Glasgow Romans ate ‘porridge but suffered worms and fleas’

Artists impressions breathe life into the archaeological remains from Bearsden. Picture: Contributed
Artists impressions breathe life into the archaeological remains from Bearsden. Picture: Contributed
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Roman soldiers stationed in Scotland nearly 2,000 years ago dined on porridge, figs, coriander and wine – but were infested with parasites and fleas, according to a new book analysing archaeological evidence.

Excavations of a large Roman fort in Bearsden, Glasgow, have provided a rare insight into how Roman soldiers lived at this northern outpost two millennia ago.

Now archaeologist Professor David Breeze, an expert on the Roman occupation of the UK, has published the results of years of scientific studies in the book Bearsden: A Roman Fort on the Antonine Wall.

Through painstaking research and analysis of the remains of buildings, artefacts, insects and even sewage discovered on the site, Prof Breeze offers new insights into how one of the best organised armies in history built the site on the Antonine Wall and occupied it for 20 years, creating complex trade networks and infrastructure.

He also paints a picture of what daily life must have been like for the men garrisoned at the fort site, which included a bath house.

“Excavations in the 1970s revealed the plan and history of a Roman fort,” he said.

“The bath house and latrine discovered at that time are now on public display, and are an important part of the Antonine Wall world heritage site.

“We were very fortunate to discover sewage in a ditch, which was analysed by scientists at Glasgow University and demonstrated that the soldiers used wheat for porridge and to bake bread, and possibly to make pasta.

“It also told us that they ate local wild fruits, nuts and celery as well as importing figs, coriander and opium poppy from abroad, and that they suffered from whipworm, roundworm and had fleas.”

The book, which is part-funded by national heritage body Historic Environment Scotland (HES) and published by the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, focuses on a range of topics relating to the dig, with contributions from specialists in pottery, soils and glass, and insect remains, amongst other areas.

Dr Rebecca Jones, of HES, said: “Despite their distance from Rome, the soldiers at Bearsden seem to have been far from detached from the rest of the empire, as evidence shows they regularly received commodities like wine, figs, and wheat from England, Gaul – modern-day France – and Southern Spain, as well as some locally gathered food.

“That’s just one of a number of exciting topics covered in Prof Breeze’s book, which is the culmination of years of hard work both on and off site.”

The Antonine Wall was the most northerly frontier of the Roman Empire, stretching around 40 miles from Bo’ness on the Firth of Forth to Old Kilpatrick on the River Clyde.

It was at the time the most complex frontier ever constructed by the Roman army.

Constructed on the orders of the emperor Antoninus Pius, it was both a physical barrier and a symbol of the Roman empire’s power and control.

Bearsden fort, along with the rest of the Antonine Wall, was abandoned around AD162, when the Romans withdrew south to Hadrian’s Wall.

Evidence shows the soldiers burnt the structure prior to their withdrawal, throwing the charred remains into the fort’s drains and ditches.