A mansio in East Yorkshire?

A mansio in East Yorkshire?

What a year it’s been for discoveries made at DigVentures. We’ve excavated Iron Age settlements in Cornwall and Oxfordshire, and Anglo-Saxon monasteries in the Scottish Borders and at Lindisfarne. For me though the real icing on the cake was made slightly closer to home in the East Riding of Yorkshire.

For two years we’ve been investigating the landscape around Driffield in an attempt to flesh out the detail behind its past. Last year we found part of a deserted medieval village, and this year we were in the Roman period. Working side-by-side with metal detectorists we managed to uncover part of an early Roman settlement.

Encountering Roman sites is nothing new, but when you put the finds in context with the site’s location we start to see something that’s got many of us quite excited. What I want to tell you about is the early Roman landscape our site lies in, and how maps can help us tell its story. But before I get stuck into the nitty gritty…

A bit of background

It all started a couple of years ago when two metal detectorists found a significant number of coins in a field near Driffield. They got very excited (quite rightly) and submitted their finding to the Portable Antiquities Scheme. One thing led to another and before we knew it we were being asked to excavate the site. How could we say no!

I could write at great length about all the cool things we found but that’s not for now. You’ll just have to wait for the report to come out. Or, you can read a little bit more from articles published in The Telegraph and The Guardian.

What I will briefly touch upon is the pottery. As a whole the assemblage represents a rare collection for East Yorkshire. Much of it was probably made in York around the late 1st and early 2nd century AD, with some nice imports from France and the Mediterranean.

Denarius of Vespasian, AD 69-70

The coins are significant too. Many of them date to the rule of Vespasian (AD 69-79) and some from Titus (AD 79-81). Very nice, we thought; this dates our site perfectly.

What makes this so special is that the Romans didn’t found York (Eboracum) until AD71, and our site appears to date to the same period. We could well be looking at a site that was occupied by some of the very first Romans north of the Humber.

Working hypothesis

So what were the Romans doing out near Driffield at this time? One theory proposed by our pottery specialist is that we may have stumbled across the site of a mansio, or posting station. Effectively these were stopping places that were maintained by the government for use by officials, and found at regular intervals along roads.

Immediately this got my GIS senses tingling. So I took to the computer to find out everything I could about the very earliest Roman settlement in East Yorkshire and the surrounding landscape.

There’s actually quite a lot of information out there online. I can recommend having a look at The Rural Settlement of Roman Britain, Roman Britain and The Secret History of the Roman Roads of Britain.

If I’m honest, I got a little bit lost in all the data for several evenings before deciding I needed my own trimmed down version. So I picked out the places and information I needed: forts and roads. The following map illustrates all known pre-Hadrianic forts in the region (so any before AD117), and all known Roman roads. I don’t expect all these roads to have been built in the 1st century AD, I just thought they add a bit of perspective to Roman influence in the landscape.

Pre-Hadrianic forts and Roman roads in the region

Testing the theory

I always find it quite satisfying to get a clear basemap of the study area before delving any deeper. It’s a good start, but where to from here? I needed some information about how far apart forts and posting stations would have been located from each other.

Initially I consulted Wikipedia, which led me on to William Smith’s Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities. It seems that the general consensus is that 30km would have been around the maximum distance an ox-drawn cart could travel in a day. So each station would have probably been placed between about 25 to 30km apart to account for variations in local topography and road conditions.

I decided to run a couple of simple buffers for each of the closest forts: one at 25km, the other at 30km. These represent the likely minimum and maximum distances a station would be posted. By subtracting one from the other I ended up with an isochrone map (which assumes a direct line of travel). By rendering the features to multiply where there was overlap, we end up with quite a neat and informative graphic showing where we may expect to find a posting station in pre-Hadrianic Roman East Yorkshire. These results got me quite excited…

25-30km buffer intersections from the five closest Roman forts

A result?

What this shows is a clear hotspot around Driffield. The site itself lies just on the northern edge of this, making it a prime location for a posting station.

However, we have to take a bit of care when making interpretations. Just because the map looks good doesn’t mean we’ve now suddenly discovered an early Roman mansio. What it does do however, is provide us with one piece of evidence that supports our theory. From this we we can research further, giving us the justification to make comparisons between those sites marked on the map, and ours.

This is just the first step for us. We still have to establish a stratigraphic site narrative, review the finds and dig a little deeper into some of the region’s previously excavated sites. Only once all this has happened can we revisit our initial hypothesis to test it a little bit further.

