Investigating Iron Age industry and Roman riches at Scotch Corner
Long-running improvement works on a section of the A1 have uncovered rare traces of how contact with the Roman Empire transformed a northern Iron Age settlement at a key routeway junction. Carly Hilts reports.
Today, Scotch Corner is one of the best-known road junctions in Britain, where the A1 meets the A66 in North Yorkshire. This location has a much older pedigree, though: almost 2,000 years ago, it also marked the meeting place of two major Roman roads, and in the early 1st century AD it was home to a flourishing settlement whose indigenous inhabitants enjoyed access to luxurious goods imported from across the Roman Empire. This remarkable prosperity was not to last, however, and within only a couple of generations the settlement had been largely abandoned. The once-bustling site returned to open countryside, and its importance was lost to history – until major works on the A1 brought its remains to light once more.
The first clues had emerged in the 1990s, when geophysical survey by Durham University confirmed what cropmarks had long hinted at: the outlines of numerous buildings indicating an extensive area of occupation by the junction. A subsequent watching brief on the site of the Scotch Corner Hotel, carried out by Northern Archaeological Associates (NAA), discovered that the area had been inhabited in the 1st century, together with tantalising traces of high-status Roman imports; major works by Oxford Archaeology during the upgrade of the A66 (published in 2013) greatly enhanced this picture. Now the full significance of the settlement has been vividly illuminated by more recent and even more extensive excavations by NAA, which were carried out during the upgrade of a section of the A1 to motorway status between 2013 and 2017.
CA was given an exclusive preview of the wide-ranging new monograph containing the project’s full findings, which highlight how Scotch Corner is helping to transform our understanding of the Iron Age-Roman transition in northern England through its invaluable insights into the earliest effects of contact with the Empire. The exciting finds make a fascinating contribution to Iron Age and early Roman studies, and we will explore some of the key themes here. The team compares the site to celebrated ‘greenfield’ Roman settlements to the south, like Silchester, St Albans, and Caistor-by-Norwich, at each of which a lack of modern development on the site means that the towns’ remains are relatively accessible and well-preserved – but their longevity means that many early elements were obscured as they grew. By contrast, the fact that Scotch Corner’s Romano-British life was so short means that it opens a rare window on the very earliest phase of Roman contact with an indigenous community (the Brigantes), and the transformative economic, social, and political changes that such contacts wrought.
SCOTCH CORNER BEFORE ROME
Before we consider these changes, though, what did the site look like before imperial influences arrived? NAA’s excavations found little evidence of permanent or dense settlement pre-dating the Late Iron Age, but between c.55 BC and AD 15 clear signs of occupation and exploitation of the fertile soils of the Tees Valley begin to appear. This was an unenclosed, fairly dispersed settlement, where structural and eaves-drip ring-gullies pick out the outlines of scattered roundhouses. The dwellings were fairly typical in size, averaging around 7-9m in diameter, and charcoal analysis suggests that they were built mainly from oak and ash, both of which were plentiful locally. Small amounts of recovered daub hint at walls made from this material (probably secured with wattle hurdles), while frequent finds of heather charcoal might represent burnt roofing material, or kindling used by the roundhouses’ occupants.
At this early stage, the community of subsistence farmers cultivated cereal crops, including spelt and barley, as well as tending cattle, sheep, and pigs. One thing that does not appear to have been on the menu, though, was fish. This might seem surprising – fish would have been easily available from the local rivers, while archaeological evidence attests that the settlement was importing other goods (notably, briquetage vessels containing salt) from the nearby coast, another obvious potential source. It could be that their bones have simply not survived in the site’s acidic soil. However, a similar lack has also been noted during excavations at several other Late Iron Age sites in the region – could it be that there was some kind of cultural taboo against eating fish during this period?
The settlement was not only home to farmers, though. A short distance to the north of the roundhouses was another cluster of buildings, which appear to have been workshops used by specialist metalworkers. These artisans left behind their waste materials, a few tools, pieces of crucible, and one of the most important discoveries of the entire excavation: hundreds of fragments of ceramic trays, which were scattered in pits and ditches all around the enclave. Known as pellet-mould trays, these items comprise flat surfaces pockmarked with rows and rows of small holes, and they are associated with Late Iron Age coin production, creating metal balls that could then be used to make blanks from which coins were struck.
Two distinct styles of tray were identified at the site: a pentagonal design with 50 holes, known as the Verulamium form, and a rectangular kind with 100 holes. This latter design has a near parallel at Braughing-Puckeridge and other oppida in Hertfordshire, and has now been defined as the Scotch Corner form. Totalling over 1,300 fragments, the traysrepresent the fourth-largest assemblage of these tools yet found in Britain. Even more significantly, this is the first time that they have been found north of the Humber; previously, they were mainly associated with known coin-using regions in south-east England and Gaul. What were they doing at Scotch Corner?
Chemical analysis of the tray fragments revealed traces of gold, silver, and copper, suggesting that they were used to create pellets of precious and semi-precious metal alloys. The resulting blobs would have been very valuable, which might explain why only a single example of the pellets themselves was found on the site. Despite the number of trays hinting at a very productive industry – probably drawing on the high-grade copper deposits that lay conveniently near the surface in the immediate area – great care would have been taken not to lose any. Probably the rest had all been used or sent elsewhere. In theory, it is not impossible that they had been used locally for minting, as at the southern sites where such trays have been found, though the Brigantes are not traditionally associated with coin- use, and no evidence for a currency produced in the Scotch Corner area has yet been found. It is perhaps more likely that the pellets functioned as some kind of micro-currency, possibly even as a trade commodity sold to peoples that did produce their own coinage.
As Scotch Corner’s Iron Age inhabitants entered the 1st century AD, they could little have expected the seismic changes that they were about to experience. It is in this second phase of the site’s life, between c. AD 15 and AD 55, that interactions with the Roman Empire seem to have begun in earnest – bringing with them not only contact with new people and new ideas, but unprecedented access to far-reaching trade connections and a flood of exotic goods. Finds from this period include an impressive array of Gallo-Belgic wine containers, amphorae for fish-based products (perhaps the local community had been seduced by new flavours into abandoning their dietary taboos) and olive oil from Spain, decorated Samian ware, and attractive glass vessels. Such imports would have been as impressive as they were novel; it is not difficult to imagine the appeal of cultivating friendly relations with the Roman newcomers.
A particularly eloquent ambassador for this burgeoning influence is a broken amber statuette – a tiny representation of a male actor (when complete, he would have been around 50-60mm tall) that was found within the workshop area. It is an unprecedented find in Britain, though parallels are known from Pompeii. As the figure is damaged it is not known which stock character from Classical drama he is meant to depict, but the object is a neat symbol of the culture that the Scotch Corner community was encountering. It also testifies to the wide commercial networks that those favoured by Rome could access: carved from Baltic amber in a workshop in Campania, it had made a long journey to the north-west frontier and must have been a treasured possession.