Excavating Cataractonium

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Recent Roman discoveries during the A1 upgrade in north Yorkshire

The A1 crossing the River Swale
Overlooking the A1, where it crosses the River Swale. Archaeological work during an upgrade to the road revealed a wealth of insights into Roman Yorkshire. The sites at Agricola Bridge and Brompton East can be seen under excavation on either side of the river, while Thornbrough Farm, which occupies the north-eastern corner of the fort site, is visible in the top left of the frame. CREDIT: courtesy of CMSJV and Highways England

In 2018, Highways England opened an upgraded section of motorway on the A1 in North Yorkshire. Construction of the new road prompted a series of large-scale excavations, with illuminating results. Stuart Ross and Cath Ross present some of the preliminary findings.

In North Yorkshire, the A1 follows the path of Roman Dere Street, which ran from York (Eboracum) to the northern frontier at the Antonine Wall. With extensive upgrades to this historically important route under way between 2013 and 2017, major excavations were necessary both at the known Roman sites flanking its course (such as the town of Cataractonium and its satellite settlement at Bainesse, 2.5km to the south), as well as other areas affected by the roadworks.

A carnelian intaglio depicting Hercules and the lion
One of many small finds unearthed by the project: a carnelian intaglio that would have been set into a ring, depicting Hercules and the lion. This artefact was discovered within the late 2nd-century settlement at Fort Bridge; it is shown after conservation on the cover of this issue. CREDIT: Northern Archaeological Associates

Fieldwork began in earnest in autumn 2013, and staff from Northern Archaeological Associates (NAA) spent more than three years investigating remains exposed by the construction, shedding light not only on already recorded Roman sites, but revealing previously unknown ones, such as a roadside settlement at Scurragh House, identified 3.5km north of Cataractonium together with the remains of its agricultural hinterland, and a nationally important contact-period site at Scotch Corner. This latter site’s sprawling footprint was home to dozens of roundhouses and rectangular structures, and yielded high-status artefacts and luxury imported goods hinting at the wealth of its inhabitants (see CA 327).

Here, we will focus on finds from Cataractonium. There are numerous historical references to this site, which is noted in the Antonine Itinerary; the medieval Welsh poem Y Gododdin also recounts the battle of Catterick (Catraeth) around AD 598 while, three decades later in AD 627, Bishop Paulinus is recorded by Bede as performing a mass baptism in the River Swale, which flowed by the vicus of Cataracta.

Plan of Roman Cataractonium
Plan showing the layout of Roman Cataractonium.
CREDIT: Northern Archaeological Associates

The settlement also has a rich history of investigation, receiving significant archaeological attention during the 20th century when the A1 was first constructed through the Roman town. Excavations were carried out by E J W Hildyard in the 1930s, followed by Professor John Wacher in the 1950s. Taken together, these works explored the latest phases of the town over a large area (today the motorway cutting of the A1). The roadside settlement at Bainesse is less well understood, although the presence of Roman remains has been recognised here since the 18th century. The historical record of both sites and the results of previous excavations are summarised by Pete Wilson in Cataractonium: Roman Catterick and its hinterland, published in 2002.

A bronzed spur
A bronzed spur from an early 2nd-century context at Fort Bridge, identified by Alex Croom. CREDIT: Northern Archaeological Associates

The latest phase of investigations, associated with the 2013-2017 A1 upgrade, happened at several locations in and around the Roman town, but the largest and most informative areas were excavated ahead of carriageway widening and bridge construction, which gave us the opportunity to explore the site on a large scale. Well-preserved and deeply stratified archaeological sequences up to 3m deep were recorded at Fort Bridge, Agricola Bridge, Catterick Road, and Brompton East. Equally valuable evidence for the development of the settlement was recovered from shallower sequences on the periphery of the town at Catterick Racecourse, Brough Park, and Brompton West. At Bainesse, the motorway had been realigned, offering further insights: this shift moved the new road away from the course of Dere Street, exposing the western edge of the Roman roadside settlement.
So, what did we find?

