Rural settlement and Landuse

The New Visions of the Romano-British Countryside project aims to ‘allow us to assess the integration of settlements in different parts of Britain with the Roman provincial economy and provide a new characterisation of the Romano-British countryside’. The emphasis is placed on the contribution of commercial archaeological work in advance of development, in particular that only reported in grey literature, to the understanding of the Roman British countryside ( The creation of a comprehensive national database of over 2500 excavated rural settlements embracing England and Wales enables systematic and quantifiable comparability both within and between regions, although partly due to a paucity of excavated rural sites in northern England, the survey classed extra-mural settlements outside forts as ‘rural’. Publication of this major national survey (Allen et al. 2015), remains in progress at the time of writing and will result in an important series of volumes (Smith et al. 2016; Fulford and Holbrook in prep) and journal articles.

Within the project, the North West falls uncomfortably into two zones, the southern part within the ‘Central West’, which embraces not only Merseyside, Greater Manchester and Cheshire but extends overall from West Yorkshire and Derbyshire to Herefordshire. Further north, Lancashire and Cumbria together form part of a trans-Pennine ‘North’. In a key finding for our region, the survey demonstrates the uneven geographical coverage, with much of the ‘North’ and ‘Central West’ markedly under-represented for investigated Romano-British rural settlements.

In our part of the ‘Central West’ region the overwhelmingly predominant rural settlement form is the discrete enclosure, with few settlements of more complex form. Villas are very uncommon and modest in size, and many rural settlements retain the traditional Iron Age roundhouse form, with a movement towards rectilinear structures from the 2nd century AD. Nucleated settlements, set along arterial roads, contain a much higher proportion of rectangular buildings (e.g. Wilderspool (Ch) with no fewer than 36 examples; Smith et al. 2016, 294).

In the ‘North’, Lancashire and Cumbria rural settlements are often well preserved as earthworks especially in upland areas, but suffer from poor chronological control, with few datable artefacts (Smith et al. 2016, 308-322), placing an emphasis on extensive and rigorous programmes of radiocarbon dating to establish occupation sequences. Relatively low development pressures from building or agriculture have led to few opportunities for excavation. Previous assumptions about settlement morphology and dating, in particular that rectilinear settlements are Romano-British in date, have proved unreliable (e.g. Knight et al. 2012, 29). Villas and civilian towns and villages typical of southern Britain are all absent, while nucleated settlements are associated with almost all the permanent forts of the north.

For the North West, against the backdrop of these generalised patterns, excavation and fieldwork are beginning to reveal a more nuanced view of complexity within rural settlement. The consistent pattern of an absence of recognisable building remains from some rural sites, often with apparently blank enclosure interiors, may indicate that some enclosures were intended not for habitation but some function such as livestock enclosures. However, there may have been forms of building either with very shallow foundations or timbers set on the former ground surface of which traces will survive only in the most favourable circumstances. Great care will be needed to recognise these ephemeral features. There are different settlement types in the countryside, with growing evidence of a mixed population of diverse origins. For example, Court Farm, Halewood (GM) (excavated in 1996 but not yet published) is a rare example in the region of a small unenclosed nucleated settlement, with oval buildings of a type which has a restricted distribution along the Mersey estuary. Intra-regional patterns of artefact assemblages reveal differing levels of engagement with the Roman economy, with the hinterland of the fortress at Chester apparently more integrated than the civitas capital at Wroxeter to the south (Smith et al. 2016, 300-306). Amongst the main characteristics of rural settlements north of Mersey are the continued preference for circular buildings and very low levels of artefact assemblages. Coins are absent from the sites, and other finds are very sparse. Rural pottery assemblages in the NW were dominated by jars, and some mortaria, with very few jugs or cups. The use of locally produced wares as well as a frequent preference for BB1 ware – durable cooking vessels, thick hand-made vessels –reinforces the impression that we are seeing here the descendants of the native Iron Age population, who have only slight interest in adopting Roman practices and manners as displayed through material culture.

The principal rural sites or landscapes investigated in the last decade are considered next, moving geographically from south to north. Investigation of the remains of Roman rural settlement close to Chester has been rare until recently. Now, significant work in the hinterland of Chester has shown the extent of a centrally planned and organised landscape up to 3km from the fortress. Two main sites are the Roman settlement and associated field system at Saighton Camp, Huntingdon (Ch) and an area at Chester Business Park (Ch) south 3km of the fortress (Wood 2016; Holgate and Lightfoot in prep.).

