Book Reviews

“Glass, alcohol and power in Roman Iron Age Scotland” by Dominic Ingemark

Reviewed by Prof. D.W. Harding

Ingemark, Dale (2014) Glass, alcohol and power in Roman Iron Age Scotland, Edinburgh, National Museums of Scotland, ISBN 978 1 905267 81 1, 308pp., pbk, £35.00

Book cover of Glass, alcohol and power in Roman Iron Age Scotland


This welcome volume comprises in essence a catalogue of Roman glass found on native settlements north of the Roman frontier, arranged by vessel type and with a simple distribution map of known occurrences.   In each instance an example is shown or a reconstruction drawing is provided of the complete vessel, useful because the great majority of finds from northern Britain are small fragments from settlement contexts, in marked contrast to examples from northern Europe where much of the evidence derives from funerary contexts and in consequence is substantially intact.   The northern British material inevitably looks impoverished by comparison, and the author stresses that this may be an entirely misleading impression resulting from circumstances of deposit and survival.   An introduction outlines the aims, methods and limitations of the study in the context of previous work, and the concluding sections discuss the significance of the material as evidence of Roman and native inter-action.

An initial question must ask how Roman glass came to be on native Iron Age settlements and indeed on early Medieval sites as well.   The idea put forward in the past that it was the product of looting or scavenging Roman sites is discounted on the not unreasonable grounds that the range of types represented on native settlements is much more limited than that which characterizes both military and civilian Roman sites, suggesting selectivity in acquisition.    Alcock argued in the context of early Medieval sites that glass fragments represented cullet, acquired for the purpose of recycling.  The re-use of Roman glass in bangles from Traprain, or beads from Culbin Sands, and more recent evidence for recycling from Mine Howe and Culduthel are cited, but the fact that broken glass was recycled does not mean that the vessels were not initially imported intact for use on site or for the use of their contents.

A second question is why so little survives, if the residual fragments really represent the import of whole vessels.   Archaeologists – more especially prehistorians – are notorious for their capacity to recreate three-dimensional edifices on the basis of a few stains in the ground, but to imagine that a small fragment of glass was once used in its native context as an elegant and prestigious drinking vessel may strain more general credulity.   Whatever happened to the rest of the vessel?  The author argues that broken glass would have been swept up ‘to prevent people from cutting their feet and not to waste valuable material’ (p.235), the second element of which at any rate carries some conviction.  But was every site involved in re-cycling?  Might not some have ended up in middens?   The problem applies equally to Roman pottery on native sites.  What exactly does a small fragment of a samian platter in the secondary occupation at Beirgh in Lewis signify, or the equally isolated sherd found a few hundred metres away on the machair?   Once broken, they would hardly be worth re-cycling, except perhaps as improvised gaming-pieces or putative spindle whorls, neither of which are abundantly in evidence, and surely no-one would bother to sweep up the broken fragments as opposed to treading them into the floor?

The key to Ingemark’s interpretation is the selectivity evident in Roman glass from native sites, where the dominant forms represented are vessels associated with drinking, notably cups, beakers, bottles, jars or flagons.  Far from being cheap baubles dispensed by the Roman authorities to placate the natives, he argues that these were in many instances good quality products that were selectively acquired by the local elites in order to reinforce their political and social authority.  This argument is reinforced by the fact that the distribution is not simply a progressive gradation north of the frontier – in fact the immediate hinterland of Hadrian’s Wall is poorly represented in finds – so that glass was evidently being positively imported, perhaps in some instances as a result of diplomatic alliance with Roman authorities.    Building on earlier work by Frankenstein and Rowlands (1978) and by Dietler (1990 etc), Ingemark argues that the native elite controlled exchange and the import of exotic goods (and understood the social conventions associated with them) and hence was able to exercise social control over clients through generosity in symbolic feasting and drinking.   The case is plausibly made, though this reviewer was less convinced by the argument that there was no evidence of a monopoly of Roman/native trade in northern Britain, since Roman artefacts were so widely distributed (p. 236).   In general terms that may be true, but the catalogue certainly suggests that the largest assemblages of glass were at important sites like Traprain Law, Leckie or Torwoodlee, reminding us of Macinnes’s (1984) case for lowland brochs before the construction of the Antonine wall serving as centres of redistribution in a local prestige goods economy.  In fact, quite a number of types appear only to be represented at Traprain Law, a site that is evidently central to the research programme that led to this publication.