Map of locations of the excavated sites along the A1
Plan showing the location of the excavated sites along the A1. CREDIT: Northern Archaeological Associates

The excavations revealed that Cataractonium had its origins in the AD 70s, developing as an adjunct to a Flavian-era fort built on a bluff to the south of the River Swale; an absence of pre-Roman features indicated that this was the earliest occupation of the site. At this time, the vicus (extramural settlement) comprised timber buildings footed on beam slots, or small posts, and appeared to be extensive on the ridge adjacent to the fort. Meanwhile, on the north bank of the Swale and at the south end of Brompton East, we could see signs of an episode of gravel-quarrying (possibly for the construction of Dere Street), which was followed by the raising of a large bank associated with a gate across Dere Street during the late 1st century, apparently to control access to the river crossing-point.

From this point, the settlement flourished: the vicus expanded rapidly on the north bank of the Swale, extending for at least 200m northwards along Dere Street by the early 2nd century, effectively forming a suburb. By this time, all areas of the vicus had developed into a more formal settlement, with larger timber structures found in all excavated areas, and the site may have been supplied from a storage depot to the south, part of which was identified at Fort Bridge, in the form of two timber granaries, a stock enclosure, and a well. This latter feature was excavated by hand to its full depth of 5.2m, yielding some rare and interesting finds, including fragments of wooden board, textile, a wicker basket, and a pistachio nut – the earliest example of this foodstuff identified in Britain. The organic finds had been preserved within a waterlogged, anaerobic environment at the very base of the well, suggesting they had been deposited while it was still open and in use.

Excavation of a timber building
Cataractonium had its origins in the AD 70s. This timber building, excavated at Brompton East, dates to the late 1st century. CREDIT: Northern Archaeological Associates

After the storage depot had fallen out of use, the site was taken over by a tannery, represented by seven interlinked tanning pits. These were steep-sided and gradually fell in height from the north, where they were fed by a ditch. A number of the pits contained leather shoes, as well as fruit stones, tannins from which are thought to have promoted the tanning process. Leather off-cuts and possible iron tools were also recovered from the pits and surrounding area, which may indicate that the tannery was associated with a leatherworking industry. It is possible that leather goods were being produced as part of a military supply network, something attested by one of the Vindolanda tablets, which refers to the movement of hides from Cataractonium.

There was also occupation at Bainesse by the early 2nd century, and the excavations revealed new evidence for the extent of the roadside settlement and for an enclosure complex to the west, parts of which appear to have served an industrial purpose. This site was home to a densely packed cemetery, containing 232 inhumation burials and 17 cremations, one of which may have had a small barrow raised over the grave. Extensive radiocarbon dating of the human remains suggests that this was a long-lived burial ground, used from the late 1st through to the mid-5th century AD.

A wicker basket preserved in a late 1st-century well
The excavation of a late 1st-century well at Fort Bridge yielded a wealth of well-preserved organic finds, including a wicker basket. CREDIT: Northern Archaeological Associates

In the Antonine period (mid-2nd century), a new fort was constructed on the site of the Flavian fort at Cataractonium, and ditch-and-rampart defences encircled the vicus. These defences were investigated in the northern settlement suburb at Brompton East and West, where they served to protect a possible bridgehead and enclosed an area of rectangular timber buildings that fronted Dere Street and were divided from one another by side-streets. A substantial ditch was also recorded at Fort Bridge, indicating that the south side of the settlement was defended too. Meanwhile, on the ridge beside the fort, the vicus became structured around streets, which formed the basis for a grid plan that endured through the later years of the town, and would ultimately be recorded by geophysical survey and as crop marks in aerial photographs.

The excavation of a late 1st-century well at Fort Bridge yielded a wealth of well-preserved organic finds, including the earliest pistachio nut known in Britain. CREDIT: Northern Archaeological Associates

By the end of the 2nd century, though, the defences enclosing the northern suburb had fallen out of use and were overlain by buildings and side-streets as the vicus expanded northwards along Dere Street. Although timber was still the preferred construction material, the first stone structures appeared at Cataractonium during this period, including rectangular strip-buildings and more-complex structures such as an apsidal building with a curved end-wall. An interesting detail of this latter structure is the use of an upturned amphora sherd, complete with clay bung, which had been positioned at the end of a stone gutter to catch rainwater.