At Saighton Camp, archaeological investigation has revealed part of an extensive and complex Roman period settlement, divided into a number of enclosures. Within the enclosures, traces of several structures were identified, although only one building could be defined with any degree of certainty. Located at the northern edge of the settlement, it consisted of a rectangular post-built structure, 14m by 6.5m in size and made up of ten roughly-paired posts, with a possibly internal partition and further smaller posts possibly associated with it beyond its northern side. It straddled a ditch which appeared to mark the northern edge of the recorded sub-rectangular enclosures and so post-dated them. Although its function was unknown, pottery from the building gives a late 4th-century date for construction, making it the latest identified feature (Wood 2016).

The site displays extensive evidence for use of Romanised ways of food preparation and eating, and for buildings using a range of stone and ceramic building materials. In addition, a number of items (including two stone altars, together with ceramics) suggest religious practices and ceremonies were carried out here. Assessment of the recovered artefacts suggests that the site was occupied during the Roman period from the late 1st century until the late 4th century AD, and possibly beyond.

The types of overtly ‘Roman’ materials used or consumed on the site, and the possible religious activity mark out the settlement as unusual and significant. The excavations at Saighton were therefore an important opportunity to add to existing knowledge of the range and diversity of settlement close to the important Roman site at Chester (Deva) (Wood 2016). Since the publication, the discovery through LiDaR of a Roman fort at Saighton provides a context for the unusual finds assemblage.

Chester Business Park, excavated by Network Archaeology in 2003, revealed an area of landscape 3km south of the legionary fortress of Chester. Occupation began in the Iron Age, which was subsequently cut by a co-axial ditched field system, which appears to have been laid out in the early Roman period. A metalled Roman road ran east-west along the southern edge of the site. Finds of Romano-British date were sparse including five lead weights, a jet bead, two melon beads, a hone, a few nails, a fragment of quern and part of an inscription, but no brooches or coins (Holgate and Lightfoot in prep). Pottery dated from the late 1st to late 3rd or early 4th century, with the emphasis on the 2nd century.

These sites indicate the nature and extent of land division in the vicinity of the fortress; probably laid out in the late 1st century and displaying a pattern of formal co-axial land boundaries, served by a wide trackway which may imply provision of grazing along the verges (S Stallibrass pers. comm.).

Elsewhere in the southern part of the region, discrete enclosed rural settlements remain the predominant settlement form and have been examined at a number of locations. Aerial reconnaissance has been moderately successful in Cheshire, identifying some sites through cropmarks. A broad distinction can be made between rural sites with Iron Age antecedents and those which appear to be established de novo. Of the sites which can be seen to occupy, or re-occupy, Iron Age settlement locations, the character of the archaeological deposits and finds assemblages means that continuity of occupation is often hard to distinguish from episodic use. Some settlement locations, such as Irby, appear to have been used repeatedly, if not necessarily continuously from later prehistory into the medieval period. Further examples of discrete enclosure sites extend the geographical extent of excavated examples into Lancashire, which previously had few examples of Romano-British rural sites.

At Poulton (Ch), close to the river Dee, an Iron Age site which has produced radiocarbon dates from the 4th-1st centuries BC also saw activity in the Roman period. There is evidence of field boundaries, enclosure ditches, and small-scale industrial activity, along with a 1st-4th century AD ceramic assemblage which includes local and imported wares. Building material and small amounts of glass have also been recovered but as yet no intact structural remains (K. Cootes pers. comm.). Although the main settlement focus in the Roman period has not yet been identified at Poulton, the character of the assemblage and building materials suggests a possible veteran settlement (J. Axworthy pers. comm.).

A rural site at Irby, Wirral (M) excavated 1987-1996, was finally published in 2010 (Philpott and Adams 2010). An Iron Age phase produced a substantial assemblage of Cheshire VCP, as well as features with mid Iron Age radiocarbon dates, but contemporary structures were difficult to identify. Romano-British occupation followed from the late 1st or early 2nd century through to the late 4th century and probably beyond. A palisaded enclosure was succeeded by a ditched enclosure, to which a second ditched enclosure was then appended. The earliest structures were roundhouses, but in the later Roman period rectilinear and subrectangular buildings were constructed within the interior. The intensity of occupation, which resulted in a dense mass of post-holes, rendered the identification and dating of individual structures problematic.

