Recent Roman discoveries during the A1 upgrade in north Yorkshire

In 2018, Highways England opened an upgraded section of motorway on the A1 in North Yorkshire. Construction of the new road prompted a series of large-scale excavations, with illuminating results. Stuart Ross and Cath Ross present some of the preliminary findings.

The A1 crossing the River Swale
Overlooking the A1, where it crosses the River Swale. Archaeological work during an upgrade to the road revealed a wealth of insights into Roman Yorkshire. The sites at Agricola Bridge and Brompton East can be seen under excavation on either side of the river, while Thornbrough Farm, which occupies the north-eastern corner of the fort site, is visible in the top left of the frame. [Image: courtesy of CMSJV and Highways England]

In North Yorkshire, the A1 follows the path of Roman Dere Street, which ran from York (Eboracum) to the northern frontier at the Antonine Wall. With extensive upgrades to this historically important route under way between 2013 and 2017, major excavations were necessary both at the known Roman sites flanking its course (such as the town of Cataractonium and its satellite settlement at Bainesse, 2.5km to the south), as well as other areas affected by the roadworks.

Fieldwork began in earnest in autumn 2013, and staff from Northern Archaeological Associates (NAA) spent more than three years investigating remains exposed by the construction, shedding light not only on already recorded Roman sites, but revealing previously unknown ones, such as a roadside settlement at Scurragh House, identified 3.5km north of Cataractonium together with the remains of its agricultural hinterland, and a nationally important contact-period site at Scotch Corner. This latter site’s sprawling footprint was home to dozens of roundhouses and rectangular structures, and yielded high-status artefacts and luxury imported goods hinting at the wealth of its inhabitants (see CA 327).

A carnelian intaglio depicting Hercules and the lion
One of many small finds unearthed by the project: a carnelian intaglio that would have been set into a ring, depicting Hercules and the lion. This artefact was discovered within the late 2nd-century settlement at Fort Bridge; it is shown after conservation on the cover of this issue. [Image: Northern Archaeological Associates]

Here, we will focus on finds from Cataractonium. There are numerous historical references to this site, which is noted in the Antonine Itinerary; the medieval Welsh poem Y Gododdin also recounts the battle of Catterick (Catraeth) around AD 598 while, three decades later in AD 627, Bishop Paulinus is recorded by Bede as performing a mass baptism in the River Swale, which flowed by the vicus of Cataracta.

The settlement also has a rich history of investigation, receiving significant archaeological attention during the 20th century when the A1 was first constructed through the Roman town. Excavations were carried out by E J W Hildyard in the 1930s, followed by Professor John Wacher in the 1950s. Taken together, these works explored the latest phases of the town over a large area (today the motorway cutting of the A1). The roadside settlement at Bainesse is less well understood, although the presence of Roman remains has been recognised here since the 18th century. The historical record of both sites and the results of previous excavations are summarised by Pete Wilson in Cataractonium: Roman Catterick and its hinterland, published in 2002.

The latest phase of investigations, associated with the 2013-2017 A1 upgrade, happened at several locations in and around the Roman town, but the largest and most informative areas were excavated ahead of carriageway widening and bridge construction, which gave us the opportunity to explore the site on a large scale. Well-preserved and deeply stratified archaeological sequences up to 3m deep were recorded at Fort Bridge, Agricola Bridge, Catterick Road, and Brompton East. Equally valuable evidence for the development of the settlement was recovered from shallower sequences on the periphery of the town at Catterick Racecourse, Brough Park, and Brompton West. At Bainesse, the motorway had been realigned, offering further insights: this shift moved the new road away from the course of Dere Street, exposing the western edge of the Roman roadside settlement.
So, what did we find?

Plan of Roman Cataractonium
Plan showing the layout of Roman Cataractonium.
[Image: Northern Archaeological Associates]
Map of locations of the excavated sites along the A1
Plan showing the location of the excavated sites along the A1
[Image: Northern Archaeological Associates]

The excavations revealed that Cataractonium had its origins in the AD 70s, developing as an adjunct to a Flavian-era fort built on a bluff to the south of the River Swale; an absence of pre-Roman features indicated that this was the earliest occupation of the site. At this time, the vicus (extramural settlement) comprised timber buildings footed on beam slots, or small posts, and appeared to be extensive on the ridge adjacent to the fort. Meanwhile, on the north bank of the Swale and at the south end of Brompton East, we could see signs of an episode of gravel-quarrying (possibly for the construction of Dere Street), which was followed by the raising of a large bank associated with a gate across Dere Street during the late 1st century, apparently to control access to the river crossing-point.

