Traprain Law

Fraser Hunter

Traprain Law dominates the East Lothian landscape. This volcanic lump south of East Linton is one of the most important archaeological sites in Scotland, crucial to our understanding of the Iron Age and the impact of Rome. The period 1945-2000 has seen only limited excavations, but the long-running and highly destructive quarry was finally closed in 1975, with the site now safeguarded by East Lothian Council. The Law’s basic history comes from the excavations on the western shoulder in 1914-1923, which revealed a long occupation sequence with peaks in the later Bronze Age (1000-700 BC) and the Roman Iron Age (AD 0-400). Indeed it is the range and quantity of Roman material that makes the site so unusual, and suggests that the inhabitants had good relations with Rome. Traprain was probably a centre of the Votadini tribe, who may have acted as a friendly buffer zone between the Roman frontier and the peoples to the north. However there are many gaps in our knowledge. For instance, we do not know if there was occupation between these two main phases; or how densely the hill was settled; or even if the occupation was permanent, with some authors suggesting it was more like a seasonal market, a gathering place or a ritual site.

Traprain treasure, Roman silver found in 1919

Work since 1945 has given us some partial answers. Bersu’s 1947 excavations emphasised the potential of the site with modern techniques: his sections through the main outer rampart showed the depth and complexity of the remains, and suggested the rampart had fallen out of use by the Roman period. Later work by Strong in the 1980s on ramparts at the eastern end of the hill is sadly not yet published, but small-scale work on the inner summit rampart in 1999-2001 showed that this too had fallen out of use by the Roman period. This most recent project also demonstrated that complex archaeological remains similar to those from the early excavations survived over most of the summit area. It seems the whole hill was densely occupied, especially in the Roman period, with terraces being built on the slopes to eke out the available building land.

It is not just excavations, which provide new information – study of the old finds has also progressed. Most important is the ‘Traprain Treasure’, the hoard of over 20 kg of late Roman silver. This was unparalleled when found in 1919, but recent discoveries allow us to understand it better. It is the largest of a series of hoards beyond the Roman frontier right across Europe from Ireland to Russia in the late 4th-5th centuries AD. These hoards of chopped, bent and damaged silver are best seen, not as loot, but as a wide-ranging Roman frontier policy of buying peace with gifts of silver bullion to tribes beyond the frontier.

The later use of the Law has also become clearer. An accidental fire in 1996 exposed a medieval building, the first evidence of occupation at this time, while the 1999-2001 excavations showed that a nearby rectangular enclosure on the very summit was also medieval. The use of these buildings is unclear, but the discovery of an early Christian burial underneath the enclosure hints at a religious presence on the site, perhaps linked to the cult of St Kentigern; according to a myth already popular by the 12th century, his pregnant mother was evicted from the site by her evil father.

While this remains in the realms of folklore, it is just one example of how much Traprain still has to tell us. It gives up its secrets only gradually, but we may hope that a three-strand approach over the coming years will help us understand this crucial site. The first is to re-examine more of the material from the old excavations, as much can still be gleaned from this. The second is to continue the ongoing work on the Law’s hinterland, looking at its Iron Age setting and especially the neighbouring farms, which supplied the hill’s inhabitants with food. Finally, we must hope that finances and circumstances will allow more extensive excavation work on the Law itself. We now know the remains are widespread and rich, but they are fragile to damage by rabbits, fire and vandals. There must be a balance between safeguarding them for the future and exploring their potential, but further large-scale excavation is crucial to understanding this pivotal site. It seems certain that Traprain will continue to intrigue, delight and tantalise us for many years to come.

Further reading & references

The main works on the site are listed below.

  • The best general article is by Jobey, while annual reports of the main excavations can be found in Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland (PSAS) vol 49 (1914-15), vol 50 (1915-16) and vols 54 (1919-20) to 59 (1923-24)
  • Burley, E (1956) ‘A catalogue and survey of the metal-work from Traprain Law’, PSAS 89 (1955-56) pp118-226
  • Close-Brooks, J (1983) ‘Dr Bersu’s Excavations at Traprain Law, 1947’, in A O’Connor & D V Clarke (eds), From the Stone Age to the ‘Forty-Five, John Donald pp206-223
  • Council for Scottish Archaeology Discovery & Excavation in Scotland (1999) 30-31; (2000) 29
  • Cruden, SH (1940) ‘The ramparts of Traprain Law: excavations in 1939’, PSAS 74 (1939-40) pp48-59
  • Curle, AO (1923) The Treasure of Traprain, Maclehose
  • Edwards, AJH (1935) ‘Rock sculpturings on Traprain Law, East Lothian’, PSAS 69 (1934-35) pp122-137
  • Edwards, A J H (1939) ‘A massive double-linked silver chain’, PSAS 73 (1938-39) pp326-327
  • Feachem, R W (1956) ‘The fortifications on Traprain Law’, PSAS 89 (1955-6) pp284-9
  • Hill, P (1987) ‘Traprain Law: the Votadini and the Romans’, Scottish Archaeological Review 4/2 pp85-97
  • Hogg, A H A (1951) ‘The Votadini’ in W F Grimes (ed), Aspects of Archaeology in Britain and Beyond H.W. Edwards pp200-213
  • Jobey, G (1976) ‘Traprain Law: a summary’, in D W Harding (ed), Hillforts, Academic Press pp191-204
  • Rees, T & Hunter, F (2000) ‘Archaeological excavation of a medieval structure and an assemblage of prehistoric artefacts from the summit of Traprain Law, East Lothian, 1996-1997’, PSAS 130, pp 413-440
  • Sekulla, M F (1982) ‘The Roman coins from Traprain Law’, PSAS 112, pp285-294