Friday 27 September 2013

A Roman Road in Stafford?

Searching for the Stafford Burh – Part III

If the conjectured Iron Age causeway following the line of the eastern exit from the Stafford town centre, modern Lammascote Road, is to be identified as the 'ford' element in the place-name, it might also hold another explanation for 'stæþ' in the original name of Stæþford. As discussed in Searching for the Stafford Burh - Part I  identifying 'stæþ' with 'landing place' is problematic. However, the 'ford' element is one of the most common topographical terms found in English place-names, in most cases denoting a settlement next to a crossing-place of a stream or river, but in some cases referring to a causeway.

The first  record of the name of the town appears in the Anglo Saxon Chronicle C and D manuscripts which give 'Stæfforda', in the entry for 913. OE 'Stæf' means, staff, stake or post which would give the meaning 'place of the ford (or causeway) through wet ground, marked by stakes or posts' which certainly supports the notion of an Iron Age causeway. (Horovitz, 2003)

Yet the etymologists insist that there is no doubt about the identity of the first element of the word: it is 'stæþ' (Horovitz, 2003). The Bosworth and Toller Anglo-Saxon Dictionary gives 'a bank, shore, the land bordering on water'; consequently we are forced to abandon the suggestion that the place-name reflects a prehistoric wooden trackway at the site of Lammascote Road.

Compound OE words using stæþ as the first element are often found associated with stability and firmness, such as a paved ford (or causeway) or a settlement on firm ground by a river crossing. The meaning 'the firm road, or causeway, through land bordered by water' is perhaps best suited for Stafford; the causeway being identified with a suspected Roman road, crossing the Sow at the south end of Stafford town centre, running out southwards in the direction of Pennocrucium and the Watling Street.

A study of Roman roads and ford place-names in the neighbouring county of Shropshire (Laflin, 2002) noted that almost a third of 'ford' place-names were associated with Roman roads built primarily for the Roman military but later to serve towns and settlements. The 'ford' place-names were given at the time English became the main language in the area, probably during the 7th and 8th centuries in Staffordshire. The modern English term 'to wade', i.e. walk with the feet immersed, is derived from Old English 'wadan' which is clearly similar to the Latin 'vadum' for 'ford'.

Furthermore, the environmental evidence from the site of King’s Pool (Kings Mead Marshes) suggests that a prehistoric human presence in this area of the town, in the form of agricultural activity, continued into the Roman period. (EUS, 2011) Further, the north-south axial road (Goalgate to Greengate Streets) running through the centre of this peninsula, the crossing through the marsh, is suggestive of a Roman origin.

The Crossing Point
Four Roman roads are known to cross this corner of Staffordshire. The first, the main route of Watling Street, now the line of the A5, was constructed in the early days of the Roman conquest, linking Londinium with Viroconium (Wroxeter) near Shrewsbury in Shropshire. The second ran to the west of Stafford, from  Pennocrucium (Water Eaton, near Penkridge) to the fort at Mediolanum (Whitchurch) and on to Deva (Chester). A third road, Rykeneld (sometimes 'Ryknield') Street ran along the course of the modern A50 at Blythe Bridge, crossed the northern Midlands of England from Deva (Chester) to Derventio (Littlechester, near Derby) through north Staffordshire, linking the fort at Rocester with the auxiliary fort at Mount Pleasant (Chesterton). (Wardle, 2002)

In 1960 about half way between Hollywood, near Stone, and Blythe Bridge, a red-brown earthenware pot was found by a man digging in his garden in Lightwood Road, Longton, Stoke on Trent. Inside the pot was a hoard of over 1,700 various 3rd century coins and pair of silver snake bracelets with the terminal of a third silver snake bracelet. This find became known as The Lightwood Hoard. The site is approximately one mile south-west of Rykeneld Street. (Mountford, 1963) Significantly, the largest find of Anglo Saxon gold, The Staffordshire Hoard, was found buried in fields not far from Watling Street.

