ROMANS AND BRITONS ON THE NORTHERN FRONTIER: A THEORETICAL EVALUATION OF THE ARCHAEOLOGY OF RESISTANCE
Despite the multiplicity of approaches in the revolt against strict positivism
in archaeological theory, all of them share a focus on human agency as a
necessary part of explanation. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the
recent literature concerning complex societies, relations of inequality and
particularly studies of power and dominance where, according to Daniel
Miller, ‘agency and resistance are integral to their definition’ (1989: 64).
Archaeology has long been concerned with the cultural remains of
dominant ideologies, but has understood them normatively rather than in
terms of conflict. When we consider relations of domination and resistance, the focus turns from normative systems of interaction to the
behaviour of individuals.
The subject is most often subsumed under the broader categories of
gender and colonialism, and often the first is seen as a subtopic of the
second under the Marxist paradigm of imperialism and female subordination being peculiar to capitalism or class societies. Gender studies are an
outgrowth of the feminist movement, with its concomitant need to develop
a ‘hers tory’ for women, similar to that of minority peoples who were without history and known to the present only through the voice of colonial
usurpers. The intense focus on colonialism however seems to be the result
of theoretical realignment in a period when both imperialism and the THEARCHAEOLOGYOFREsffiTANCE 125
appearance of being aligned with imperial policy are politically incorrect.
Thus, archaeological interest in colonialism is shifting away from questions
of extraction, taxation, and urbanisation, where culture change is presented as something imposed from above by the intrusive power. Instead a
discourse between domination and resistance is being analysed as a source
of cultural transfonuation.
Both these tenus – domination and resistance – need some clarification.
To paraphrase Randall McGuire and Robert Paynter (1991: 8), domination
occurs when A tells B what to do and B does it, whether it is in his best
interests or not. B’s response may be a reaction to force or the threat of
force. It is more likely a dialogue in which both A and B acknowledge A’s
right to dominate in tenus of a shared legitimising ideology (Miller 1989;
McGuire and Paynter 1991).
In the Roman case both factors worked to establish dominance. As
Edward Luttwak (1976: 195-200) pointed out, the direct force of the
Roman army, and even more, the power of its reputation, served to ensure
imperial control. At the same time, the Romans linked the interests of the
native elite to their own administration, and acculturation took place
through the intercession of the elite with their people (cf. Millett 1990: 82-
Resistance is more difficult to define. On the one hand, there is overt
resistance. In, for instance, the uprising of AD 118-119 on the northern
British frontier or during the Boudiccan revolt, B was acting to remove A’s
domination. A number of such acts of rebellion have been documented for
us by the Romans (Dyson 1971).
A less dramatic form of this can be seen in the creation of what Owen
Lattimore called ‘interior frontiers’ in certain parts of the empire (cf.
Dyson 1975: 148), such as inaccessible mountain retreats for bandits, rebels
and malcontents (Dyson 1975: 173). It must be noted here, however, that
the difference between, for instance, banditry and revolt is not necessarily
in the attitude of the provincials, about which we know nothing. It is in the
response of the Romans, who chose to record the presence of Dardanian
bandits in Moesia but apparently ignored them because they did not interfere with trade, nor were they a threat to the empire (M6csy 1974: 152).
This kind of resistance can be interpreted as useful to the Romans, in fact,
because it served to strengthen the propaganda value of the Pax Romana
and, through backlash, could reinforce their dominant position.
Most of the recent archaeological literature, however, is concerned with a
more covert form of resistance, which might best be characterised as B 126 B. KURCHlN
doing what A says to do, but thumbing his nose at him behind his back.
This conflict is enacted in the ideological arena and may never go further
than symbolic counter-cultural expressions. Elizabeth Brumfiel has shown
how women resisted the negative and subordinating image of themselves
propagated by the official Aztec religion by intensifying production of
ceramic figurines showing them in the traditional pre-Aztec manner (1989).
Overt resistance may sometimes be difficult to operationalise on the
ground. For example, did the Romans destroy Newstead, the Roman fort
near Melrose, Scotland, where excavation has revealed deliberate slighting
of the walls (CurIe 1911) or did the natives attack it? Did this happen during the ‘Brigantian revolt’ or as part of the abandonment of the Antonine
frontier (Richmond 1924)? Nevertheless, the study of overt rebellion is conceptually less problematical than the covert resistance with which most of
the current archaeological literature is concerned. The latter is not only
hard to operationalise, but there are also difficulties with the way the concept has been applied.
