GSNLOGO            Romans in Scotland

The story of INCHTUTHIL

This account has been reproduced from an old type written unattributable record found in the files of Glasgow Steel Nail Co obviously written shortly after the nails were found in 1961. While the fortress had been known about since the 18th century,  the excavation only took place in 1952-65.

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     The fortress of Inchtuthil was built in A.D.83 as the advance headquarters of Agricola. It held about 5,500 men. There were barracks, and administration offices, drill hall and officers' houses, a hospital and a great workshop which must have housed the Roman equivalent of our R.E.M.E., doing all the repair work for the garrison and for the 5,000 or so other men who were out garrisoning the Highland Line. Into this workshop must have come wagons for repair, and all the maintenance work of the army.  Its three work bays were 40 feet wide, and 200 or 120 feet long, with a 200-foot length of workrooms.

     Fortresses like this were rare in Britain and not numerous elsewhere in the world.  The Roman Empire only had 27 legions, so there could never be more than 27 fortresses in use at any one time.  Moreover, these great fortresses were so cleverly sited for strategic and transport purposes that after the Romans left them they were the logical places to build later towns.  They became built over, as in York and Chester, and the archaeologists have never been able to get at them again.

     But something unusual happened at Inchtuthil.  There was trouble on the Danube, and the legion garrisoned there was pulled out and sent east between the years A.D.87 and 90.   The Roman frontier fell back south to Strathearn and later to the Wall, leaving Inchtuthil many miles inside enemy territory; and the frontier never came back again.   Inchtuthil is the only fortress site known which was occupied for only six years and then left untouched, with no further building over it.

    The garrison was told that it must leave nothing which would help the enemy in any way.   Professor Richmond has unearthed some of the evidence of this order.  All the houses were timber-framed, with wattle and daub fillings: the wattle had been burned, and the timber removed.   He found a pottery store on one of the main streets: every single pot had been taken out and systematically smashed into pieces no bigger than the top joint of a man's thumb.  Even the drains and sewers had been filled up tightly with gravel.

    Towards the end they must have run into transport difficulties, because one valuable load could not be moved.  They had taken away the timber frames of the buildings; but now, for some reason, they could not find room for their stock of nails in the great workshop. These were important.  Each one was hand-made, and in any case they could be melted down and hammered out into weapons by the Caledonians.  The Roman historian Herodian wrote at the time that the Caledonian tribes valued iron more than silver and gold.

    So the Romans dug a pit in the corner of the store, poured the nails into it 12 feet deep, packed six feet of clean earth on top, and then carefully demolished the building over the place to remove all traces of the pit.  The job could hardly have been more expertly done.   The pit lay hidden for nearly 1900 years.

    Professor Richmond came across it early in the summer of 1961, when he trenched across the site and noticed a difference in the colour and texture of the soil.  Digging down he came first on the rusted remains of 10 iron wheel tires, and then a crusted mass of metal where countless nails formed  a solid sheet.  But it was a sheet, not a block.   Below it was a further mass of nails, almost unrusted.  The Professor could hardly believe his eyes.  Most of the nails still had heads and edges as clean-cut as the day they were made.  Some actually had bright patches of metal showing through the light coat of rust which covered them.  Almost all would have passed for 20 or 30 years old.

   There were over threequarters of a million of them, ranging in size from 2 inches up to 16 inches.   They weighed nearly seven tons.


'R.E.M.E.' stands for The Corps of the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers

'Professor Richmond' is (Sir) Ian A Richmond - Professor of the Archaeology of the Roman Empire at Oxford who died only a few weeks after the dig finished which was not 'written up' until much later.

'Daub' is a mixture of mud and straw. First a framework of wood and sticks (wattle) was built, and then the daub was put on thickly to cover it. 

View a plan of Inchtuthil.

Read the fascinating lesson the nails from Inchtuthil provided for nuclear scientists today.

Here is a nail similar in shape to the Roman nail made 2000 years on.


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