Episode 5 of the Archaeotea Podcast is now available free to download. In this episode I explore one of the most windswept Roman forts in Britain – Castleshaw which sits on the south-western edge of the Pennine hills in Delph, Greater Manchester. The archaeological investigations at this site have lasted longer than the Roman army garrisoned the short-lived fort. The can listen to the Roman Castleshaw podcast here: Archaeotea | Free Listening on SoundCloud or read on.
The Roman fort at Castleshaw lies at the top end of a valley that provides a route into the Pennine moorlands. At an altitude of 275m above sea level it’s a lonely spot, but Castleshaw isn’t the highest fort in Roman Britain – that’s Epiacum or Whitley Castle, in the Northumberland Pennines, which lies at an altitude of 330m. The fort at Castleshaw is well placed, with clear visibility up and down the valley and the Roman road that runs through it. This routeway links the legionary fortresses at York and Chester, via a road built across the Pennine moorlands.
Castleshaw sits on this road, and has two Roman military sites. The earliest and largest is an auxiliary fort with two periods of occupation. It was built around AD 79 for a unit of roughly 500 men and abandoned after just a generation, probably in the mid-90s. We don’t know which units garrisoned this site as no inscriptions have been recovered from this first fort. After a few years of dis-use, a small fortlet was erected on the same site. This was around the year one-o-five. The smaller military site also had two phases of development before it was deliberately demolished in the mid-120s, around the time that Hadrian’s Wall was built. Stamped tiles found within the fortlet suggest that a unit known as the Breuci, originally from the Austria/Hungary area, may have been involved with its construction, or possibly even formed part of its small garrison of around 50 men. The Roman army recruited men from across the Empire and regularly moved its military units between forts.
The design of the fortlet was unusual. The interior encompassed an area of roughly 50m by 40m, and for such as small fort it had a large granary, 7m by 15.5m. Fortlets usually relied on larger nearby forts for most of their supplies, being part of a network of bases. There were also the more usual structures within the interior, including a heated commander’s house, a courtyard admin building, a small smithy workshop, a bread oven, well, and a single, six-roomed, barrack block. Its role may have been as a base fortlet, where most of the troops were out-stationed elsewhere collecting taxes and patrolling the locals. But it seems more likely, given the presence and size of the granary building, that Castleshaw acted as a commissary fortlet dedicated to an administrative role overseeing the communities and landscape in the surrounding valley and the supply of local food stuffs.
Castleshaw has been known about since the mid-18th century. In 1751, Thomas Percival of Royton, a renowned physician, author, antiquarian, and fellow of the Royal Society, presented a paper describing his research into the route of the trans-Pennine Roman road from Manchester. In this he noted that ‘…at Castleshaw I was well pleased to find a double Roman camp’. The earthworks were well enough preserved for him to draw a clear plan of the site. This showed the earthen ramparts for two forts. Despite this early interest in the site, no further investigation was undertaken at Castleshaw for more than over a century. In 1897 the local poet and historian Ammon Wrigley ‘rediscovered’the forts and set about a series of excavations. These are recorded in his book Songs of a Moorland Parish published in 1912. This is a rather flowery account of his work, but is, nevertheless, an evocative description of his dig. In 1898 Mr G.F. Buckley, a local textile mill owner from Delph, leased the site for a year. Buckley dug a series of trenches, which produced considerable amounts of high-quality pottery including samian ware – a glossy red tableware manufactured in France and popular with the Roman army – and black ware and white ware pottery made in Britain. The results were published in a short report in The Transactions of the Lancashire and Cheshire Antiquarian Society.
In 1907 the site was bought by Samuel Andrews of Leeds, a member of the Lancashire and Cheshire Antiquarian Society, and Major William Lees of Heywood of the Yorkshire Archaeological Society. They invited Francis Bruton, a Classics master at Manchester Grammar School who undertook the first scientific excavations at Roman Manchester, to assist with the excavations. Together they targeted the defences of the fort and the layout of the fortlet. This work produced the first detailed survey of the site and included the first photographic images of Roman Castleshaw. However, as was typical for most excavations from this period the detailed recording of their trenches was somewhat lacking in the published reports of 1908 and 1911.
