Tuesday 30 June 2015

Where The Rivers Meet

The Emergence of Sacred Geography in the Prehistoric Landscape
Rising on the southern edge of Biddulph Moor, the Trent is a major water course forming a natural boundary between the Midlands and Northern England before discharging into the Humber estuary. At about 8km north of Lichfield near Alrewas, the Trent is joined by the River Tame, its most important tributary and the main river of the West Midlands. Alrewas is situated next to the line of Ryknild Street, the Roman road running from Letocetum (Wall) to Derby. The name of the Tame is said to be of Celtic derivation said to mean “dark one” common in many British rivers such as the Thames, Team and Tamar. This is the traditional territory of the Tomsaete, or "Tame-dwellers", an Anglian military tribe living in the valley of the Tame and around Tamworth which later formed the kingdom of Mercia in the early 7th century.

The source of the River Trent, Biddulph Moor
Today this area of south-eastern Staffordshire at the confluence of the Trent and the Tame Rivers is one of the most intensively quarried landscapes in the country. The extensive aggregate extraction has revealed a remarkable archaeological record, including a Neolithic-Early Bronze Age ritual landscape, an Iron age and Romano–British settlement landscape, and an extensive Anglo–Saxon settlement and cemeteries.

A 72 square kilometres study area at Catholme Farm has revealed a complex of ritual monuments including a 'Woodhenge' type monument consisting of multiple rings of post-holes, a 'sunburst' monument consisting of a central ring ditch with radiating pit alignments, a very large ring ditch with apparently associated linear features and cursuses. These monuments, together with a series of smaller ring ditches, a possible cursus and a series of pit alignments, are collectively termed the 'Catholme Ceremonial Complex'.

Although evidence is slight, as is common in lowland landscapes in England, the earlier Neolithic perhaps sees the beginning of the creation of a cultural landscape on the higher ground between the Trent and Tame rivers. Two possible causewayed enclosures have been identified at Alrewas and Mavesvyn Ridware in the Trent valley, each with three close-set ditch circuits, both enclosing a maximum area of 4.15ha. For a long time these two possible causewayed enclosures were considered the most northerly outliers of what was once viewed as a primarily southern phenomenon until the identification of definite causewayed enclosures further north changed this perception.

It is in this period that the cultural landscape at the confluence of the Trent and Tame takes shape with the focus of this landscape would appear to lie at Catholme Farm on the extensive river terrace immediately to the north of the confluence of the two rivers. The identification of a ceremonial complex at Catholme Farm is based primarily on the identification of three monuments of presumed ceremonial function in close proximity to one another. These monuments have been identified from aerial photography and have been subject to intensive geophysical survey as part of the Where Rivers Meet Project, but no excavation has taken place.

Catholme Ceremonial Complex
The natural landscape setting was shaped by the activities of the Trent and Tame rivers during the Devensian glaciation, around 20,000 years ago. The sites lie just north of a confluence of three rivers; the Trent, Tame, and Mease where a cluster of prehistoric monuments has been termed the ‘Catholme Ceremonial Complex’, a unique group of monuments that span the period from the late 4th to the early 2nd millennium BC. Yet further monuments spread out to the west and south up the valleys of the Trent and Tame in the wider landscape extending the period of ceremonial activity considerably both backwards and forwards with the cursus forming the beginnings of the ceremonial activity at Catholme.

Henges are rare within the West Midlands, but a small hengiform monument with radiating pit alignments, named as the Sunburst Monument consisted of a 16m-wide ring ditch from which 12 radiating lines of up to five pits or large postholes extended over a total diameter of nearly 60m, is found at the Catholme complex. Shortly after 2000 BC an inhumation burial was inserted within the centre of the segmented ditch of the Sunburst Monument, the placing perhaps reminiscent of the Stonehenge Archer, seemingly a ritual killing which appeared to have been deliberately and carefully buried in the ditch of the Salisbury Plain monument.

Catholme Ceremonial Complex
The easternmost of the monuments consists of five concentric circles of pits or postholes, approximately 45 by 35 metres, probably representing multiple timber circles, enclosing a central open space of 22 by 15 metres. The pits or postholes are arranged in 36 radial lines. There is no evidence of a surrounding ditch.

