Roman settlement in north England may rewrite history

Archaeologists excavate a section of the Roman road. Photo © Dr Jonathan Shipley.The expansion of the A1, Britain’s longest road, has unearthed a major Roman settlement at Scotch Corner in North Yorkshire. Some of the artifacts are of exceptional quality, so much so that archaeologists are having to revise their understanding of the Roman conquest of northern England. There had to have been very wealthy Romano-Britons further north and earlier than previously realized, and a Roman administrative center to boot.

Archaeologists excavating Roman revetments, built to protect the river shore from erosion. Photo © Dr Jonathan Shipley.The settlement, about 40 miles north of York, was a small town by the standards of the mainland, but it was big for northern England. The site extended just under a mile from north to south and contained a mixture of Roman and native buildings. About 40 Roman buildings — rectangular and likely a combination of private homes and businesses — abutted the Roman road from London to Brigantia, the territory of the Brigantes tribe in northern England. Only 12 of them have been excavated so far. Back from the road archaeologists discovered Iron Age British roundhouses, probably the same number as the Roman structures; 14 of them have been excavated.

Archaeologists believe the Roman buildings were built in the 50s A.D., which means the road they face was already built or at least in the process of being built at that time. Before this discovery, historians believed it was constructed in the early 70s A.D., almost 20 years later.

Amber carving with drawing of complete figure. Photo © Northern Archaeological Associates.Amidst the structures and buried in votive pits, archaeologists found expensive imported artifacts including a high relief glass bowl, glazed Roman tableware, a copper mirror and drinking vessels. One of the standout pieces is an exceptionally rare fragment of a carved amber figurine. The torso of a man wearing a toga, believed to represent an actor, was likely made in Italy in the 1st century A.D., and while a similar piece has been found at Pompeii, this is the first one of its kind ever discovered in the UK. For the Scotch Corner settlement to have had artifacts like this, they had to have a line on the highest quality export goods Rome had to offer.

Coin moulds. Photo © Northern Archaeological Associates.The strongest evidence that Scotch Corner was a major administrative center is the large number of pellet moulds used to create gold, silver and copper coins. Fragments of dozens of ceramic mould trays were unearthed in the area where the British roundhouses have been found. Two distinct types of trays were discovered, one for making 100 smaller pellets, another for making 50 larger ones. The pellets were the first step in coin production. The balls would then be struck with hammer and die to create coins. This is the northernmost archaeological evidence of coin production discovered in Europe.

The moulds and alloys are characteristic of native British coin manufacture, but no Brigantian coins have ever been discovered and the scale of production indicated by the sheer number of moulds suggests the involvement of Roman administration or a massive increase in need for coinage stimulated by the Roman arrival.

Roman leather shoe found in Catterick. Photo © Northern Archaeological Associates.The Scotch Corner settlement predates the Roman settlements in York and Carlisle by a decade, which means the Romans established themselves in the north 10 years earlier than historians thought. It didn’t last long, however, no more than two or three decades. It was eclipsed as a population and administrative center by the neighboring settlement of Catterick (Cataractonium).

A silver ring shaped like a snake found in Catterick. Photo © Northern Archaeological AssociatesThe A1 excavation has unearthed a wealth of valuable artifacts from Cataractonium as well, among them a gorgeous ring shaped like a snake; many leather shoes in excellent condition; uncut sheets of leather indicating a large-scale manufacture of shoes and clothes, possibly for the Roman army; iron keys large and small; a pewter inkpot; and a number of styli, attesting to a high level of literacy in the population.

Neil Redfern, Principal Inspector of Ancient Monuments at Historic England said: “The sheer amount of exceptional objects found on this road scheme has been extraordinary. Through them we are learning more and more about life here in the Roman period. This project has given us a unique opportunity to understand how the Romans conducted their military expansion into Northern England and how civil life changed under their control.”


10 thoughts on “Roman settlement in north England may rewrite history

  1. I love this sort of thing but, to be fair, it’s in the nature of things that new Roman finds can only push the date of Roman settlement in an area backwards, it can’t move it forward in time.

    Does anyone here have any explanation for the Roman concentration on the east side of northern England rather than the west? Less vulnerability to Irish raids? Drier climate being better for grain, and need for drainage less demanding?

