[ISSN 1974-028X]








filosofia & religione


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N. 34 - Ottobre 2010 (LXV)

Orkney: The 6th province of Britannia?

New evidences from Mine Howe*
di Antonio Montesanti

In a late document (Laterculus II), Polemius Silvius listed all the Roman provinces, including within the Diocese of Britannia: (Britannia) Prima, (Britannia) Secunda, Maxima, Flavia, Valentiniana, and the name of the 6th hypothetical province called Orcades (Orkneys). Although the name of latter in Polemius’ list has been considered as an interpolation added subsequently following Eutropius, 7, 13 (Mommsen), new Roman archaeological finds from Mine Howe, Mainland, Orkney, might represent the evident clue for a different interpretation of the late Roman source.

The archaeological site of Mine Howe

Mine Howe (HY 5105 0603, OR 63) is a glacial-looking hillocks (c.95m in diameter) lying within the parish of Tankerness on Mainland, Orkney. Excavation campaigns undertaken between 2000 and 2004 revealed a unique middle-late Iron Age ‘ritual’ complex based on three different main features: one underground structure, the massive ditch surrounding the mound and a sub-circular structure identified as workshop.

The underground laddered structure was built into the core of the sub-circular glacial with fine drystone masonry. The body of the construction is formed by two flights of stairs at the base of those a well-shaped main chamber is located and roofed by a corbelled stone roof capped ().

A very substantial ditch surrounding the mound interrupted by a single entrance to the W was also investigated  ). The excavation results have led to the belief that consider some material was thrown up on the mound in order to enhance its size and appearance. A series of activities were carried out as the ditch infilling, revetting, truncating and remodelling mostly by the entranceway, revealing a sequence of natural infilling and human remodelling probably to build two main classes of elements for sacred and structural use (Gater 1999; Harrison 2005: 4-8; 2002:5,15; Card & Downes 2003a:11,13,16; 2003b:101-2; Card et al. 2000a:2-5; 2005:4,52-61; 2006:6,32-39; Card, Downes & Gibson 2000:65-6; Card et al. 2003:5-6, 60; Guttman 2001).

The main focus of excavations, however, as well as of the Roman finds, has been concentrated on the sub-circular structure just outhwith the ditch entranceway, considered an Iron Age workshop enclosure with a strong smith activity. The circular building consisted of well-coursed freestanding drystone walls, presenting recesses used as a fuel store and as fine clay deposit and contained a central flagstone hearth with an upright stone backstop.

All the features within investigated reflect the broad range of smithing techniques. A small clay-lined furnace, with a flue leading into the base used for heating and melting copper alloy set in the surrounding floor, a series of anvils were around the hearth and an area of dense hammerscale (Card et al 2003:8-38; Card & Downes 2002:87-8).

Roman materials: typology, dating and comparisons

All context from the ditch and the workshop contained large amounts of artefacts, but few of them are specifically Romano-British (MacSwean 2001): on 10433 small finds, collected in 5 excavation campaigns, just 220 of them have been considered Romano-British artefacts, which represent 2.1% ca. of the total. Of those 220 objects, 68 may be considered as Roman or Romano-British, 46 may be deemed as an interaction between Natives and Romans, while 59 might be considered purely Native. The remaining 47 artefacts, which it was not possible assess, have been considered as ‘dubious’.

However, the study on the deposition has been carried out on all the 220 finds and based on digital images. They have been subdivided, in the first instance, principally into five typologies: BONE (66=30%), GLASS (49=22%), METAL (87=40%), TERRA-COTTA (11=5%), and OTHER materials different by those above (7=3%).

The evident Romano-British materials of Mine Howe have been analysed through comparisons to understand their depositional function, use and chronology. These finds seems to present two common features: they have very small dimensions, with an average measure of about 2 cm, rarely achieving the wide of 5-6 cm and all of them were intentionally broken, enlightening a non-random deposition practice.


Two fragments belong to two different pillar-moulded or ribbed bowls. The one presents a deep blue colour with white/yellow shades and another yellow/brown (Price & Cool 1995:15; Grossmann 2002:9; Harden 1987:19; Price & Cottam 1998:44-45) .