It is conjectured that the Woodhenge Monument was constructed around the same time as the segmented ditch of the Sunburst Monument, in a single phase of activity comprising the erection of extremely large oak posts set in pits of 1.0 m in diameter and up to 1.2 m deep in five concentric circles around a central ceremonial area. The majority of the posts also form radiating alignments from the centre outwards in a similar style to the pits defining the first phase of the Sunburst Monument, perhaps purposefully mirroring that design.

The Woodhenge structure shares similarities with a number of others sites outside of the region, although it is extremely rare to have the posts so densely arranged. However, timber circles are within the West Midlands are extremely rare and perhaps shares similarity with the timber circles Woodhenge, Durrington Walls and Stanton Drew for example, of Wessex. There is a good argument that Stonehenge started life as a timber circle.

About 200m to the west, immediately adjacent to Catholme Farm, is a second potential ceremonial monument comprising a ring ditch with six lines of pits or postholes radiating from it in similar ‘sunburst’ pattern. About 100m further west is a sub-rectangular enclosure which has been interpreted as possibly representing a small cursus monument of a type similar to a monument found in the valley of the Warwickshire Avon.

This complex is delimited to the north and south by two well defined pit-alignments running east to west and forming a 200-250 metres wide ‘corridor’ which contains the monuments which today is effectively closed by the A38 road and Trent & Mersey Canal at its western end and by the railway at its eastern end. Extending further south, to what is now the National Memorial Arboretum, is a large multiple ring ditch adjacent to the Tame, just south of its confluence with the Trent.

The clustering of cursuses within the middle Trent valley has been likened to similar clusters on the Yorkshire Wolds at Rudston and on Cranborne Chase. Yet, unlike Rudston, the cursuses within the Tame-Trent confluence have no apparent specific focal point. However, the function of cursuses remains a matter for ongoing debate.

The earliest monument in the Catholme Ceremonial Complex is the cursus on its western edge, thought to have constructed in the late 4th or early 3rd millennium BC with the central feature of the Sunburst monument to have been dug after c.2000 BC, the Catholme Ceremonial Complex represents over a thousand years of activity within the wider landscape extending back to the earlier Neolithic and forward into the Iron Age and later.

Catholme Woodhenge copyright © University of Birmingham 
Romano-British Continuity
The site appears to have continued in use with an unenclosed settlement unearthed at Catholme comprising of at least eight typical Iron Age`roundhouses and several four- and six-post structures. Cropmark evidence of field boundaries and enclosures typical of the Iron Age and Roman periods extends into the Romano-British occupation in the early 4th century.

The nearest Roman urban centre to Catholme was Letocetum was situated just to the southwest along the Watling Street. Catholme would appear to fall between the Cornovii and the Corieltavi, with the border possibly following the line of Ryknield Street.  However, Roman impact in the Catholme area is slight, and essentially comprises Ryknield Street, about 800m to the east of the site, with evidence consisting of ceramic finds and the consumption of Romano-British styles of pottery.

Evidence of British Survival comes mainly from place-names such as Comberford, containing "cumbre" as a reference to Britons; Eccleshall indicating Anglo-Saxon recognition of a British institution; the names of the two main Roman centres were preserved, possibly indicating continuity at Penkridge (Pennocrucium) and Lichfield (Letocetum).

Anglo-Saxon Settlement
In common with much of the West Midlands there is scant evidence for rural settlement in Anglo-Saxon period Staffordshire. Archaeological evidence relating to rural settlement in the early Anglo-Saxon period in the County is largely limited to what can be gleaned from burial sites and odd isolated finds; known distributions suggest that Anglo-Saxon influence was limited to the extreme east of the County, and much of it was late.

Anglo-Saxon inhumation, cremation and mixed-rite cemeteries in the Middle Trent Valley are mainly datable to the late 6th - early 7th century period with little or no 5th century material, with the majority of the county having no known early Anglo-Saxon burial sites.

