Antonine Wall

Roman Empire’s vivid colours revealed on ancient Scottish wall

Image credit: Dreamstime

X-ray and laser technology has been used to uncover the bright red and yellows of Scotland’s Antonine Wall, which marked the north-western frontier of the Roman Empire.

The work was led by Dr. Louisa Campbell, a materials scientist based at the University of Glasgow, whose research is focused on developing new techniques to analyse historical artefacts. Her recent research has looked into the pigments applied to Ancient Roman sculpture.

Dr. Campbell turned her attentions to the Antonine Wall, built across the Central Belt of Scotland over 12 years in the mid-second century CE to fortify the north-western frontier of the Roman Empire. The turf and wood of the wall has largely worn away over the years and it is less well-known than Hadrian’s Wall, which has been preserved in stone.

Campbell applied X-ray fluorescence (in which an object is excited with an X-ray and the resultant X-ray radiation is measured) and Raman spectroscopic analysis (which uses scattering of light from a laser to determine information about a system) to the distance stones of the Antonine Wall, which appeared in prominent positions on the wall.

The analysis revealed that the wall was once decorated with colours, mostly bright reds and yellows.

According to Campbell, these bright colours would have been used as ‘propaganda’ against local communities. During this time, the colour red was associated with war, due to red military cloaks, military standards and the appearance of blood.

“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,” said Campbell in a statement.

“The colours would have been a very powerful addition to bring these scenes to life and aid in the subjugation of the northern peoples.”

Many of these distance stones contained carves scenes depicting practices such as fighting and worship, and architecture.

“The public are accustomed to seeing these sculptures in bland greys, creams, white (for marble) and don’t get the full impact that they would have had on the Roman and indigenous audiences 2,000 years ago.”

“Knowing how colour was used by the Romans to tell stories and create impact is a huge leap forward in understanding these sculptures,” said Patricia Weeks, who is Antonine Wall co-ordinator at Historic Environment Scotland.

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