This assessment as part of an archaeological research framework for South Yorkshire draws on other national and regional assessments and frameworks to inform its scope and research questions. These include Understanding the British Iron Age: An Agenda for Action (Haselgrove et al. 2001), itself based on an earlier online document (Haselgrove et al. 2000); as well as Britons and Romans: Advancing an Archaeological Agenda (James and Millett 2001). Although The Archaeology of Yorkshire: An Assessment at the Beginning of the 21st Century (Manby, Moorhouse and Ottaway 2003) purported to cover all of Yorkshire, in practice its flawed approach only focused on York and its environs, East Yorkshire, and to a lesser extent North Yorkshire. West Yorkshire received scant attention in that assessment, and South Yorkshire was barely mentioned at all.

This all reflects a continued trend to overlook the county at a national and regional scale (Chadwick 2008: x, 26-7; Cockrell 2016: 321; Cumberpatch and Robbins n.d.; Robbins 1999: 43-5). For example, there is little or no discussion of the South Yorkshire evidence in many published overviews of Iron Age Britain (e.g. Cunliffe 2005; Harding 2004, 2017). The South Yorkshire evidence has often been regarded by some archaeologists as problematic or mysterious (e.g. “It is as if this were a kind of ghost village, scarcely ever inhabited”, R. Van de Noort, quoted in Pratty 2002).

English Heritage (now Historic England) produced a draft Research Strategy for Prehistory in 2010 (Last 2010), which highlighted some broad themes for the whole of Britain. There are also useful regional documents from areas adjacent to South Yorkshire that have bearing on the county. These include archaeological resource assessments, research agendas and a strategy for the East Midlands incorporating modern Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire, Lincolnshire, Leicestershire, Rutland and Northamptonshire (Bishop 2001; Cooper 2006; Knight, Vyner and Allen 2012; Willis 2001). The most recent iteration of these assessments comprises the basic format on which this framework is based. There is also the Iron Age and Romano-British Research Agenda for West Yorkshire (Chadwick 2009), an area where there were many similarities (but also some significant differences) in the character of the archaeology during the Iron Age and Romano-British periods.

Challenges of dating and chronology

Prehistoric artefact typologies remain a key feature of dating Iron Age sites and finds. Outside central-southern England and eastern England, reliable stratigraphic sequences and diagnostic artefacts and assemblages from the Iron Age are uncommon (Haselgrove et al. 2001: 2-3), in northern England they are scarce (Bevan 2000: 145; Willis and Millett 2016: 226), and in South Yorkshire they are largely absent altogether. Until recently there were few reliable radiocarbon (14C) dates, and the relative lack of diagnostic Iron Age metalwork and ceramic finds has not permitted the construction of detailed typological sequences.

In 2001, the British Iron Age Agenda for Action noted that, except for the ‘Wessex’ area of south-central England, and eastern and south-eastern England; there were few parts of Britain with anything other than outline chronological frameworks for the Iron Age (Haselgrove et al. 2001: 2-3). This situation has improved somewhat at a national level in the past 18 years since the Iron Age Research Agenda was first produced, but many problems remain in South Yorkshire.

The Iron Age in central southern England has traditionally been divided into early, middle and late sub-periods (Cunliffe 2005). There is a significant problem with radiocarbon dating in Britain, however, with so-called ‘plateaux’ in the calibration curve, one of which falls between roughly 800–400 BC. This makes dating of the later Bronze Age and early to mid-Iron Age periods, and thus the late Bronze to early Iron Age transition, especially problematic (Needham 1996). These difficulties can be addressed to some extent using multiple samples, more accurate Accelerated Mass Spectrometer (AMS) dates, and Bayesian statistical analyses (Bayliss 2009; Hamilton 2010; Haselgrove and Pope 2007). The early, middle and late Iron Age scheme was developed for central-southern England, where pottery was relatively plentiful and some more distinctive forms and decoration allow tighter typologies to be constructed. In South Yorkshire, as in some other parts of Britain, there is very little artefactual material from the later Bronze Age and early to mid-Iron Age periods (see below), and generally little scope to distinguish between the middle and later Iron Age periods. A more realistic framework that has been proposed for much of Britain might therefore be an earlier Iron Age from circa. 850–400 BC, and a later Iron Age from c. 400 BC–AD 70 (Haselgrove and Pope 2007: 5-6); although there also needs to be clear recognition that many Iron Age traditions and practices continued well into the Romano-British period.