Outside of the written sources, evidence for rural settlement in the middle and late Anglo-Saxon period in Staffordshire is largely limited to excavations at Catholme where a large settlement of Grubenhauser and wall-post buildings was occupied from at least the 7th to 9th centuries, set within a framework of enclosures and trackways defined by shallow ditches, extending in the direction of the Wychnor cemetery, discovered in 1899 by workmen digging a sand-pit.

Situated at the western limit of the essentially East Midlands distribution of Anglo-Saxon cemeteries, the Wychnor cemetery, of 6th - 7th century date is known only from quarry-finds, containing artefacts of Anglo-Saxon type. Evidence from excavation, cropmarks and fieldwalking suggests that the excavated features may represent the final phase of a single settlement, located at the Tame-Trent confluence in the mid-Romano-British period, and migrating along the river terrace through the early Saxon period into the middle-late Anglo-Saxon period.

The evidence for the Anglo-Saxon period is dominated by the excavation of the 7th-9th century settlement at Catholme consisting of some sixty-five buildings perhaps representing only about half of the settlement. The Wychnor cemetery, 500m southwest of the settlement at Catholme, strongly suggests a relationship between the two, even if the finds from the cemetery (brooches, spearheads, shield-bosses and pottery vessels) suggest a 6th, or possibly early 7th, century date, perhaps slightly earlier than the settlement.

This apparent continuity of settlement from the Roman period suggests that the Anglo-Saxon settlements of the 5th and later centuries further east in the Trent Valley did not cause major disruption of the agricultural regime, even in the eastern part of the county, and the population of Catholme may have been substantially, even wholly, native.

The presence of Germanic style brooches and weapons in the Wychnor cemetery may indicate the arrival of an elite group of Germanic origin, but it may equally represent the adoption of Germanic cultural styles by the native inhabitants.

Situated at the extreme western limit of Germanic influence in Britain, this geographically significant location of the meeting of the rivers Tame and Trent at Catholme would appear to provide evidence of a 'cultural frontier' demarcating the limits of early Anglo-Saxon expansion in Staffordshire.

Gavin Kinsley, Anglo-Saxon Staffordshire: An Overview: Rural Settlement, West Midlands Regional Research Framework for Archaeology, Trent & Peak Archaeological Unit.
Henry Chapman, Mark Hewson, Margaret Watters, The Catholme Ceremonial Complex, Stafforshire, UK, The Prehistoric Society 2010.
Simon Buteux, Henry P. Chapman, Where Rivers Meet: The Archaeology of Catholme and the Trent-Tame Confluence, CBA Research Reports, 2009.
Where Rivers Meet: Landscape, Ritual, Settlement and the Archaeology of River Gravels,
University of Birmingham, 2006 (updated 2012) Archaeology Data Service (ADS).
Where Rivers Meet’ an Aggregates Levy Sustainability Fund project overseen by English Heritage and undertaken by Birmingham Archaeology between 2002 and 2004.

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Sunday 21 June 2015

St Werburgh: from Mercian Princess to Patron Saint

Princess of Mercia
Thirty years of glorious reign came crashing down on the 15th  November 655 AD at the Battle of the Winwaed for Penda the Mercian king at the hands of Oswiu, king of Bernicia. Penda had ruled since 626, enjoying spectacular success on the battlefield with his Welsh allies, defeating Northumbrian kings Edwin and Oswald and setting the foundations for two hundred years of Mercian Supremacy.

Historians see the Battle of the Winwaed and the death of Penda as a defining moment in the demise of Anglo Saxon paganism. In the aftermath of the Winwaed Mercian expansion, dominant since the Battle of Maserfield in 642, remembered for the dismembering of King Oswald of Northumbria, was halted with Oswiu ruling south of the Humber in northern Mercia and installing Penda's Christian son Peada in the southern part of the Midland realm under Oswiu's overlordship. Peada married into the Bernician Royal line but by the spring of the following year was dead; according to Bede and the Anglo Saxon Chronicle Peada was betrayed by his own Queen, Oswiu's daughter, during Easter 656. Oswiu was now overlord of all Mercia.

Any hopes of long term control of Mercia by the Northumbrians was dashed in 658 when Mercian nobles led a rebellion and installed another of Penda's sons, Wulfhere, who they had kept in hiding since the Winwaed, as king of Mercia. Wulfhere established himself as overlord of Britain south of the Humber, becoming dominant through successful campaigns against Wessex which saw Mercia take control of London and the Thames Valley and as far south as the Isle of Wight.

