Earliest depiction of Scottish tartan discovered on Roman statue

A FRAGMENT of bronze that once formed part of a Roman statue is believed to be the earliest depiction of tartan, it emerged yesterday.

• Fragment shows captive Caledonian warrior wearing tartan trews

• The statue was originally erected around 1800 years ago

• It is the earliest depiction of tartan in history

• It originally depicted the Roman Emperor Caracalla, known as the conqueror of the Caledonians

Hide Ad

The bronze statue once stood on top of a giant triumphal arch in the ancient Moroccan city of Volubilis, in the southwest corner of the Roman Empire, 1,500 miles from Scotland.

It depicted the Emperor Caracalla - self-styled conqueror of the Caledonians - riding a six horse chariot.

The statue, erected 1,800 years ago, was destroyed centuries ago, and only a three-foot-longbronze fragment of the emperor’s cape remains in a museum in Rabat.

On the cape is a depiction of a Caledonian warrior wearing a pair of tartan trousers.

Yesterday Dr Fraser Hunter of the National Museum of Scotland said the bronze cape showed the “first ever depiction of tartan”.

He said: “The triumphal arch was built to celebrate Caracalla. He and his father, the Emperor Septimius Severus, had led massive military campaigns in to third century Scotland.”

Hide Ad

A great bronze statue of Caracalla riding a six-horse chariot once stood above the arch.

“His cape includes an early depiction of that great national stereotype,the long-haired Caledonian warrior.

Hide Ad

“The giveaway is the checked leggings - the first ever depiction of tartan.

“Dr Hunter said that the tartan had been carved in to the bronze, and inlaid with different bronze alloys and silver to give a remarkable impression of the textile, its colour and texture.

“The leggings or trews are relatively skin-tight and you can see the definition. The legs are two different patterns. This is the pre-history of tartan as we know it,” he said.

“The shields too are Celtic in style.

“This guy is a Caledonian - you can see his bare chest, his head and his cloak over the shoulders. But his arms are bound behind his back. This guy is a captive, a prisoner from the vicious campaigns of Severusand Caracalla.”

Dr Hunter, who has spent 20 years studying Roman artefacts, describes the find in a BBC2 documentary to be shown on Friday. He said few early Roman images of Caledonians exist. Among them stone carvings from the Antonine Wall that show Romans soldiers on horseback slaughtering thelocal tribes. But those stone carvings showed the Scots naked.

Other depictions of Caledonians

Dr Hunter said: “We don’t often see Caledonians in Roman art. The earliest surviving come from the Antonine Wall but these stone carvings do not have the same level of detail or colour and the Caledonians are shown naked.

“That’s why this depiction is so exciting.

Hide Ad

“There is not much left of the Caracalla statue, but from a Scottish perspective this is a fantastic find.”

Dr Hunter said the fragment could be loaned from the museum in Rabat to Scotland at some point in the future.

Hide Ad

He said: “We’ve had a chat about it being loaned to Scotland. If wecould put together a decent proposal it is something they might be open to. It would be nice to show it in Scotland.”

Unfortunately, the Scot in the tartan trews is likely to have met a grizzly end, possibly in an amphitheatre with wild animals.

Dr Hunter said: “The Romans had no real sense of ‘prisoners of war’.

“Some of these men would have been force marched for months on end to all parts of the empire, living trophies of the Emperor’s success.

“Some might have been traded as slaves in the great markets, others wereeven less fortunate.

“A mosaic from Tunisia shows how one unfortunate Caledonian met his end,sent to the amphitheatre, killed by wild animals as exotic entertainment for the locals.”

Hide Ad

He added: “We’ve long had a curious, rather cuddly relationship with the Romans - hot baths and straight roads. In the western world we often see ourselves as inheritors of Roman values and culture.

“But this evidence from North Africa reminds us that the Romans were invaders, colonisers. Their strategies encompassed everything up to andincluding genocide.

Hide Ad

“For the local tribes, the Roman arrival in what we call Scotland musthave been absolutely terrifying.”

• Scotland - Rome’s Final Frontier, is on BBC2 Scotland, Friday December 7, at 9pm.