesin.
Post-holes - Roman Rubble
To draw merging conclusions from two such disparate sources as poetry and archaeology might be considered by some to push the fragmentary evidence post-holes amidst Roman rubble a shade too far. But here we are talking about context, background, geographical location and something the scholars are all agreed upon the rigid cultural conservatism of the Outer Zone Britons. So, given the static nature of the society under scrutiny, it is surely not too fanciful to point to a parallel scene depicted in the celebrated early poem (on geographical grounds, arguably the earliest Scottish poem), Y Gododdin. There is surely a consistency here that bears the ring of truth.
First, context: the picture that emerges from the remains at Birdoswald offers the sort of setting presented in Y Gododdin,while the poem itself seems to reflect both the background and the spirit of the age in which this post-Roman world flourished. This ancient work, written in early Welsh, records a raid by warriors from Din Eidyn (Edinburgh) on the former Roman settlement of Catterick (Catreath), 168 miles to the south. This was one of the regions most important small Roman towns that had been taken over some time earlier, if not before, in the sixth century by Anglian settlers. The latter are identified specifically in the poem as the Anglians who occupied the territories of the Deirans and Bernicians (the two constituent parts bearing Brythonic or early Welsh names (Deifr and Brynaich) that became the expansionist English kingdom of Northumbria. Broadly the powerful foe was characterised in more generic form as 'Eingle' (Angles) and Saeson, the latter comparable to the Gaelic term Sassenach still used in Scotland today). Such a resources-stretching and dangerous campaign as the raid on Catterick is consistent with known military campaigns of the period the era when commanders placed great emphasis on the effectiveness of swiftly mounted pre-emptive strikes into the heart of enemy territory, usually at a location perceived to be its weakest point.
And drawing a parallel between the poem and archaeological finds on the frontier here does not involve such an extravagant chronological or imaginative leap as might first seem. Later interpolations or no, the poems fragments of Welsh and Brythonic mythology speak volumes about the nature and spirit of a society locked into its past. More than that, we have here a uniquely evocative echo of archaic traditions that reach back into pre-Roman pagan Britain. Yet at the same time, Y Gododdin also reflects Christian influences. This was an era of competing ideas and social contradictions, to be sure.
The poem is considered to be based on a real clash of arms but one for which there is no surviving historical record, and no record in English tradition; thus the date accorded to the battle, circa AD 600 is the subject of continuing scholarly debate. The reputed author, the court praise-poet Aneirin, is traditionally believed to have flourished towards the close of the sixth century. The bards stirring epic takes the form of a series of elegies for members of the Gododdin tribe (the pro-Roman Votadini sometimes referred to as forming a strategic buffer state - a Brythonic/Brittonic people enjoying some form of foederati status in the fourth century). The tribe inhabited south eastern Scotland down to Hadrians Wall during the Roman and post-Roman period and were speaking an early form of Welsh well into the seventh century. The 300 warriors involved perished at the Battle of Catraeth a suicidal cavalry assault on a much larger force, if the poets numbers are to be believed. The spirited lament tale appears to have been transmitted orally from the north, via late surviving neighbouring Strathclyde (maintaining its independence for some three centuries after the other Brythonic territories of the North had been conquered and absorbed). From Strathclyde the poem passed on to compatriots and allies in Powys and Gwynedd in North Wales. The work as we know it today survives, in its earliest form, in a 13th century medieval manuscript document, known as the Book of Aneirin, now housed in the Central Library, in the modern day Welsh capital of Cardiff [ms 2.81]. Its context mirrors the era of the Heroic Age chieftains (adorned, by the poet at least, with gold torques (neck-rings), the most enduring ritual- symbols of the pre-Roman Celtic warriors and found in a number of archaeological contexts in Britain, most notably at Snettisham, in East Anglia, in 1989. Leslie Alcock argued that there is no evidence, however, that torques were made or worn late into Roman period beyond the second century AD at the latest- but here he is evidently referring to the insular Celtic evidence, because torques were clearly fashionable among late Roman officials within the late Empire as a badge of office or jewellery.
Yet these were of a more refined classical form and nothing like the great warrior fashion statements of the late Celtic era. So did this lingering poetic echo of late Iron Age warfare convention represent an elaborate form of reflective boasting on the part of Aneirin, writing some four hundred years on? Yet even if a figment of the bards rich and repetitive imagination, the reference - coupled with many other facets (powerfully mixing symbolism with tradition) of the tale point to the deeper nature, in this region at least, of early medieval culture, one in which archaic ideas and anachronistic ideals could continue to flourish and, indeed, persist into later times.
