The two most common types of metal artefact from the North West have been studied in national surveys. The Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS) has been useful for North-West focused studies, and a number have been conducted over the past ten years which use the data recorded by PAS. Many of these studies have not only noted the intra-regional differences, but also compared the material with patterns observed across other areas of England and Wales.
Walton has examined the distribution of Roman coinage across England with an analysis of changes through time, largely based on the dataset of nearly 58,000 Roman coin finds to March 2008 recorded by the Portable Antiquities Scheme (Walton 2012). (In April 2017 the total stands at 232,397). However, methodological issues emerge from such studies. Walton’s took a base line of 20 coins per parish (Walton 2012, 19-20), but the PAS records have no parishes which qualify in the Cumbria, Lancashire, Greater Manchester or Merseyside and only a handful in Cheshire (Fig. 4). Amalgamating with other data sets of coin finds produces only a small number of parishes above the base-line, a methodology which significantly under-represents the distribution if not the density of coin finds in the North and West of England. Conclusions include the fact that the military north was supplied predominantly with denarii to facilitate payment of the army, with some bronze coinage to enable smaller transactions within the military community (Walton 2012, 55). A cluster of Cheshire Republican and early Imperial coins has been identified around Middlewich and a smaller one around the legionary fortress at Chester (Walton 2012, 65-66, fig. 35). However, the finds distribution in the Roman north which is predominantly rural may indicate rather a conscious preference on the part of the native population for silver coinage, perhaps as one of many prestige goods, a pattern suggested for Scotland (Walton 2012, 55).
Against this national picture, detailed studies flesh out the complexities of local intra-regional patterns to provide a nuanced regional picture of Roman coin use. In the North West, David Shotter’s ongoing research into the Roman coin finds has been published in a series of four volumes, the latest supplement in 2011 (Shotter 2011). Shotter uses historical finds alongside new material recorded through the Portable Antiquities Scheme to focus in detail on the implications of chronological and spatial patterning of coins finds. The analysis of individual site profiles helps determine the origins of settlements and fluctuations in levels of activity, while the pattern of chance or individual finds indicates the varying levels of integration into the market system across the region.
As one index of the degree of integration into the Roman economy (Shotter 2011, 86), the large areas of the rural north and west of England which were either devoid of coinage or show very limited coin loss throughout the Roman period were not strongly monetised in the sense of habitual coin use (Walton 2012, 168). However, the persistence of long-lived patterns which determine native coin use is revealing. There is a striking similarity in the overall distribution of Iron Age coin finds and the dense coin distributions of Roman Britain, a pattern which persists into the early medieval period with sceattas (Walton 2012, 168-9; Fig 120). There are thus strong and persistent patterns within coinage, and wider material culture, from the Iron Age through to the early medieval period, which appear to denote deep-rooted attitudes to wealth and value, and which indicate different economic value systems operating in the western and northern Britain as opposed to eastern and southern regions.
Roman finds recorded on the PAS database by county (total 3880 finds by April 2017)
A distinctive pattern of artefact finds in PAS with a high ratio of brooches to coins, by comparison with other areas of the country, has been highlighted for Cheshire and other West Midland counties (Staffordshire, Shropshire, Herefordshire) (Pearce and Worrell 2016, 363). These were all areas which did not have a tradition of coin manufacture and use in the late Iron Age and were low-level users in the Roman period. These distributions are allied with differences in settlement pattern – an absence of formal temples apart from the forts and nucleated settlements, and an absence of villa estates. Cool and Baxter have pointed out the need to examine the social distribution of finds across different site types (2016, 73), and the biases inherent in the data need to be made explicit. They observe that the rural brooch use in the North is relatively low compared with other regions, and a chronological pattern differs from the rest of Britain in starting later, in the mid –late 1st century AD and peaking later, with sharp decline in brooch use in the early 3rd century and a further decline in mid century (Cool and Baxter 2016, 85-86).
The analyses show that the Cheshire and north Wales assemblages bear a closer similarity to the North region than to the West Midlands (Cool and Baxter 2016, 82, fig. 3). McIntosh and Ponting’s (2014) study of Wirral brooches has identified interesting patterns. First, the type has a core area strongly associated with Wirral and Cheshire extending into NE Wales, where the brooches are found almost exclusively on rural sites; but two other concentrations in the military zone of northern frontier, and native Scottish and northern England sites. The distribution suggests different mechanisms of trade and exchange which resulted in dissemination of the type beyond its assumed core area, through both military networks, and perhaps through contacts between native groups. They have also identified subtle indicators including preferences for certain colours which may convey messages of kinship or group identity which are now difficult to interpret.
For the most part, the PAS records objects from what are currently rural areas and recent research has identified many of the biases of survival, retrieval and reporting inherent in the data (e.g. Walton 2012, 27-30; Robbins 2013; 2014). These studies provide a valuable corrective to earlier archaeological studies which emphasised investigation of known ‘sites’ at the expense of the countryside. The PAS is beginning to yield significant results in terms of rural settlement which are low in material culture. Supplemented by the dispersed but largely rural material from the PAS, the artefact use and a range of material culture assemblages can be assessed over the region. However, heavy truncation by the plough may have had an impact on the survival of artefacts.
The scheme is an actively used resource which helps to shape our understanding of the complex regional questions within the North West and the archaeological potential is beginning to be exploited through research into specific artefact types, such as regional types of Roman brooch (McIntosh and Ponting 2014), while national surveys show that the North West lacks certain types of artefact common elsewhere (Worrell 2008). Thus, cosmetic mortars show small concentration in Cheshire, while button-and-loop fasteners occur in Cheshire and around northern Lancashire/south Cumbria, with major differences from the trans-Pennine and Midland patterns.
Positive working relationships with metal-detectorists have stimulated reporting of hoards enabling some to be investigated under archaeological conditions (Oakden 2015). The Knutsford hoard had been dispersed into ploughsoil but excavation by Cheshire West and Chester and NML archaeologists recovered the pattern of dispersal from the original findspot but also fragments of the pottery vessel in which the hoard was deposited.
The Knutsford hoard and related finds provide new insights into identification of elites and their cultural preferences. The Knutsford hoard contains ostentatious, highly decorated petalled trumpet brooches, in silver gilt, in the second half of the 2nd century which indicate the presence of individuals in the countryside who had the ability to amass significant wealth. In addition, the brooch has a strongly western and northern distribution (Mackreth 2011, 120). The employment of archaic decorative patterns may represent a native elite consciously marking and reinforcing their ancestral identity through the use of La Tène III forms of decoration. Other markers of adherence to traditional practices may include the presence of fire-cracked stones in the ditch of the short-lived rural site at Southworth Quarry appear to provide an indication that the use of organic containers for heating water pot-boilers continued into the Roman period in Britain. The persistence of circular houses on rural sites, and their occasional appearance within the nucleated settlements, as an example with opposed entrances at Walton-le Dale in the mid 2nd century which appears to have been a blacksmith’s workshop or forge (Iles 2011, 42-43, fig. 6). A roundhouse in the earliest phase of settlement at Wilderspool may have been an enclosed farmstead overtaken by the expansion of the nucleated settlement.