They are common and widespread throughout the Roman Empire and occur during the late Republic or Early Augustan period. With a further chronological extension  in their use as ‘export good’ in the Flavian period. By early 2nd century, the bowls had clearly gone out of production and were not in common use with some exception (Isings 1957:18; Grose 1977:22, fig. 6.2; Czurda 1979:26-34; Scatozza Hoericht 1986:27; Grose 1989:244-7; 249). They have also been found at sites far beyond the boundaries and/or in peripheral areas of the Roman Empire in Denmark, Norway, Yemen, India and Afghanistan (Berger 1960:18, form 29, Taf. 18.35; Price & Cool 1995:15-19, 304; 20, fig. 2.2).

A blue fragment as part of a decoration belonging to ‘snake-thread’ class (Schlagenfeden) seems to be one of the most interesting finds. Many of the snake-thread examples related to spouted jugs from graves, often found in the Rhineland, Gaul, Britain, had a basically a West-Empire range with a chronology of AD 170-300 (Fremersdorf 1959, Tafn. 9-33 & 35-65; Price & Cool 1995:42-3; Allen 1998:43; Grossmann 2002:20). By comparisons, a waving dating might be between 2nd and 3rd century and  some more appropriate comparison might lead it toward the middle of 3rd century (Price & Cool 1995: 61-62; 218).


The six pottery fragments found in the workshop have the same typology: they are part of the Oxfordshire red/brown-slipped wares and part of two vessels (Wallace 2005; Young 1977; Bird and Young 1981).

The extensive production of this ware typology commences by c. AD 240 and expands and intensifies until the end of 4th century (Bird and Young 1981; Tyers 1999:175-8; de la Bedoyere:35, fig. 24, j).

The distribution of the ware is centred on Central England, from the Severn Valley to the Thames Estuary and in about two centuries and was dominant in the S. In North Britain, this pottery relates to the occurrence on sites like Dumbarton Rock, Keil Point, Dun Mor Vaul, Tiree, Crosskirk Bay, Keiss Harbour, Edinburgh Craddle, Trapian Law and Bamburgh Castle  (Wallace 2005:2).

Their chronological classification is dated AD c. 270-400+ and the fragments are the most late fragments of Roman ware ever discovered at those latitudes (Tyers 1999:175-8; de la Bedoyere:35; Swan 1988:31; 72, fig. XII, 203).


At least, four Roman fibulae have brought to the light during the excavation campaigns.  

The most important, stylistically and chronologically speaking, is a flat oval enamelled or ‘plate’ brooch with a central recess, with a glass paste intaglio embedded in it. Known as ‘Celtic head’, this type had a distribution widespread in central-southern Britain with some specimen coming from North England (Richborough IV.48; Hattat 1985:fig. 73, 636-7, pls. 755-6; Hull 1967:No. 196; Hull & Hawkes 1987:252, pl. 776, 4465, no. 260). Similar fibulae have been dated to AD mid 2nd running possibly into the 3rd century.

Three typologically similar fibulae might belong to the ‘headstud’ or ‘trumpet’, ‘enamelled’ and ‘dolphin’. The first derives from a Flavian prototype (Collingwood and Richmond 1969:296) a specimen broadly used in the NW regions of the Empire (Snape 1993:14-15): Nether Denton (cat no 239); Augst (Riha 1979, 47.1391); Nijmegen (van Buchem 1941, pl XIV.7,8); Neuss (Lehner 1904, taf. XXIV.73); Rheinland (Exner 1939, af 6.1-4). Headstud shows greater variation than the type, and to have outlasting the other patterns, running until the end of the 2nd century (Painter and Sax 1970:173).

The second presents small casting holes probably missing enamel or studs. For its bow shape, it appears to be very similar to the ‘Severn’ type (Snape 1993:34-5,10.3, group 2). On the Continent, a similar brooch is one of the few enamelled objects in the large collection from Vindonissa preserved at Königsfelden, near Brugg. In Germany, where enamel begins to appear in the Flavian period, a similar simplicity of treatment may be observed in a pair of brooches found at Xanten with a coin of Titus (Curle 1911:321).

In Britain, similar fibulae come from Vindolanda (cat no 175) and Chester (cat no A238), as well as Brough-under Stainmore, Ravenglass, Wilderspool, Traprain Law, and in the pebbles area (Snape 1987:309-12). This brooches might be part of the small northern group, chronologically set into the later 1st to mid-2nd century.