After the First World War, the famous Roman archaeologist, Professor Ian Richmond, undertook a study of the pottery recovered from Castleshaw, establishing a chronology for the fort and later fortlet. Also, the site was protected as a scheduled monument in 1935. However, no further excavation took place until 1957 when Manchester University, under the leadership of C.E.P. Rosser, began a series of training excavations concentrated within the previously unexcavated fort area. In 1961, F.H. Thompson took over the work, continuing to dig until 1964, and focussing his work in the north-eastern corner of the auxiliary fort.
These investigations left the two forts in a poor state. A number of trenches remained open and mounds of spoil obscured much of the area of the fortlet and fort. In 1984, the Greater Manchester Archaeological Unit (GMAU) – with support from the Manpower Services Commission, the then landowners North West Water (now United Utilities), Oldham Metropolitan Borough Council and English Heritage – began work to restore and landscape the fortlet site. The intention was to make the site more accessible to the general public by improving its interpretation and the access to the site.
In advance of this work, a phase of topographic and geophysical survey was undertaken, which included plotting all the old trenches across both the fort and fortlet. Given the costs of funding a large-scale excavation, it was decided that the most appropriate approach would be to concentrate on just the area of the fortlet as few such sites have been formally displayed to the public.
Despite the limitations of the project in terms of cost and weather, 90% of the interior of the fortlet was stripped and planned over five years. This was an all-year round project with the archaeologists leading the dig, Norman Redhead, Kurt Hunter-Mann, John Roberts, and Dave Start, battling snowy winters and wet summers, (rather like the Roman garrisons before them). The results, which considerably advanced the understanding of both the form and function of the early second century fortlet, were published in quick order in 1989. The subsequent landscaping and consolidation work following the excavation also considerably improved the interpretative and educational value of the site, making it one of only a handful of fortlets on display to the public in this way in England.
Norman Redhead of GMAU returned to the site in 1994, digging two exploratory trenches in an attempt to locate any settlement activity outside the south-western comer of the fortlet defences. Most Roman forts had some form of settlement beyond the fort walls. The discovery of Roman deposits here led to a larger scale two-week community dig in the summers of 1995 and 1996. The results from a series of test pits and trenches south of the fort gateway demonstrated for the first time the presence of a settlement or vicus.
Norman returned again in 2014, managing the Heritage Lottery Funded ‘Redefining Roman Castleshaw Project’. This project was run by The Friends of Roman Castleshaw with the support of Salford University. The aim was to assess the remains of the larger Agricolan auxiliary fort. This first site remained poorly understood and difficult to interpret due to the piecemeal excavations of the earlier 20th century. The project, led by Norman Redhead, John Roberts and Vicky Nash, re-excavated five old excavation trenches within the northern half of the fort, previously dug by Bruton, Rosser and Thompson. New techniques and a clearer understanding of Roman military activity in Britain meant that the project was able to better interpret the archaeological remains, as well as record lost or poorly reported excavation results from these previous digs. The results showed that substantial archaeology relating to the auxiliary fort survived, especially around the northern gateway. The pottery recovered also confirmed the late first century date of the first fort.
The Friends of Roman Castleshaw have continued their investigations, working to the north and east of the fort from 2016 to 2019. The eastern side of the fort defences were notable for the lack of a defensive ditch – very rarely seen at Roman forts. To the north, the team established the outer limits of the double ditch defences, together with the road exiting the northern gateway. Strangely, this road terminated just 50 metres from the entrance. They also found in this area, some evidence for a couple of buildings associated with industrial processing, as well as a number of bread ovens outside the fort. Might this be the Roman equivalent of the pizza food outlets at the nearby road services on the M62 motorway?