Wulfhere married Ermenilda, the daughter of King Eorcenberht of Kent and Seaxburh of Ely, a daughter of Anna, King of East Anglia. Seaxburh founded the abbeys at Milton Regis and Minster-in-Sheppey. She moved to the double monastery at Ely, the precursor to Ely Cathedral, where her sister Æthelthryth was abbess and succeeded her when Æthelthryth died in 679. She was apparently buried in a common grave where she lay for sixteen years until 695 when Seaxburh arranged the translation of Æthelthryth's relics to a white marble sarcophagus, taken from the Roman ruins at Grantchester, to the new church at Ely. On opening the grave her body was found to be incorrupt and she was declared a saint. The matrilinear succession at Ely transferred from Æthelthryth to her sister  Seaxburh, and would then pass to her daughter  Ermenilda and then her granddaughter Werbugh after the death of the king of Mercia.

Wulfhere had two children with Ermenilda, a daughter, Werburgh and a son, Coenred. Wulfhere was the first Christian king of all of Mercia and brought St Chad to the Midlands, though it is not known when he converted from Anglo-Saxon paganism. The foundation legend of Stone in Staffordshire claims Wulfhere had two further sons Wulfad and Rufin. According to the railings at Granville Square at the top of the high street the foundation was 670, so presumably Wulfhere converted after this date. The local story goes that the Royal Palace, the legendary Wulferecestre, was situated at Bury Bank, a huge Iron Age hill fort on the west bank of the Trent, two miles north of Stone. The two young Princes are said to have converted after meeting St Chad. Wulfhere was enraged and hunted down his sons killing Wulfad at Stone and Rufin at Burston. Ermenilda and sister Werburgh gathered up their bodies and interred them “under a great sepulchre of stones”, hence the name of the town, where they built a priory. Little evidence of the priory remains today, some walling remains in Abbey Street and a rib-vaulted undercroft in a house called 'The Priory' in Lichfield Street but these are dated to an Augustinian priory founded c.1135. The priory seems real enough even if the legend does not; in 2011 a 13th century bronze seal from the priory, was found in a field in Cobham, Surrey bearing the inscription "the seal of the church of Saint Mary and Saint Wulfad, Martyr of Stone". The modern St Michael and St Wulfad's church was built on this site in the 18th century constructed with stone from the collapsed 12th century priory.

The bronze seal from Stone Priory
Wulfhere died in 675; Henry of Huntingdon claimed it was due to disease. His brother Æthelred took the throne and his widow, Queen Ermenilda, retired to the Minster-in-Sheppey where she is said to have become abbess although little contemporary information exists. When her mother Seaxburh resigned as abbess at Minster and went to Ely, Ermenilda succeeded her. When Seaxburh died at Ely twenty years later Ermenilda became Ely's third royal abbess in succession. Her cult was extensive but contemporary records are silent on her time there, surprisingly not even the date of her death is recorded.

After her father's death Werburgh became a nun at Ely and probably succeeded her mother as abbess there. However, her uncle King Æthelred is said to have recalled her to Mercia and gave her charge of three nunneries in the realm. Werburgh is said to have founded or reformed the houses at Weedon (Northants.), Hanbury (Staffs.) and Threckingham (Lincs.) where she died on 3rd February c.700. At her request she was buried at Hanbury.

Translation to Chester
Although St Werburgh did not have any special connection with Chester in her life time her remains were moved there for safety when the Viking onslaught swept through Mercia. Ranulf Higden, who entered the Abbey of St. Werburgh in 1299, tells us that St Werburgh's remains were translated to Chester in 875 to protect it from the encroaching Danes, then at Repton. Higden states the Saint's uncorrupted remains were deposited in the old church of St Peter and St Paul there on 21 June which became the Saint's festival day.

St Werbugh's shrine, Chester Cathedral
Another monk from the abbey, Henry Bradshaw (d.1513), records in his hagiography of Chester’s patron saint that when Chester was restored c.907 by Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians, she enlarged the church as a college of secular cannons and dedicated it to St Werburgh. Another translation at Chester in 1095 was the occasion of Goscelin of St Bertin to write her Vita.