The soils over the Sherwood Sandstone, Coal Measures and Gritstone areas of South Yorkshire (comprising much of the bedrock geology of the county) are generally acidic, and there is often poor preservation of bone and organic material. To date, there is only one confirmed Iron Age inhumation burial from the county. There is thus much less potential for the radiocarbon dating of such material than in many other regions. Until recently, there were very few Iron Age radiocarbon dates available from South Yorkshire, and those that were (such as for Wincobank hillfort, see below) were unreliable due to their age and/or lack of secure stratigraphic context. Much of the available archaeological and radiocarbon dating evidence for South Yorkshire derives from the period circa 400 BC onwards. It is unclear if this reflects a genuine lack of material culture and inhabitation from the earlier period, a notable difference in the character of the archaeology from that date, making it less identifiable; or if this apparent absence of evidence is purely due to sample bias and the methodological difficulties noted above.

Traditional culture-history narratives, based in part upon written Roman accounts that were not contemporary to the 1st century AD, propose that following the Claudian invasion of AD 43, Roman forces advanced west and north across England. They halted and established forts or vexillation fortresses at Chesterfield, Templeborough, Rossington Bridge and Lincoln during AD 55–65 (Birley 1973; Hanson and Campbell 1986; Hartley 1980; May 1922; see below). This created a frontier along a roughly south-west to north-east line formed by the Rivers Dee or Mersey, Trent, Don, and Humber. How ‘hard’ or porous this temporary frontier was, the scale and nature of Roman interactions and the physical and social impact of occupation upon indigenous people are all unknown; but it took place over 10–15 years. This significant period is almost invisible in archaeological terms. Changes in occupation within forts and settlements, and their eventual abandonment, have few independent dates to support or contest the conventional historical narratives. After c. AD 120 South Yorkshire may have become incorporated within the administration of a civitas based at Aldborough (Isurium Brigantium) in North Yorkshire, although it is possible the area of the modern county south-east of the River Don might have been part of the civitas of the Corieltauvi/Coritani which was centred at Leicester (Ratae Corieltauvorum). There is simply no detailed historical documentation for this, however, and the archaeological evidence has very little to add; other than hints from the distribution of coin hoards (see below).

Roman ceramics were not widely distributed until the early 2nd century AD, and even after this period were not plentiful on many rural sites – this hinders attempts at establishing a more definitive chronology. Key Roman-period sites such as Templeborough were excavated and published a long time ago (May 1922), and more recent investigations by ARCUS and ArcHeritage have been small-scale (Davies 2013, 2016). The fort at Doncaster and surrounding settlement remains were destroyed during the 1960s and 1970s with only limited rescue work possible (Buckland and Magilton 1986, n.d.), and as no funding was available at the time for post-excavation work many aspects of the work remain unpublished. Subsequent investigations by SYAU, AS WYAS and Arc Heritage have also been relatively small-scale, and most results remain as unpublished interim notes and archive or assessment reports (Atkinson and Cumberpatch 1995; Chadwick and Burgess 2008; Chadwick and Lightfoot 2007; Chadwick, Martin and Richardson 2008; Davies 2013).

A once-useful overview of the Roman period (Buckland 1986) is now out of date due to discoveries made since 1990 as a result of developer-funded fieldwork. Detailed PhD research examining Iron Age and Roman-British rural settlement across north Nottinghamshire, South Yorkshire and West Yorkshire (Chadwick 2008a) has only been published online (2010); and it too is already out of date thanks to the results from recent commercial archaeological investigations, some of which have been on an unprecedented scale.

A national and regional overview

In very broad terms, the earlier Iron Age of Britain is characterised by two main categories of settlement or occupation. In upland areas, and on hills in lowland areas, hilltop enclosures developed in many regions, many of which became the hillforts once thought to be characteristic of Iron Age inhabitation. Many excavated British Iron Age hillforts have been found to have late Bronze Age antecedents, but hillforts were predominantly an earlier Iron Age phenomenon. For those that have been excavated in any detail (mainly in southern England, the Welsh Marches, Wales and Scotland), use seems to have declined after c. 400 BC, or by the later Iron Age. Some may have been re-occupied immediately following the Roman invasion of AD 43, but only specific examples. An influential model of hillfort inhabitation saw them as elite residences and strongholds, and centres for specialist craft production and exchange, agricultural storage and redistribution (Cunliffe 1995, 2003, 2005). This idea has been heavily critiqued and is not supported by archaeological evidence (e.g. Buckland et al. 2001; Collis 1996; Hill 1992, 1995a, 1996a; Sharples 2007, 2010). These more critical accounts have highlighted communal labour and social relations in hillfort construction, rather than the centralised authority of individuals.