The Civilian Settlement or Vicus
One of the more intriguing elements of the Castleshaw site is its civilian settlement or vicus, as the Romans called such communities. The discovery of a vicus outside the fort defences in the 1990s was not unexpected: most Roman forts in Britain had an associated settlement of some size, even when they were located high in the hills. But, the one at Castleshaw seems to be on a much smaller scale than its neighbours at the Roman forts of Manchester and Slack, and appears to have been linked to the management of the valley landscape.
The pottery from the Castleshaw vicus points towards an early second century date contemporary with the fortlet. However, the 1990s investigations were limited, so it’s unclear whether the earlier auxiliary fort also had an external settlement. A small amount of pre-fortlet activity was identified in a few of the test pits from Daycroft Field outside the southern fort defences. So, perhaps a few buildings lined the main highway leading into the southern gateway of the auxiliary fort in the late first century? If so, their remains have been largely removed or obscured by later activity. The vicus, which appears to be largely contemporary with the fortlet, occupied the remaining level ground outside the southern defences; and there is evidence for buildings beyond the northern gateway and on the flat area to the east of both forts. However, settlement evidence is absent from the steeper land west of the fort sites. It’s also possible that the vicus may occupied the flat area left by the dismantled earlier auxiliary fort, and may have been missed by the pioneer excavators of the site – Buckley, Bruton, Rosser, and Thompson.
It seems likely that the buildings in the vicus were used for those activities not possible within the small fortlet, such as extra storage, stabling, or accommodation. There is some evidence that the military defences of the fortlet were compromised by its unusual arrangement: there was no access road between the granary and the rampart for instance. Or, perhaps it was felt that conditions were peaceful enough in the Castleshaw Valley to make stronger defences unnecessary for the small fortlet garrison.
A hint of the settled nature of the valley and the direct involvement of the Roman garrison in its management came from buried soils within two of the 1990s trenches. Dr Barbara Brayshay, then of Manchester University, analysed pollen from the soils of a ditch and from a buried land surface from within the vicus. This involved identifying plant pollens from such ancient deposits and looking at how the number and type of pollen changed over time. This analysis showed how the first century heath and grasslands of the semi-wooded valley were changed by the presence of the Roman army. Woodland was cleared, grassland expanded, and fires regularly lit – since plentiful amounts of charcoal found in the ancient soils. Grain was grown close enough to the forts for cereal pollen to be captured within the ditch found within the vicus.
The forts at Castleshaw were always marginal: they lay close to the northern edge of the Roman Empire in a sparsely populated area of rugged terrain swiftly conquered in the 70s AD. The valley itself was right at the limit of arable cultivation in this part of the Pennines. The large granary and the bread ovens suggest the use of the fort site as a local supply station for weary soldiers crossing the Pennines: possibly even supplying a flat bread fore-runner of pizza! However, the strategic importance of Castleshaw was short-lived: perhaps no more than 40 years. In contrast, the neighbouring auxiliary forts at Manchester and Slack continued in use for many centuries beyond Castleshaw’s abandonment in the 120s.
The end of the fortlet and its vicus was swift. The excavations in the 1990s showed that the vicus buildings were deliberately burnt-down and the site cleared. This may be no more than a formal closure of the whole site, and the disposal of material that could not be recycled, by the final army unit to garrison the fortlet. This abandonment, though, went beyond the fort and vicus sites. The pollen analysis from the buried soils within the vicus shows that the managed pastureland in the Castleshaw valley quickly reverted to wilderness following the fortlet’s abandonment. Grain would not be grown again in this area until the later medieval period. And yet, although the forts and the valley had been abandoned by the Roman military, the Roman road from Chester to York continued to be used throughout the rest of the Roman occupation and into the later medieval period.
Norman Redhead tells me that it’s his intention is to return to the site with The Friends of Roman Casdtleshaw, once the covid pandemic restrictions permit – continuing his more than 30 years of exploration at the site and further exploring the lasting legacy of Castleshaw’s Roman story.