Visions of the Roman North. Art and Identity in Northern Roman Britain

Iain Ferris introduces his forthcoming book, a study of the role of images and art in the northern regions of Roman Britain, and how art and identity interacted together to produce what is argued to have been a highly-distinctive visual culture.

My new book for Archaeopress-Visions of the Roman North. Art and Identity in Northern Roman Britain– is a study of the role of images and art in the northern regions of Roman Britain, and how art and identity interacted together here to produce what is argued to have been a highly-distinctive visual culture. The book is not concerned with the fine details of the chronology and history of the northern frontiers of the Roman province of Britannia or of the shifting military dispositions there. Indeed, much writing about the Roman north often has been caught up in a relentless specificity-this site, this building, this find-and shied away from the idea of overview. Forward motion and meaning perhaps thus became subsumed in descriptive practice, and I have deliberately avoided this in my book.

The study is not only a geography book, about a particular region, but it is also a political and ideological history, an admonition of sorts, an impassioned defence of the art produced here, and a quasi-memoir. The text, like the art, is full of mysterious eddies and cross-currents. While acknowledging the notion that the world as it is experienced is shaped by the forms of human thought and sensibility, at the same time  the birth of an age of images such as in Roman times would also seem to have involved a certain degree of bewilderment at the elusiveness of time, and anxiety about the dehumanising effects of the resulting artistic production. A new art reflected a new model of existence commensurate with the experiences of living in a frontier zone, an art whose creation did not require a breaking-away from old frameworks of presentation but rather their adaption. This new art was steeped in a physical sense of the Roman north: the landscapes, the forts, the streets of tombs, the resilient peoples.

Altar to Sol-Mithras from Carrawburgh, Northumberland. Third century AD. Great North Museum: Hancock, Newcastle. (Photo: Author).

Visions…’ is to some extent a long essay, a series of interconnected studies of particular aspects of identity formation explored by material objects, highlighting the dominant strands of artistic practice at the time. The roots of this practice are not explicitly explored, indeed only in so far as they can be seen to have reinvigorated and tested the potential of sculpture as a medium. The interworking of agency, gesture, and landscape make this very much a regional study. Looking at the art from the Roman north helps us to understand how this geographic space was conceptualized. People, materials, and environment served to emphasise the local context and the landscape acted as a medium through which agency and gestures were translated. The art of the region should be seen as the end result of active engagements with developing patterns of change which formed one crucial aspect of the contemporary experience. Art acted as a kind of mesh through which real life escaped, the overall assemblage of artworks being somehow greater than the sum of its many parts. By deploying new modes of representation it is argued that it is almost as if the Romans looked down from above on the northern landscapes which had not been seen in this way before and reinterpreted them through imagery. Looking at this art allows us to recognise the deep connection between social and geological territory, and between landscape and memory.

Relief of Roman legionaries from Croy Hill, Dunbartonshire, Scotland. Antonine. National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh. (Photo: Author).

I also argue that northern Romano-British art between the first and early fifth centuries AD was in a sense a period of sufficient historical integrity to make it worthy of study in its own right and not just as a regional study. This art helped in the creation of a discrete social and psychological space in the north. The study seeks to question conventional polarities with regard to province and frontier. But there nevertheless remains a feeling that these resulting new visual narratives ultimately longed for some degree of constancy and integration in a broader whole. There is a sense that there was a struggle under way to envisage a new politicised landscape effortlessly spanning both the past and the present. The question addressed is whether the art produced was, ultimately, entirely successfully in doing so?

Visual experience was a vital and integral part of the character of the region as it was shaped by broad cultural and sociopolitical forces. Hadrian’s Wall and the Antonine Wall did not exist in a void: they lay within a broader landscape. The frontiers existed at a critical point where history and geography, architecture and topography met, or at least intersected; a region of perpetual exchange where economic, cultural, and political currents met in a zone of both contact and ideological, rather than actual, conflict. Perception and interpretation in such a zone can be, but need not necessarily have been, the same thing. Art and culture ultimately became the main arteries of connectivity and communication, drawing on repertoires of extraction and mobilisation.