Broadly contemporary with hillforts were lowland late Bronze Age and earlier Iron Age settlements. These often consisted of ‘open’ settlements of roundhouses and ancillary structures, sometimes defined by palisades; but rarely large enclosure ditches (Knight, Vyner and Allen 2012: 62). This was regionally variable, however, and might also reflect inhabitation becoming restricted to specific landscape zones (Haselgrove and Pope 2007: 5). Such settlements are hard to identify on aerial photographs of cropmarks, and on geophysical survey plots, and have often only been identified in large-scale archaeological excavations where extensive areas have been stripped and recorded. Two regional examples, one of which may not even be a ‘domestic’ settlement at all, were located just over the county boundary in West Yorkshire at South Elmsall; and there was an unusual palisaded enclosure at Swillington Common near Leeds (Grassam 2010; Howell 2001). The early phases of occupation at Balby Carr near Doncaster probably consisted of an ‘open’ settlement, though this dated to the 3rd century BC (Daniel and Barclay 2016).

During the later Iron Age, hillforts appear to have been largely abandoned, and across much of lowland England and Wales small enclosed settlements defined by ditches and/or stone and earth banks became commonplace, perhaps due to settlement and/or population expansion (Haselgrove et al. 2001: 29), and an increased emphasis on tightly-bound kin groups (Knight 2007: 197; Robbins 1998; Thomas 1997: 215). These settlements can be termed household ‘compounds’ (Hingley 1989: 55), or ‘farmsteads’. They were probably inhabited by one or more extended families, or several different households from the same kinship group. In upland areas, such settlements are notoriously difficult to date, but were constructed and used from the middle Bronze Age well into the Romano-British period. The very long-distance exchange networks characteristic of the middle and late Bronze Age contracted, and though wider movements of materials and artefacts still occurred (q.v. Knight 2002: 137-140; Moore 2007: 80-83), this was more often at a regional rather than an inter-regional or pan-European level.

Following the Roman occupation, adjacent areas such as Nottinghamshire, Lincolnshire and East Yorkshire developed networks of forts and stations, roads, small towns and rural villas, and Roman-style material culture became almost ubiquitous. This conforms in most respects to traditional views of ‘Romanised’ provincial settlement. This was less the case in West Yorkshire, though even here there were villas and roadside or aggregated settlements that seem to have prospered during the 1st to 4th centuries AD. The vicus at Castleford was a significant local centre, and York was not too far away. In South Yorkshire there was a fortress at Rossington and forts with vici at Templeborough and Doncaster, and perhaps a vicus or roadside settlement at Thorpe Audlin. Pottery production at Rossington Bridge became a significant regional industry. Yet few villas have been identified, and the area west and north-west of the River Don seems to have been far less ‘Romanised’ in terms of settlement form and material culture use.

As outlined below, in many respects the Iron Age and Roman-British evidence from South Yorkshire departs from these conventional broad archaeological narratives. Rather than continuing to contrast the county negatively with other regions, however, it is more appropriate to develop research questions, methodologies and interpretations specific to it (Robbins 1999: 46-7), a more local archaeology attentive to the details of its evidence. What makes South Yorkshire’s Iron Age and Romano-British periods different in character is also what makes them interesting.

Research questions

  • How can we maximise the potential of scientific dating methods as tools for refining the regional chronological framework for the first millennium BC?
  • Can we develop a regional model for the Iron Age and Romano-British periods in South Yorkshire that does not rely on those proposed for southern England or adjacent areas such as East Yorkshire and York, where the character of the archaeology was very different?
  • When did the technological and social transitions to the use of iron and other material culture transformations take place in South Yorkshire?
  • What sites and/or features were associated with the earliest Roman presence in South Yorkshire?
  • When did occupation at sites such as Templeborough finish, and what is the late Roman and post-Roman chronology for Doncaster?

