Unearthing a legend
AS he sat in his cramped solicitors' office tucked into a corner of Melrose Square, James Curle must often have stared from the window and wondered when he could escape once more to the sun-kissed ruins and marble treasures of Italy. The 20th century was barely five years old and the siren-call of the past had already drawn him to the windswept islands of the Baltic coast, to Rome, France and Germany in search of the antiquities which were his passion.
But Scotland's very own Indiana Jones could never have imagined the fame that awaited him beneath a Border farmer's field or that he would discover the Holy Grail of Romano-Britain on his very doorstep.
For 1800 years and more it had lain hidden but for a few vital clues: a plough that jarred on stone when it should have cut earth; a few barely visible shadows in the summer grass; the triple-peaked hill that had given it its name. Trimontium.
It was the soldier-scholar General William Roy who in 1761 linked the three summits of the Eildon Hills to an obscure, barely legible detail on the map of Britain produced by the geographer Ptolemy in the 1st century AD. He recorded it on his own map and moved on. When the industrial revolution brought the first railway to the Borders close to 100 years later, an Irish navvy digging near the village of Newstead was surprised to uncover a strange pot and more surprised yet when a local antiquarian gave him a few pennies for it. Still, no-one knew precisely where this mysterious remote outpost of the Roman Empire was located.
The breakthrough came in the spring of 1904 when a local landowner decided to lay a drain in one of his fields. Curle and his younger brother Alexander, a fellow enthusiast, agreed to walk the mile from the family home at Priorwood, in Melrose, on the off-chance there might be something of archaeological interest.
"Arrayed in putties and armed with a single spade, we made a trial dig," Alexander later recalled. The result was interesting, but far from spectacular; sooty soil and a mass of stones close beneath the surface. A chat with the farmer brought more interesting news. The next field was notorious for being impossible to get fence posts into the ground. The evidence was enough to convince the Society of Antiquaries to make a trial excavation on the site. It was to be a minor dig, just another attempt to fill in an insignificant piece of Scotland's historical jigsaw. So it seemed natural to give the job of overseeing it to a minor figure in the Society, the handily placed local amateur, James Curle.
In many ways James was an ideal candidate for the job, and not just because he lived less than a Roman mile away. The 43-year-old solicitor, who had married just three years earlier, had been steeped in antiquarian lore from childhood by his father, Alexander. At every opportunity the brothers would be dragged off to Edinburgh to spend endless hours in the National Museum of Antiquities. At first they were reluctant spectators, but soon their father's love of the past worked its way into boyish souls. In his journal, younger brother Alexander remembered: "We grew up with an elementary knowledge of the bases of modern archaeology which . . . we were never required to learn. We had absorbed it among the museum cases in these early days of our lives." James's training as a solicitor also gave him a fondness for minutiae, and minutiae and the recording of it are the very foundation of good archaeological investigation. And while he may have been an amateur, he was a gifted amateur: his papers on the early Iron Age brooches of Gotland (1895) earned him many admirers among the learned gentlemen of the Society.
In the beginning, he was not an entirely enthusiastic volunteer. His first reaction to the Society's suggestion was an explosive: "If you are going to excavate Newstead you will have to find someone else to look after it. I'm not going to trudge up there every day." But in the end he gave way and began preparations for the work that would make him an intimate of kaisers and kings.
When the first spade broke ground on 13 February 1905, Curle expected the dig to last a few months. It was to consume five years of his life. The treasure house of Roman artefacts he uncovered at Trimontium and the way he interpreted them would change the face of Scottish archaeology.
Trimontium began life as a marching camp during the invasion of what is now Scotland by Julius Agricola around 80AD, but its strategic location above a vital crossing of the River Tweed meant it quickly became a permanent base. It was abandoned 25 years later when the Romans withdrew behind Hadrian's Wall, then rebuilt in the mid-2nd century to protect communications between the Antonine Wall and the Roman military headquarters in York, before finally being torn down around the year 180AD.
The impact on the local population can only be imagined. Middle Eildon and Eildon Hill north were places of enormous ritual significance for the local Celtic tribe, who may have been the Selgovae or the Votadini. Now an alien culture with a voracious appetite for conquest, superior technical skills and a fearsome military presence had planted itself among them. People who lived in wood and wattle round houses must have been staggered by the sudden appearance of red sandstone buildings housing more than a thousand legionaries behind massive walls which may have been up to 30 feet high. In his book Before Scotland, Borders author Alistair Moffat points out: "The reality is that the Romans came to what is now Scotland, they saw, they burned, killed, stole and occasionally conquered, and then they left a tremendous mess behind them. Like most imperialists they arrived to make money, to gain political prestige and to exploit (local] resources. And remarkably, in Britain, in Scotland, we continue to admire them for it."
The garrison for at least part of the occupation consisted of two cohorts (close to 1,000 men) of the 20th Legion. The Roman soldiers would have stripped the surrounding land bare to supplement their rations. Curle found the butchered remains of deer and elk, as well as those of cattle and sheep.
The finds from the fort were astonishing both in extent and quality, and are faithfully recorded in James Curle's neat, copperplate hand. Swords, spears and arrowheads in abundance; tools and jewellery, pottery and glassware, writing equipment – and the skeletons of both horses and humans, evidence, perhaps, that relations with the natives were not always cordial.
