Interview: Linking Ancient Rome and Ireland

Jacqueline Cahill WilsonThe Discovery Programme is an Irish public institution for advanced research in Irish archaeology. Its sole activity is to engage in full-time archaeological and related research, in order to enhance our understanding of Ireland’s complex past. Recently, the Discovery Programme has initiated a project of geophysical investigations as part of the Late Iron Age and Roman Ireland (LIARI) Project.

In this interview, James Blake Wiener of the Ancient History Encyclopedia speaks with Dr. Jacqueline Cahill-Wilson, Principal Investigator for the LIARI Project. This project seeks, amongst other things, to shed light on settlement and society in Ireland during the first five centuries CE, and will involve a critical reappraisal of the nature and impact of interaction with the Roman world.

JW: Dr. Cahill-Wilson, it’s a pleasure to speak with you for the Ancient History Encyclopedia. When we first published a précis about the Late Iron Age and Roman Ireland (LIARI) Project, on our newsfeed, we received many requests for further information. This is quite an interesting topic and one we think deserves further attention.

I wanted to first ask you about the genesis of LIARI Project and what you hope experts, like yourself, are able to accomplish through your endeavors. Furthermore, I was curious as to how will this archaeological project differ from the others conducted by the Discovery Programme?

JCW: Thank you James, it is a pleasure to give an interview for the Ancient History Encyclopedia. Since its inception in 1991 the Discovery Programme has been at the forefront of innovative approaches to archaeological research through the application of exciting new technology and scientific methods. As you know it has been an extraordinary decade of excavation in Ireland and we are only now starting to evaluate the data collected throughout these years. The Late Iron Age and Roman Ireland (LIARI) project was designed to investigate the period of the first five centuries AD, a period that has been relatively under-researched until now. LIARI has commenced, however, at a difficult time for the funding of heritage and archaeology in Ireland more generally, so we are trying to maximize our output in areas of research through networks and collaborative projects with other scholars working in similar or related fields both here in Ireland and in the UK and Europe. This pilot phase will be over 18 months but we are hopeful that the project will be extended for a further five years.

JW: As I understand it, this project will utilize the latest scientific tools of analysis and advanced scientific methods, including geochemistry and isotope analysis. To what extent can these tools reveal the nature of Roman interaction with the ancient Irish?

JCW: Our scientific investigations will focus on two key aspects that will add greatly to our knowledge of the later Irish Iron Age: population mobility and migration and the exploitation of natural resources. Although the scientific techniques we are using are relatively new in archaeological investigation the analytical methods themselves have been used widely for many years in earth sciences and geology. Strontium and oxygen isotope analysis has been used in archaeological investigation to successfully demonstrate a geographic origin for humans and animals. This method was used in my own doctoral research in which I studied burials that had been classified as ‘intrusive’ in the later Irish Iron Age and found that although some of them did indeed originate outside Ireland, interestingly some of them were local people who appear to have adopted new burial practices. (For any readers unfamiliar with this scientific technique I have posted an overview of both the science and the methodology we are using on the LIARI webpages of the The Discovery Programme website).

The second line of scientific investigation actually originated in the geological assessment that was needed to conduct the strontium and oxygen analysis mentioned above. My research revealed an interesting correlation between finds of Roman material in Ireland the distribution of natural resources, such as copper lead and gold, We are very fortunate to be collaborating with Dr. Alistair Pike and Chris Standish at the University of Bristol who have been instrumental in revealing new sources for the origin of Irish gold in the early Bronze Age. Using the comparative data on lead isotopes already collated from around Ireland we can now suggest a likely geographic origin for copper in the later Iron Age.

There have been several finds over the last century of Romano-British type plano-convex copper ingots which have up until now been regarded as imported into Ireland. With the help of our collaborative partners we will analyse the copper sources in this period in Ireland to see whether they were being exploited using Roman techniques, and we plan to also investigate whether some of the similar ingots found in Romano-British contexts were actually imported from Ireland rather than Wales. One important outcome of all of this work is that we will be creating an open-access database for collaborative research so that scholars working in related fields of enquiry can access existing comparative data.

JW: Many believe that Ireland was a bastion of Celtic culture, isolated and insulated from the Mediterranean milieu of the Romans. The subject of the Romans and their interactions with Ireland is one that is hotly debated and controversial.