Priorities and implementation

  • The draft Historic England Research Strategy for Prehistory noted that transitional phases have often been identified as priorities in national and regional research agendas, illustrating a pressing need for better understanding of socio-economic changes and improved chronologies of different classes of sites and artefacts (Last 2010: 15);
  • Multiple radiocarbon samples need to be routinely taken on archaeological projects to achieve more precise dating (e.g. Haselgrove et al. 2001: 4), and where possible these need to be combined with Bayesian modelling and other statistical techniques (Bayliss 2009);
  • Smaller samples of material and single entity dating using organic material obtained from reliable contexts should be submitted for more accurate AMS dating (Ashmore 1999). Single items can be residual or intrusive, however, so it is better to look for potential sources such as articulated animal bone more likely to represent primary deposits (J. Richardson pers. comm.);
  • If a site is waterlogged and surviving wood or timbers are well-preserved, then dendrochronology must be attempted wherever possible (e.g. Nayling 2007);
  • The nature of the geology and soils of South Yorkshire mean that organic material suitable for radiocarbon dating is often poorly preserved. All human inhumation burials (even if accompanied by artefacts/grave goods) need to be radiocarbon dated. This is also important for Roman burials – it is possible that some objects in graves could be residual or curated ‘heirloom’ items that may not necessarily date the individual’s likely life, and ostensibly discrepant dates might provide interesting insights into materiality and social memory. It is also now possible to obtain radiocarbon dates from cremated bone, so cremation burials and burnt bone should also be assessed for potential radiocarbon dating. If large numbers of Roman inhumations are encountered, then the dating of 3–4 clearly grouped inhumations should be considered;
  • More substantive disarticulated human remains (e.g. skulls, skull fragments and long bones found in ditches, pits and postholes) could also be subject to radiocarbon dating where feasible, to assess the possibility of the deliberate curation of human remains, though the possibility of residuality would have to be carefully assessed. Complete animal burials also need to be routinely dated, as well as partially articulated ‘placed deposits’ or Associated Bone Groups (ABGs);
  • Organic residues on the internal or external surfaces of pottery, and sooted residues on external surfaces, can be potentially dated using AMS radiocarbon techniques (Berstan et al. 2008; Haselgrove et al. 2001: 5; Woodward 2008: 290). There have been trials of AMS dating of the minute quantities of organic material preserved within siliceous plant phytoliths (e.g. Piperno and Stothert 2003; Zuo et al. 2016), with some initial anomalous results now assessed and corrected (Piperno 2016). Though still expensive, this technique might prove feasible in the future for areas with more acidic soils such as South Yorkshire, as phytoliths may survive where organic material does not;
  • Alternative techniques include Optically Stimulated Luminescence (OSL) – this is not as accurate as radiocarbon analyses but could still potentially differentiate between earlier and later Iron Age deposits, or between Iron Age and Romano-British features. Cosmogenic radionuclide 26Al and 10Be dating might be feasible in the future under certain circumstances (Granger 2013). Archaeomagnetic dating of hearths, ovens and kilns should also be undertaken wherever possible, as it now has potentially good precision in periods where radiocarbon dating has large errors, such as the Iron Age (Batt et al. 2017). Thermoluminescence (TL) dating of minerals within Iron Age pottery fabrics might also help produce more accurate chronologies (see below). This has shown potential in eastern England (Barnett 2007); but has had mixed results elsewhere (Willis 2002: 14-16; Woodward 2008: 290). In South Yorkshire the technique needs to be assessed for its potential;
  • There could be a programme of investigating museum collections and archives for previously excavated material suitable for retrospective radiocarbon dating, and research funding for such a project should be sought in collaboration with researchers from a university department;
  • In addition to the annual South Yorkshire Archaeology Days organised and hosted by SYAS, there could perhaps be a bi-annual research-focused meeting specifically on Iron Age and Romano-British archaeology in South Yorkshire, which could be supported and hosted by a university department. This could discuss some of the latest sites and finds from independent, commercial and Portable Antiquities Scheme work, but would also pursue more theoretical approaches to the data too;
  • Archaeological reports and synthetic narratives need to characterise and investigate South Yorkshire’s Iron Age and Roman periods in their own terms instead of perpetually harking back to evidence from southern England. Similarly, continually comparing South Yorkshire in negative terms to developments in East Yorkshire and York, North Lincolnshire or (apart from north Nottinghamshire) much of the midlands, is also counter-productive to the development of a regionally nuanced archaeology. Inter-regional comparisons are valid of course, but only if productive.