Parts of the Roman Empire’s most north-western frontier were originally painted in vibrant reds and yellows, new research has revealed.
Archaeologist Dr Louisa Campbell, of the University of Glasgow, uncovered the colourful past of Scotland’s Antonine Wall after using x-ray and laser technology to analyse remnants of the structure.
She said the brightly-coloured stones on what is now a Unesco world heritage site would have been used by the Romans as “propaganda” against the local communities.
“The public are accustomed to seeing these sculptures in bland greys, creams, white (for marble) and don’t get the full impact that they would have had on the Roman and indigenous audiences 2,000 years ago,” she said.
“These sculptures are propaganda tools used by Rome to demonstrate their power over these and other indigenous groups, it helps the empire control their frontiers and it has different meanings to different audiences.”
The Antonine Wall is a Roman frontier built in the mid-second century AD which crosses five local authority areas between the Forth and the Clyde.
Dr Campbell, a postdoctoral fellow in archaeology, has been studying the pigments applied to Roman sculpture, with a particular focus on distance stones from the Antonine Wall.
Her work using portable x-ray flourescence and raman spectroscopic analysis – which had not previously been attempted – revealed the sculptures were once decorated with a palette dominated by reds and yellows.
Reds were used by the Romans to depict cloaks and military standards or even the spilled blood of enemies, experts say.
Dr Campbell said: “The distance stones tell us how many feet were built by each legion and are dedicating their allegiance to the Emperor Antoninus Pius.
“These sculptures are unique to the Antonine Wall and the best-preserved example of frontier statuary from any Roman border.
“They were embedded into prominent positions on the wall (probably crossing points at militarised forts) for full visual impact.
“The colours would have been a very powerful addition to bring these scenes to life and aid in the subjugation of the northern peoples.”
She said of the samples she studied: “Many contain exquisitely carved scenes of combat, religious practice and architecture.
“It is likely that the sculptures were originally painted for maximum impact. However, over the course of time the paint has faded and only trace elements are left.”
The archaeologist studied samples at the university’s Hunterian Museum, the National Museum of Scotland, the Yorkshire Museum and the Great North Museum.
Her project is part-funded by Historic Environment Scotland (HES)’s archaeology programme, with a view to recreating a distance slab in full colour.
Patricia Weeks, Antonine Wall co-ordinator at HES, said: “Knowing how colour was used by the Romans to tell stories and create impact is a huge leap forward in understanding these sculptures.”