Colonial situations are no less fluid than time. In the nearly four
centuries of its existence Britannia changed both politically and economically, as did the empire of which it was a part. The same factions whose
interests were served by resistance in the first century may have been just
the ones to benefit by the economic changes of the post-Severan period.
Martin Milleu has shown how the shifting locus of power is reflected in the
emergence of new centres of exchange, suggesting as well that new people
were benefiting from these changes (1990: 127-37). The tribal elites most
likely to support Romanisation in the early years of the province may have
been most threatened by the disruptions of the third century.
Although change is less evident in the military zone than in the south,
intermarriage between military personnel and northern women was creating a new population of Romano-British, while opportunities to serve in
the army at home were increasing for the Britons, making the military presence less provocatively foreign – though not totally – as the centuries
passed. Rather than an object of hostile resistance, the army would have
become part of the social fabric of the northern community. While the
possibility of resistance would not necessarily diminish under new circumstances, both the source and object would be different, a factor which must
be considered in any evaluation of colonial interactions.
Having reasons for resistance is not the same thing as having evidence of
resistance. McGuire and Paynter (1991: 19) point out that using prehistoric
assemblages unsupported by documentation runs the danger of presenting THE ARCHAEOLOGY OF REsISTANCE 127
a circular argument where resistance is assumed and material culture is
then used to verify its existence. This is so for the severely limited documentation of the Roman period as well.
There are several reasons to suppose resistance occurred in Britain on
both sides of the frontier zone. Historically, the mere presence of a standing army is provocative, and not everyone would have experienced the
army as an economic stimulus (cf. Whittaker 1989: 66-69).
Mark Gregson (1982: 21-23) suggested that indigenous land tenure was
rooted in social relationships that conflicted with Roman practices. It is
quite reasonable to suggest that northern British land tenure differed from
Roman, and that changes in these relationships would not be well received
by all parts of native society. If nothing else, a mixed subsistence economy
with considerable open pasture might conflict with the carefully surveyed
land boundaries of the Roman administration. Presumably, Roman pacification also put an end to cattle raiding, which could have been central to
the native prestige economy (Kurchin 1983).
If we believe resistance to have been the case and have reason to expect
it, we may tend to see it in all the material we find. Usually, the kind of
evidence put forward is negative, that is, lack of acculturation or retention
of native cultural traditions is seen as resistance. Andras M6csy’s (1974:
148-49) analysis of the distribution of tombstones and his interpretation of
the resurgence of cart burials in 2nd century Pannonia is just such a case.
Burial practices are particularly sensitive to ideological transformations,
and both resistance and acculturation have been argued from them in New
World historical archaeology (Robinson et al. 1985; Axtell 1981). Such data
need more critical attention before qualifying as examples of resistance.
Since burial data for the Iron Age are nearly non-existent in most parts of
Britain (Whimster 1981: 196), and what there is for the Roman period is as
likely to be Roman and military as civilian and British, it is currently impossible to assess whether traditional practices were retained or Roman practices adopted by indigenous people, though a closer investigation of the
Romano-British burial practices in north-east Yorkshire could be fruitful.
Even here, difficulties arise from the context of behaviour which are
further explored below.
The continued construction of and residence in Iron Age round houses
during the Romano-British period is a phenomenon that can be interpreted as resistance through retention, particularly as villas and town
houses are universally accepted as examples of romanitas. If the rural
Britons did consciously resist such acculturation, it may have been in the 128 B. KURCHIN
deliberate retention of traditional house fonns, but how do we distinguish
resistance to Roman architectural styles from cultural conservatism, or
from the poverty that seems so prevalent in the north?
The Romans did not enforce acculturation, nor did they require anyone
to act like a Roman, particularly since most of the material aspects of being
Romanised were expensive. In Britain, Romanisation was a prestige good
fitting nicely into an established pattern of social interactions and leaving
those without prestige living on their traditional Iron Age farms in round
houses. That the northern environment was not particularly conducive to
the production of significant agricultural surpluses is suggested by the relative paucity of late pre-Roman Iron Age material data.
In addition, Millett has noted (1990: 100-10l), and I have argued elsewhere (1989: 11-12), that the administrative role which enhanced the
status and wealth of the southern and eastern elites was absorbed by the
military in the north, resulting in a far less Romanised civilian landscape.