The third type has a more difficult identification by oxidation, perhaps similar to some ‘AVCISSA’ or ‘dolphin’ type, even though it is not possible to assess for the lack of the ‘tail’. Its similarity is just in the knob section which has the same lozenge section (Bayley & Butcher 2004:63, 74. RV, No.42; Hattat 1985:nn. 367-373), which have been found mostly in Dorset (Hattat 1985:81 fig. 34) or ‘Polden Hill’ type (Hattat 1985:82-86). As deposition, one of the Newstead specimens came from the ditch of the early fort, and may therefore be regarded as belonging to the end of the 1st century (Curle 1911:321-322, Fig. 8).

Weaponry (?)

Five rings, which might belong to micro-chains, similar to those found at Gurness broch (Hedges 1987:180) and could be part of chainmail armour or cuirass. Other unidentified rings (?8) have been found of small dimensions and some of them present drilled and riveted holes.

One broken bronze plates (2 pieces), the only one which seems to have some comprehensible oblong, flat shape ending with a spike with one or two holes on the breakage line, hardly might be considered a blade and its shape is reminiscent of a feather (lat. Pluma). Linked with the presence of rings, this element might be part of a peculiar Roman chainmail armour (lorica) or ‘feather armour’ (plumata) (Just., Ep. Trog., XLI.2.10), giving the aspect of bird’s plumage (Wijnhoven 2009).

It would have been developed in the Roman army in the first half of the AD 1st century and similar ones have been found at Newstead, Ouddhorp, Augsburg and Besançon (Feugère 2002:41,84; Franzoni 1987:53; Russell Robinson 1975).

Medical Instruments (?)

'War is the only proper school for a surgeon' (Hippocrates)

A well preserved tweezers (vulsella) missing the both ending parts, should have been worked with the basic idea of gripping, tugging or removing something really small. Some from Caerwent show a large, chequered design, while the arms of one found at Cwmbrwyn (Carmarthenshire) are grooved along its margins. Furthermore, they present a tool which allows to not consider them as cosmetic or epilate ones: as the example from Segontium Roman camp (Caernarfon, Gwynedd), they were provided with a sliding-catch designed for permanent fixture of the jaws for cutting when applied to a tissue, flesh or hair (Thomas 1963:496-7).

Also a spatula probe is recognisable as, although not so evident because of its bent shape. It presents a feature, consisting of the sides of the handle, which have been bent to make it stronger to the stresses, while an iron ‘knife’ might be re-considered as surgical instrument, perhaps a scalpel. More fragments might be recognised as medical or surgery tools is already recognised as a nail and might be a surgical one. Three perfectly polished bone fragments of spatulas tools (s. Hedges 1987, 88; 110-111), which may be hypothesised as Romano-British, might have been assumed, together with the metal instruments, by function as part of a medical kit.

Different copper alloys were used for instruments, medicament-boxes (Scrib. Larg., Comp., 27) and chiefly for spatula-probes (Marcel. Emp. XIV, 44; Paul. Aegin. VI, 77). The dating of Roman instruments is extremely difficult because their standard typology seems to remain unaltered over the centuries. Collections of similar medical instruments from Pompeii, from the ‘Surger’s House’ at Rimini (Jackson 2002) and from the ‘camp doctor’ at Bingen upon Rhine on the frontier (Keunzl 1982) provide some criteria of comparisons with a chronology between AD 79 and end of 3rd century.

In Britain surgical instruments have been found at Richborough, by the site of a Roman camp as well as the most important comparison with the ‘druid’s tomb’ of Stanway, Colchester, Essex, which presents various connections with Mine Howe. The grave has been dated to AD 40-60, when the Romans were founding the settlement of Colchester (Roth 2009:ill. 177; Crummy et al. 2007; Jackson 1997; Healy 1978:246-251).

The Underground structure: function and role as sacred space

Mine Howe has arisen the possibility that such wells, springs and underground chambers had a different theoretical construct. Some magical or religious aspect of these peculiar underground structures has been centred on their potentially sacred character: they would have been a centre for cult activities based on ritual shaft and the sacredness of water, as well known throughout (Harrison 2005:6; Callander & Grant 1934, 454; Card & Downes 2003a:17; Harrison 2005:5). After all, those structures involved an extraordinary degree of elaboration to be just a water supply, as at Cam Euny, where a great circular chamber should have a less utilitarian function than most subsidiary chambers, forming a curious ‘basement’ to a hut above it (Thomas 1972:77-78).