The Abbey of St. Werburgh had considerable authority right up to the time of the Dissolution, no doubt owing its impressive appearance and the presence of the relics of St Werburgh. A shrine was constructed to house the Saint's relics in the early 14th century, where Bradshaw records a number of miracles and became a place of pilgrimage.

The Abbey of St Werburgh was dissolved in January 1540 but rather than being wrecked like most religious houses that fell to the mercy of Henry VIII's Commissioners just over a year later in July 1541 the church became the seat of the newly created diocese of Chester with the last Abbot of St. Werburgh’s becoming the first Dean of the Cathedral. Formerly Cheshire was part of the Diocese of Lichfield. Werburgh's girdle was among the relics listed by the Royal Commissioners. After the Reformation the shrine was turned into the bishop's throne. The fragments have been reconstituted and today stand behind the High Altar in the Lady Chapel of Chester Cathedral where Werburgh's remains are said to lie. At the west end of the Chapel stands the shrine of St Werburgh. Next to the Lady Chapel is the peaceful Chapel of St Werburgh.

St Werburgh's Chapel, Chester Cathedral
Midsummer Celebrations
No one knows for sure when midsummer processions started at Chester but they have been recorded since 1195. The Chester Midsummer Fair was held annually on ground owned by the Benedictine convent of St.Werburgh before the Abbey gate. At that time the Abbot was granted the rights to hold an annual fair in the abbey precinct, known as St Werburgh's Fair.

In the late 15th century the procession was known as the Midsummer Watch Parade when every summer solstice Cestrians would march through the streets carrying torches and wearing costumes. In Tudor times, Chester’s Midsummer Watch Parade was renowned throughout the country.

The midsummer parade included giants, unicorns, dragons and hobbyhorses in something similar to May Day celebrations. In the 17th century the Midsummer Watch Parade was abandoned but revived in 1989. The Giants, Beasts and other structures of today's parade are loosely based on contemporary records of the original. Today the parade takes place on the Saturday and Sunday closest to Midsummer and traditionally includes St Werburgh and flocks of geese, her emblem from an old legend. This year the Midsummer Watch Parade takes place on Saturday 20 & Sunday 21 June, starting from the Abbey Gateway at 2pm.

It often assumed that the Midsummer Watch Parade has its origins in earlier, long forgotten pagan rites, yet this date in Chester just happens to coincide with the translation of St Werburgh's relics to the Abbey and the celebration of the Mercian Princess who became Patron Saint of Chester.

Copyright © 2015 Edward Watson

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Tuesday 16 June 2015

The Alban Pilgrimage 2015

Alban lived during the 3rd century in the Roman city of Verulamium. He gave shelter to a Christian priest fleeing persecution. Before long the authorities came to arrest the fugitive priest. But Alban, inspired in his new-found faith, exchanged clothes with him, allowing him to escape. Alban refused to renounce his faith and was executed in his place.

He was brought out of the town, across the river and up a hill to the site of his execution. Legend tells us that a spring of water miraculously appeared to quench Alban’s thirst and the executioner’s eyes fell out after he had beheaded Alban.

Saint Alban, feast day 22 June, is honoured as the first British martyr, and his grave, where the Cathedral and Abbey Church of St Alban now stand, soon became a place of pilgrimage, a journey which has continued for over 1700 years.

This year the Pilgrimage begins at 11:00 on Saturday 20 June at St Peter’s Church with a procession through the city centre to the Town Hall where the Archbishop of Canterbury will address the people.

The procession continues along Holywell Hill to St Albans Cathedral where giant puppets will retell the story of Alban’s martyrdom with the re-enactment of Alban’s beheading taking place outside the West End entrance, followed by the procession into the Cathedral for the Festival Eucharist.

