Monday, August 2, 2010

The Saxon Shore -- Evidence of Prospertity?

The Saxon Shore forts are imposing stone fortresses along the southeast shore of England. Dominating the coastline where they are set, the forts are probably the most impressive examples of Roman architecture remaining in Britain today. In my last blog I talked about where their name came from -- the region in a 4th century Roman military document was referred to as “The Saxon Shore”. Popular wisdom has it that the forts were established to ward of Saxon invasions, but scholars today are questioning that theory.

Here are some alternatives that have been put forth. All consider the Germanic threat to have had minimal impact on the decision to build the forts. In other words, they don’t think there was much threat.

Donald A. White looks at the historical context of the dates of construction. Caurausius and Allectus had led the British in a successful rebellion against the Romans in 289-296. White proposes that the forts were actually constructed to prevent a Roman invasion to retake the island.

Also taking into account historical context, John Cotterill proposes that the forts were, in fact, constructed to supply the Roman army on the Continent with grain and products from Britain. Remember, they were built pre-410 AD when the Romans withdrew. Britain was one of the principal “granaries” of the Roman Empire.

The most recent work was done by Andrew Pearson, who examined each of the forts in detail and within their local context. He came up with some startling conclusions.

First, the forts were not built all at the same time, which argues against an integrated defense system. (Francis Pryor in his book Britain AD notes that the Roman military document in which the forts were mentioned was a listing of what was there, not a strategic plan.)

At the beginning of the third century Dover, an older Roman fort, went out of use, while Caister-on-Sea, Reculver and Brancaster were built. This leads us to wonder if there was a need for defensive structures, why was Dover retired? In fact, the deployment of these structures makes no sense militarily, if they were intended to protect the coast from Saxon raiders. They are all way up north, near the Wash, rather than down along Suffolk, Sussex, Essex, Kent and Hampshire, which were closer to the Continent and much more susceptible to Saxon attack.

The remaining forts were built during the last 40 years of the 3rd century. Portchester was abandoned for a period of ten years directly after its construction and at least half line were abandoned when the Romans withdrew, which theoretically would have been the time Britain was most vulnerable.

Francis Pryor provides an account of the archeological evidence for the purpose of the Saxon Shore forts. He notes how different these forts are from the Roman forts along Hadrian’s Wall.

Now, there is no question that Hadrian’s Wall and its chain of forts is a defensive structure. Furthermore, if you examine Birdowald, Housesteads, or Carlisle (my own pet as it’s my heroine’s home “castle”), you’ll discover a similar pattern. The fort is square or rectangular, with a gate centered in each of its four walls. The gates are set opposite each other and a road leads from one gate to its opposing gate. This creates a grid around which a large number of buildings are crammed in a very orderly, logical fashion. The pattern repeats throughout the Roman Empire.

Pearson noted evidence of an orderly military-style grid at Reculver, and that the other two early forts appear to have layouts intended for defense. The layout of the remaining Saxon Shore forts, however, are nothing like that. Portchester, especially, has been subject to intense excavation by archaeologist Barry Cunliffe, who is extremely respected for his meticulous field work. There is no evidence of the cramming with permanent structures set on a well-organized grid. In fact, there seems to be a paucity of structures within these forts. There are large empty areas. Strucures that existed were laid out in a haphazard fashion. Remains found in these structures, including infant burials, give evidence of civilian occupancy, instead. It’s been suggested that large areas of the forts were used to store goods.

Pearson and Pryor both feel that these fortresses, rather than serving as a defense network, may have served as collecting and distribution points for British trade.

Pryor in the vast collection of archeological evidence he references in Britain AD, asserts that rather than collapsing after the Roman withdrawal, Celtic Britain experienced an economic boom instead. His hypothesis is supported by Michael Jones, to whom I referred in an earlier blog, and a number of the scholarly articles collected in The Celtic World, the mammoth, academic tome edited by Miranda Greene.

No longer weighed down by the immense burden of taxes paid to Rome, Britains had more money to spend on themselves and their country. There was a building boom, with the revival and refurbishment of many settlements. And, there was a lot of trade abroad. (Pryor gives a vast amount of evidence in the last chapter of his book Britain AD.) This is where the Saxon Shore forts come in. Pearson has noted that they are almost all located at points like near the mouths of rivers or at road junctions that make them ideal of the collection and distributions of goods.

During Roman times, then, these ports may have been used as Cotterill proposed, to send British products to supply Rome. But upon Rome’s withdrawal, they may have remained as trade centers for Britain’s commerce with the Continent. Not all – remember some were abandoned. But that still leaves the other half.

No matter how you look at it, that leaves the Saxon Shore forts as evidence of a period of prosperity – not of a country hunkering down under prospective Saxon threat.

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