The Roman cemetery at Bainesse. CREDIT: Northern Archaeological Associates

This phase of the site’s use also saw the construction of a free-standing boundary wall, which survived to a maximum height of 1.1m to the south of the river at Agricola Bridge. It was built north–south and was exposed over 15m up to the break of slope above the river, where it kinked to the west, possibly respecting a bridge approach to the east. The nature of the deposits to either side of the wall suggested it delimited a military zone associated with the fort (to the west) from civilian occupation adjacent to Dere Street (to the east).

An area of extramural settlement was investigated at Brough Park to the south of the fort and vicus, flanking a road that connected the southern gate of the fort to Dere Street at a distance to the south. Here, set back from the road, we excavated part of a cemetery holding six graves that contained cremated human remains dating to the late 2nd and early 3rd centuries. These included an example of a bustum burial, where the funeral pyre was constructed over a pit intended to collect the cremated human remains for burial. The cemetery may have represented a military burial ground, partially as it was located beside a road serving the fort, but also as bustum burials are regarded as high status, and, when identified in the vicinity of the northern frontier, most likely represent part of a military funerary custom.

One of the individuals interred there, who had been laid to rest wearing bracelets and a bead necklace. CREDIT: Northern Archaeological Associates

During the early years of the 3rd century, the vicus became recognisable as a town. The settlement on the south side of the River Swale was fortified by a substantial wall, and another new fort was constructed on the site of the Antonine fort, which may be attributed to Septimus Severus’s advance north towards Caledonia in AD 209-210. The remains of the town wall were investigated by excavations at Agricola Bridge, revealing a large cobble-and-clay wall foundation at the top of the steep riverbank, along with the remains of the north gatehouse that stood adjacent to Dere Street as it approached a bridge crossing the Swale.

The Antonine-period ditch and rampart defences at Brompton East. The ditch was 7m wide and 3.5m deep, and was associated with a rampart to the south that was constructed using turves stacked on a 3m-wide cobble foundation. CREDIT: Northern Archaeological Associates

Although no evidence for a bridge structure was discovered, several large ashlar blocks, later identified as bridge stones, were recovered from the rubble on the face of the slope. Another bridge stone, reused in a later floor surface, was notable for the carved phallus – a symbol often associated with protective powers (see CA 315) – on one of its sides, paralleled by a similar example within the fabric of a Roman bridge across the North Tyne at Chesters. Finally, further hints of the flourishing town’s facilities came from a large stone-capped drain that issued through the town- wall foundation and may have served a bathhouse recorded by Wacher’s excavations in the 1950s.

These interesting masonry finds echo the fact that within all areas of the town, timber structures were gradually replaced in stone during this period. A number of buildings constructed using red sandstone are believed to form part of a planned building programme, and an example uncovered at Fort Bridge was found to be of relatively high status, with painted wall plaster, a stone-flagged floor, and a stone-tiled roof. The building was adapted during its lifetime with an internal partition that allowed for the insertion of a raised floor and hypocaust system in a newly created room in the southeast corner. Adjacent to this partition, the remains of a newborn baby had been interred in the clay floor-bedding, possibly deliberately placed in a gesture associated with the repurposing in the 3rd century.

A street within the 2nd-century defended vicus. CREDIT: Northern Archaeological Associates

The northern suburb, which had been unenclosed following the abandonment of the Antonine defences at the end of the 2nd century, appeared to serve as a supply area from the mid-3rd century, with several large ovens found in association with open-fronted stone and timber structures. The buildings that faced onto the west side of Dere Street occupied individual plots that extended back from the road for some distance and, during the early to mid-4th century, the back plots were used for burial. Some 19 inhumation burials and a single cremation – which presumably represented the plot’s residents – were identified in this area, including a possible family group comprising an adult man and woman with three children, as well as a number of individuals who had been interred with grave goods. An interesting collection of 13 circular objects had been placed within one grave, including finger-rings and loops derived from a horse harness that had been threaded onto a penannular brooch, which may have had some religious or amuletic significance. Another individual had a stack of nine coins placed in the mouth, and two others were associated with fish hooks. Other objects present were items worn at the time of burial, such as finger-rings and the remains of hobnailed footwear.