For further details see the website of The Cathedral and Abbey Church of Saint Alban

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Saturday 6 June 2015

The Ancient Highways of Britain

The Peace of the Four Roads 
Henry of Huntingdon mentions the 'peace of the four roads' story in his early 12th century chronicle the Historia Anglorum. Henry tells us that the four highways Ermine Street, Fosse Way and Watling Street, together with the Icknield Way were constructed ‘by Royal authority’ across the island of Britain, ‘on which no one would dare attack his enemy’:

“Britain was so dear to its inhabitants that they constructed four great highways in it, from one end of the island to the other, built by Royal authority, so that no one would dare to attack an enemy on them. The first is from west to east and is called the Icknield Way. The second runs from south to north and is called Ermine Street. The third goes across from Dover to Chester, that is from southeast to the northwest, and is called Watling Street. The fourth, longer than the others, begins in Caithness, and ends in Totnes, that is from the beginning of Cornwall to the end of Scotland. This road, which is is called the Fosse Way, takes a diagonal route from southwest to northwest, and passes through Lincoln. These are the four principal highways of England, which are very broad as well as splendid, protected  by the edicts of kings and venerable laws codes” – Historia Anglorum: The History of the English People by Henry of Huntingdon, Book I (ed & trans Diana Greenway, Oxford 1996)

The source of the popularity of the 'peace of the four roads' probably lies in the account of Edwin's reign by Bede which seems to have followed a biblical model. In writing of the peace and prosperity that followed Edwin's victories of the early 7th century, Bede claims that a mother and her child could cross the island unharmed in conditions similar to those obtained under king Solomon, heir to the conquests of David.

Surpassing the ancient right of sanctuary, the motif of the 'peace of the four roads' remained popular in 12th century legal codes. Following Henry of Huntingdon, Geoffrey of Monmouth in his work, Historia Regum Britannie (c.1136), identifies the Four Highways as being part of the story of the mythical King Belinus, but only names the Fosse Way. More on this another time.

The Four Royal Roads
Law books and Anglo-Saxon Charters of the 12th century list Watling Street, Ermine Street, the Fosse Way, and Icknield Way as being Royal roads, 'Chimini regales’ where special protection was given to travellers. This special protection meant that people were able to travel safely along the route without fear of being ambushed or attacked, and if a person was, then it would be ‘considered to be an offence against the king himself’.

The Four Highways seems to have become indelibly written as fact in Medieval literature and the notion has persisted through the ages. The Icknield Way for instance, often confused with the Roman road Icknield Street, or Ryknild Street, running south-west to north-east through the English Midlands, first appears in 10th century Anglo Saxon charters before inclusion as part of the story of the Four Highways. This ancient trackway was generally accepted as being one of the original Green Roads of Britain, believed to date from the Neolithic period and associated with trade, exchange and long distance communication. This has led to the popular belief that the Icknield Way, running from Norfolk to the Wessex Downs, exists due to its name, as the trackway of the Iceni tribe of Norfolk, which the Romans reconstructed, and then commonly cited as the invasion route used by Anglo-Saxons coming in to the country around the area of the Wash and heading inland to the Upper Thames in post-Roman times.

The designation “street” suggestions a Roman origin; in Latin "via" was the word for road and “stratum” for layer. Hence, the Romans called their multi-layer roads “via strata,” the survival of which we still see today in the words strada (Italian), street (English), strasse (German), straat (Dutch), affirming the Roman presence in these countries. Indeed the reliefs of Trajan's Column portray scenes of Roman legionaries constructing a road through the Dacian forest.

Whereas the names of these early highways is suggestive of a Roman origin, many are suspected of following the lines of existing, pre-Roman trackways, rebuilt with layers (stratum) of stone and incorporated into the Roman road network.

The concept of the Four Ancient Highways seems to have influenced later fields archaeologists such as OGS Crawford who worked for the Ordnance Survey and one of the pioneers of aerial photography. Crawford identified four main ancient trackways crossing the chalk uplands of Britain: the South Downs Ridgeway; the North Downs Ridgeway; the Icknield Way; and the Jurassic Way, but there is some doubt today as to the use of these ridgeways as prehistoric long distance trade routes.

Crawford's four ancient ridgeways
For example, the so-called Pilgrim's Way running along the chalk Ridgeway of the North Downs originated at Winchester, journeyed onto Canterbury before ending at Dover. However, this was probably not the classic route used by the pilgrims of Chaucer's tale; in The Canterbury Tales Chaucer mentions four places along the Roman Road (Margary 1) from Southwark. Yet, as Crawford argues, the Ridgeway does provide a natural route from the south-east coast to the lowest Thames crossing point; but this alone does not qualify the route as an ancient trackway.