But the best was yet to come.
In March 1906 workmen cleared one of the pits to the south of the late Flavian and Antonine forts. After removing 18 feet of earth they uncovered a two-foot layer peppered with outstanding finds. The most spectacular discovery was a timeless work of art that 50 years of hard use and almost two millennia in the ground could not disguise. It was damaged beyond repair when it was discarded as the fort was being evacuated in 105 AD, but it still retains a haunting, enigmatic beauty. Nothing like it had ever been found in Britain and even Curle, the amateur who always maintained a professional detachment, must have felt elation when his clerk of works, Alexander Mackie, first placed it in his hands.
"It" was a masked Roman cavalry parade helmet made of iron. "The mask represents the idealised portrait of a young, clean-shaven man with open eyes and slightly parted lips. The forehead and the sides of the face are framed by curling locks of hair," wrote Professor Bill Manning of Cardiff University, who made a recent study of the helmet. "The right-hand side is much damaged, but the left profile has a sculptural quality which is completely classical. It is, by any standards, a masterpiece of the blacksmith's art."
Prof Manning believes the helmet, which was found with two others made of brass, had at least four owners and was in use for half a century after it was made around 50AD. The find is now one of the centre-pieces of the Roman collection at the National Museum of Scotland, although it recently spent a year on display at the Trimontium exhibition in Melrose.
Roman expert Dr Fraser Hunter of the NMS explains its significance: "This is one of the finest parade helmets from the whole of the Roman Empire. It was worn by a cavalry trooper during displays. Helmets like this were only for show, they restricted the rider's vision too much for use in battle." The men who donned the Trimontium helmet on the parade ground or in the amphitheatre overlooking the River Tweed were Rome's bravest and best, and when they wore it they embodied all the power and the glory that was the Roman Empire. It was a badge of honour that set them apart.
The helmet caused a sensation and Curle was called on to deliver the prestigious Rhind lectures on the subject of the Newstead dig in 1907 and 1908, the start of a process that was to make him Scotland's most famed archaeologist. But he was essentially a modest man who never lost the natural reserve that is a characteristic of his birthplace. On March 6 1908, he wrote to a friend: "I give my fourth lecture this afternoon so I shall soon have the job over, which I will be glad of. Coming into Edinburgh three times a week with a top hat is a nuisance."
In 1911, Curle published A Roman Frontier Post and Its People, his account of the excavations and the finds, which is now regarded as a masterpiece of its kind. His interpretation of the different phases of occupation put him years ahead of his time and his international travels and contacts allowed him to set the finds within a broad context which another archaeologist would have struggled to emulate. It gained him – and Trimontium – international recognition. On a trip to Germany that year he was invited to meet Kaiser Wilhelm, who had a great interest in Roman archaeology. In the same year, the Newstead finds were shown in Holyrood Palace to King George V and Queen Mary "who displayed great interest and asked many questions".
While Curle was feted in Britain and abroad, the kudos didn't extend to his Borders homeland, where the only sign of recognition for his enormous contribution to Scottish archaeology – along with that of his brother, Alexander, and the other great Scottish antiquarian, George MacDonald – was erected by the Trimontium Trust in September 2006. "The Curles were big noises in Melrose and by all accounts James was a very engaging man," explains Trust secretary Donald Gordon. "But it's possible there was an element of jealousy of a local man getting ahead, which accounts for his lack of recognition here during his lifetime."
Curle was a devoted family man, but he was not the most conventional turn-of-the-century father. His daughter, Mrs Barbara Lenihan, remembered him as "more of a grandfather figure to his children" and as a man who had been disappointed he was never allowed to go to university, as his brother was able to. She recalled: "His advice to his children was: never mistreat a book, never be late and never shop in Galashiels."
James Curle died in 1944, at the age of 82, having given a lifetime of service to the community. He spent almost 40 years as a member of Roxburgh County Council and was chairman of the local unionist association. He was a member of the Royal Company of Archers and involved in many of his country's leading historical bodies. But how does history remember him?
"He and his brother are two of the great names of 20th century archaeology," says Dr Hunter. "James was a remarkable man, who created one of the basic classifications of Roman pottery based on his work at Newstead. His book, A Roman Frontier Post . . . , made Newstead a site of international importance."
The work to understand Curle's legacy continues to this day as archaeologists strive to interpret the complex history of the site and local enthusiasts are drawn to this long-buried outpost of a long-dead Empire, and the people who inhabited it. "We find objects, but the truth is we're looking for human beings," says Borders historian Walter Elliot, who has field-walked the Trimontium site for a remarkable 52 years.
"When I pick up a piece of pottery I know that the last person who touched it was probably a Roman citizen. I've found Roman bricks with the marks of animal prints in them, made while they were drying out. One brick had a grain of barley in it. You could see the marks where a field mouse had tried to scrape it out. In a way it connects you to an event that happened in this same field almost 2,000 years ago, when Trimontium was a thriving place and a power over the land." sm
Doug Jackson's debut novel, Caligula: The Tyranny of Rome, is published by Bantam Press on 14 July and is available for pre-order on www.amazon.co.uk