A little something extra

I had a lot of data to play around with and I ended up going off on many tangents, causing me great distraction. In a way that’s the beauty of research like this, there’s no clearly defined boundaries only the limits of your imagination.

What I’d like to briefly discuss here is Roman place names in Yorkshire.

Evidence for place names comes from a variety of different sources – maps, books, inscribings – but what I’d like to focus on are the entries from the Antonine Itinerary. Basically, it’s a Roman Road map that lists stations and distances along different roads across the Empire.

Antonine Itinerary I

The Antonine Itinerary I maps a course from Bremenium (High Rochester in Northumberland) to Praesidium (somewhere on the coast of Yorkshire). Two places are recorded between Eboracum and Praesidium. Derventio – 7 Roman miles from Eboracum – and Delgovicia 13 miles from Derventio and 25 from Praesidium.

We can be pretty sure from archaeological and other documentary evidence that Eboracum was the name for York, but the final three names are more speculative. Traditionally Derventio had been attributed to Malton and Praesidium to Bridlington. However, late 20th century finds from Stamford Bridge now lend weight to it being called Derventio instead. If this is the case (which is the general consensus) then Delgovicia could logically be Malton as it it almost bang on 13 Roman miles from Stamford Bridge.

So I thought I might as well illustrate this with a map to see if this would shine any light on the possible locations of Praesidium

Buffers around Roman places named in the Antonine Itinerary I

I should just mention that although I worked these bits out myself, others far greater than I have already reached these conclusions (Creighton 1988Hind 2007Wilson 2017). Also, I’ve assumed one Roman mile to measure 1,481 metres (it’s likely to be somewhere around that figure, about 0.92 modern miles).

Where is Praesidium?

Opinion is split on where this place may have been. On a map, going by the numbers, you’d have to say Bridlington or maybe Scarborough or Filey. Unfortunately there’s just not the evidence on the ground to back this up. There are Roman remains at each of these places, but most of the evidence points to later activity.  Signal stations were built along the coast built in the latter part of the 4th century AD. But what about the centuries preceding this?

It could be that we just haven’t found the main settlements yet. Or, it’s been lost to the sea – a very real possibility in the case of Bridlington.

It has been argued that Praesidium was actually at Brough. This appears to make sense when you consider the Roman name translates as something like ‘headquarters building’ and that Brough was an important defensive settlement. However, it’s considerably further away from Malton, in completely the wrong direction of travel and we know Brough was called Petuaria.

I don’t know. It’s not my place to make wild assumptions based on little more than a map with some circles on it. If I had to put money on it I’d say it’s somewhere in the North Sea now. Prove me wrong future archaeologists!

6 thoughts on “A mansio in East Yorkshire?

  1. Are you considering the buildings we excavated this summer to be part of the mansio? I don’t really know anything about mansios but would they have been permanently inhabited by families? Otherwise, why would there be neo-natal burials on the site? I’d be interested to know your thoughts.

    1. The robber trench (with all the stones in) is almost certainly part of a later phase of activity. The ditches, beam slots and neonatal graves, on the other hand, are certainly very early (late 1st or early 2nd century) Roman. Don’t want to over commit to it being a mansio just yet, it’s just a working theory for now.
      At this stage I’m not sure how much we can infer from the graves. I think if an early mansio/posting station was successful then a community would naturally develop around it. If you want to read about a site nearby that has many neonatal graves, check out Rudstone Dale (Plot 104) excavated by Network Archaeology.

      1. Wow! 56 neonatal/infant graves at Rudstone. No mention of a brooch like the one you found though.

        What sort of evidence are you hoping to find that might prove the presence of a mansio?

        1. A very good question. A road would be good, or some kind of metalled surface. I’d also like to see more structural elements of the building(s). We’re probably talking about quite a substantial building, or group of buildings. There are some juicy cropmarks nearby – something I’ll have to take a closer look at. Why don’t you have a look for yourself. WARNING – you may lose days to this, it’s very addictive! I recommend starting with the Google Earth desktop version because it gives you ‘historic’ Google aerial images. If you can find a copy, of ‘Ancient Landscapes of the Yorkshire Wolds: Aerial Photographic Transcription’ by Catherine Stoertz, that’s quite interesting. She mapped all cropmarks from the Wolds. Unfortunately our site is just off the edge of the study area.

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