Civilian settlements attached to military sites

A national research synthesis of extra-mural sites has recently been completed which brings together a wide range of different types of evidence (from epigraphic to geophysical) to consider activities and functions of the extra-mural spaces and the people living in them (Murphy-Smith 2016).

Excavations on five areas within the Roman vicus at Manchester (Mamucium) during 2001-2005 have been published (Gregory 2007). The excavations revealed a ditch, possibly of military origin and defining an irregular military annexe, with an early vicus protected by a palisade and ditch further to the north, flanking either side of the Ribchester road. The ditches of both the annexe and vicus were infilled in the early 2nd century and the vicus expanded over the area. The road was then lined with a series of timber strip buildings. There was a building which may have served as a mansio, and a hybrid classical/Romano-Celtic temple. Industrial activities included smithing and tanning. There were also a series of field and allotment boundaries, with possible evidence of vegetable cultivation (Carrington 2011, 107). The vicus appears to have been abandoned in the mid-3rd century, although the fort may have remained in occupation later.

Chester Road, Manchester, was excavated in 2008, on the opposite bank of the river Medlock to the Roman fort and vicus, revealing evidence of a ditched enclosure, pits and agricultural ditches (PCA 2009), and adding considerably to our knowledge of the extent and character of the Roman settlement. The earliest Roman activity of early to mid-2nd century AD saw a series of boundary ditches delimiting small, regular plots of land set out to the south of the Roman road. The plots contained probable quarry pits, filled with refuse, although one yielded a well-preserved sandstone altar, dedicated by Aelius Victor to the mother goddesses of a German tribe known to have provided auxiliary units for the Roman army. The altar was probably set up as a roadside shrine and was presumably disposed of in the pit when obsolete. Antiquarian discoveries in this area have long indicated that the southwestern approach to the Roman fort and associated settlement had particular religious significance. The extramural settlement attached to the Roman fort extended beyond the River Medlock by this time, indicated by the presence of domestic refuse.

Chester Road excavations, Manchester (courtesy of GMAAS)

In the late 2nd century a change in layout saw a more substantial boundary system with larger ditches, possibly delimiting the south western extent of the extramural settlement beyond the Medlock at this time. In the early-mid 3rd century smaller boundaries were re-introduced marking plots with traces of possible structural features, such as beam slots and postholes, while refuse pits yielded domestic refuse that presumably originated from nearby habitation. A substantial ditch bounding the south-western side of these plots may have delimited the extent of the extramural settlement at this time.

The excavation yielded a modest sized assemblage of Roman pottery, comprising local wares, Romano-British traded wares and imported material such as samian ware and Spanish amphora. Several ‘small’ finds were also recovered, the majority being of domestic or structural function. Faunal remains and palaeoenvironmental evidence were scarce due to the acidic nature of the subsoil, which is not conducive to the survival of such material (PCA 2009).

As mentioned above, geophysical surveys have revealed, particularly in Cumbria, the layout and extent of the extra-mural settlements, but the limited excavations subsequently carried out show that, inevitably, the surveys focus on the latest phases, they are better at identifying masonry buildings and ditches than relatively ephemeral timber structures, and do not reveal the full complexity of the occupation phases. They have greatly enhanced our understanding of the extents and diversity of extra-mural settlements although several do not reach the furthest extents of the areas of activity and almost none of them put the roads and extra mural settlements and cemeteries into their landscape settings.

At Roman Papcastle (C), a large-scale geophysics and evaluation programme undertaken by Grampus Heritage with the assistance of Wardell Armstrong Archaeology, has uncovered amongst other things a substantial extra-mural settlement, a bathhouse, bridge, and mill (

Roman mill at Papcastle, Cumbria (courtesy of Cumbria County Council)

At Ambleside (C) vicus, geophysical survey identified potential boundary ditches delineating a feature following a course from the lake inland, parts of the fort’s ramparts and ditches, extra-mural settlement and settlement inside the fort. Substantial areas north of the fort appeared blank on the survey, although some features further north may indicate the location of furnaces. There is no conclusive evidence of earlier phases of the fort other than that identified by Collingwood to the north. Responses in the south of the survey area do not exactly match the ramparts reported by Collingwood but they could represent the earlier phase. Other possible features cross the northern ramparts at an oblique angle and these may represent earlier archaeological features. This explanation is not strongly supported by the geophysical evidence, however (Taylor 2013).

Excavations at Ravenglass (C) revealed evidence for an extensive vicus to the east of the fort, mostly in the form of large timber strip buildings alongside roads and streets. These were accompanied by evidence for domestic and industrial activity, including iron working and possibly also lead. One particular building on the slopes east of the vicus may have been associated with metalworking. It was difficult to identify phases of activity within the vicus, although one possible enclosure may pre-date the vicus. Occupation within the vicus appears to have commenced around AD 150, and most pottery was dated to 2nd/3rd century AD. Although there is some late 4th century the usual range of 4th century pottery recovered from this fort is absent from the vicus, suggesting that occupation of this part of the extra-mural settlement had ended by c. 300 AD. The small assemblage suggests that the military vicus conforms to the usual pattern of late 3rd century abandonment, with the fort occupied until the end of the Roman period (Hunter-Mann 2015).

At Brougham (C), pipeline development allowed investigation of the little-known extra-mural to the south-east of the fort, revealing three phases of occupation, beginning in the late 2nd/early 3rd century and continuing into the second half of the 4th century, or possibly recommencing in the late 4th after a period of reduced activity (Zant and Clapperton 2010). An area of ditched field boundaries, associated with trackways, pits and wells or water holes was identified. This was adjacent to a cemetery area where possible cremations and pyre debris were found. Brougham appears to have had an ‘extended vicus’, where settlement was concentrated at several foci with less intensive occupation between, and dispersed over a relatively large area around the fort.

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