The concept of long distance travel in prehistoric Britain along the chalk ridgeways was influenced by set assumptions of the landscape and environment of much of Britain being covered by thick impenetrable primeval forest that could not have been cleared by prehistoric peoples armed solely with primitive stone tools. Thus, settlement was concentrated on the lighter chalk soils of the Downs of lowland Britain with the heavier clay soils not cultivated until the medieval period and heavier ploughs. Movement of peoples and material culture was probably limited to narrow strips of land connecting the chalklands.

The innovation of pollen analysis in the 20th century has led to significant reconstruction of the environment of the prehistoric landscape which has shown that the thick primeval forests of Southern Britain were mostly cleared by the Neolithic period. Accepted, it would have been more woodland and scrub than today's modern man-made landscape but it was far from the impassable damp oakwood that early archaeologists, such as Crawford, believed.

The perception of the ridgeways has changed in modern times with ancient trackways, such as the Icknield Way, now considered as several sections of short roadway of Anglo-Saxon period date with little evidence of one continuous long distance prehistoric superhighway to the Wessex Downs linking to the Ridgeway.

Today the idea of prehistoric long distance travel by 'ridgeway' is considered largely an archaeological misconception; current wisdom argues that long distant trackways were not necessary for far reaching trade; continuous short distance exchange, “down the line”, providing sufficient explanation for long distance travel of artefacts.

Further confusion arose when Crawford argued that the great dykes constructed across the Icknield Way to control movement and bar its course were further evidence of the tracks existence as a major, long distance route. Certainly the relationship between Roman roads and the dykes is not fully understood; indeed, some Roman roads are named 'dyke' such as Ackling Dyke in Wiltshire, or 'ridge' or 'rig' as in the Roman Rig earthworks of South Yorkshire. On occasion the agger, the raised bank of earth that formed the base of the Roman road, has been confused with raised linear earthworks. This was certainly the case in the gap between East and West Wansdyke where antiquarians assumed the dyke continued along the line of the Roman road between Verucio (Sandylane) and Bath by mistaking the agger of the Roman road was the bank of the dyke. In reality the Roman road between the East and West Wansdyke was probably sufficient simply as a boundary marker.

The Fosse at Radstock
Today, The Four Highways is considered a 12th century myth and the antiquity of the so-called 'ridgeways' as long distance trade routes doubted by many archaeologists who prefer to see short sections of ancient roadway joined up by the Romans to form long distance roads, such as Watling Street, running across the length and breadth of the country. Thus, we seem stuck with the popular misconception that the Romans brought the idea of roads to Britain.

A Bronze Age road in Shropshire
Excavation of ancient trackways is relatively rare but one event recently produced some interesting finds that have a significant bearing on the argument of the origin of Roman roads in Britain.

Archaeological evidence shows that well planned structures were being built from Neolithic times, through wet areas at least, such as the Sweet Track in the Somerset levels, itself laid over an earlier track. Increasingly sophisticated structures of timber and imported stone are found during the Bronze Age, as at Eton Rowing Lake (Berkshire), Fiskerton (Lincolnshire), Fengate/Flag Fen (Cambridgeshire), and several examples in the Thames estuary. Even gridded and metalled (gravelled) streets have been found in the later Iron Age tribal centres at Danebury and Silchester (Hampshire), from around 400 BC.

The Romans certainly used these pre-historic trackways that followed escarpments, banks and ditches, which they straightened and engineered, combining short sections as necessary to provide direct routes as instruments of conquest.

However, archaeological excavation has revealed that carefully surveyed and engineered all-weather rural roads were not exclusive to Roman technology. One such excavation was carried out in 2009 ahead of the expansion of Tarmac's quarry at Sharpstone Hill, Shropshire. This provided archaeologists the opportunity to excavate and record a long stretch of a known Roman road 4km south of Shrewsbury, near the village of Bayston Hill.

