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

* * *

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.