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Guest Author:
Stuart Laycock
Stuart Laycock

Stuart Laycock studied Classics at Jesus College, Cambridge then worked in advertising and marketing for many years. During the Bosnian war he helped set up and run SOS Bosnia, working to alleviate suffering on all sides in the conflict. He went on to run Lifeline Humanitarian Organisation for HRH Crown Princess Katherine of Yugoslavia. He now works as a freelancer in television. Since Cambridge he has kept a close interest in the period surrounding the end of Roman rule in Britain. He has built one of the biggest private collections in Britain of late Roman zoomorphic buckles, and has been working over the last year, with among others Chris Marshall and Kevin Leahy to try to answer some of the main questions about these buckles. He is married, and has two children.

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  Ditches, Buckles & a Bosnian End to Roman Britain 
Stuart Laycock

The abiding mystery of 5th century Britain is what causes the collapse of a Roman British society that had flourished for 350 years and as late as the last decades of the 4th century still looks strong and vibrant in many aspects. Gildas,, in the 6th century, first pointed the finger at the Saxons, yet increasingly, it seems possible to argue that Roman British society suffered such a catastrophic collapse, not because of an external threat, but because of the lack of one.

Romanised society in continental areas such as Gaul and Spain, by contrast to Britain, survived relatively intact. The mechanism for this seems to have been a wholesale take-over of the structure of the Roman state, by new owners, in this case new Germanic elites. These new rulers did not build their kingdoms from scratch, but rather adopted and adapted existing Roman structures. Consequently, disruption, though evident, was, compared with that which occurred in Britain, relatively minor.

In Britain, by contrast, there seems to be a period of 10-20 years or more at the beginning of the 5th century, between the onset of economic collapse, and the arrival in force, of a new Germanic elite. In certain parts of Britain, particularly the west, the gap between economic decline and the arrival of the Saxons is much longer. So, if we are looking for the causes of the decline of Roman British society, we must look elsewhere.

A feature of the British archaeological landscape that continues to cause much puzzlement is the linear earthworks, that dot the landscape. There has been much debate over the exact defensive function these served . It is perhaps best to regard them as the ancient equivalent of barbed wire. They would not have been manned constantly like a parapet, but could well have been patrolled, and they would certainly mark a territorial claim and severely hinder certain types of traffic, particularly wheeled or horseborne traffic. A modern parallel that comes to mind is the British Army’s cratering of unguarded border roads between Northern Ireland and the Republic during the Troubles.

For obvious reasons, these monuments provide slim archaeological pickings to illustrate their origins. Some appear to be datable to the pre-Roman period, but some equally clearly date form the period at the end of, or after Roman rule. Historically, there was a tendency to take the example of Offa's Dyke, the one post-Roman linear earthwork for which we have historical evidence, and attribute the other post-Roman examples to the Saxons. Increasingly, however, today, such attributions are rejected in favour of a link to late Roman or post-Roman British societies.

As has been pointed out, there are plentiful pre-Roman examples of linear earthworks to illustrate a British tradition of building these monuments, and some of the design features of the post-Roman earthworks suggest they are inheritors of this tradition. Ian Burrow has, for instance, shown that the Wansdyke incorporates hillforts in its layout, something alien to any Saxon defences of the time. Equally, as Morris pointed out, while Offa's dyke has always been named after it’s builder, the other post-Roman linear earthworks, carry generic names or the names of legendary figures, implying the Saxons who named them, knew little of their origins.

Its has been suggested that some of the earthworks were built to hold back various stages of the Saxon advance. Yet, as Morris points out, the Saxons’ naming of the features after legendary figures would seem to imply that earthworks were already there by the time the Saxons arrived. If, they had known the British built them, they could have used names linked to the element 'Wealh' meaning ‘foreigner’ (and the origin of the modern name Wales), as they did with a number of places where it is suspected British communities survived. What’s more, some at least, of the post-Roman earthworks seem unlikely to have been built to bar a Saxon advance, because they are built to defend against a threat coming in the opposite direction from the most likely angle of Saxon advance. Fleam Ditch, for instance, was built to bar the Icknield way against someone advancing up it from the South-West.

If the ditches were not built to counter an external threat, then the other possibility is that they were built to counter an internal threat. When historians today describe the end of Roman Britain, it tends to be in a low-key fashion, with references to gentle decay. But history suggests that it is highly possible that the end was a rather more explosive affair. After all, it is inherently unlikely that potters stopped potting and traders stopped travelling, unless there were some very compelling reasons to do so.

