An Amphitheatre in Camelon?

The existence of amphitheatres outside the legionary fortresses and many of the Roman civitas (tribal) capitals in Britain is well known but it is only in recent decades that it has been suggested that they may have occurred at some of the larger auxiliary forts from the second century onwards.  This in part stems from the mistaken identification of structures at the Lund near Coventry and Housesteads on Hadrian’s Wall as such arenas.  However, the recent confirmation of the site of one at Newstead near Melrose and the tentative identification of one at Inveresk would suggest that we ought to be looking for more in the north and at Camelon in particular.

Amphitheatres were a relatively late innovation in the Mediterranean and are believed to have been developed during the first century BC for the entertainment of the civilian population and the performance of religious ceremonies.  They were adopted by the army for such gatherings and were used to aid the coherence of that organisation.  It was largely through the influence of the army that they spread to the provinces in the first century AD.  They are depicted on Trajan’s Column in connection with the invasion of Dacia and the important ceremony of the suoveratalia; and are associated with the legions.  Scene C on the Column even shows a timber amphitheatre.  By and large the auxiliary forts prior to this period were temporary as the Empire was expanding and the forts moved with the frontier.  With the stagnation of frontier warfare in the early second century and the creation of static borders many of these forts became more permanent and this was taken into account when it came to the provision of facilities for the troops.  Stone-built bathhouses sprang up outside forts and became more luxurious over time.  The civilian settlements were formalised and occasionally surrounded by defences.  It is now that amphitheatres may also have arisen.  In Wales the fort at Tomen Y Mur was re-occupied by the Romans in the early Hadrianic period c115AD and abandoned around 140.  It was located at a strategic hub in the communications network and this is reflected by the large number of temporary camps in its vicinity which the army used whilst on campaign or military exercises.  It is just such nodal forts that appear to be associated with amphitheatres.  At Tomen Y Mur the amphitheatre is about 150m north-east of the fort with a flat area, believed to be a parade ground, in between just off to one side.  Parade grounds are also found close to the legionary amphitheatres and were probably used in joint ceremonies.  A possible second Welsh amphitheatre has been highlighted at Forden Gaer 110m NNW of the large fort which was occupied right into the fourth century.  In Scotland Newstead was the most important of the second century nodal forts and had a relatively long period of occupation, often in isolation.

Illus 2: Aerial Photograph of the Amphitheatre at Newstead (courtesy of John Reid).

It too is surrounded by temporary camps and extensive annexes.  There the amphitheatre is close to the north-east corner of the fort and survives as an earthwork.  It occupies the top of a slope overlooking the River Tweed.  The arena was elliptical measuring about 37m by 30m.  It is believed that legionary detachments formed part of the fort’s garrison.

Illus 1: Temporary Roman Camps around Camelon.

The obvious location for an amphitheatre at Camelon would be outside its walls but within a distance of 250m.  In the examples given there was a slight preference for the northern side of the forts, but this may not have been a decisive factor.  At Newstead the amphitheatre stood on the brink of the Tweed Valley with extensive views along it.  This meant that it had been necessary to build up the ground levels on the down side of the structure. 

North of Newstead the fort at Inveresk has claim to have housed the administration of the Roman government in Scotland and here a possible amphitheatre was discovered in 1997 some 500m east of the fort.  This is rather a long distance but may be explained by the extensive extra mural civilian settlement.  Next in importance for the transport routes comes the nodal fort at Camelon which has more temporary camps attached to it than any other in Britain and recent coin analysis has shown that it was longer-lived than the other forts in central Scotland (Brickstock).  The units based at Camelon are not known, though the Twentieth Legion is named on a building inscription.  In the first century the presence of Exeter Ware indicates the involvement of the Second Legion.  Here, if anywhere, we might expect to find another amphitheatre.

Illus 2: The layout of the Roman Forts at Camelon.

The same kind of location at Camelon would place an amphitheatre in the locality of the “native hill fort” known from aerial photographs and from observations of its ditches during sand extraction.

Illus 3: Plan showing the 1961 Excavations and features plotted from the aerial photographs.

There are some incongruities in the features of this promontory fort.  Most peculiarly, it lies within the northern annexe of the Roman fort.  Even stranger, there is a triple ditch formation in the centre of the annexe directing visitors away from the area of the hill fort and towards the north gate of the Roman fort.  This route seems to have formed the main road north across the River Carron to Stirling and beyond.  Controlled access to the hill fort was provided near this north gate.  To the west of the triple ditches an area of hard gravel suggested to the excavators that the parade ground was located here (Christison & Buchanan 1901, 343).  This extensive surface was also encountered during the 1961-3 work but its full extent was not mapped (McCord & Tait 1978, fig 2).  The nature of the four curving ditches of the hill fort is also unusual.  The aerial photographs show that they curve back on themselves as they approach the escarpment rather than meeting the contour head on.  The entrance lay in the south-east quadrant on a stretch where the ditches were turning rather than on a straighter section.  In fact, one of the “ditches,” the second from the centre, was evidently only a palisade trench (Ditch B in Proudfoot 1978) and might be compared with similar slots occurring between the inner and second ditch of the adjacent Roman fort.

