Roman diplomacy and the rise of Stanwick

Stanwick from above, looking north-east towards the snow-capped Pennines. The tree-line follows the northern and eastern sections of the perimeter rampart, which veers inwards to exclude the higher ground of Henah Hill (bottom centre in the photograph). The nucleus of the settlement was at the Tofts, which had been equipped with defences from an earlier date, and is visible centre right in the photograph (just above the church). (Photo: Historic England, by D MacLeod)

Roman meddling in northern England has long been held responsible for a remarkable fortified complex at Stanwick, North Yorkshire. But what was once seen as a centre of resistance to Rome’s rule, is now being cast as an instrument of her domination. Colin Haselgrove explained to Matthew Symonds what the expanding empire had to gain from a royal power centre in northern England.

By any measure, Stanwick would have been an impressive sight in the mid 1st century AD. The outer earthworks girding the complex were stone faced and ran for 6.8km, enclosing a staggering 270ha. Within them, a low rise now known as the Tofts was sheathed within a second rank of earlier defences, creating an enclave evocative of a modest citadel. Despite the extraordinary effort invested in these defences, their setting was not spectacular. Instead of clinging to a dramatic hilltop, the ramparts were raised in gently undulating farmland. This was still a prime location, though. As well as commanding the route north through the Vale of York to Northumberland, Stanwick was well placed to control east–west movement over the Pennines via the key pass at Stainmore. But what was this site for?

Stanwick has always lacked close parallels in the Iron Age north. Comparisons can more easily be made with southern sites like Colchester, St Albans, and Chichester, where large swathes of land were partitioned by sizable, if discontinuous, lengths of rampart. These complexes were not vast urban areas as we understand them today, and instead featured living, industrial, and burial spaces as well as areas used for agriculture or ritual gatherings. Iron Age coins and snippets of information in the surviving ancient histories make it clear that at least some of these sites were home to powerful dynasties in the decades leading up to the Roman conquest. These so-called royal sites are frequently seen as an expression of the increasing centralisation of power within Iron Age society between the invasions of Caesar (55 and 54 BC) and Claudius (AD 43).

The plan shows probable routes across the interior and the likely extent of wet area in the floodplain of the Mary Wild valley (shaded blue), including the ‘island’ where Stanwick church stands.

Mortimer Wheeler was mindful of these southern comparanda when he set about solving the riddle of Stanwick in the 1950s. Although Wheeler’s excavation results duly prompted him to propose a link with the royal house of the Brigantes, whose writ seems to have run through much of northern England, he envisioned Stanwick serving as a focus of resistance to Rome. In this, Wheeler was heavily influenced by the ancient historian Tacitus’ account of the intrigues at the Brigantian court. Queen Cartimandua was a Roman client ruler – and therefore a trusted ally – who had handed over the British resistance leader Caratacus in AD 51, and secured Rome’s northern flank during the Boudican revolt. But when she jilted her consort, Venutius, for his armour bearer, her former lover revolted. Ultimately, Cartimandua had to be rescued by Roman military units. As Tacitus lamented: ‘Venutius inherited the throne, and we the fighting.’ This led Wheeler to identify Stanwick as Venutius’ stronghold.

Vanquishing Venutius

Despite the appeal of explaining Stanwick’s exceptional nature as a response to Roman military might, recently published excavations at the site (see further reading) have decisively severed the link between its origins and Venutius. This fieldwork was primarily conducted in the 1980s and 1990s (CA 119), but integrating the results with more recent Bayesian radiocarbon dating (see CA 259) has brought new certainty to our understanding of how and when Stanwick developed.

‘Technology has advanced since the excavations concluded’, says Colin Haselgrove, Professor of Archaeology at the University of Leicester and editor of the excavation report, ‘and frankly our knowledge of all aspects of the past has been transformed by PPG16. If you cast your mind back to 1977, when I was appointed to a lectureship at Durham University, there were only two Iron Age sites of any note that had been excavated south of the Tyne until you got down into Yorkshire. It was just a blank. You could almost see why some Roman archaeologists thought that the army had moved into an empty, disorganised landscape. The growth in evidence over recent decades, especially in an industrialised landscape like the northeast of England, has just been extraordinary.’