A rural site at Town Farm Quarry, Norley which was excavated in 2003 (Cooper and Speed 2009) consisted of two areas of Roman features. The first to the north-east consisted of an enclosure defined by slots, ditches and lines of pits, with a concentration of pits within the enclosure, and clusters of post-holes which probably belonged to one small rectangular building, and a line of post-holes probably from one side of a large structure, the rest of which had been removed by quarrying. Associated Roman pottery was confined to the mid-late 2nd century. To the south-west of this concentration was another set of ditches on the same alignment, forming an enclosure with entrance, and part of another, so despite the lack of finds, a broadly contemporary date was postulated. Small amounts of hammerscale indicate smithing in the vicinity, but no other metal finds were recovered.

A prehistoric and Roman settlement at Southworth Quarry, Winwick wasevaluated in 1993, and excavated in 2003 and 2013 (Philpott et al. 1993; Cowell 2010; Moore et al 2014). The finds suggested that the enclosure was occupied in the mid-2nd century, but internal features were few and heavily plough-damaged. The enclosure ditch had been recut in some sections. Finds in both the original and recut ditch dated to the mid-2nd century indicating a relatively short occupation. Pottery from the ditch included samian ware, BB1 from Dorset, Severn Valley ware and local oxidised wares; a fragment of South Spanish amphora was found. Parallel with the enclosure ditch were a number of stakeholes and possible postholes. Several internal features were noted, irregular pits, post-holes, a pit with probable wood or wicker lining, and linear features; the latter probably formed a truncated structure, while a section of curvilinear gully is possibly a heavily truncated ring ditch (Moore et al 2014, 23). Overall, the finds assemblage was very small, with a few metal finds and some possible iron slag. Plant remains were heavily dominated by oats (grains, awns and floret bases) with only two barley grains and one wheat (hexaploid bread wheat type). Wild plants were present in small quantities, notably possible wild turnip. Southworth, as Norley, had suffered heavily from plough damage, which had removed all occupation deposits apart from the remains of deeper cut features. Both sites, as with many others in the region on clay or sands and gravels, also had poor survival of bone.

Previously unknown Romano-British remains were uncovered at Congleton Road in Sandbach (Ch). They consisted of enclosure ditches, and limited evidence of a structure. There were the possible remains of a sheep race and environmental evidence retrieved from the ditches suggested a local economy which included animal husbandry. The relatively small quantity of Romano‐British artefacts from the site, would suggest that the main focus of settlement was elsewhere (Wardell Armstrong 2015).

Sub-circular feature at Port Salford, Greater Manchester (courtesy of Salford Archaeology)

A Romano-British farmstead on a sandy promontory above the river Irwell at Port Salford (GM) was examined in 2008 and again in 2012‐13. A network of gullies and ditches formed a series of small rectangular enclosures, each roughly 20m by 45m, with a trackway at the western end of the site and possible remains of roundhouses. Artefacts were scarce from this settlement, suggesting that the main focus of the farmstead may have been to the north. Finds included a glass bead, a fragment of a rotary quern and a small number of Roman pottery sherds, including a Black Burnished Ware jar, a Grey Ware jar manufactured in Cheshire and fragments of a mortarium, from kilns in Cheshire (perhaps Warrington). These items dated to the 2nd to 4th century AD and may have been acquired at the civilian settlement outside the Roman fort at Castlefield in Manchester.

On the upland margin, the Mellor Heritage Project (GM) produced evidence for the movement of goods east to west across and outside the region, with traded pottery from Derbyshire and the Cheshire Plains. The finds suggest occupation from the 1st through to the 4th century – the only settlement in Greater Manchester to be occupied right through the Roman period. Within the Iron Age enclosed settlement, with its substantial enclosure ditch and series of intercutting Iron Age roundhouses, Romano-British period structures are absent, although the quantity and date of the artefacts indicates prolonged occupation, with Roman coins from 1st to mid 3rd century, several brooches, and pottery including Derbyshire Ware, Cheshire Plains oxidised ware, BB1 and samian. The location of the site on the upland margin enabled occupants to acquire ceramics from east and west of the Pennines (Leary 2005). Small quantities of Derbyshire ware have been recorded at Middlewich and Warrington but the core distribution area is east of the Pennines (Connelly 2005, 102; Hearle 2011).

