Alex Elliott

My PhD research is focused on the fleets and naval forces of the Later Roman Empire (3rd – 6th Centuries). More specifically, I am looking at the ways in which these forces were organised and employed, as well as the evolution in ship design over the same period. Within this research area, nowhere has received as much scholarly attention as that of the so-called “Saxon Shore” series of late Roman fortifications. Situated at various strategic locations along the South-eastern coast of Britain, the purpose of these fortresses has long been debated within scholarship, with interpretations ranging from a united naval command aimed at catching Saxon pirates to that of fortified distribution centres intended to protect the transhipment of grain.

With the aid of modern maps, military communications, and organisational practices, these interpretations often sound plausible on paper. However, it is not possible to fully interpret these structures without an accurate understanding of the environment in which they are sited. For this reason, I undertook a research trip in which I physically visited several of these sites to assess the practicality of previous interpretations, as well as to further develop my own arguments. This trip was only made possible thanks to the travel grant generously awarded by the British Archaeological Association.

Over the course of this research trip, I visited three of the major sites associated with the Saxon Shore. The first, Pevensey Castle (Anderitum), is among the best preserved of all extant fortresses and its surroundings provide an excellent example of the maritime environment of Southern Britain. My second stop was at Portchester Castle (Portus Adurni), sometimes identified as “the best-preserved Roman fortress North of the Alps.” The excellent state of preservation allowed for a clearer understanding of the size and potential of such structures for military operations. Situated in a large natural harbour, the similarities and differences in environment between Pevensey and Portchester were also illuminating. The final location which I visited was that of Dover (Portus Dubris). Unlike the other two sites, there are no visible remains of the former fortress at surface. However, the value of Dover lies in its geographic location. Situated near the narrowest point of the English Channel, Dover acted as the principal port connecting Britain with the Continent in both the early and late Roman periods. Owing to this proximity to the opposite coast, it was possible to gain a better understanding of the practicalities (or impracticalities!) of the various theories which have been promoted to explain the construction of these fortifications. Over the course of this trip, I also took the time to visit several local museums whose collections contain artefacts directly associated with the fortresses as well as the general late Roman presence in the region.

I would like to again thank the British Archaeological Association for supporting this research trip and allowing me the opportunity to visit these sites in person. The insights gained over the course of this journey have been a tremendous benefit to my PhD research.