The period since 2006 has been productive in increasing our understanding of the Roman North West. We are, however, still in the basic data-collection phase for many of themes.
Some areas of Roman archaeology in the region have seen major advances over the last decade. Extensive geophysical surveys illustrate the scale of some of the extra-mural settlements of forts but so far they have seen very little detailed investigation, essential before we begin to look at questions such as their chronology, economy, and material culture– and to investigate wider theoretical issues of identity, population origins and movement, economic integration or not with the rural hinterland and the military establishment.
As for rural settlement, a number of new sites have been investigated in detail, and although some broad patterns emerge, notably the presence of roundhouses, perhaps unsurprisingly there remains much variety in detail in the occupation histories. Continuity from the Iron Age to Roman period is hard to demonstrate at most sites, although it is uncertain whether the apparent pattern of intermittent occupation in the Iron Age is a result of the difficulty of recovering detailed occupation sequences or reflects the genuine situation. Site investigation shows that many rural settlement in the lowland parts of the region are heavily ploughed with the loss of much internal detail within enclosures, enhancing the value of those few sites such as Irby, Wirral which retained complex vertical stratigraphy.
Distinctive patterns within the rural distribution of material culture across the region are emerging both through the PAS data, largely composed of metalwork, and through studies of pottery from site assemblages. There is wide variety in the adoption of the most common artefact, pottery, which may touch on marketing and distribution networks. In addition, different parts of the region demonstrate different access to, or attitudes to, metalwork such as brooches, other personal items and coinage. The latter suggests factors such as social hierarchies and rural economies based on pastoral rather than arable farming restricted opportunities for social display of material culture and resulted in an economy in many areas based on now-intangible commodities rather than coinage.
An important development is the growing evidence for occupation at the end of the Roman period or beyond, with C14 dating allied to careful stratigraphical analysis producing a growing list of sites where early post-Roman occupation is suspected or proven. Together with foci of settlement such as suspected at Burscough and Ribchester, the Chester evidence may indicate continued occupation of Roman forts, while rural sites, and former Iron Age hillforts such as Helsby, may represent an alternative locus of elite power.
Publication of major sites has advanced considerably since 2006 but the tendency to consign important site reports to grey literature is an inadequate response to the duty to make accessible the results of archaeological work.
Of multi-period significance
There are some constraints particular to certain sites in the region. A core principle of development–led work in the historic core of the city of Chester (Primary Zones as defined in the Chester Archaeological Plan) is the preservation in situ of significant archaeological deposits through careful foundation design, which reduces the impact of new works on archaeological strata to the absolute minimum. This has limited the amount of new archaeological information from the city with regard to the Roman and all subsequent periods. However, the CUAD, has seen vast amounts of disparate archaeological data from Chester integrated into the Historic Environment Record and used to define archaeological Character Zones. The data also form the basis of the Chester Archaeological Plan which is part of the Evidence Base for the Cheshire West and Chester Local Plan. The results of this project have proved invaluable in the continued provision of robust development-management advice.
Some major gaps remain –animal bone survives poorly at many sites, except certain types of military/urban locations, denying us the opportunity to investigate such questions as dietary preferences, livestock management and butchery practices. Inimical soil conditions mean that unburnt human burials are notable by their absence, so data on inhumation burial practices are scarce and the opportunities for the developing areas of isotope and genetic analyses which allow us to investigate population movement and composition are accordingly lacking at most places, although isotope analysis is planned for burials from Dog Hole Cave, Haverbrack (C) (H. O’Regan pers. comm.).
Extensive landscape surveys are often multi-period in approach and intend to characterise the archaeological resource irrespective of date. One difficulty is adequate characterisation of the multi-period landscapes which often have undated features or landscape elements. Extensive investigation of landscapes in the northern upland areas encounters the problems of establishing the origins and duration of use.