Mellor Iron Age enclosure ditch with Roman pottery in upper fill, Stockport, Greater Manchester (courtesy of GMAAS)

Small-scale trial excavation in 2010 at Burton, Wirral (Ch) produced evidence of Roman activity within a circular enclosure, with Black-Burnished 1, late 3rd-mid 4th century Mancetter–Hartshill mortarium, and an undated sherd of prehistoric pottery in a primary fill (Philpott pers. comm.). Less than 200m to the north a subrectangular enclosure was excavated producing a clay oven and at least three structures. The pottery assemblage suggested two occupation phases in the late 1st-2nd century and mid-3rd to 4th century. Other finds were sparse, with very little metalwork, two quern fragments and two glass beads. The two enclosures are unusually close; the curvilinear form of the southern enclosure, together with fragment of prehistoric pottery in the ditch, argue for a pre-Roman Iron Age date. A Roman date for subrectangular forms of enclosure has been suggested in the lowland NW of England and may in this case relate to intensification of agriculture in the zone around the fortress at Chester. The hints of prehistoric activity on the northern enclosure site, such as the presence of VCP, may predate the construction of the enclosure itself.

Metal detecting over many years at a site in South Wirral (location confidential) has produced a large assemblage of metal finds, including at least 20 brooches, 10 coins, a stylus, 32 lead spindle-whorls; and other ‘Roman’ metalwork, with a hint of late prehistoric origin from a single cup-headed pin of Iron Age date. Such an assemblage represents a rural settlement well integrated into the local Roman economy, perhaps supplying the legionary fortress with textiles. Such a site may be a candidate for occupation by veteran or entrepreneurial Romano-British inhabitants perhaps within the legionary prata (cf. Mason 1988).

Few securely dated Romano-British rural settlements have been discovered or investigated in Lancashire. One exception is Barker House Farm, Lancaster on the SW Campus of Lancaster University, excavated by OAN in 2003 (OAN 2004) (and due for publication, Zant and Bagwell in prep) on a low promontory overlooking the river Wyre (348297 456500). A circular ring gully 12m in diameter containing a 9m diameter ring of ten post-holes had an entrance to the east; to the south of this was a circular ‘ditched enclosure’ consisting of two segments of ditch with opposed 5m wide entrances. Three phases of gully were identified, while a pit which cut the gully near the terminal contained a smithing hearth bottom. There were also linear arrangements of postholes interpreted as fence lines. The farmstead was bounded by a ditch 38m to the west beyond which was a large water hole. Some further Romano-British activity occurred outside the main excavation area. Finds were very scarce. The first building had a single Romano-British sherd from a posthole (206), and a fragment of beehive quern was recovered from a pit within the building. The circular enclosure produced another beehive quern fragment with a central large posthole and is interpreted as a possible stock enclosure. The boundary ditch has C14 dates from the 1st-3rd century AD, with only a tiny assemblage of five sherds of Roman pottery (one BB1, three grey ware, one amphora) despite its proximity to the Roman fort at Lancaster. The site once again was plough-damaged and all occupation surfaces were lost (OAN 2004; Zant and Bagwell in prep).

On the Wyre Estuary Pipeline/Garstang Road East, Poulton-le-Fylde, a settlement site with several ring-gullies dated to the Romano-British period was excavated in 2008-9 (Smith et al. 2016, 317), and further Romano-British remains were discovered in the area in the adjacent field in 2014 (WA 2014), the latter consisting of ditches (possibly the continuation of an enclosure ditch found earlier), and ring-gullies (including one probable roundhouse) associated with the Romano-British settlement found previously. A further possible ring-ditch on the hill in the NE corner of the site may belong to a separate Romano-British settlement. No finds associated with the Romano-British features were recovered in limited excavations in the 2014 site.

Dutton’s Farm, Lathom, near Ormskirk continued to be investigated after an interim publication in 2005 (Cowell 2005). At least four roundhouses were found, one dated to the 1st century BC and another smaller roundhouse had Romano-British pottery in the gully representing a shift in the settlement focus. About 100m to the west there are several inter-cutting broad trackways for local estate or agricultural use rather than public roads, one of which had a small early 2nd century coin hoard (closing with Hadrian) with tile and Romano-British pottery.It is hard to be sure of the total sequence of intercutting tracks, though the others were not as substantial as the one with Roman material in it. The presumed 2nd-3rd century farm indicated by pottery and other finds was not located. There are thin scatters of Romano-British pottery elsewhere in the enclosure that may pinpoint it. The small Roman ceramic assemblage of only 98 sherds by 2005, consisted of BB1, Oxfordshire ware, local sandy wares, probably from Wilderspool, and ceramic tile (Cowell 2005, 70).

