Wednesday, 16 March 2011

New Twist on the Lost Legion

The Eagle movie is due for release in the UK on 25 March, and publicity has reached fever pitch. Under the headline "Lost Legion", the BBC online magazine for 16 March 2011 asks: "Did a mysterious Roman military disaster change Britain?"

Archaeologist Miles Russell, a prehistorian from Bournemouth University, asks "could a brutal ambush have been the event that forged the England-Scotland border?"

Well, this old emperor can tell you right now: the answer is "No".

The BBC magazine suggests, rather simplistically, that "for the English, the massacre of the Ninth is an inspiring tale of home-grown "Davids" successfully taking on a relentless European "Goliath". For the Scots, given the debate on devolved government and national identity, not to say the cultural impact of Braveheart, the tale has gained extra currency - freedom-loving highlanders resisting monolithic, London-based imperialists."

Crazy Leap of Logic

Dr Miles Russell, self-professed exponent of extra-terrestrial archaeology, believes that "there is not one shred of evidence that the Ninth were ever taken out of Britain. It's just a guess which, over time, has taken on a sheen of cast iron certainty". ("Guess" is such a loaded term; let's say "theory" instead. But, in any case, Dr Russell is mistaken, as regular readers of this blog will know.)

Miles Russell Roman ExpertBut almost immediately, he contradicts himself. (Unless BBC Online Magazine have misquoted him.) "Three stamped tiles bearing the unit number of the Ninth found at Nijmegen, in the Netherlands, have been used to support the idea of transfer from Britain," he continues, "But these all seem to date to the 80s AD, when detachments of the Ninth were indeed on the Rhine fighting Germanic tribes." However, a senior lecturer in archaeology really ought to know that tile-stamps cannot be dated. And if the Ninth Legion never left Britain, as Dr Russell is keen to assert, how on earth could they be on the Rhine fighting Germanic tribes? He seems rather confused.

In fact, the manufacture of tiles in the Netherlands by the Ninth Legion does indeed prove that the legion had been transferred from Britain. There is no other explanation (... apart from extra-terrestrial involvement, I suppose).

Glossing over this inconvenient truth, Dr Russell then seizes upon the comment of an anonymous late Roman writer that, when Hadrian became emperor, "the Britons could not be kept under Roman control". In a huge leap of logic, he concludes that "It was the Ninth, the most exposed and northerly of all legions in Britain, that had borne the brunt of the uprising, ending their days fighting insurgents in the turmoil of early 2nd Century Britain." (Unless BBC Online Magazine have misquoted him.)

Absurd Conclusion

Surely a senior lecturer in archaeology ought to realise that "guesses" like this one really should be supported by some sort of evidence?

Having devised this fatuously simplistic theory, which fails to address any of the intricate evidence carefully assembled by generations of scholars, Dr Russell simply rests his case! (Unless BBC Online Magazine have misquoted him.)

"The loss of such an elite military unit", he continues, begging the question and blithely passing over the fact that he has failed to demonstrate such a loss, "had an unexpected twist which reverberates to the present day". What could this unexpected twist be? Dr Russell's answer is ... Hadrian's Wall! Thus, "the ultimate legacy of the Ninth was the creation of a permanent border, forever dividing Britain".

Reality Check

Wait! First, Dr Russell has not proved that the Ninth Legion was lost in Britain. He has not even contributed in any sensible way to the ongoing debate. He has simply belittled alternative theories (branding them "guesses") while asserting his own theory. Is this really how archaeology is taught at Bournemouth University?

Miles RussellAnd second, Dr Russell has failed to make a link between his alleged destruction of the Ninth Legion in a British ambush and the building of Hadrian's Wall. There has been much discussion of the circumstances surrounding the building of Hadrian's Wall, but -- again -- Dr Russell has not contributed in any sensible way to this discussion. He has simply asserted that Hadrian's response to the loss of the Ninth Legion was to build a wall!

Digging himself deeper into the mire of illogicality, he concludes: "The origins of what were to become the independent kingdoms of England and Scotland may be traced to the loss of this unluckiest of Roman legions". (Unless BBC Online Magazine have misquoted him.) What arrant nonsense. Even a glance at a map of Britain would show that the Scottish-English border is not marked by Hadrian's Wall. Hadrian's Wall lies entirely in England.

I'm only a grumpy old emperor, but am I wrong to expect more sense from a senior lecturer in archaeology?