From this point, the settlement flourished: the vicus expanded rapidly on the north bank of the Swale, extending for at least 200m northwards along Dere Street by the early 2nd century, effectively forming a suburb. By this time, all areas of the vicus had developed into a more formal settlement, with larger timber structures found in all excavated areas, and the site may have been supplied from a storage depot to the south, part of which was identified at Fort Bridge, in the form of two timber granaries, a stock enclosure, and a well. This latter feature was excavated by hand to its full depth of 5.2m, yielding some rare and interesting finds, including fragments of wooden board, textile, a wicker basket, and a pistachio nut – the earliest example of this foodstuff identified in Britain. The organic finds had been preserved within a waterlogged, anaerobic environment at the very base of the well, suggesting they had been deposited while it was still open and in use.

A wicker basket preserved in a late 1st-century well
The excavation of a late 1st-century well at Fort Bridge yielded a wealth of well-preserved organic finds, including a wicker basket [Image: Northern Archaeological Associates]

After the storage depot had fallen out of use, the site was taken over by a tannery, represented by seven interlinked tanning pits. These were steep-sided and gradually fell in height from the north, where they were fed by a ditch. A number of the pits contained leather shoes, as well as fruit stones, tannins from which are thought to have promoted the tanning process. Leather off-cuts and possible iron tools were also recovered from the pits and surrounding area, which may indicate that the tannery was associated with a leatherworking industry. It is possible that leather goods were being produced as part of a military supply network, something attested by one of the Vindolanda tablets, which refers to the movement of hides from Cataractonium.

There was also occupation at Bainesse by the early 2nd century, and the excavations revealed new evidence for the extent of the roadside settlement and for an enclosure complex to the west, parts of which appear to have served an industrial purpose. This site was home to a densely packed cemetery, containing 232 inhumation burials and 17 cremations, one of which may have had a small barrow raised over the grave. Extensive radiocarbon dating of the human remains suggests that this was a long-lived burial ground, used from the late 1st through to the mid-5th century AD.

A bronzed spur
A bronzed spur from an early 2nd-century context at Fort Bridge, identified by Alex Croom. [Image: Northern Archaeological Associates]

In the Antonine period (mid-2nd century), a new fort was constructed on the site of the Flavian fort at Cataractonium, and ditch-and-rampart defences encircled the vicus. These defences were investigated in the northern settlement suburb at Brompton East and West, where they served to protect a possible bridgehead and enclosed an area of rectangular timber buildings that fronted Dere Street and were divided from one another by side-streets. A substantial ditch was also recorded at Fort Bridge, indicating that the south side of the settlement was defended too. Meanwhile, on the ridge beside the fort, the vicus became structured around streets, which formed the basis for a grid plan that endured through the later years of the town, and would ultimately be recorded by geophysical survey and as crop marks in aerial photographs.

Excavation of a timber building
Cataractonium had its origins in the AD 70s. This timber building, excavated at Brompton East, dates to the late 1st century. [Image: Northern Archaeological Associates]

By the end of the 2nd century, though, the defences enclosing the northern suburb had fallen out of use and were overlain by buildings and side-streets as the vicus expanded northwards along Dere Street. Although timber was still the preferred construction material, the first stone structures appeared at Cataractonium during this period, including rectangular strip-buildings and more-complex structures such as an apsidal building with a curved end-wall. An interesting detail of this latter structure is the use of an upturned amphora sherd, complete with clay bung, which had been positioned at the end of a stone gutter to catch rainwater.

This phase of the site’s use also saw the construction of a free-standing boundary wall, which survived to a maximum height of 1.1m to the south of the river at Agricola Bridge. It was built north–south and was exposed over 15m up to the break of slope above the river, where it kinked to the west, possibly respecting a bridge approach to the east. The nature of the deposits to either side of the wall suggested it delimited a military zone associated with the fort (to the west) from civilian occupation adjacent to Dere Street (to the east).

An area of extramural settlement was investigated at Brough Park to the south of the fort and vicus, flanking a road that connected the southern gate of the fort to Dere Street at a distance to the south. Here, set back from the road, we excavated part of a cemetery holding six graves that contained cremated human remains dating to the late 2nd and early 3rd centuries. These included an example of a bustum burial, where the funeral pyre was constructed over a pit intended to collect the cremated human remains for burial. The cemetery may have represented a military burial ground, partially as it was located beside a road serving the fort, but also as bustum burials are regarded as high status, and, when identified in the vicinity of the northern frontier, most likely represent part of a military funerary custom.

This is an extract of an article that appeared in CA 359. Read on in the magazine. Click here to subscribe

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