While Ireland (“Hibernia”) was never a part of the Roman Empire, would it be correct to say that the Romans held considerable cultural sway over Ireland?

JCW: I would not go quite so far as to say that the Romans held considerable sway over all of Ireland in either military or political terms but in cultural influence – that can be evidenced directly by the archaeology of the period – yes, this could be described as considerable and what the early project results are revealing is that in parts of Ireland this appears to be direct influence and it has been significantly underestimated up until now. The concept of a ‘Celtic’ Ireland untouched by the influence of the Roman Empire has, as you say, been debated at length. The term ‘Celtic’ is a relatively modern construct, based on linguistic similarities and artistic parallels and it has been used to essentially homogenize the people who lived and died within whole swathes of Europe and the islands of Britain and Ireland.

Yet from the 1st century AD in Ireland there is actually very little artefactual evidence that might be characterized by the term ‘Celtic’ or La Tène; rather what we have found is that there is an increasing body of evidence for finds that have the clearest parallels (like the burials mentioned earlier) in the Late Pre-Roman Iron Age (LPRIA) and the Roman period in Britain, up to and including what is classified as Late Antiquity outside Ireland.

JW: I am also curious as to the other ways the Romans influenced Ireland politically, linguistically, artistically, and economically. Roman and Romano-British artefacts have been found in Western and Southern Ireland, as well as at sites of historical importance like Tara.

JCW: Actually, Roman and Romano-British artefacts have been found pretty much all over Ireland but they appear to cluster in discrete geographical regions and as I mentioned earlier this distribution does appear to correlate with areas rich in natural resources. Up until quite recently bath-taking, toga-wearing swarthy Italians was the only characterization of all things Roman, even for the province of Britannia. But more recent dialogues in archaeology around the concept of discrepant experiences – as to how the vast majority of ordinary people, not the elite, engaged with a new Roman cultural milieu and political administration even in the western Roman provinces – has provided a much needed paradigm shift in the study of the archaeology of the period at a local and regional level. What the archaeology has demonstrated is that there were many ways to be Roman, and not all of these are obvious within the archaeological record.

Contemporary approaches such as these have opened up Roman Studies to those of us who have been working to understand the implications of finds of Roman material in areas that were outside the formal administration of Rome. It allows us to rehabilitate all those finds from Ireland that were deemed irrelevant or ‘intrusive’, and for the first time to consider the social and cultural influences from the Roman world that helped to shape what we think of as essentially ‘Irish’ today.

JW: Given the short sailing distance from Ireland to Roman Britannia across the Irish Sea, I would assume that there would be a great deal of interaction and intermarriage over the centuries. Is it likely that the Romans would have also known a great deal about Irish politics and power structures (like the tuath for example or “Brehon” law)?

JCW: It is often tempting to try to reconstruct a much earlier past for aspects of society or culture that are familiar to us from the writings of the later Early Medieval period. We are working with eminent scholars in Ireland whose knowledge is essential to our understanding of the earliest Irish texts because our approach has been to cross the traditional subject divides to allow us create a holistic knowledge of the entire period, historically and archaeologically.

It seems likely that at the heart of the social structures in Ireland during this period was the concept of sacral kingship and this may (or may not) have had a hierarchical patronage system within which we should place the túatha you mention as subject to these powerful kings. These rulers appear to have negotiated a position for themselves within the purview of the Roman economy and yet maintained their autonomy outside Roman control, a considerable feat by any standard (pardon the pun!).

JW: Marvelous pun! I know that Publius (or Gaius) Cornelius Tacitus (56-117 CE) mentions Ireland in his elegiac biography Agricola dedicated to the famous Roman general, Gnaeus Julius Agricola (c. 40-93 CE). Do you believe as some do that the Romans invaded Ireland or merely raided periodically? If the Romans never launched an invasion, why do you think the Romans avoided their westernmost neighbor?

JCW: The writing of Tacitus have been the subject of immense scrutiny in recent years and it is clear that Agricola was well aware of Ireland and had at least thought about full invasion. But we must remember that we need to position what was happening in this remote corner of the western Empire within the greater political machinations in Rome itself, the rise of Emperor Domitian and his recall of Agricola to Rome. There is as yet no conclusive proof of full-scale military presence in Ireland despite some well-argued but essentially speculative hypotheses that have been proposed over the years.