East from Viroconium (Wroxeter) the Roman road mostly followed an existing trackway that had been used by the ancient Britons for many years. Fording the River Severn at Wroxeter the track provided a link between the hillforts at the Wrekin and Old Oswestry. From the county border, the route was overlain by the Roman Watling Street, later the modern A5 road. On the west bank of the river, it headed for the ridge to the west of Cross Houses, which it followed north-west to Sharpstone Hill. From this viewpoint to the south other hillforts, such as Caer Caradoc at Church Stretton, and to the north the modern settlement of Shrewsbury are clearly visible. To the east the Wrekin rises spectacularly out of the marches plain like the cone of a sleeping volcano.

The Wrekin
In addition to this road an ancient trackway, the 5,000 year old ridgeway known as the Portway followed the ridge connecting the hillforts at Haughmond and Ebury to the north-east with the Burgs at Bayston, before continuing south-west to the Long Mynd plateau. At just over 8km long The Portway is the largest historical feature on the Long Mynd.

The Roman road here has long been described as running north-west from the Severn at Wroxeter, before heading west and south-west to Caersws in Wales, (Margary route 64), Wroxeter to Lavobrinta (Forden Gaer). Where this road crosses the Portway at Sharpstone Hill is the meeting place of three historic parishes.

Samples of the brushwood foundations and of charcoal from pits beneath the roadway were sent for radiocarbon dating which returned an unambiguous Iron Age date for construction of the road's first three phases, starting around 200 BC, with only the possibility of the uppermost metalled surface being Roman.

Evidence of dung beetles, churned mud and animal dung show that initial use of the route was as a track for livestock. Elder brushwood was laid over this mud up to a width of 4.5m, with earth quickly laid over this. The road surface consisted of two layers, gravel and small stones in a matrix of silty sand beneath, and river cobbles compacted into this above, creating an all-weather roadway of hard material about 5m wide. The surface was deliberately cambered down on either side to provide drainage, with the southern side kerbed by a gully which contained a row of holes for stakes, the line of a possible hurdle fence.

Following its initial Iron Age construction, the road was repaired in successive phases at 125BC–AD35, 110BC–AD70 and 105BC–AD105;  so that in time the road grew to over a metre high and over 7m wide, a substantial carriageway to accommodate vehicular traffic. The final phase, of late Iron Age or possibly Roman conquest date, appears to represent repair for wheel ruts rather than a full road rebuilding. River cobbles used for each of the road surfaces were not of local origin but imported some distance, probably from the River Severn over 3km away.

Where this roadway crosses the Portway at Sharpstone Hill is the meeting place of the three historic parishes. Here a large pit was found beneath the road surface, surrounded by several smaller pits. It appears the largest pit was dug to hold a post about 70cm across, probably a marker post. Charcoal samples of oak, ash, birch, alder and hazel from theses pits has returned a date range of 1740–1120BC; the trackways origins are therefore Bronze Age. Its continued use through the Iron Age challenges the assumption that any road that is relatively straight, built with an agger and with a cambered, compacted stone surface, must be Roman.

A Mesolithic road in Yorkshire
In 2014 a team of archaeologists who were working alongside the A1, the longest road in Britain, uncovered evidence of a Mesolithic settlement suggesting the route may have been in use for 10,000 years, predating previous estimates that claimed an ancient route in the same location was originally built by the Romans.

Excavations by the A1
The modern road runs alongside the Roman road known as Dere Street which extends from Eboracum (York) to at least as far as the Antonine Wall as the modern A1 and A68 roads. This was linked to London by a combination of other northern roads which together became known as Ermine Street, later known as Old North Road.

The archaeologists were carrying out excavations of a known Roman settlement near Catterick, in North Yorkshire, as part of plans to upgrade the A1 junctions from 51 to 56 to motorway status, when they discovered a number of flint tools that dated to between 6,000 - 8,000 BC. They also found a small Mesolithic structure that resembled a type of shelter where they were making the flint tools. The site, is envisaged as an overnight shelter used by people travelling north and south along the ancient by-way.

Clearly the popular belief that the Romans brought the idea of roads to Britain is a modern misconception. The Roman road system owes its inception to its native predecessor.

Copyright © 2015 Edward Watson

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