For this was clearly a vibrant, warlike society emerging (perhaps burdened by something of a siege mentality and manner) from late antiquity, yet one that looked back to its prehistoric roots for spiritual inspiration and codes of honour and behaviour; not surprising, for the latter offered reassuring measures of certainty and inspiration in an uncertain world.
Further, a key question: could the remaining garrisons on the Wall have remained wholly divorced from these influences as the imprint of Imperial Rome slowly faded? It seems highly unlikely, especially if, as seems certain, the troops - wherever they came from - were taking local women as brides - and with all the cross-cultural/tribal influences and confused loyalties (not to say military dangers) that came with such natural liaisons. In Y Gododdin, the mead-nourished heroic-band from the tribal stronghold of Din Eidyn (the present-day Scottish capital of Edinburgh) is found agreeably preparing for war around the hall (neuadd) hearth in the company of a patron-chief. It represents the most warming of early fireside tales, the rapturous, heady language instantly evoking an atmosphere of extravagant camaraderie that no doubt also involved some cut-throat rivalry. The scene is set in the most vivid terms: pine logs blazing from dusk to dawn and the drinking of wine and mead in the hall. - by lighted candles - and all overseen by the jewel-decked lord seated at tables head. This would have been located in the cyntedd, hall, or upper part of the hall, where the king or chieftain sat. The ritual-like, year-long pre-battle feasting recounted in these stanzas involved the prodigious consumption of mead (fermented honey liquor). These details, coupled with the references to drinking horns (symbols of authority and political patronage) are all consistent with prehistoric Iron Age traditions, as testified on the Continent and Ireland.
'He was no Arthur'
Intriguingly, Y Gododdin is the celebrated work that contains the famously cryptic reference to one of the warriors: though he was no Arthur (Cyn ni bar ef Arthur). This may be just one of a number of later interpolations that found their way into the poem a rich and stirring account that evidently started life as an orally transmitted tale deriving from the sixth century, though whether it is of such early origin and contemporary with the battle it records, as some claim, is a matter of dispute. Clearly, it is of great antiquity dating from the time when early Welsh was not a written language - and has been cited by some sources as evidence in support of existence of Arthur as an historical figure. A few of the names of the 80 or so warriors of the war band identified in the stanzas also occur in Welsh tradition. They include Peredur, a famous Arthurian name, though this figure cannot be identical with the Peredur of Welsh Romance or the Peredur, said in the ninth century Welsh annals (Annales Cambriae) to have died in AD 580. Another figure, and one praised for outstanding military prowess, is Cynon associated in the poem with the district of Aeron (Ayrshire in present-day Scotland). Textual Arthurian associations aside - and despite the academic arguments that persist about the Catreath battle this, on the surface, is the world that we seem to be glimpsing amongst the derelict remains at Birdoswald, just as has been argued elsewhere in the case of Votadini stronghold at Doon Hill, near Dunbar, the latter cited as a hall-comparison site by Tony Wilmott.
The rectangular feasting hall here was considered by the scholar Leslie Alcock to be of British origin - preceding an Anglian hall at the palisade-enclosed princely llys site - and thus pre-dating the Anglian period in the Scottish Lothians, before, that is, the Angliantake over of Votadini territory and the siege of Din Eidyn (Edinburgh) in AD 638. 
Rewind back from the Y Goddodin era (c AD 600) to the late/post-Roman era when the by then ill-paid and, ultimately unpaid, military - were finally freed from the controls of Imperial restraint, as were technically at least- the local suppliers previously burdened by the obligations of the officially imposed corn tax.
Late Roman Army units on the Wall
Even a random survey of site excavations points to the growing evidence of late activity at one time fortified Roman military installations, though how far we can take that evidence into later times remains a difficult issue. On this, and a good number of matters the post-holes, are naturally silent. But at Carlisle, excavations have demonstrated that occupation of this important one-time fort and later civilian site with civitas tribal capital status continued deep into the post- Roman period.
Carlisle is one of the sites itemised in the late Roman Army command list known as the Notitia Dignitatum, compiled in AD 395 and subsequently corrected over a further period of 25-30 years. This military deployment catalogue details the units on the Wall (per lineum valli), all set out in almost perfect geographical order, from east to west, though some scholars have voiced scepticism about the up-to-date accuracy of part of the document. But the role of the limitanei and they would not all have had local roots in the areas served - continued in importance in the late Roman period. One of the legions under the British command seems to have been promoted to the field army, the comitatenses, either to counter-balance the earlier withdrawal of large forces of limitanei early in AD 402 for the defence of Rome, or compensate for the removal of troops by the usurper Constantine 111 (407-411) in AD 407 for his invasion of Gaul.