Tombstone of the optio Caecilius Avitus from Chester. Mid to second half of third century AD. Grosvenor Museum, Chester. Painted Cast. (Photo: Author).

This bold and innovative northern art consequently made its own map of the region in a cartography of consequences whose transitory nature defied the rational lines and grids of conventional map-making. Conventional maps of northern Roman Britain would simply have failed to capture the essence and specifics of artistic production and consumption there at that time and consequently would have missed more than they managed to record. The northern landscapes should be understood as both physical and social spaces. The Antonine Wall distance slabs, discussed at great length in the book, are an exception, a series of conceits of uncommon force. They demonstrate beyond a shadow of a doubt that as a means of expanding rather than circumscribing ideological practice art and craft were media for the exchange of different knowledge systems at the frontier. Contested borders and contested identities to some extent helped decentre the image of the human body here. In the event, abandonment of the Antonine frontier led to the sacrificing of the correspondence between art and fixed historical narratives in favour of a new fluidity.

Both artists and viewers experienced an alternative world to that created by historical writers on the province, a world that they themselves were creating and perpetuating. In many ways then this study marks an attempt to connect with a cognitive map of the northern region from the perspective of its cultural production over time. This kind of cartography could lead to all sorts of consequences, most importantly by allowing the art discussed to bring its past with it. This art was not just something to look at: it was communicative, performative, and constructive, and sometimes dwelled on its own form and formative power.

Tombstone of Aurelia Aureliana from Carlisle. Mid-third century AD. Great North Museum: Hancock, Newcastle. (Photo: Author).

These Romano-British artworks were very much about themselves or about the medium of art itself in some senses because what they did was reveal, demonstrate, question, and argue for a particular position on an ideological issue. This book proposes a means of looking at certain artworks in northern Roman Britain as having operated beyond what appeared to be their genre or their narrative, in that they can be thought to have been reflecting upon themselves. These artworks would appear to have asserted geography and chronology as their principal organisational concept. Oblivion and rescue were at best myopic tropes that served to define the later history of many of the artworks discussed in this study. As a body of works they appear to me endowed with a vivid, even epic, quality which somehow helps render them unique. The art of the northern region remains a reflecting glass in which we can see so much of Roman Britain and of the Roman world more broadly.

This is a study which is unashamedly regional but I hope certainly not parochial, based on data and evidence but still poetic in intent, revisionist but not iconoclastic. In the Roman north the concerns of Rome’s rulers, its soldiers, shadowplayers, civilians, traders, and those seeking help, salvation, or transcendence from regional or supra-regional deities came together in a heady cultural mix that defined a unique world. Boundaries between interior and exterior worlds dissolved.

Jet knife handle in the form of a dog from Binchester, County Durham. Late third, but probably fourth, century AD. Private collection. (Photo: Author).

For those who know the north we understand that it is a closed landscape, all of whose reference points draw us irresistibly towards the past. Though we might see things from variable angles-the individual viewing experience-or from receding perspectives-mediated by the knowledge that underpins the act of viewing-these variables nevertheless allow us to catch a glimpse of a completely novel conception of space here in the deep past, but in the end these glimpses remain no more than incoherent visions of a kind that require interpretation and careful analysis. What we are dealing with in trying to understand and empathise with the ancient viewer moving through the Roman landscape is absence and presence in time: the absence of an object becomes a presence that one can feel and experience. Viewers did not have to simply interpret the world, but rather the transformation of that world. Thus we have to try and understand from their perspectives a world which in many respects made itself.

I sing in praise of sandstone, of ‘this region of short distances and definite places’*, in the past as in the present. Hypnagogic sleep: visions of the Roman north.

Iain Ferris

* W.H. Auden 1948In Praise of Limestone.

Header image: The Cramond Lioness from Cramond, Edinburgh, Scotland. Mid-second to early third century AD. National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh. (Photo: Author).


Sincerest thanks to Iain for preparing this blog post.

Visions of the Roman North: Art and Identity in Northern Roman Britain will publish in May 2021, priced £35 in paperback, and from £16 as a PDF download.
Pre-order using this form to save 20% upon publication.

The complete introduction and first chapter are available to preview on our website now.

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