Compiled by Robert Philpott
Each chapter presents a summary of the archaeological and historic environment research undertaken in North West England since 2006 for the particular period or subject. The chapters are arranged using the same structure as the original resource assessment subject chapter for the first North West Archaeology Research Framework published in 2006 (Brennand et al 2006). The update is not a replacement of that work, but rather an addition and enhancement. The 2006 resource assessment text remains a key foundation document for regional research studies in North West England. Nor are the chapters merely a list of all work undertaken since 2006. Instead, they highlight key new data, emerging subject areas, and fresh synthesis in the decade or more since the original regional Research Framework was published.
The chapters have been compiled by an author with special knowledge of the period/subject area and use material provided by a variety of researchers who are also credited. The project included consultation and workshops designed to highlight any omissions in recent significant work. The chapters provide the framework for revised questions and supporting statements/strategies. Being available on this wiki platform allows historic environment practitioners to update and refresh these chapters as new research findings come to light or gaps in data/coverage are identified. It was agreed that these chapters should be published as a point-in-time monograph in 2020 through the CBA North West to complement the original volume of 2006.
Each resource assessment highlights important sites relating to that period in the North West. Each particular region is abbreviated with a letter in brackets as follows:
C = Cumbria
L = Lancashire
M = Merseyside
Ch = Cheshire
GM = Greater Manchester
WY = West Yorkshire
The last decade has seen considerable advances in our understanding of the Roman period in the north west, through new discoveries made since 2006 as well as older projects reported on or published since then.
A number of important excavation reports published since 2006 have enhanced our understanding of key regional sites, in some cases clarifying their significance and status. Most are in the southern part of the region. Excavations at Nantwich (Ch) resulted in the discovery of a major salt-producing settlement in 2002, providing a coherent context for scattered earlier finds (Arrowsmith and Power 2012) while the military origin of the long-known Roman industrial site at Wigan has been confirmed (GM) (Miller and Aldridge 2011). Other significant excavation reports have been published on Wilderspool (Ch) (Rogers and Garner 2007); Manchester (Gregory 2007; with a summary in Redhead 2011), Middlewich (Ch) (Garner and Reid 2013; Williams and Reid 2008; Zant 2016), Chester (Ward et al. 2012), and Chester amphitheatre (Wilmott and Garner 2017). In the north of the region, major publications have appeared on Ravenglass (C) (Hunter-Mann 2015) and Carlisle (McCarthy 2017). Important works of synthesis include Carrington’s detailed analysis of the economic basis of the Roman north-west, taxation, production and the interplay between the rural population and the military administration (Carrington 2012). McCarthy’s overview of Carlisle synthesises a mass of published and unpublished data to determine the sequence of occupation and function of various ‘zones’, military, industrial, official in the extra-mural settlement (2017). The publication of papers from a conference organised by CBA North West in 2008 at the Grosvenor Museum, Chester (Saunders 2011) explicitly to explore themes identified in the research agenda for the Roman period, in an acknowledgement of the need to prevent a fossilisation of the research frameworks (Carrington 2011, 7).
The application of geophysical techniques in extensive programmes of survey at Cumbrian military sites has shed new light on the detail of fort interiors as well as the extent and nature of their adjoining extra-mural settlements, especially in revealing the later phases of construction, as at Ravenglass, Maryport and Low Borrowbridge (all C) (e.g. Biggins 2011; Hunter-Mann 2015; Zant and Rowland 2015; Wegiel and Zant 2016).
While the number of known and investigated rural sites continues to increase, too often they remain visible nodes within wider landscapes of which little or nothing else is known. However, the extensive investigation of some sites is revealing evidence of organised landscapes with features such as ditches, enclosures and trackways. They often do not show up in aerial photography due to extensive pasture and glacial till subsoil, and when found in isolation, these landscape features are difficult to date. However, at Chester Business Park (Ch), and Middlewich (Ch) they form extensive Romano-British field systems of a kind which are not widely known from the southern part of the region and await further assessment to determine how typical they are of the area and period.
The Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS) has continued to provide an important source of new information for the period (www.finds.org.uk), particularly for rural areas. Since 2006, each county area in North West England (apart from Greater Manchester) has more than doubled the number of recorded Roman finds, with a new total of 3880 for the region by April 2017, although this is skewed somewhat by the records of individual pottery sherds from known Roman sites such as Maryport and Kirkham. The quality of the records has improved considerably over recent years, with a greater emphasis on precise findspots, detailed identifications and high-quality illustrations, the latter crucial for future re-assessment of finds as research continues.