‘Looking back on Wheeler’s excavations, one of the things that I want to say up front is that he got Stanwick 90% right, and very few archaeologists can boast that kind of success rate. My own involvement with the site came about when three different factors converged. One was that with the exception of Christopher Hawkes, no one really engaged with the evidence behind Wheeler’s conclusions until after his death. Then people began to be a little uncomfortable about some of his ideas, with Brian Hartley arguing that some pottery was earlier. So, academic concerns were beginning to surface. The second thread was development occurring at the site, and the Department of the Environment wanted more information so that they could redo the scheduling. To that end, my late colleague Percival Turnbull undertook some excavations, which produced imported Roman material that was simply exceptional in the north. The third thread, which united Percival and myself, was a desire to find out more about the pre-Roman North East.’

Digging in the Tofts

The focus for the 1980s excavations was in the Tofts, which Wheeler had identified as the nucleus of the settlement. Ultimately, this patch of gently rising ground overlooking the boggy valley of the Mary Wild Beck developed into an enclave equipped with its own defences. ‘Geophysical survey in 1981 indicated that there was archaeology all over the Tofts,’ Colin says. ‘Back then you literally had to write down every reading by hand and then draw up a plan from that. It was a massive achievement by Andrew David, and it turned out to be remarkably accurate when the site was resurveyed in 2004. The very first trial trench by Percival Turnbull at the Tofts revealed a considerable depth of stratigraphy and many intercutting features. It didn’t look like something that had only been occupied for a generation, as Wheeler suggested. Although perhaps not unparalleled in the modern world, it also seemed strange that the rare and exotic imported Roman goods that Percival found had ended up in the home of their worst enemy. His trench had been opened simply to follow up the geophysical survey and see what was there, but it was clearly desirable to excavate the area more fully.’

One of the outstanding discoveries of Wheeler’s excavations was this sword, deposited in its scabbard and aligned along the axis of the ditch at the north-west entrance. (Photo: Society of Antiquaries of London)

Applying Bayesian radiocarbon dating to the structural sequence established in the 1980s and 1990s revealed that the origins of Stanwick did not fall during the throes of Cartimandua’s affair with Venutius’ armour bearer in the mid 1st century AD. Instead, activity at the site commenced over a century earlier in c.80-70 BC. This is, itself, a substantial revision to the possible Middle Iron Age foundation date proposed immediately after the 1980s and 1990s fieldwork on the basis of the number of structural phases present, and the very small quantities of pottery from early features (CA 119).

The earliest settlement at the Tofts was a modest affair. Were it not for the later monumentalisation of Stanwick there can be little doubt that the sequence of enclosure ditches and roundhouses unearthed during the excavations would be viewed as just another Late Iron Age farmstead in the North East. Indeed, it is entirely possible that this is exactly what it was. Considering some curious aspects of the occupation alongside knowledge of its later development does, though, throw up tantalising hints that the Tofts was already seen as something special. The rate of change in building stock is eye-catching, with the site undergoing a dozen structural phases over 50 years, while the quantity of midden seems excessive compared to superficially similar sites; the location next to a boggy valley is also unusual. None of these factors is decisive, but taken together they could point to this being an area where larger groups periodically assembled, presumably for ceremonial or ritual reasons.

By c.20–10 BC there is no doubt that exceptional treatment was being lavished on the site. At a time when substantial Iron Age earthworks appear to have largely fallen out of fashion in the north, a huge rampart was erected at the Tofts, enclosing the hillside overlooking the Mary Wild valley, an area of about 6.25ha. Within the interior, a range of distinctive structures and pens were constructed. One of these compounds, known as ‘Enclosure 3’, had an oval footprint and survived in various forms right down to Stanwick’s abandonment almost a century later. Its retention provides a marked contrast to the rapid turnover of enclosure ditches in earlier phases, signalling a new stability to the layout of the site.

In c.10 BC a substantial circular structure was erected just north of Enclosure 3. This edifice incorporated timbers up to 0.6m in diameter, and the closest parallels for construction of this style and scale can be found at Irish royal sites such as Navan. How the Stanwick structure appeared above ground level is a matter of conjecture, but it might have been open, rather like a medieval market hall. Whatever its role, the structure was sufficiently important that after 20 or 30 years it was replaced by a second building, which may well have carried a roof and perhaps an upper storey, and stood until about AD 40. Striking as these structures are, though, perhaps the most surprising feature of this phase is the presence of Roman imports.

The gullies of a superimposed set of roundhouses built within enclosure 3.