Romano-British rural settlements, and their Iron Age predecessors, in some upland areas have proved elusive, but extensive surveys suggest these locations may genuinely have only sparse settlement. Thus, in the Western Lake District, the National Mapping Programme has identified few monuments that can be attributed to the Iron Age or Roman period within the aerial photography and LiDAR project, particularly in comparison with the earlier periods, and surprising given the proximity of Glannoventa, the Roman fort at Ravenglass. This dearth of Romano-British sites does, however, reflect the existing archaeological record (Deegan 2016, 11).

Targeted research projects aimed at understanding the chronology of poorly dated types of site have been undertaken in upland regions. The Matterdale Archaeological Project, a programme of site reconnaissance and excavation taking place in the area around Glencoyne Park and Matterdale, near Ullswater, in the Lake District National Park, focussed on improving the archaeological record by identifying Bronze and Iron Age monuments, as well as investigating Iron Age – Roman interaction. In the north-eastern Lake District a report prepared in 2013 on archaeological work in 1997 and 1998 at Baldhowend, Matterdale (C) aimed at understanding an unenclosed settlement, a type of site little researched or understood in Cumbria (Hoaen and Loney 2013). A topographic and geophysical survey at Baldhowend Farm (Hoaen and Loney 1999a, b; Loney and Hoaen 2000) found remains which were interpreted as a small, possibly unenclosed, settlement, with an adjacent field system and hollow-way. At the northern edge of the site this field system appears to overlie an earlier phase of activity, perhaps consisting of two hut circles. Selected structures of the ancient settlement were investigated by excavation, including a rectilinear building with evidence of Romano-British metalworking, confirmed by radiocarbon dating, while also recovering environmental data relating to the land use and economy of the inhabitants, to provide a dated sequence of landscape and settlement change for the late prehistoric period to immediate post-Roman period. The investigations at Baldhowend formed part of a wider programme of work in Matterdale (Loney and Hoaen 2000; 2007; Brennand et al. 2006; Quartermaine and Leech 2012, 20).

Investigation of an enclosed settlement at Glencoyne Park (C) showed through radiocarbon dating that occupation began at the start of the first millennium BC. The enclosure wall was constructed in at least two phases and with two different building techniques with a phase of rebuilding at the start of the Roman period in Cumbria. The first phase is dated to some time after the start of the first millennium BC. The second phase is not yet dated but appears to have fallen into disuse before the Roman period. Geophysical evidence revealed external buildings and courts which indicates that the enclosure wall went out of use. Internally some of the range of cut features probably belong to the latest phase before the Roman period. The Roman period sees extensive construction and reconstruction, including a gravel platform for the construction of a stone footed roundhouse, a cobble courtyard and a flagged area. This phase appears to have lasted for some considerable time as the house walls appear to be remodelled on several occasions and the entrance orientation altered (Loney and Hoaen 2010).

The Matterdale project revealed substantial earthworks forming parts of field systems, some at least associated with a known late prehistoric/Romano-British settlement, but others less easy to date. The remains identified represent extensive and significant evidence for activity in the valley from at least the late prehistoric period onwards, possibly continuous. It demonstrates the extent to which these remote valleys were occupied, and it fits well with evidence for large-scale settlement in Glencoyne and elsewhere (Greenlane Archaeology 2013).

The settlement at Gossipgate near Alston (C) is the best-preserved of about 20 ‘native’ settlements in the vicinity of Whitley Castle Roman fort (3.5km to the north west), identified by English Heritage’s ‘Miner-Farmer landscapes of the North Pennines AONB’ project (Knight et al 2012; Wilson 2011, 344). In 2010, a detailed field survey was undertaken which revealed an agglomerated settlement of about 18 irregular compounds, each containing evidence of several circular buildings, most facing into a central yard. The settlement is surrounded by a field system of former arable plots, including cultivation terraces so narrow they can only have been worked by hand, while the site is overlooked by enclosed pasture. Dating evidence is sparse, but a beehive quern built into a field wall could indicate settlement before 50 BC, while two Roman pottery sherds from molehills within house sites indicate occupation lasted into the 2nd or 3rd century (Wilson 2011, 344). The complex and accreted nature of the settlement indicates development over an extended period.

At Maryport (C) a square enclosure, 60 by 60 m, and probably a farmstead serving the Roman fort of Alauna 250m to the north was revealed (Wilson 2011, 345) in association with Roman pottery of 2nd and 3rd-century date. No associated field boundaries were identified.

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