Nevertheless, the closest parallel is represented by the later Iron Age site at Burghead, Morayshire. This well-structure lies within the perimeter of one promontory fort and consists of a flight of stone steps leading down to a cistern fed by springs and its aim has been considered as a clear proof of ceremonial significance, linked with water spirituality.

In Scotland, Dun Mor Vaul, Tiree, presents Roman finds of the Antonine period and the natural underground site of Pasture Cave, which seems to have had similar function of Mine Howe for the Native depositional practices and for the objects found into it (Toppingf 1987:81-2; MacKie 1997).

Such activities are known in the Celtic-Germanic world from both classical and later literature as well as from the archaeological record; they could have multiple functions including being utilised as oracles (Ritchie 1995, 113-4; Ross 1967). The importance of water, wells and springs, has a long-standing tradition and religious practices are widespread: the scene of a ritual immersion on Gundestrup cauldron (Denmark), the classical accounts of Celtic religion, the relief figure, showing a man holding a spear and a serpent, appears on an entrance jamb at Boleigh Fogou in the Land’s End peninsula (Thomas 1972:77) and the later Adomnàn’s text on S. Columba’s Life (Adomnàn, I, 35; II, 11; Harrison 2005:6; Card & Downes 2003a:17).

Metalworking in Natives and Romans’ relationships

At the outset of the invasion, Rome had been interested in British minerals and their exploration followed everywhere rapidly upon the advance of the armies (Tac. Agr. 12). The presence of the Romano-British world on Orkney might be considered now as the strongest evidence in a non-occupied area as well as some striking comparison.

In Hampshire, for instance, between the 1st centuries BC and AD, we notice at some changes such as the introduction of the potter’s wheel, cremation burial and the use of shrines/temples and coinage. The Chichester complex became the centre of a important Roman client kingdom after the conquest in AD 43 (Hill 1995:9; Cunliffe 1993). Again, in Derbyshire, the Matlock mines were an industrial settlement (Gowland 1901:381-4; Cox 1905:227-232; Richmond 1958:42-43).

At Poole's Cavern, metalworking is part of a much wider set of casting activities on Romano-British sites. At Bolsover, the construction of extensions to the local authority headquarters identifies a Romano-British ‘oval’ enclosure, within which a defined area appeared to be dedicated to various industrial activities including iron smithing (Sumpter 1992; Jones & Thompson 1965; Myers 2000:6).

At Bardown, Wadhurst (near Pevensey) a series of five furnaces were built on an industrial scale and were linked with the process of iron working (Cleere 1970:1-23).

In Scotland, three different types of relationships carried out by the Romans in a doubtful and  still debated 4th century province of Valentia (Mann 1961; Foord 1925). The hill-forts of Newstead and Bonchester, Roxburghshire and Traprain Law, East Lothian, in the Votadini’s territory under the Roman authority.

Newstead is thought to have been a Roman military camp evolved into a militarised city, Traprain Law, seems to have been a Native settlement, which is considered to have had the most abundant Roman material than any other. Bonchester, where the Native occupation ceased during the Roman occupation, confirmed by the absolute lack of objects, starting again in the 5th century (Piggott 1950:114). At Traprain Law, formerly defined as the ‘capital of a client kingdom’, the Native pottery is mixed with the Roman. The hill-fort was been inhabited continually during the Roman invasion and exhibits items from Flavian times at least until the end of the 4th century with a relevant peak during the Antonine period.

Traprain Law appears to be a Native, semi- or independent site with some outline of cultural processing Romanisation, which was interrupted after the Roman withdrawal. Particularly, the pottery indicates that the Romano-British goods were more accessible to Native communities in the periods of actual occupation, given to us the evidence and the degree of their Romanisation (Macinnes 1989:112; Richmond 1958:76-79; Hogg 1951).


A strong metalworking evidence has been encountered at Midhowe (Callander & Grant 1934), Gurness (Hedges 1987) and Howe (Ballin Smith 1994), related in the first two with the presence of underground structures (Harrison 2005:9-10; Card & Downes 2003a:16).