The original settlement at Blythe Bridge developed along the Rykeneld Street, the historic core of the village being aligned on the Roman road. Excavations at Blythe Bridge have revealed a fourth Roman Road, which to the north, heads off in the direction of Aquae Arnermetiae (Buxton), in the Peak District. To the south the road appears to have travelled from Blythe Bridge as evidenced by raised banks and field boundaries, passing through the villages of Fulford and a rectangular earthwork near Hilderstone, which produced a Roman coin, before arriving at the Roman camp at Hollywood, just south-east of Stone. (Bowkett, 1986)

The course of the road is lost south of Hollywood but probably ran to the site of a temporary camp, identified by cropmarks, at Aston (near Stone) on the west bank of the Trent. Thus, we are left with a gap between Aston and Pennocrucium; it is a reasonable conjecture that the southerly path of this road ran straight through Stafford, passing near the site of a Roman villa at Acton Trussel, likely following a line similar to the modern A449 Wolverhampton Road, south to Pennocrucium before joining Watling Street further south. (Darlington, 1994)

Indeed, from Stone the line of the A34 travels southwards until it reaches a bend at the junction of Whitgreave Lane at Yarlet. From this point it then runs dead straight for 4 miles directly into Stafford town centre, along the line of Goalgate and Greengate streets, to Bridge Street at the southern end of the town centre where it crosses the Sow, the spot often said to account for the 'ford' element in the place-name.

Archaeology has revealed little more than a passing Roman presence in Stafford. In 1974 a quantity of pottery was found during excavations at Clarke Street, near the site of the East Gate, in advance of the anticipated construction of the Queensway ring road. This was initially identified as "Roman" by the the local archaeological society. However, the following year Martin Carver, excavator of Sutton Hoo, identified the pottery as late Saxon. (Carver, 2010) Positive grounds for Roman activity at Stafford is limited to three structures unearthed during excavations at St Mary's Grove in the 1980's. The structures were made up of four posts, each interpreted as representing the corner of a rectangular building. Radiocarbon dating of charcoal, grain and other unidentified organic remains from the fill of a posthole which lay beneath a sealed layer containing Romano-British pottery at St Mary's Grove confirmed a Roman date for the site. These three structures have been interpreted as single celled granaries; given that they were found in isolation it may suggest that Stafford was a Roman supply or storage centre, perhaps not so far removed from its current role with the huge warehouses we find at the north and south ends of the town situated at junctions 13 and 14 of the M6 motorway respectively. Two Roman coins, dated to 330-335 AD, were found during excavations in Stafford at Clarke Street in 1961 and an almost complete Roman jar was discovered at a depth of over 3m during construction work in the Market Square. Over 1,000 sherds of Roman pottery, dating from the 3rd and 4th centuries, have been found by Stafford castle, possibly representing the former existence of a small farmstead or villa. (Carver, 2010). Firm evidence for a Roman road through Stafford has never been uncovered, yet it is inconceivable that Æthelflæd would select a site for a burh not on a major byway.

Archaeological excavations in the town have revealed little evidence of activity after the Roman period. Shadowy claims that Stafford was founded by a Mercian prince called Bertelin c.700 AD, who, according to legend, established a hermitage on the peninsula surrounded by water named the Isle of Betheney (or Bethnei), have little historical support. According to the archaeological record, after a seemingly long pause from the Roman period, activity at the site erupted in the 10th century.

>> The Location of the Stafford burh

© Edward Watson 2013

Notes & References
The Bosworth and Toller Anglo-Saxon Dictionary
L C Bowkett, The Stafford Hinterland, 1986
Martin Carver - Anglo-Saxon Stafford. Archaeological Investigations 1954-2004. Field Reports On-line, 2010.
David Horovitz - A Survey and Analysis of the Place-Names of Staffordshire, 2003.
John Darlington, Stafford Past, Stafford Borough Council, 1994
Susan Laflin – Roman Roads And Ford Place-Names In Shropshire, 2002.
A R Mountford, The Lightwood Hoard, The North Staffordshire Journal of Field Studies, Volume 3, 1963.
Chris Wardle - Roman Staffordshire: the Five Towns and Beyond, 2002.
Staffordshire County Council & English Heritage - Staffordshire Extensive Urban Survey (EUS), Stafford Historic Character Assessment, June 2009, Revised August 2011.

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  1. Thank you for your work on this intriguing research I was born and dragged up in Stafford and am encamped here once more I intend to further this work via test pits, this research has proved invaluable in my quest for a deeper understanding of the Roman presence in our town and county,

    1. Hi Mark, thank you for your comment.
      Please keep me informed of your findings.
      Best wishes


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