Unfortunately no excavation was undertaken on the north or east sides of the hill fort and so it is not known if the ditches and palisades continued along these sides.  It is usually assumed that they did not and that we have a true promontory fort.  However, the configuration of the ditches as they approach this area suggests that there was a strong probability that they did and that the enclosure was originally oval in shape.  They would not appear on the aerial photographs due to the presence of hedges, fences and scrub in this area as well as a certain amount of erosion.  The plan of the Roman fort produced in the 1899-1900 excavations (Christison & Buchanan 1901) indicates that there had already been extensive erosion by that date.  The northern point of coalescence of the two eastern ditches of the South Roman Camp and their continuation northward had clearly been lost by such action, as had the northern end of the rampart fronting the western side of the north annexe.  Nor is it any longer possible to check the situation on the ground as the whole hillside was taken away by sand and gravel quarrying in 1961.

Illus 4: Aerial Photograph showing the streets of the Roman Fort in the foreground and the “Hill Fort” in the centre with the curved Escarpment (Cambridge University).

Given the topography, the area enclosed by the ditches can be estimated at roughly 65 x 70m, which reduces to 30 by 40m if we take the palisades into account.  This is a little larger that the size of the arena at Newstead or that at Tomen Y Mur (32 x 26m).  There is therefore a very real possibility that the so-called “native hill fort” at Camelon was in fact a Roman amphitheatre.  If this were so, then the palisades would have supported the timber trellis for the seating with the inner one facing the arena and the outer providing a planked face to the exterior.  In Britain timber amphitheatres are known at London, Silchester and Dorchester.  At the auxiliary fort at Kunzing in Bavaria the posts of a timber amphitheatre were set in individual pits rather than continuous trenches.  At first sight the concentric rings of slots at Camelon resemble the fences of the service corridor at Dorchester which surrounded the arena, but the 6m spacing between each slot at Camelon is too great for that.  In the first phase at Silchester the arena wall was made of squared posts set in individual post-pits, but in the second phase post-in trench construction was used.  The use of a bank of loose soil on its own would not have provided sufficient stability and this is thought to be the reason for the use of timber in these structures.  The arena fence and a rear fence behind the cavea would have retained low banks of earth with the timber structure extending upwards from it as a scaffold for the seats.  At Camelon the area between the inner and outer palisades would have been filled with sand and gravel which could have been provided by the surrounding ditches.  The possible planking in the outer foundation trench would have kept out unwanted visitors as well as retaining the soil.  The east side of the entrance may have been encountered in the 1961 excavation and a series of five posts fill in the space between the three terminal posts in the foundation trenches.  These would have acted as bratticing, retaining the earth bank.  Unfortunately, these features might also be seen as characteristic of a very broad box rampart – though such a structure in a native context would be unusual.  The large circular house inside the enclosure is not dated and could have taken advantage centuries afterwards of the remains left behind by the Romans.

Camelon was first occupied by the Romans in the 70s AD during a period of rapid expansion of the province and if the structure was actually an amphitheatre it is unlikely that it would be built at that time.  Due to topographical considerations which prioritised the linear barrier the fort was left in advance of the protective cordon of the Antonine Wall and this may account for the amphitheatre’s location within an annexe.  Even so, for a timber structure which during ceremonies or games contained so many troops, it was a little exposed and extraordinary measures were clearly taken to provide additional protection – most notably the oval ditches.  These provided a defensive capability but the triple forked ditches limited access even further.  They are not associated with any rampart and their purpose appears to have been to keep civilians at a distance from the precinct of the probable amphitheatre, sufficient to minimise the risk from incendiary arrows.  Yet there may have been another ditch running from the north-east corner of the fort to the north end of these triple forked ditches.  This was observed by McCord and Tait as well as appearing faintly on the aerial photographs – this was a high security area of particular significance to the Romans!

The importance of Camelon during the Roman period has recently been stressed by the identification of an Egyptian travertine vase as the funerary urn of a very high status individual (Hunter 2020).  The addition of an amphitheatre would therefore come as no surprise.


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Hunter, F.2020‘One of the most remarkable traces of Roman art… in the vicinity of the Antonine Wall”
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Wilmot, T.2008The Roman Amphitheatre in Britain.

G.B. Bailey, 2022