In comparison with other Romano-Celtic (British) settlement develops around a sacred places unusually rich in votive evidences: at Buxton, the fulcrum is represented by a natural hot and cold springs cult, during the AD 3rd and 4th centuries (Myers 2000:4; Hart 1981:94); at Thirst House Cave high qualitative brooches and earrings have been deposited within the cave between the late AD 1st and mid-2nd century (Branigan and Bayley 1989:49; Myers 2000:5). In both instances, there is a significant representation of Roman metalwork including brooches, chatelaine, nail, tweezers and ear scoops (Hart 1981:105).

However, Mine Howe shares, with the rest of Orkney brochs, typology, quality and quantity of some common Romano-British artefact with the difference that those from Mine Howe seem to belong to one status and function at an upper level. The main differences between them consist in the fact that the brochs’ finds conclude their chronological horizon at the first two centuries AD and are limited to decorative elements (MacGregor 1976:177-8).

The objects found at Mine Howe have some similarity with the ones brought to light at Traprain Law (Cree 1923) and Fairy Knowe (Robertson 1970:200; Burley 1956:219-221).


Roman materials of Mine Howe are limited for quantity and dimensions, even though not in quality. The most representative phases by artefacts are those which represent an unusual peak and might belong to the phase following the Agricolan invasion.

Some glass fragments, fibulae might be linked with the amphora shards from the  Broch of Gurness (Hedges 1987), related to a hypothetical Claudian invasion (Fitzpatrick 1989), even if Haltern 70 amphorae are well known in Britain just after the Flavian/Agricolean Period (Tyers 1999:97). The hypothesis is obviously based on the solid fact that the centre of resistance lay in the extreme North (Tac. Agr. 10) and the Orkney were seen as completing  the conquest of the whole of Britain (Tac. Hist. 1,2; Richmond 1958:52). Mine Howe’s Roman finds seem to bear a chronological identification from the Flavian until the Hadrian period. Then, and after a symptomatic lack/absence of further evidence  the relationships seem to start over from the Severan reorganization.

By contrast with Traprain Law,  the lack of a massive presence of Roman pottery confirms the absence of Roman settlers as first indicator of any Roman activity. However, it would be plausible that Orkney might have been one of those areas that suggest direct administration by Imperial procurators.

These archaeological hints might be connected with an ‘unexpected’ Roman presence in 4th century in the symbolic site of Mine Howe and linked with the elusive notice of the intangible sixth province of Britannia, Orcades, pointed out on the Theodosius’ campaigns (Nomina Omnium Provinciarum of Polemius Silvius, Laterculus II; Eutropius, 7, 13, 2-3; Hind 1975:101; Steven 1976: 211-224; Birley 2005:399,n.2).

These re-discovered objects would represent not just the strong link and the issue of negotiated relationships or the ‘meaning’ of individual deposits towards an understanding of their effect between people and material forms (artefacts and material actions).

The occurrence both of high status and magical-healing and warlike artefacts is also taken as a direct indicator of characteristic activities at or around Mine Howe, enlightening the symbolic and ritual significance of the site also involved in the process of metal artefacts production (Sharples 1998:205; Card & Downes 2003a:17).

The Romans might have chosen Mine Howe, one of Orkney’s key point, for the evident sacred role of the ditched underground structure and the related workshop. The outpouring of Romano-British materials is argued to be the direct response of the social thread posed by Rome to create and reinforce their own identity in the face of external threats. In this sense, Native key points or places would have been played an important role in craft production or trading exchange: the existence and the particular location at Mine Howe of a smithy/workshop would enhance the status of the site (Hodder 1982:1986-7; Jones 1997:113-5, 123-4; Hunter 2006:105; Hill 1995:9).

Special objects would have become delegated identities and agents as points around which human action is constrained and structured (Boast 1997:188; Pollard 2001:317; 331) as a form of ritual ideology transmitted through a ‘silent’ symbolism and the establishment of new forms of authority (Barrett 1989:313; McOmish 1996:75).





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This paper represents just a brief extract of the dissertation of the MA n Practice Archaeology taken by the Orkney College (UHI Millennium Institute). Here, I would express all my gratitude to all those people who made possible the amazing ‘Orkney Experience’ dream’, and whole ‘extraordinary’ Department of Archaeology of the Orkney College. Special thanks to Jane Dawson, Ingrid Mainland, Martin Carruthers and Nick Card to have hallowed the access to the digital materials, for their time, explanations and suggestions.




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