Historical approaches

Conventional histories propose that Roman forces moved northwards during the governorship of Didus Gallus in c. AD 48–50 establishing a series of military bases at Newton-on-Trent, Chesterfield, Templeborough, Rossington Bridge and Lincoln sometime during AD 55–65 (Hanson and Campbell 1986; Hartley 1980; cf. Tacitus Annals 12: 31). According to the Annals of Tacitus, Roman troops suppressed unrest in Brigantian territory in AD 48, in AD 54–57, in AD 60 with a campaign carried out by Caesius Nasica, and again in AD 68–69 (Hanson and Campbell 1986: 81-2). The AD 54–57 disturbances may have coincided with the construction of the bases at Templeborough and Rossington Bridge. There is little archaeological evidence and thus no real independent dating for this suggested narrative, nor for the actual line of the early northern frontier. It might have been a fluid border zone, relying on just a few large bases and smaller outposts rather than on fixed defences.

A supposed Brigantian leadership dispute from AD 69 prompted the final Roman invasion of the north under governor Quintus Petillius Cerialis in AD 70–71 (Richmond 1954), although as with 19th century colonial situations it is possible that an invented crisis or a minor incident might have merely been a convenient excuse for a planned long-term strategy. Roman forces might have advanced along one or both of the lines of the later Roman roads – from Lincoln to the River Humber at Old Winteringham and across to Brough-on-Humber (Ermine Street), and northwards to Malton and Newton Kyme; and/or perhaps from Rossington Bridge to Castleford and Roecliffe (Birley 1973; Hoffmann 2013). Forts or fortresses were built at these locales. The winter of AD 71–72 may have seen the consolidation of river crossings and roads with forts and stations established at Brough-on-Noe, Burghwallis, perhaps Long Sandall, York, Adel, Slack, Elslack, Castleshaw, Tadcaster and Ilkley (Buckland 1986; Dearne 1993). Many early sequences are poorly dated, however.

Governor Julius Agricola supposedly campaigned with the army to the north of the region in Scotland until c. AD 84–86, when Long Sandall, Castleford, Brough-on-Humber, York and smaller forts and military stations might have acted as supply bases and centres for the acquisition of crops and livestock, as well as to quell any lingering unrest amongst indigenous groups. Many Roman forts would have continued to maintain and project imperial power through a policy of ‘internal policing’ (James 2002: 37-8). It is also possible that some sites were part of an intensification in the collection of the annonae tax in the later Roman period and formed a network of collection points, as argued for forts in Wales (Arnold and Davies 2000: 28).

There may have been uprisings in the north during the last few years of the Emperor Trajan’s reign in AD 105 and 117 which were suppressed by Quintus Pompeius Falco, before further campaigning under Hadrian and the eventual establishment of a fixed fortified frontier from the River Solway to the River Tyne. The military advanced northwards to the Forth-Clyde line during the AD 140s which led to the building of the relatively short-lived Antonine Wall defences. It has been proposed that during AD 155–7 there was further unrest amongst the Brigantes in northern England that prompted the rebuilding of the forts at Brough-on-Noe, Templeborough, Doncaster and Burghwallis (Buckland 1986; Dearne 1993; Hartley 1980) and the movement of some Roman forces south, though the evidence is mostly circumstantial. Some Scottish lowland forts continued to be garrisoned, but much of the Antonine Wall may have been abandoned by the 160s. There might have been native uprisings and army revolts from AD 175 to 195, and some forts in northern England may once again have been re-occupied to act as supply bases during the campaigns in Scotland led by the Emperor Septimus Severus in AD 208–9. The revolt by the British usurper Carausius, his subsequent overthrow by Allectus and the latter’s defeat by Constantius Chlorus and Julius Asclepiodotus during AD 286–96 might all have caused further changes in the status of military garrisons and buildings.

In the study region, smaller ‘fortlets’ were established alongside rivers at Thorpe Audlin and at Scaftworth near Bawtry, just outside South Yorkshire in north Nottinghamshire. The latter site by the River Idle was known since the late 18th century, and limited excavation suggests it might have dated to the 4th century (Bartlett and Riley 1958; Dearne 1997). More recent analyses of aerial imagery indicated another probable Roman camp just a few hundred metres to the north-east, and a second fortlet approximately 1.5 kilometres further east (Deegan 2007: fig. 6.22; Roberts, Deegan and Berg 2010: 36-7, 67-8, fig. 48). A small riverside fortlet has also been identified by the River Aire at Roall near Kellington in North Yorkshire (Pastscape 900082). These sites may have originally controlled military river supply routes and later trade, but during the later 3rd and 4th centuries might also have served to deter any raiders coming upriver from the coast.

One problem with such historically led approaches is that archaeological evidence can be forced into dominant and constraining narratives, some based on biased or partial Roman sources. Older accounts used evidence for burnt layers within Roman forts as indicators of attacks and uprisings (e.g. Hartley 1980: 5-6), yet the burning of old and rotting wooden buildings in Roman military bases might have taken place at irregular intervals prior to rebuilding and/or in order to rid sites of insect pests and rats. Similarly, fort rebuilding or refurbishment may have corresponded to higher-level political and military edicts rather than any local unrest. No inscriptions related to rebuilding within forts in Britain mention enemy attacks; and most may have been ceremonial and symbolic in nature reflecting symbolic ideas of ​​renewal rather than responses to specific events (Thomas and Witschel 1992; Welsby 1980). To date there is no independent archaeological and dating evidence for any physical attacks or disturbance in the study region during the Roman occupation.