Attested: Ptolemy 2,3,28 Ισκαλις (or Ισχαλις), a πολις of the Βελγαι tribe.
Where: Ham Hill, a startlingly large hillfort, probably the largest in Britain, at ST480168, in Somerset, between Yeovil, Martock, and Ilchester (where a Roman town took over its role). It lies among headwaters of the river Parrett some way north of the watershed from which the river Frome flows south towards Dorchester and one Axe flows south towards Axminster.
Name origin: See the detailed discussion of Isca and the many river names across Europe beginning with Is-, which appear in general to denote travel routes. Parallels to Ισκαλις include the rivers Ischler Achen in Bavaria (Iscala in 984), Ischl (Iscalam in 1000) and Isel in Austria, Ijssel and Oude Ijssel in the Netherlands, Isla and Isla in Scotland, and Isle in Somerset (Ekwall, 1928:215-6). The -alis ending is probably just a banal Latin adjective-forming suffix but it might be diminutive.
Notes: The Somerset river Parrett has or had several tributaries called Isle, so it might have originally been an *Isca for much of its length. Ekwall (1928:320-1) cited the Parrett's Old English forms *Petride etc, but he felt obliged to interpret that name only with Celtic parallels, and did not point out that English path-ride (compare the start of Πετουαρια plus rithe ‘stream’)
is essentially a translation of *Isca. Notice how Ptolemy defined the local people as Belgae, in effect suggesting that the tribal division between “English” and “Welsh” that gave rise to post-Roman battles such as at Dyrham already existed in AD 100. Ptolemy also mentioned the Δουροτργιγες as a separate tribe, with their πολις at Δουνιον, probably at Hod Hill. Sherratt (1996) drew attention to the Parrett as part of a trans-isthmus travel route (two rivers plus a portage) from the Bristol Channel to the English Channel and he picked out Ilchester and Cadbury Castle as the key locations for a local elite to profit from traffic on that route. This analysis rejects past guesses of a location at Charterhouse, or at Isca of the 2nd legion (Caerleon or Exeter) misplaced by a manuscript error, and it regards places such as Wells or Gatcombe as unlikely to be a πολις. A general discussion of ancient names in Somerset is here.
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Last edited 25 August 2020 To main Menu