At some stage in the period following the end of Roman rule, Britain fragments. It has been suggested that a form of quasi-Roman rule may have survived featuring the Roman provincial structure, and a reluctance to mint independent coinage based on lasting attachment to Rome. This is possible, but it’s hard to see why the British should show such respect for imperial power after 410, when they had spent much of the previous three decades in armed rebellion against it. Power is not exercised in a vacuum. It relies on carrot and stick. When the carrot, in the form of imperial funding, and the stick, in the form of the Roman army, ceased to be relevant in Britain, power would naturally devolve to British authorities, and in the absence of any central power, local British authorities. The process is at its clearest in the west of the country, where, by the time of Gildas, in the early 6th century, there are separate independent states, like Dumnonia and Dyfed. But it seems highly likely that original fragmentation occurs at the time of the collapse of the British economy in the early years of the 5th century. As it was no longer possible to export goods across the country, it is hard to see how a single political structure could have been maintained across Britain. If the stories surrounding Vortigern have any credibility, then some political structurse may have survived above the local, but even these stories also contain indications of civil strife, in the form of the battle of Guoloph, and Kent has a separate British king, even if Vortigern has some kind of overlordship.

Examples of empires collapsing, rather than being taken over, are comparatively rare in history, yet where such examples do occur, extensive violence and conflict between the emerging independent fragments of the previous empire is a recurring feature. Think of the Ottoman empire in the Balkans in the 19th Century, Think of Tsarist Russia at the beginning of the 20th century, and even Bosnia, at the end of the 20th century. The process of different emerging power bases vying for control of populations and natural resources almost always creates violence, insecurity and subsequent economic decline, over a long period. Such a process can only be avoided by a mixture of control, communication and (often) external pressure of the sort that is highly unlikely to have applied in 5th century Britain.

Gildas writing from a 6th century perspective, perhaps inevitably, concentrates on the coming Saxon invasion, but he does on several occasions refer to long term British political instability and the repeated overthrow of British rulers in the period after 410. What is more, one passage, may well give a picture of the effects of political fragmentation on the British population “For they took to looting from each other, since there was only a very small stock of food to give nourishment to the desperate people; and the calamities from abroad were made worse by internal conflict, and consequently, the whole area became almost devoid of food, except for what hunters could find.”

Some of the effects of explosive fragmentation in the Balkans in the 1990s. Buildings are abandoned, building work is abandoned, rubbish accumulates in urban centres, and agriculture reappears in urban centres. All can be paralleled in 5th century Britain.
Some of the effects of explosive fragmentation in the Balkans in the 1990s. Buildings are abandoned, building work is abandoned, rubbish accumulates in urban centres, and agriculture reappears in urban centres. All can be paralleled in 5th century Britain.

The process of such an explosive fragmentation of centralised Roman control cannot yet be clearly understood from the archaeological record, but there are fascinating hints, from which something of a picture begins to emerge.

Apart from the ditches, another curious aspect of late Roman and post-Roman Britain has been the apparent militarisation of the area near where the river Thames cuts through the Chilterns. For example, the small town of Mildenhall is heavily fortified in the late 4th century, while a ballista is mounted on
Triangular plate buckle from Sparsholt Oxfordshire (courtesy of Brian Cavill).defences at Dorchester in Thames, and in the cemetery there, a body has been found with full Roman military belt fittings from the period. What’s more there is a concentration of late Roman military triangular buckles in the area. These features could be argued to represent a state of general insecurity across Britain, but the level of militarisation in this area is unusual (the triangular buckles, for instance, are extremely rare elsewhere in Britain), and suggests there are specific reasons. The image shows a Triangular plate buckle from Sparsholt Oxfordshire (courtesy of Brian Cavill).

George Lambrick’s work on the area raises one possible reason. He has pointed to the unusually high number of pre-roman defensive works in this area, and convincingly linked it to the fact, that the tribal territories of the Dobunni, Atrebates and Catuvellauni all meet, in precisely this area. It's possible, therefore, that the militarisation of the area in the late 4th century represents a recurrence of tension in this area, perhaps even a recurrence of tribal tensions.

