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 The Summerstone slab, found near Bearsden

An Eagle with a Blood-soaked Beak: Antonine Wall Carvings Warned Scottish Tribes to Obey, Or Else!

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The Romans were not afraid of getting graphic if it would incite fear and compliance in their enemies. X-rays and laser analysis of Roman carvings reveal that disturbing images of captive and defeated locals were used as a warning against Scottish tribes standing up against the invading army.

Today the Antonine Wall carvings may not seem especially gruesome at first glance, but a Glasgow University archaeologist has been analyzing the Roman reliefs for months and says the scenes depicted on them would have been far more vivid, and threatening, when they were created around 142 AD. As the study archaeologist, Dr. Louisa Campbell, told The Herald :

The public today sees the slabs in bland greys, but to the people of the time they would have been brightly coloured in yellows and different shades of red. On one hand they were for the soldiers to show their dedication to the Emperor, as they say the work was carried out in his name. But for the local people they would have served as reminders of the power of Rome. They were part of the act of subjugation and the projection of power. And they were a warning not to go up against Rome.

Dr. Louisa Campbell with the Summerston distance stone at The Hunterian Museum.

Dr. Louisa Campbell with the Summerston distance stone at The Hunterian Museum. ( University of Glasgow )

Campbell’s work shows that originally blood red, bright yellow, and brilliant white paints were used to catch the eye of a local. Then the warning message was made: even if the person could not read the inscriptions, once they saw the representations of local defeated brethren covered in blood they may have thought twice before rebelling against the Romans…or at least that’s what the Legion members would have hoped. “The scenes depicted by the iconography demonstrate the power and might of Rome in a highly graphic manner,” Campbell told Live Science .

Around 20 stone slabs bearing inscriptions of distance covered, honors to authority, and images have survived until today. And several of the carvings were rather grisly; Dr. Campbell described some of the scenes :

On the figures of the natives there splashes of blood on their cheeks, chest and thighs. On another slab there's a decapitated head which is dripping bright red blood. These people are fresh from a battle with Rome, and these wounds are the remains of that battle. That's a very stark message for anyone who would have seen them when they were freshly coloured.

The Bridgeness Stone, a Roman distance Stone from the Antonine wall. (Public Domain) Note the decapitated man at the bottom of the left scene – his neck was once “dripping” with blood red paint.

The Bridgeness Stone, a Roman distance Stone from the Antonine wall. (Public Domain ) Note the decapitated man at the bottom of the left scene – his neck was once “dripping” with blood red paint.

Dr. Campbell explained the significance of symbol of the eagle with the blood-soaked beak, “I would suggest the red on the beak of the eagle (the symbol of Rome and her legions) symbolizes Rome feasting off the flesh of her enemies.”

How frightened the local people were of the Romans based on these images is a matter of debate, but Dr. Campbell believes “These sculptures are propaganda tools used by Rome to demonstrate their power over these and other indigenous groups, it helps the Empire control their frontiers and it has different meanings to different audiences.”

The Herald reports the researcher’s next goal is to see digital reconstructions of the stone slabs as they would have appeared when they were painted.

Victory depicted on a distance Slab by the Twentieth Legion, found in Clydebank.

Victory depicted on a distance Slab by the Twentieth Legion, found in Clydebank.  ( The Antonine Wall )

The Antonine Wall was a 3-meter (10 ft.) turf wall topped with a wooden palisade built by Roman soldiers in the mid-2nd century AD. The wall ran almost 40 miles (64 km) from east to west and its ruins show it stretched from the Firth of Forth (north of Edinburgh) to the Firth of Clyde (a few miles west of Glasgow). It was intended to extend Roman control over the lands north of Hadrian's Wall .

The wall’s construction was ordered by Roman Emperor Antoninus Pius and it began in 142 AD. The work was completed in about 12 years. Despite their effort, the Roman Legions which had built the wall retreated back to Hadrian’s wall just eight years after finishing construction.

Relic of Antonine Wall in Bearsden cemetery.

Relic of Antonine Wall in Bearsden cemetery. (Chris Upson/ CC BY SA 2.0 )

Top Image: The Summerstone slab, found near Bearsden. Source: The Antonine Wall

By Alicia McDermott

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