  2. I’ll make a try, Dearieme. Here my explanations:

    a) When standing in Wissant (‘Gallia’), ready to cross the English Channel, you are already standing at the end of it, and still a strong west wind and -current will drive you further to the East.

    b) The Romans had information, as almost half a millennium before their arrival, those ‘exotic islands’ were already known (to some) in the Mediterranean. Of course, people(s) in ‘Gallia’ itself had more recent information on those islands.

    c) A topography with mountains in the West, or simply fiercer resistance. Even old ‘Agricola’ was already in Anglesey, so maybe there ARE hidden treasures still out there in the West.

    d) Similar to the events in ‘Gallia’, the aggressors used paths that were already in place long before any proper Roman roads were built. In case there were any paths in the West at all, they were probably east- and not northbound.

    Does that make sense ? – :hattip:

  3. I kinda love stuffs like artifacts, it shows the culture of the people who lived in the past. Though I was having a hard time reading since the font is so small. I still appreciate the article. Peace.

  4. “Does that make sense ?”

    My question boils down to ‘why did the Romans (apparently) prefer settling in the future Yorkshire rather then the future Lancashire?’

    It’s easy to see why they’d not be interested in anything more than forts in the Pennines, but there’s plenty of low land between the Pennines and the sea, both to the east and to the west (though much more so on the east).

    If you march on the North Wales coastal plain and Anglesey, then you must already have a base in Cheshire. Why not then settle Lancashire?

    Maybe the Doomsday Book would also show higher population densities on the eastern plains compared to the western. That would imply that the cause was something geographical, because long lasting, rather then political.

  5. You can route [in Latin!] on as the Romans would have routed (via the Tabula Peutingeriana mapped on Google Earth), so if you go from Londinio /Londinium (London) to York [Eburacum], and then click on ‘ostendere’, it will take you 16 days and you get (note particularly that to e.g. Blatobulgio/ Blatobulgium it would take you 25 days!):


    Iter brevissimum
    Ab ‘Londinio’ ad ‘Eburacum’
    Summa CCXXVI Milia Passuum / Leuga Gallica.
    Fere XVI dies.

    civitasLondinio (London)


    I presume that in Yorkshire there simply had been the action ever since, even if I shamefully have to admit that I by myself only made it to the south coasts of ‘Britannia Magna’ (i.e. Iscadvmnoniorv̄, Londinium, Dvbris et Altera Partes, not mapped by the Romanes).

    “Something geographical, because long lasting” without doubt played a role. However, by then ‘future’ earnings as described in the ‘Doomsday Book’ seem “political” as well.

  6. I don’t know English geography very well, but might the chosen locations be closer to the coast? Ship transport is easier than by road.

  7. True, but as you march north in England you have two coasts to choose from, at least once you’re north of Wales.

  8. I can say that I hardly know English geography at all. With less bullock-carts (less luggage), however, more armed guards and maybe better trained slaves, you possibly can move around faster.

    Indeed, all the ports were known long before, and even Ireland was on the agenda, moreover, Agricola had deployed troops in the West of Britannia Magna. In ‘Agricola XXIV’, written c. 98AD, it reads:

    ..eamque partem Britanniae quae Hiberniam aspicit copiis instruxit, in spem magis quam ob formidinem, si quidem Hibernia medio inter Britanniam atque Hispaniam sita et Gallico quoque mari opportuna valentissimam imperii partem magnis in vicem usibus miscuerit. Spatium eius, si Britanniae comparetur, angustius nostri maris insulas superat.


  9. Most people are not aware that the Britons were the ones who introduced chariots to the Romans when surprised by them in the first invasion , so the roads were probably better than tracks. Military strategy always puts most troops at the weaker spots which would have been in the north and the east was more easily reinforced and communicated with from Europe.

  10. Fair enough, Dave. I would agree that the roads were probably better than tracks (in order to use a cart). But that “Britons” were the ones who introduced chariots to the Romans, makes no sense already, when you just think of carts and roads that the Romans previously saw in “Gallia”.

    Julius Caesar, for example, had no Roman roads in place, but still could easily move his troops from one end of what is now France to the other within just a few days, he even wrote about it (no ships involved).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.