The last stand of Boudicca and the Celtic good guys

July 8, 2005

An excavation in East Anglia hints at the Celts' resistance to Roman globalisation. Steve Farrar digs up the evidence.

It did not seem like much. Burnt fragments of wattle and daub, a few flint-lined postholes and some subtle stains in the earth constituted mere suggestions of a round house that had been razed almost to the ground.

But then military behemoths seldom leave much behind when they roll over those who dare to defy them. For this debris - perhaps of a ritual structure, perhaps a seasonal encampment, certainly something that had ultimately been buried - may be the wreckage left by a lost holocaust, one inflicted not in some Middle East or Balkan hotspot but in England, where a once-vibrant Celtic culture was wiped out by Roman invaders almost two millennia ago. On this broad, featureless hilltop in Norfolk - whose exact location is not being revealed - are remains that may record the glory and sudden demise of the Iceni, the Celtic tribe whose last, doomed queen was called Boudicca.

Archaeologists David Thorpe, Neil Faulkner and their team hope to reconstruct the past from the silent earth of that East Anglian field.

Elsewhere across the hilltop, other strange structures have been unearthed in the excavation that concluded last week: a fitfully used fire pit some 1.5m in diameter that seems neither industrial nor domestic; signs of palisaded boundaries separating areas off like holy sanctuaries; a great oval of banks and ditches that ghost the form of some fortress. And throughout, pottery places everything within the last seven centuries of the Iron Age up to the middle of the 1st century.

Clearly, this broad, featureless hilltop was once anything but. Thorpe and Faulkner see it as a distinctly Celtic proto-city sprawling for some 13km2 and haunted by the Iceni's aristocratic warrior caste who left hoards of exquisitely crafted gold and silver torcs, rings, bracelets and coins buried in the surrounding fields. The archaeological record that the team is adding to betrays the site as a focus of a civilisation oozing confidence and looking forward to bright future. As the Celts left no written records, much of the story remains informed speculation. But it is reasonable to surmise that Boudicca was a regular visitor, most likely residing in royal quarters there, as she did in a number of prestige sites across the region.

Roman culture is today more familiar to us than that of the native Celt.

The stamp of the imperial power was left in every corner of the Empire, from coins to temples, fortifications to pottery. The culture of the conquered Celts has been in effect erased. Faulkner regards the Romans'

culture as being driven by war. "There is an enormous emphasis placed on military achievement, the need for booty, slaves and tributes extracted from conquered people," he says. "It was a system of robbery with violence." Its leaders were aware that their fate depended on their military record.

So it was that the Emperor Claudius sent his legions into Kent in AD43. One by one the Celtic tribes of England and Wales fell, some striking deals with the invaders, others fighting alone and in vain against the well-drilled professional army. In East Anglia, there was initially little conflict, the Iceni becoming a client kingdom under the pro-Roman King Prasutagus. Yet there was still opposition to the new imperial power, maybe memories of past clashes, some of the Iceni riches had come from Gaul where Julius Caesar noted Britons joining Vercingetorix's ill-fated pan-Gallic stand against Roman occupation in 52BC. Aside from records of a revolt by aristocratic hardliners in AD47, something remarkable appears in the archaeological record. Or rather it doesn't. Unlike any other part of the country, barely anything Roman can be found in Iceni territory from those first decades. No coins, no pottery, nothing. "They seem to have made a decision not to trade with Rome," Thorpe says. The absence of amphoras that are to the export of Roman culture what McDonald's wrappers are to the export of American culture could be interpreted as evidence of resistance.

"A cultural choice was being made," Thorpe says.

It could not last. In AD61, Prasutagus died, leaving his kingdom and royal estates to the Emperor Nero and his two daughters by Boudicca. The Romans seized the land and when the queen protested, flogged her and raped her girls. "The Romans had contempt for the Iceni as barbarians who they believed by definition would always lose. Rome believed might is right as America does today in Iraq," Thorpe says. "This is the arrogance of all imperial powers," Faulkner continues.

Both archaeologists talk of parallels with today's US occupation of Iraq.

They constantly hear echoes of the violent clash of cultures raging in the Middle East in this now-sleepy corner of England.

But the Romans had gone too far. Fearing the loss their own estates, the Iceni aristocracy called their people to arms. "All the pent-up anger and bitterness exploded," Faulkner says. "The parallel with Iraq is that if the Moslem clerics do not call for resistance, it doesn't happen." In East Anglia, the population heeded the call and swept the invader from their land. But they did not stop there.

The Trinovantes of Essex joined the revolt and a combined Celtic army under Boudicca destroyed Colchester and its colony of veteran legionary settlers.

The force then moved on to London, a boomtown full of speculators and traders who were slaughtered as their homes were torched. Statues of the emperor were ripped apart, like effigies of presidents and prime ministers being burned in some Middle East street. The Celts then ambushed and crushed a Roman army before turning on St Albans, a settlement with a large proportion of what Faulkner describes as collaborators and Quislings. None was spared. Tens of thousands of civilians and several thousands soldiers were slain.

The Romans panicked in the face of the uprising. The governor fled to Gaul while the remaining legions either were already caught up in a fight against the druid stronghold on Anglesey or refused to leave their fortresses. "It is a moment in history when the good guys could have won," Faulkner observes. But they didn't. On a battlefield somewhere in the Midlands, legions victorious at Anglesey butchered a numerically superior Celtic army. The war ground on for perhaps 18 months before Roman control was re-established.

"Boudicca's death was the decisive moment, taking the heart out of the revolt," Faulkner says. In one account, she takes poison after the battle, in another, she simply died. The Romans feared Boudicca. Dio Cassius said of her: "She was of huge frame, terrifying of aspect, and with a harsh voice... she grasped a spear to strike fear into all who watched her." Yet she had united England for the first time. "It was a close-run thing," Faulkner says. "Boudicca represents a possible alternative future in which Britain could have kept its Celtic culture."

This was not to be, and the retribution exacted by the Romans after the rebellion was terrible. People were killed or sold into slavery. The Iceni's hilltop settlement was abandoned within at most a decade. The archaeological record simply ends. "Whether it is violent suppression, whether people are forcibly moved on or just fled, we don't know," Thorpe says. "It is abrupt, though, and the culture of the Iceni is over."

For the archaeologists, the implicit indications of the strength of resistance to imperialism is a glimmer of hope within a gloomy story, one that has great relevance today.

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