Roman Marching Camp Placement in Scotland: Lab Notebook #4

We’re finally here! The final version of the project — now called An Army’s Footsteps: Roman Temporary Camps in Scotland — is finally up and running.

It’s been a very busy few weeks since the last lab notebook entry, and on reflection there’s a lot to write about. Even though the work at the center of the project was done before the last lab notebook, putting the finishing touches on the project and deciding how to present it was a complicated process that involved a lot of decision-making.

Creating a Website

I knew from the beginning that having an attractive website to present my project would be very important. Although some people will naturally be interested in Roman temporary camps, that group of people is probably quite small. When we inspected other digital history projects online, I could tell that good website designs pulled me in to the text even when I wasn’t all that interested in the research.

The reverse was true as well — elements of sites that felt out of place or didn’t work well distracted me pulled me out of my reading at times. For example, a flaw that our class found in The Legacy of Ancient Palmyra exhibit by the Getty Museum was a strange decision to put the site’s menu at the bottom of the page instead of the top. It confused me multiple times and still does when I revisit the site — and at times the moments I spent confused about how to continue through the exhibit broke the flow of information and the story they were trying to tell.

Despite that flaw, I thought in most places the Ancient Palmyra site was great, and it inspired me quite a bit when creating my website. I thought about creating my own site by hand, but time constraints and my lack of more advanced HTML skills led me to decide on a WordPress site through LEADR. After playing around with almost all of the available themes, I decided to go with SKT Full Width because it had a nice side menu that was persistent throughout all of my pages and it allowed a massive slideshow on the homepage.

I had planned to have several images of temporary camps in this slideshow — however, there aren’t a lot of images of Roman temporary camps in Scotland that are in the public domain and also big enough to look good when stretched to the full width of the browser window. I ended up with one shot of a temporary camp and another shot of the marks left by the Antonine Wall, a turf wall built by the Romans along which many of the camps I studied were located.

Deciding how to break up my project into pages was also an interesting process. At the beginning, I knew that I would need pages for my maps, analysis, an introduction of some sort, some writing on the history of the Romans in Scotland and temporary camps, citations and acknowledgements, and my methods.

However, I quickly realized that a few of those categories would need to be broken down to avoid one page becoming much longer than the others. There was quite a bit of background information on temporary camps that I felt I needed to convey, so I decided to break that out as a separate page from my brief overview of Roman Scotland. I also decided to break my methods page into two parts — a description of the tools and data sources I used, and the actual process of creating analyzable data from those things.

I also needed to order them in a way that would make sense and guide the reader properly through my project. It was a pretty obvious decision to make the Introduction page first on the menu, and from there I decided that the next logical place would be the overviews of Roman Scotland and temporary camps. I felt that having some understanding of the tools I used would be useful before going into detail about the methods, so I put my Tools and Data section in next, just before the Methods section. Then came my maps section — including a separate interactive map section that was added in later, since I did not know that I would have this section until fairly late in the project. Finally, I would lay out and explain all of my evidence for my argument in the Analysis section and wrap up with the citations and acknowledgements.

lab4_1
A screenshot of the final main menu for my site.

Once this decision was made, there was a lot of writing, citing, and image sourcing that took quite a bit of my time. This wasn’t the only work to be done though — there were also plenty of tasks to be done to get the project ready to present.

 Finishing Touches

I ended up meeting with GIS librarian Amanda Tickner again to discuss how to use the digital elevation model I currently had — OS Terrain 50 — to analyze the elevation of the camps. However, during that discussion we realized that this model was not the best choice — it was organized in a way that would be difficult to work with at the level of the entirety of Scotland.

Instead, Amanda pointed me to the digital elevation data provided by NASA’s Shuttle Radar Topography Mission (SRTM) through CGIAR-CSI (Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research Consortium for Spatial Information). This data wasn’t quite as detailed, but it was broken up in a way that would be easier to work with. She also showed me some techniques of analyzing this elevation information — using the Extract Values to Points tool to tell the elevation at each camp, and the Contours tool to create contour lines from the elevation data.

On my own, I used these tools to analyze the Roman camps location through elevation. I used the former tool to create a table comparing the elevation at lowest, average, and highest camp locations to the rest of the portions of the SRTM data used. Although this data was broken up into two pieces, in both cases the camps tended to fall within the lowest 30% of terrain in the piece of Britain they were found in.

I also created contour maps with the data, and although I did not find a good way to analyze this data statistically, I did inspect it visually and found that the camps were often in relatively flat areas or on small rises above these flat areas. There were some exceptions, especially in mountain passes where the camps fell in valleys with lots of overlooking peaks, but overall the camps seemed to follow the guiding principles laid out by Psuedo-Hyginus and Vegetius as described in previous lab notebooks.

With all of the research finally done, I had to construct my argument. Looking at the collected data, it seemed that the ancient sources I had read were similar to the principles used to actually site the camps I was studying. I was able to construct an argument supporting this — for more information, I will simply point directly to my analysis page on the project website.

I also made some minor changes to the title of the site. Initially the subtitle was going to be “Roman Marching Camps in Scotland.” However, after rereading some of Rebecca Jones’s book Roman Camps in Scotland, I realized that this title would be quite bad, as “marching camp” is actually used as a subcategory of the temporary camps1. I changed the wording to “temporary camps”, which I think sounds a bit worse but is much more correct and in step with the sources I was using.

From this point onward, most of the work of the project was in laying out accurate and sourced information on Roman Scotland, temporary camps, and my methods of study and analysis. I had to make sure that my work was accurate, and that made it take considerably more time that most writing that I have done in the past.

Wrapping Up

Overall, this project was one of the most interesting and fun projects that I have taken on in my college career. I loved being able to take a project of this size and complexity from start to finish without feeling like the project had already been set up for me behind the scenes. Having this much freedom to study what we wanted felt great, and although I still see flaws in my work, I’m definitely proud of the things I was able to accomplish.

You can visit my final project website here to learn a lot more than you might think is necessary about Roman camp placement in Scotland — I hope you stop by!

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A final screenshot of my homepage. Enjoy!

Although I mentioned it in the Acknowledgements of the project site, I again wanted to thank the instructors Brandon Locke and A.L. McMichael, GIS librarian Amanda Tickner, and everyone in the HST 251: Doing Digital History course for all of the help and the great time I had working on this project. It was a fantastic experience, and I hope that everyone who raeds this has had or seeks out the opportunity to work on a digital history project like this one.

Notes

  1. Jones, Rebecca H., Roman Camps In Scotland (Edinburgh: Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, 2011, Print): 7.
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