Meanwhile, it is clear that, on the west of the Wall, Carlisle - as a long time military command centre and settlement centre - continued to be important deep into the fifth century. A gold solidus coin (commonly associated with pay to army units) of the emperor Valentinian 11 (AD 382-92) was found sealed in a hypocaust that had been subsequently covered with several floors within a high status town house building in Scotch Street. Evidence has also been found in the citys Blackfriars Street for occupation in the late fourth and early fifth century.  Extensive bone deposits also lay over the top of the latest military layers, as at Binchester, and this posed the question whether it was evidence for butchery, feasting, or both, on a massive scale within the area of the main fort.
On the east coast, Arbeia at South Shields was an equally key centre - a Roman fort and major grain supply base that at one time contained 24 stone-built granaries. Set on a low hill above the mouth of the River Tyne and four miles beyond the eastern end of the Hadrians Wall, it was the scene of flourishing late military and garrison supply activity consisting of ten late barracks, mostly converted from a row of granary stores. Occupation of the fort continued until the end of the Roman period, with the then ruinous southwest stone gate passage of the fort rebuilt in timber. This occurred sometime around AD 400.. Intriguingly, the Arbeiasite revealed a long sequence of occupation: a meticulously laid-out cobble and gravel parade ground from an early Roman timber fort was exposed and sealed below lay the foundations of a large Iron Age roundhouse. In the Roman period, the atmosphere was decidedly cosmopolitan. During the late third/early fourth century, the Arbeia fort was probably held by the unit of the Tigris Boatmen or bargemen, numerus barcarioum Tigrisensium, originally raised in the easternmost region of the Empire, in the area of modern Iraq. Housesteads was occupied through the third and fourth centuries by the First Cohort of Tungrians, an infantry group originally raised from one of the tribes in present-day Belgium and strengthened in the third century by two other units, Notfrieds regiment from Germany and a unit of Frisians drawn from a tribe living at the mouth of the Rhine.
Granary storage, as in this military supply base, was a vital factor in the maintenance of fort life. Generally, granaries were usually designed to hold a years supply for a garrison, from one harvest to the next. The annual restocking of the granary stores was a tax in kind (anonna militaris) on a surrounding district, and this, as much as anything else, points to the reasons why the residual body of troops remaining on the Wall had every reason to stay as long as they could; the old tried and tested system, if continued to be enforced, ensured a regular supply of essential crops - and, crucially, provided and harvested by someone else. Evidence from the most easternmost garrison of the Wall, the Arbeia, guarding the mouth of the Tyne, offers an important pointer to later developments on the frontier.
It incorporated a layout common among late Roman forts in the eastern provinces of the Empire and this included an elaborate late Roman courtyard house that probably served as the commanding officers residence. But early fifth century burials within the courtyard may point to a violent end of the coastal fort that, in later times, must have been vulnerable to the growing threat of sea-borne attacks. Intriguingly, however, excavations at the fort site yielded an eighth century gilded cruciform mount leading to the recognition of other objects - thus datable finds that had previously languished in old collections. These raise the possibility that Arbeia later became the site of a Northumbrian royal palace and that some of its outlying lands were used to found the monasteries at Monkwearmouth and Jarrow, the eighth century home of the great Venerable Bede. The latter monastery at Jarrow lay just two miles in either direction from South Shields and Wallsend. To the west, at the majestically sited five-acre Housesteads fort, set amidst a thriving community, the commanders house also became more elaborate in the fourth century and a hypocaust installed to make life just a little more bearable to the CO. Similar changes occurred at other forts reflecting, it is argued, the rise in status of the military commander into an all-purpose civil magistrate and local leader.
At Binchester in County Durham, the bath-house of the commanders residence - built after about AD 360 changed radically in function and status. Some rooms became a smithy and a slaughterhouse, with a final wooden structure serving as a workshop for the working of antler. Elsewhere, Catterickhas been the subject of much discussion as a type-site for survival into the fifth century. At least one, if not two buildings at the site post-date AD 400. Here, as elsewhere, archaeological excavations have turned up a good deal of late military equipment, giving rise to the suggestion that an army cavalry unit may have been stationed at the walled settlement during the fourth century Theodosian reorganisation of Britains defences. Significantly, groups of identifiable sixth century Anglian burials have been found nearby, and within the precincts of the walled Roman town.
