NEW archaeological evidence on the first-century Roman conquest of southern Scotland will be presented at the Archaeological Research in Progress 2019 Conference in Edinburgh today, revealing a previously unknown route for the Roman invasion of southern Scotland.

A Roman marching camp was discovered during archaeological excavations carried out before the building of a new school in Ayr.

Previously, the only two known routes for the Roman invasion of southern Scotland were further to the east – the present-day M74 and A68 roads follow these same courses. But the new marching camp at Ayr reveals another route down the west coast towards the south-west tip of Scotland, from where Ireland is readily visible.

Guard Archaeology, which carried out the work at Ayr Academy, said that at the time of the find in 2015 it was not obvious that a Roman camp had been found, because there were no Roman artefacts present, only fragments of much earlier Neolithic pottery and an Iron Age bangle from a seemingly random spread of pits and post-holes.

However, radiocarbon dates revealed a regular pattern of features that date to the Roman conquest of Scotland in the latter part of the first century AD. Iraia Arabaolaza, who directed the excavation and who will present the talk today, said: “The Roman features comprised 26 large, often double, fire-pits that were distributed evenly in two parallel rows 30 metres apart. The arrangement and uniformity of these features imply an organised layout and the evidence suggests that they were all used for baking bread. The location of the oven was recognised by the scorching of the subsoil base, stone slabs and burnt clay fragments.

“Ash pits were identified at the opposite end to the ovens within these figure-of-eight features, filled with burnt and charcoal-rich soil comprising the raked-out material from the clay-domed ovens.”

The radiocarbon dates from these fire-pits overlapped between the years AD 77-86 and AD 90, matching the time of the conquest of Scotland by the Roman general Agricola from. Agricola’s son-in-law, Tacitus, who wrote an account of the yearly campaigns, reported that: “In the fifth campaign, Agricola, crossing over, subdued, by frequent and successful engagements, several nations till then unknown; and stationed troops in that part of Britain which is opposite to Ireland.”

Arabaolaza said: “There was a ford across the river Ayr just below the Roman marching camp while ships may have been beached on the nearby shoreline. The Ayr marching camp is 20 miles from the nearest Roman camp to the south at Girvan, a day’s march for a Roman soldier. There is a little more distance to other Roman camps to the north-east near Strathaven. Altogether this suggests that this site was chosen as a strategic location for the Roman conquest of Ayrshire.”

Roman marching camps have been described as the temporary bases of a tented army on campaign. The camp at Ayr Academy has similarities with Roman camps in Scotland, which have also revealed similar formations of fire-pits or camp-ovens.

The archaeological work was funded by Kier Construction as a condition of planning consent by South Ayrshire Council. Today’s conference is organised by the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland and will be held at the Royal Society of Edinburgh. A Roman Marching Camp in Ayr by Iraia Arabaolaza has just been published in the Britannia Journal, while ARO33: Beside the River Ayr in prehistoric times: excavations at Ayr Academy by Iraia Arabaolaza is available to download from Archaeology Reports Online.