The free-standing, 2nd-century boundary wall under excavation at Agricola Bridge. The wall divided an area of military activity associated with the fort (to the west) from civilian settlement fronting onto Dere Street (to the east). CREDIT: Northern Archaeological Associates

Above all, the nature of settlement exposed across all areas of Cataractonium during the 3rd and 4th centuries appeared to remain more or less constant. Stone structures tended to be maintained rather than rebuilt, and the settlement may have stagnated into the mid- to late 4th century. During this period, a small roadside settlement grew up to the north at Scurragh House, which bore many similarities to the contemporary northern suburb of the Roman town. The settlement comprised a series of narrow plots that ran back from the road for 240m along the east side of Dere Street. As with the northern suburb, the rear of the plots had been used for burial, with six inhumation burials and four cremations identified. A well and a watering hole were also found at Scurragh House; at the base of each was found an altar. Appropriately for a site with military associations, one was dedicated to the war god Mars, and the other to Mars-Condates, a syncretised deity known from northern Britain and Gaul, linking Mars with a Celtic water god.

A carved phallus on a reused bridge stone at Agricola Bridge, identified by Adam Parker. CREDIT: Northern Archaeological Associates

The latest Roman occupation of Cataractonium came during the late 4th century, when there was an apparent resurgence in building activity in all areas of the town. A number of substantial stone structures were identified on both sides of the river, at Fort Bridge and Brompton East. Little of their superstructure and few internal details survived, but the buildings were footed on well-built clay-and-cobble foundations up to 1.8m deep, suggesting that the structures were two storeys high. In some instances, the foundations contained pottery, indicating a construction date after AD 360. Part of the previously metalled street was overlain with flagstones during the late 4th century, signifying the town was being augmented and maintained into the 5th century – and its use did not stop with the end of the Roman period.

A grave dating from the 320s, adjacent to the Antonine defensive ditch at Brompton West. CREDIT: Northern Archaeological Associates

Evidence for post-Roman occupation of Cataractonium was identified in almost all the excavation areas and included five sunken-featured buildings and a deposit of ‘dark earth’. Many of these features contained large unabraded sherds of Anglian pottery, indicating occupation during the 6th century, and a substantial stone revetment was constructed at this time to reinforce the southern riverbank and protect the southern abutment of a surviving bridge against erosion. Whether these features indicate reoccupation of the site or persistent settlement through the 5th and into the 6th century is still a mystery, but one that we hope further analysis will solve.

A stack of nine coins that had been inserted into the mouth of its occupant. CREDIT: Northern Archaeological Associates

Overall, the excavations of the A1 upgrade scheme have generated a vast archaeological record, particularly from Cataractonium, which includes a large range of Roman domestic and military finds. Analysis of the cultural material in conjunction with the stratigraphic record will illuminate the evolving nature of Cataractonium, its economic base, and its role within the wider region. The record of the excavations will also develop an understanding of the relationship between Cataractonium, Bainesse, Scurragh House, and the wider Roman landscape, including the contact-period site at Scotch Corner, and allow re-evaluation of the evidence from previously published excavations.

Both excavation and post-excavation phases of work are being guided by three key research themes: ‘Death, Burial, and Identity’; ‘First Contact’; and ‘Establishment, Consolidation, and Retreat’. Each theme will form the basis for a dedicated monograph, with publication scheduled for 2019 (see box below), 2020, and 2021 respectively; the discoveries made at Cataractonium, Bainesse, and Scurragh House will be discussed under the final theme. The publication of the three monographs, along with an extensive programme of public outreach, will undoubtedly mean that the project leaves an enduring positive legacy.

The two altars discovered at the base of a well and a watering hole. CREDIT: Northern Archaeological Associates

G P speed and M Holst (2019) Death, Burial, and Identity: 3,000 years of death in the Vale of Mowbray, Northern archaeological associates Monograph series Volume 4. This monograph is freely available to read on the archaeology Data service (https://archaeologydataservice.ac.uk); a second, follow-up volume will be published in early 2020.


Northern Archaeological Associates is grateful to Highways England, the Carillion/Morgan Sindall JV, AECOM, Historic England, North Yorkshire County Council, and the material researchers, academic advisors, and archaeologists who undertook the fieldwork and post-excavation aspects of the project. Stuart and Cath Ross have both worked at NAA for 13 years and co-directed the excavations at Cataractonium. They are currently engaged in post-excavation analysis of the Roman town and the production of the forthcoming Establishment, Consolidation, and Retreat monograph.

This article appeared in CA 359. Read more features the magazine. Click here to subscribe

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