Uncovering History

Today I’m delighted to welcome back fellow Crooked Cat author Nancy Jardine, who’s here to talk about new discoveries that are informing the research for her Celtic Fervour series of historical novels (which, incidentally, you can snap up for 99p/c in the Crooked Cat sale, if you’re quick!)

Welcome back, Nancy! 

Many thanks for inviting me back again to your blog, Tim. It’s always a pleasure to pop in!

Why do I love an exceedingly dry summer?

I love writing about a time that’s considered to be on the cusp of pre-history, yet I confess that it also comes with multiple frustrations. My Celtic Fervour Series is set in late first century northern Britannia and charts the trials and tribulations of my Garrigill clan of Late Iron Age warriors (Celts) during the campaign invasions of the Governors of Britannia from c. A.D. 71 to A.D. 84 – Cerialis; Frontinus and Agricola. Little has been written about their events in Roman Britain, my main source being Cornelius Tacitus, the son-in-law of Agricola.

With little written evidence to base my fiction on, I’ve turned more specifically to the known archaeology of the period in what was ‘barbarian’ land c. A.D. 71, and outside of what was considered to be the western boundary of The Roman Empire. And that is where both elation and frustration sets in!

Archaeology is absolutely fascinating with all of its fluidity. Every week some new site across Britain is excavated by archaeologists, largely due to the legal needs of developers who have to satisfy the law that no site of special interest is being destroyed before thorough investigation takes place. For historical enthusiasts like me, this has been one of the best innovations in recent memory. Many exciting new aspects of Ancient Roman occupations have been uncovered in the north over the last decade. The findings are fabulous knowledge for me as an author of the period. However, better use of scientific techniques sometimes means what was deemed to be an archaeological fact in the 1970s may now no longer be accurate in 2018. This causes me some hesitation when continuing to write my series since what I thought was relevant research to use when writing Book 1 in 2011 may no longer be an attested fact in 2018! Since I’m known to strive for authenticity in my writing, and in creating realistic characters and settings, minor changes can be a pain in the bahookie!

A typical example might be that some Ancient Roman fortress and fortlet building, in today’s Yorkshire and southern Scotland, is now thought to have occurred earlier than was credited in former times by archaeologists. During Victorian times, and perhaps even centuries earlier, General Gnaeus Iulius Agricola was thought to have been the first Ancient Roman General to invade the bulk of Scotland. Recent excavation interpretations in southern Scotland are setting that invasion clock back to the time of Cerialis c. A.D 71 (perhaps even Governor Bolanus c. A.D. 68) and not as late as Agricola’s of A.D. 77/78. Much of this new dating evidence is resulting from ground excavations, but recently some new sites and Roman roads have been identified from the air.

In 1976, Ancient Roman sites in the north-east of Scotland were identified by aerial photography during a particularly dry summer, the areas of interest showing up as crop markings. Particularly in Aberdeenshire, that photography gave corroboration to temporary camps that had been identified in Victorian times e.g. the Deer’s Den Camp at Kintore. The Victorian enthusiasts believed that some camps like Kintore had a ‘Flavian’ style gateway construction; the type used by Agricola’s engineers- and aerial photography of 1976 was able to clarify some of those earlier speculations.


In 1976, other camps in Aberdeenshire showed up a different gateway style and were interpreted as being used by Emperor Severus c. A.D. 210. The crop marked revelation of the huge camp at Durno (58 hectares), opposite the hill range named Bennachie, might have been used by Severus but the Ancient Roman legions were a canny bunch of men. It wasn’t unusual across the Roman Empire for legions to re-use the earthworks of a previous camp, if they were reinvading an area that had been previously occupied. The temporary camp of ‘Deer’s Den’ at Kintore is interpreted as having been originated by Agricola but there has been sufficient evidence to believe it was re-used by Severus at a later date. Or potentially even more exciting is the theory that the camp at Kintore was used by another Roman commander just prior to Severus, perhaps in the time of Commodus. This speculation comes from interpretative findings made during the very thorough excavation of Kintore temporary camp c. 2002-2004.

These Ancient Roman Temporary Marching Camps go northwards from the city of Aberdeen almost as far as Inverness on the Moray Firth. Of course, it takes more than a study of aerial photographs to prove Ancient Roman occupation. Unfortunately, only a small fraction of what has been identified as possible Roman sites across northern Scotland has been thoroughly excavated. Finance plays a huge part in this since many of the possible sites are on private land that is not under development and therefore not in the same circumstances as land that is about to be developed by house builders or wealthy corporations.

This summer of 2018 has been exceptionally dry in Aberdeenshire and I eagerly wait for news of new aerial photography that will, at a very minimum, support already known sites of interest but hopefully will identify a whole set of new ones. I’m also on tenterhooks to find out if any LIDAR (laser imaging) surveys have been conducted this summer. The fabulously exciting thing about LIDAR is that the laser beams can penetrate all ground surfaces and show up ground disturbance even in heavily forested areas. Since the Forestry Commission was initiated in the 1920s, Aberdeenshire has been covered in tree plantations obscuring many potential sites but the use of LIDAR for archaeological surveying could be explosive!

What I find almost as frustrating as not knowing clearly what actually happened during the Roman invasion of Aberdeenshire c. A.D. 84, is having no real knowledge of why the Ancient Roman Legions of Agricola camped in the north and then, within a very short time, retreated south again. It was documented by Tacitus that Agricola was recalled to Rome, most likely in late A.D. 84 or very early A.D. 85, but we have no knowledge of the movement of his troops when he went back to Rome. Did the legions leave with him, or did they stay a bit longer across Aberdeenshire? While writing Book 4 of my series – Agricola’s Bane – I’ve asked myself many questions and plenty of ‘what ifs’ have resulted.

Archaeological evidence from the Inchtuthil Roman Fortress, south of Blairgowrie in Perthshire, points to a withdrawal of Roman troops in that area by A.D. 86/87. Many historians believe this fortress to have been started after the confrontation with the Caledon allies which became known as Mons Graupius c. A.D. 83/ 84. I personally have a gut feeling that Agricola started the fortress before the battle (if a battle actually did take place), his intention being to have a major supply base in Caledonia which would provide for further advances all the way to the northernmost tip of Scotland.

General Gnaeus Iulius Agricola features as one of the main characters in my soon to be published –Agricola’s Bane – and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed creating him. It’s been incredibly challenging to get into his head and be with him in the aftermath of the battle with the Caledon allies. I’ve pondered long and hard about what his motives were in invading this part of Scotland in the first instance, and what he actually found when he got there.

I hope this dry summer of 2018 will provide mega amounts of new sites to corroborate the campaigns of General Agricola, even though by then it will be too late to change Book 4!



Nancy Jardine writes contemporary mysteries; historical fiction and time-travel historical adventure.

A member of the Romantic Novelists Association, the Scottish Association of Writers, the Federation of Writers Scotland and the Historical Novel Society, her work has achieved finalist status in UK competitions.

She lives in Aberdeenshire, Scotland, with her husband but life is never quiet or boring since her young grandchildren are her next-door neighbours.

You can find her at these places:

Blog: http://nancyjardine.blogspot.co.uk  Website: www.nancyjardineauthor.com/   Facebook: http://on.fb.me/XeQdkG & http://on.fb.me/1Kaeh5G

email: nan_jar@btinternet.com Twitter https://twitter.com/nansjar

Amazon Author page http://viewauthor.at/mybooksandnewspagehere

Goodreads https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/5139590.Nancy_Jardine

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