The PAS has also provided important regional data for national artefact surveys, notably coins and brooches, the two most frequent Roman metal finds from the North West. A study of brooches by Cool and Baxter (2016) examines the use of one of the most common type of artefact from Roman Britain using the growing PAS database, assisted by Mackreth’s publication (2011) which records over 15,000 examples. Walton has largely drawn from the PAS dataset of nearly 58,000 Roman coin finds to March 2008 (against a new total of 232,397 in April 2017) to establish changes through time in the distribution of Roman coinage across England (Walton 2012). Inevitably broad-brush national surveys tend to gloss over the complexities of local conditions or circumstances, and case studies rarely focus on the North West, owing to the low level of durable material culture in the region during the Roman period. However, such work is of great value in providing a wider backdrop against which to identify regional patterns and emphasises the broad regional differences in distributions across Roman Britain. Comparison with data from surveys of the Iron Age and early medieval period (such as the VASLE project for metalwork AD 700-1100; https://www.york.ac.uk/archaeology/vasle/vasleoverview.html) is important in identifying long-term regional patterns of economic or social behaviour, such as a dearth of metalwork and coinage in the North West in sharp contrast to the North East. Pervasive patterns of artefact distribution can be related in part to population densities but also to long-term patterns of social interaction and display, and economic development.
Two national projects have attempted to identify and characterise such regional variation in landscape and settlement across Roman Britain. The ‘Fields of Britannia’ project investigated landscape evolution during the late Roman and earliest medieval period (Rippon et al. 2015). However, the palaeoenvironmental sequences and excavated Romano-British field systems whose relationship to the historic landscape can be established, are distributed very unevenly in Britain with a much stronger emphasis on the south and east where they are revealed by commercial developments. More successful for the North West has been the New Visions of the Countryside of Roman Britain project (Smith et al. 2016). This has played an important role in identifying and quantifying regional differences in variation in house forms, settlement types, and the composition of artefact assemblages.
The reassessments of surviving antiquarian collections and records have also produced new insights, notably at Meols (M) (Griffiths et al. 2007). Here, the identification of significant groups of pre-Flavian metalwork, coins and pottery suggests military use of the port in the period before the formal Roman military occupation of the area. Afterwards, it appears to have functioned as a safe haven and trans-shipment port for the legionary fortress at Chester but a distinctive civilian element is indicated by finds such as ear-rings. Detailed study of surviving museum collections shows continued use from the Iron Age to later medieval period on a site now largely lost to coastal erosion. The application of new techniques and mining of datasets has proved an important research tool for the period. Study of LiDAR data has led to a number of new discoveries of Roman road alignments and temporary camps. Stable isotope analysis of human bone is of great value in illuminating questions of diet and population movement, particularly appropriate for Roman Britain (e.g. Eckardt et al. 2009), although its potential is limited by poor survival of human bone in much of the region. The application of rehydroxylation analysis to date ceramics offers the potential to date accurately building materials, of particular value in forts and major urbanised settlements, and to refine dating of pottery production independently of typology or archaeological context, with potentially far-reaching impact on site chronologies.
Key overview comments to address for the Roman period
A number of overarching comments came out of the workshop discussions for the framework that should be taken into consideration for the Roman period:
- How can we ensure we have sufficient finds specialists in the future, e.g. Samian ware expertise? There is a shortage of specialist curators at museums. We need a mentoring scheme to pass on knowledge (perhaps through apprenticeships).
- There is still a root problem of not publishing major sites. Roman sites can be daunting for post ex projects as they can produce huge quantities of finds.
- Have we captured enough about military occupation/Roman forts? The evidence at sites such as Lancaster and Castleshaw show unexpected military formats that do not fit into expected patterns. We need to be sure we have captured this type of data. Late Roman occupation of forts is a key theme.
- Another important theme to focus research on is the relationship of people in forts/extra-mural settlements and rural settlements.
- Can systematic analysis of finds assemblages, especially PAS, give an insight into regional distinctiveness. It is crucial we understand material culture. Some types of artefact are rare in the NW compared with other areas.
- The NW has a distinctive history of devolution in the 2nd and 3rd centuries, unlike other areas of Britain, NW area is now governed by York as part of Britannia.
- It is essential for archaeology contractors operating in the NW who have come from elsewhere to be aware of the regional distinctiveness as set out in the revised and existing NWRRF. Techniques and methodologies used on Roman sites in the south may well not be fit for purpose in the NW.