To suggest that tribal loyalties could have survived 350 years of Roman rule and re-asserted themselves, as Roman rule evaporated is highly controversial. Yet a similar process occurred at the end of Ottoman rule in the Balkans in the 19th century, as, of course, it did more recently in former Yugoslavia, after the death of Tito. What is more, there is some specific evidence that that such a process could have occurred in late Roman or post-Roman Britain. For instance, the name of the Cantii tribe became the origin of the name of the Saxon kingdom of Kent. And in the west, Ken Dark, has done a lot of valuable work identifying the tribal origins of kingdoms such as Dumnonia and Dyfed.

For evidence in the centre and east of the country, we can look to belt buckles. 40 years ago, Hawkes and Dunning identified a category of buckles and belt fittings which they associated with late Roman military activity in Britain. Recently, some have used the appearance of items of this category on civilian sites to argue that they could serve a civilian function as well. This is possible, but the distribution of similar buckles and belt fittings in continental Europe, almost exclusively along the Imperial borders, suggests that it is still largely safe to ascribe a military or paramilitary role to Hawkes and Dunning fittings. This is particularly true, bearing in mind that any militia drawn from the civilian population, or a military force billeted on them, would leave buckles in civilian locations.

Over the last year I've been reviewing the distribution and stylistic variations of the Hawkes and Dunning buckles and fittings, and it is possible that they can give some valuable insights into the process of British fragmentation in the 5th century. And what they suggest, is that some of the emerging political units probably do have tribal origins. For instance, a certain category of of Hawkes and Dunning IIA buckle,
Buckle with ‘Catuvellauni dots’ from Lakenheath (redrawn after Hawkes & Dunning).in which dots appear in a row along the loop, occurs almost exclusively in areas which in pre-Roman times were part of Catuvallauni territory. Equally, the horsehead Hawkes and Dunning Ib buckles are absent from most of Catuvellauni territory, even though they appear in other surrounding areas. The image shows a buckle with ‘Catuvellauni dots’ from Lakenheath (redrawn after Hawkes & Dunning).

However, the picture that is emerging is slightly more complex, than a simple reproduction of the tribal map of pre-Roman Britain, and again the ditches seem to play a role. For instance, horsehead Ib buckles are common in the Dobunni territory to the north of Wansdyke, but rare in the territory (a percentage of it formerly Dobunni) to the south. Equally, in East Anglia, while horsehead buckles appear on the fringes of formerly Iceni territory, beyond the late Roman or post-Roman Foss Ditch, in the heart of Norfolk, they are almost entirely absent.

Head buckle from Ufford (author’s collection).In addition, alongside the well-known Hawkes and Dunning dolphin types, I and Kevin Leahy, have been working on two other categories of buckles of which Hawkes and Dunning may not have been aware. One group carries birds on the loop, in addition to the dolphins. The other group carries human heads. The bird buckles appear in in former Corieltauvi territory edging over into the fringes of Iceni territory, while head buckles appear in Iceni territory and edge over into Corieltauvi territory. Bird buckle from Colsterworth, Lincolnshire (courtesy of Rod Blunt).The top image shows a Head buckle from Ufford (author’s collection). The lower image shows a Bird buckle from Colsterworth, Lincolnshire (courtesy of Rod Blunt).

Much further work is needed to clarify the picture, but what we may have here, particularly in the shape of the ditches and the buckles, is genuine hard evidence of the catastrophic fragmentation of Roman Britain - the Bosnian option. We may be looking at a process, in which a mixture of old rivalries and new ones carved up British society, destroying trade and communication between separate entities, weakening British society and opening the way for a take over by a new Germanic elite.

Maybe we are beginning to see an answer to the abiding mystery of British history, at last.


  • Dark, Ken – Britain and the End of The Roman Empire, Tempus, 2002.
  • Hawkes, S.C. and Dunning, G.C., 1961 - 'Soldiers and settlers in Britain, fourth to fifth century' Medieval Archaeology, V, 3-70.
  • Limbrick, George – Frontier Territory Along the Thames, British Archaeology, Issue no. 33 April 1998.
  • Morris, John – The Age of Arthur, 1973.
  • Vermaat, Robert – Dark Age British Earthworks – An Interview with Dr. Ken Dark, 2001, at: http://www.wansdyke21.org.uk/wansdyke/wanart/dark.htm

Ditches, Buckles & a Bosnian End to Roman Britain is copyright 2005 Stuart Laycock. Used with permission.

See also: Late Roman Buckles in Britain, at: http://www.lateromanbuckles.org.uk/

Comments to: Stuart Laycock

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