A key factor in evaluating Roman imports on native settlements relates to dating.  Most Roman glass on most native sites dates from the later first to mid-third centuries AD, with a noticeable decline in the late Roman period, an observation that can be applied equally to Roman finds in general on native sites.  In part this may reflect technical issues with the identification and dating of the material, but political unrest in the later period and its social consequences were doubtless also considerations.   Fig. 4.7 clearly presents the case for glass.

A more contentious issue is what the native elite was drinking, and whether the acquisition of Roman glass drinking vessels (and to a limited degree other non-glass items of drinking service) meant that they had adopted Roman drinking conventions, or whether they were simply using exotic vessels for traditional Iron Age customs.   Ingemark notes the lack of wine amphorae (as opposed to oil amphorae), both in northern Britain and in northern Europe, and discusses the alternative possibility that wine was transported in barrels (and more locally in leather bottles), together with the archaeological evidence for the consumption of beer and mead, the latter having been traced even in the wealthy Hallstatt graves of north-Alpine Europe.  He concludes nevertheless that, even if wine was imported only on a limited scale, Roman drinking customs were adopted in Scotland and indeed in northern Europe as part of the mystique that sustained political power (p. 238).  To support this case, of course, requires reference to the paraphernalia of the drinking service – vessels for heating water, straining wine and mixing as well as serving and consuming – which included items other than glass, such as bronze vessels and paterae that are seldom found on settlement sites or outside special deposits.   He acknowledges, however, that there were doubtless many variants of Roman drinking customs throughout the Empire, and that their adoption in Scotland would have complemented rather than supplanted native drinking habits.  This reviewer does not doubt that drinking rituals would have been an important part of the process of dispensing largesse to clients that underscored the authority of the native elite, but whether the adoption of Roman customs reinforced that authority seems more speculative.  C. E. Stevens many years ago suggested that the adoption of the vine emblem on coinage by Verica, as opposed to the ear of barley used by Cunobelinus (e.g. Nash, 1987, Pl. 22, 205; Pl. 23, 221) was an expression of pro-Roman sympathies and native chauvinism respectively, and the same antagonisms may have resulted in diversity of custom and practice in the para-Roman Iron Age in Scotland.

This book is an important contribution that will be essential for any serious student of Iron Age and Roman Iron Age Scotland, and the issues it raises would provide an excellent basis for tutorial discussion.    The argument for interpreting the residual scraps of glass from settlement sites as reflecting highly significant social practices is sometimes a trifle laboured and repetitive, but in the end the case is persuasive.  At £35 Glass, alcohol and power represents very good value, and even better value at the discounted online price for which this reviewer bought his personal copy.


Dietler, M. 1990. ‘Driven by Drink: The Role of Drinking in the Political Economy and the Case of Early Iron Age France’, Journal of Anthropological Archaeology, 9: 352-406.

Frankenstein, S. and Rowlands, M. 1978. ‘The Internal Structure and Regional Context of Early Iron Age Society in Southwest Germany’, Bulletin of the University of London Institute of Archaeology, 15: 73-112.

Macinnes, L. 1984. ‘Brochs and the Roman occupation of lowland Scotland’, Proc. Soc. Ant. Scot., 114: 235-50.

Nash, D. 1987. Coinage in the Celtic World, London, Batsford.

D. W. Harding,

April 3, 2015

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