Inevitably when dealing with this difficult-to-unravel era, conclusions are difficult to formulate. The flimsy evidence simply does not allow for a coherent appraisal and no straight forward answers readily emerge to the complex questions that arise. But it is clear that a great deal of late/post-Roman activity was focused on the former military sites in the region of the Wall. Further, it now becoming increasingly evident that a new, early medieval order was evolving amidst the derelict ruins of at least some of the old forts, granaries and barrack blocks.
So it is not unreasonable to speculate that this new order involved a combination of patronage, protection and, maybe, coercion, with the presiding lord and master drawing on local supply sources that, in the form of corn-tax, had earlier sustained the forts in the Roman period from commander, then, to enforcing, tribute-exacting early medieval-style landlord?
But if the evidence constitutes signposts in the gloom, it fails to offer any direct clues about any known historical figures, or indeed point to any separately verifiable political units or realms. These remain as shadowy as ever, largely confined to myth, tradition and the bardic tales - the praise-poems that, as in the case of Y Goddodin, were ceremonially declaimed in the timber halls of the Heroic Age.
What the combined evidence does suggest, however, is that these figures in the gloom flourished at a time when, as at certain sites elsewhere in the Celtic west and north, the spirit and influences of the pre-Roman Iron Age were still pervasive and its traditions embraced with enthusiasm by the ascending post-Roman warrior aristocracy. A paradox remains here, however. This was an elite that, in some instances, continued to use Latinised names and Roman-style titles of authority and by so doing doubtless enhanced their local prestige and political advancement.
On this, the views of two leading contemporary authorities are both compelling and merit close consideration. Christopher Snyder (Late Roman Britain in The Britons, Blackwell, 2003) has suggested the label Brittonic (Brythonic) Age for the fifth/sixth century period in Britain. Ken Dark holds that the roots of the British heroic society lay in the Roman world of late Antiquity, with its aristocratic clientage, elaborate feasts and sung panegyrics.
But in Snyders opinion, the prevailing culture north of the Wall could hardly be anything but the perpetuation of Iron Age lifestyles, by both the elite and the peasantry who supported them. Dark commented: My guess is that in terms of everyday artefacts for most of the western British population the fifth and sixth centuries looked very much like the fourth much of the late Roman past survived in fifth and sixth century western and northern Britain, although doubtless much, too, had changed.
On the basis of extensive archaeological work, the Birdoswald excavator, Tony Wilmott has more recently argued that the kind of commander-patronus attested by the large commanders houses found in the late frontier forts continued to be an important figure as the fifth century went on. Reservations and niggling questions remain, for there must have been regional variations at work amidst the patchwork of political fragmentation that followed AD 410.
Even so, it is instructive to reflect that, just some 15 years ago, few if any of the post-Roman structures on the Wall frontier, and in the region - these power bases of what no doubt ultimately became inherited, passed-down authority - were known to either the archaeologist or the historian. This newly acquired follow-up research-based knowledge in itself represents a dramatic shift in the way we are now able to view just how society changed in the late Roman period and during the transition to the post-Roman world. But there have been other, more specific, advances. The remarkable early medieval poem Y Gododdin has been the subject of close textual analysis by linguistic scholars since at least the 18th century- and further rigorous analysis has sharpened this debate in recent years. Arguably, the most revealing associated evidence for the type of timber feasting hall (neuadd) that forms such an evocative setting for the poem has been found at the site of some of the latest archaeological discoveries - the former Roman Wall fort of Birdoswald.
 Millett, Martin (1990): The
Developed Economy, in: The Romanization of Britain,
Cambridge University Press, pp.163-214 .
here draws on AHM Jones (1973) The Later Roman
Empire AD 284 602: a social, economic
and administrative survey (2nd edition), Oxford,
insisting that the frontier troops (limitanei)
would have become hereditary, since sons of soldiers were
regularly recruited (and from 313 were obliged to serve)..
He further argues: The troops remaining on
Hadrians Wall and its region were not top-rate
soldiers of the field army (the comitatenses) but rather
frontier soldiers (limitanei) perhaps best characterised
as a frontier militia whose role was confined to the
defence of the frontier. Millett also concludes
that these local developments resulted in a gradual
decline in the taste for Mediterranean styles of food,
including olive oil a loss of Mediterranean tastes
implied by the later absence of concentrations of
imported pottery on Hadrians Wall.
Dark Age Halls of Power is Copyright © 2006, Keith Nurse. All rights reserved. Used with permission.
Comments to: Keith Nurse
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