‘When I wrote about Stanwick with Andrew in CA 119’, Colin remembers, ‘we had noticed there were small quantities of Roman imports associated with the big timber buildings and the oval enclosure. The view back then was that such pottery probably reached the north in the wake of the Claudian occupation of southern England. All we could say for certain was that these were forms that first appeared under Augustus or Tiberius and remained in use until about the mid 1st century AD. The natural view to take was that all this change was occurring at the time of the Claudian invasion. Then the radiocarbon dating showed us it was half a century earlier. The quantities of imports are not big, maybe 10 or 20 vessels, but that’s still more than we can find in the rest of Britain north of the Humber during this period.’

‘It is entirely possible that these objects can be linked to Roman diplomacy. I think we’ve taken a rather narrow view of its importance after Augustus came to power. Supposedly his efforts were focused on the peoples that Julius Caesar had encountered directly, but given that Augustus was exploring large swathes of Germany it is perfectly possible that Roman ambassadors were sent out over a much wider compass. There are also later occasions when it might have been desirable to put out feelers, such as during the reign of Gaius – or Caligula as he is better known – when wider connections could well have been cultivated in the context of his planned invasion of Britain.’

Rome’s friends in the north

What began with a handful of exotic imports may have ended with the radical revamping of Stanwick in the mid 1st century AD, when the outer circuit of stone-faced ramparts was added. This transformed the site into, in Colin’s words, ‘one of the most grandiose sites in Iron Age Europe’. Despite the scale of the new fortification, it was defensively flawed, with a perimeter that was too long to defend effectively and a course that did not always use the terrain to maximum tactical advantage. Equally, this stepchange in the scale of the enclosed area is not accompanied by any sign of major habitation developing within it, raising the question of whether this space served in part as a venue for seasonal gatherings of people.

What is more certain is that the trickle of imported Roman goods became a flood between c.AD 40–70. Somewhere in the region of 200 ceramic and glass vessels are represented in the limited area explored during the excavations, as well as small quantities of Roman window glass and tile. It may well be telling that this flurry of activity overlaps with the Claudian invasion and its aftermath. This spans the period when the Brigantian client kingdom is most likely to have been formally ratified by Rome and Cartimandua courted the invaders’ favour by surrendering Caratacus and then holding firm during the Boudican revolt. Could it be that rather than a centre of resistance to Roman rule, Stanwick was Cartimandua’s capital?

Stanwick church with the old stream course round the north of the island under flood; the canalised Mary Wild Beck is in the foreground. (Photo: Historic England, by D MacLeod)

‘I think so,’ Colin says, ‘but I always suspect that this kind of question cannot be decisively answered without written evidence. What we can say, though, is that there are good grounds from the historical sources to believe that there was a Roman client ruler in northern England for two or three decades. If we look around for sites that fit the bill for a royal seat of power, Stanwick is the outstanding candidate.’

‘Indeed, this may be because there was a concerted effort to make it “look the part” after the client kingdom was established. Before the construction of the perimeter rampart there was nothing at Stanwick that the Romans would recognise as a symbol of power. Both on the continent and in southern Britain they were used to sites with monumental earthworks that covered large areas, and Stanwick was still very small scale. We do get hints at sites such as Silchester that client kings were either receiving assistance with building projects, or at least being encouraged to adopt Roman ways. That could explain both the growth of Stanwick and its increased access to Roman goods from the AD 40s to 70s.’

It is possible that Roman diplomacy had an even more fundamental impact on the region, and that they effectively encouraged the creation of the Brigantian confederation by nurturing a more centralised tribal structure that would be easier to deal with than countless smaller groups. If so, ultimately this dabbling in local politics backfired. The abandonment of Stanwick by around AD 70 fits with the general timeframe implied by Tacitus for the evacuation of Cartimandua by Roman forces as Venutius’ revolt gained the upper hand. In the end, Venutius proved no match for Roman might and it was their army that carried the north. An intriguing postscript to this victory is provided by the decision to found a new capital for the Brigantes much further to the south, at Aldborough near Boroughbridge (CA 312). This left it within easy reach of the legion stationed at York, a pairing that could make you wonder just how secure the Roman army and administration felt without a compliant queen at Stanwick.

Further reading

A wealth of research into Stanwick and its environs, with a breadth that stretches far beyond the aspects discussed here, has been published as: Cartimandua’s Capital? The late Iron Age royal site at Stanwick, North Yorkshire, fieldwork and analysis 1981-2011, C. Haselgrove (ed.), CBA research report 175, £40.00, ISBN 978-1902771984.

This feature appeared in CA 325.

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