That said, we must remember that until very recently there have been quite strenuous arguments proposed against even the notion of cultural influence from Roman Britain; we hope that the research of the LIARI project will convince even the most hardened skeptics that this latter position is no longer valid. I remain unconvinced that the Romans would have missed an opportunity to record such a momentous event in their contemporary accounts and indeed the need to remind us for generations later of such a triumph in distant Hibernia. It seems much more likely that an invasion force was not needed because they were in fact already here and that in some parts of Ireland, those in closest proximity to Roman Britain had come to a mutually beneficial arrangement.

JW: Finally, do you think that the LIARI Project has the exciting potential of rewriting the narrative of early Irish history? If so, how?

JCW: I am going to turn your question round a bit if that’s okay with you, as I believe it is widely recognized within scholarship in Ireland that the traditional culture-historical narrative of the later Irish Iron Age needed to be reviewed and our primary objective with LIARI is to validate a revised narrative through our research. What has become clear through recent scholarship is that although the later Irish Iron Age had in the past proved problematic (some might say almost ethereal given the scarcity of diagnostic material culture and settlements) that there was a growing body of recognized material of LPRIA and Romano-British style that was not considered socially meaningful in a ‘Celtic’ Iron Age. It will take time to revise traditional views and our work is designed to demonstrate how this can be achieved through a more systematic and scientific approach to archaeological investigation. This will also include the use of modern survey techniques like high-resolution aerial photography, lidar, geophysics and digital terrain models and applying modern scientific methods such as those outlined above alongside new 14C dating. The more research that is completed, the more finds will be recognized at sites around Ireland.

With this in mind, the LIARI team has put in place a programme to review museum collections and private collections around Ireland to check for any missed or misclassified Roman material from older excavations. I suspect that once professional archaeologists become familiar with Romano-British coarse wares, we will find that these are recognized much more regularly during excavation and post-excavation analysis. Remember that there has never been an expectation of finding Roman sequences or contexts at sites in Ireland and we may never know just how much might have been missed in the past.

Part of the Discovery Programme’s remit is to educate and to reach beyond academia to local interest and community archaeology groups, and we will be working with local communities and also putting together a teaching reference collection of the more common Romano-British pottery as an on-line guide on the DP website.

We have great expectations for the LIARI project and we aim to publish the results of this pilot phase our investigations in the Spring of 2013 in Discovery Programme Report No. 8.

JW: Dr. Cahill-Wilson, I thank you so much for your time! I wish you much luck and happy adventures in research. It has been an immense pleasure to learn more about your work as well as the nature of Roman-Irish interaction!

JCW: Go raibh míle maith agat Séamus! And if any of your readers are interested in following up on anything I have discussed please go to the Discovery Programme website, or post a topic on our forum, or indeed we would be delighted to welcome you to our conference in October 2012– details of which are now on-line!

  • Jacqueline Cahill WilsonDr. Jacqueline Cahill-Wilson spent 11 years working in higher education funding and management in England before returning to academia in 2001. She received First Class Honours for a BA in Archaeology from the University of Bristol in 2004, and was awarded full funding from the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) to complete an MA in Archaeology at the University of Reading. Returning thereafter to the University of Bristol, Jacqueline completed her doctoral research again with full funding from the AHRC in 2010. Having lectured widely at all academic levels for the University of Bristol as well as for local historical and archaeological societies in Great Britain and Ireland, Jacqueline was appointed by the Discovery Programme as the Principal Investigator for the LIARI Project in September 2011. Jacqueline’s academic interests include a diverse range of topics from the Iron Age in Western Europe to the archaeology of Rome and its western provinces. To learn more about Dr. Cahill-Wilson’s work and publications, please click here.
  • James Wiener is a news editor and public relations manager for the Ancient History Encyclopedia, providing a continuous listing of must-read articles, exciting museum exhibitions, recent book reviews, and interviews with experts in the field. Trained as a historian and researcher, and previously a professor, James is a freelance writer and who is keenly interested in cross-cultural exchange. Committed to fostering increased awareness of the ancient world, James welcomes you to the Ancient History Encyclopedia and hopes that you find his news pieces and interviews to be “illuminating.”
James Wiener
About the Author
James Blake Wiener is the Communications Director at Ancient History Encyclopedia. Aside from his work at AHE, James is an avid Arabist and Latin Americanist, devotee of romance languages (French, Portuguese, and Spanish), international traveler, and fan of ice hockey.