Acculturation itself is a fairly flexible tenn. Roman syncretism and eclecticism (Henig 1984: 210-14) left room for broad interpretations of what being a good Roman meant. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the
Romanised Celtic gods, the Celticised Roman gods or Romano-Celtic
Mithraism. One could argue that the elongated Celtic faces of many of the
gods (Henig 1984) and the Celtic clothing worn by the goddesses (AllasonJones 1989) are a form of resistance to religious conversion but they could
be just as well understood as the Roman dieties being made local or those
of the barbarians being ‘civilised’.
Both acculturation and resistance are actions situated in particular contexts. Even for the elites, acting in the new style in public would not negate
using traditional forms in private. Lindsay Allason:Jones has suggested that
women may have fared better in native society than under colonial jurisdiction, particularly those who found themselves living in towns (1989a: 191).
Since women were not part of the public arena as defined by Romans,
their retention of native clothing styles, jewelry, textiles, even cooking
technology could only be considered as private action. Does conservatism
in the domestic arena constitute resistance or a separation of contexts:
public being Roman, and domestic being native?
An interesting phenomenon that could be understood here as resistance
in the public arena is the unusual distribution of earrings throughout the
empire, noted by Allason:Jones (1989b). Traditionally worn by both men
and women of the eastern provinces, they were assumed to be worn only
by women in Britannia. But Allason:Jones discusses in this volume the lack THE ARCHAEOLOGY OF REsISTANCE 129
of evidence for such an assumption. In fact if they were worn by both men
and women, the fashion is counter to classical taste – Allason:Jones suggests it might not have been quite respectable (1989b: 36) – and may indicate an interesting cultural alignment with the exotic, the non-Roman, on
the part of some Britons. Alternatively, it may indicate a much more inclusive definition of what is Roman on the part of the provincial Britons –
a different concept from that of the Roman elite.
This last example illustrates what is here considered the overriding difficulty with defining resistance in the archaeological record. Understanding
resistance means reading not only the symbolic content of an artifact but
the intent behind its use. While I accept the claim of Mary Beaudry et al.
(1991: 174) that almost all material objects have symbolic and social meanings which mediate their use – as, for instance samian ware might be
understood in the context of upward mobility – the same objects can mean
different things to different people, and their meaning is rarely our meaning. The really convincing studies of artifacts as objects of resistance are
done in settings where written sources confirm or support symbolic interpretation. Where there is a shared or homogeneous system of meaning in
the culture we are studying, we could probably come to a consensus of
interpretation. In a complex situation such as the northern frontier, with
Romans, Britons, and soldiers of various ethnicities, and little likelihood of
perfect communication between them, how are we supposed to understand
and choose from among the array of possible meanings?
Finally, not even texts can completely elucidate the intent of the actors in
these cases. Documentation is data filtered through elite perspectives
(McGuire and Paynter 1991; Kurchin 1989). Since covert resistance enables
a far wider range of expression than overt confrontation, it is possible that
it is not recognised by the dominant authority for what it is. Or, perhaps
more likely, it is recognised but ignored as irrelevant or even as behaviour
useful to the power structure (Miller 1989: 68). Finally, resistance may
reside in alternative perspectives or thoughts even as the behaviour gives
the appearance of conformity, leaving no evidence for resistance in the
archaeological record. Thus, we need to question whether resistance can
be so distinguished if B alone understands his actions as such.
This paper is not meant to argue the glories of romanitas or decry the
docility of the northern Britons. Rather it is a lament for the limits of
archaeology. Material data do not readily yield answers to questions of intent. The great advantage of our discipline – time depth, or deja vu as
Miller (1989: 78) calls it – may be able in the long term to identify those 130 B. KURCHIN
elements of a culture resistant to change or acculturation in a colonial situation. Interpretation of human agency, in the short tenn at least, suffers
from indetenninacy. The linkage with the archaeological record weakens as
we move from questions of action, to meanIng, to motivation, to intent,
though all are aspects of agency. Without supporting documents, which are
flawed by their own biases, or several data sets pointing to the same conclusion, it may be nearly impossible to present a testable archaeological
argument for any but the most overt resistance.
This paper is a by-product of research sponsored by the Wenner-Gren
Foundation For Anthropological Research. I am grateful to Professors
Gregory A. Johnson and Thomas H. McGovem of Hunter College, CUNY
for reading and commenting on drafts of this work and most grateful to
David Yoon of The Graduate Center, CUNY for his critical comments and
editorial assistance at every stage. The mistakes are my own.
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