THEY came, they saw, they conquered, but in the frequently-quoted words of Monty Python ‘what did the Romans ever do for us’ here in the northern uplands of England? The Pennine Dales are fringed by traces of Roman conquest, but deep in the Dales themselves there is very little evidence – the fort at Bainbridge, the temporary marching camp on Mastiles Lane between Kilnsey and Malham – these are hardly signs of a major influx of ‘offcumdens’ to the area.
So what did the locals think? Was it just a case of changing one tax-collector for another? The ‘locals’ of course entered history under the name ‘Brigantes’, and we know from the Roman author Tacitus that they had a ruling royal family and a queen, Cartimandua, whose exploits would have made a good story line in a soap opera. Almost certainly there was a gradual process going on over the centuries that saw small groups combining to form larger more powerful alliances that could draw further power to themselves. This process could have started at the level of extended families, and it may have been influenced by the topography of the region resulting in dale-based groups. Eventually the powerful Brigantes – the name means ‘the high ones’ – came to dominate a huge area of what we now call northern England and southern Scotland, in other words Central Britain.
Archaeologists have suggested that Craven’s limestone dales may have been as densely populated as lowland areas such as the Vale of York, where excavations ahead of the A1 motorway upgrade revealed a complex pattern of settlement decline as well as growth during the Roman occupation. Some achieved the status of a Roman villa, with tiled-roof stone houses, mosaics and painted plaster replacing the traditional thatched timber houses of local tradition.
Buried evidence of the lowland Romano-British farmers is threatened by deep ploughing and major construction works such as urban growth, road widening and pipeline laying; if not destroyed by modern development, it may only be the bottoms of ploughed-out ditches and pits that survive. Here in the uplands a lack of recent ploughing often means that evidence from the Roman period, and before, survives as lumps and bumps that are clearly visible where grazing keeps the grass short. Construction projects have to take account of archaeological remains, and the developer must pay for any rescue work. Paradoxically the minimal threat from development in the uplands reduces the funding going into archaeology, and the highly visible earthwork evidence is prey only to moles and rabbits, under-investigated and poorly understood – but perhaps awaiting the invention of more sophisticated techniques that can unravel the past without destroying the evidence they seek to understand.
In northern England the Roman presence was primarily military and based in forts, often with civilian settlements clustering outside the walls as at Bainbridge. Away from these obvious signs of conquest, it is possible that there was little change to a farming way of life that had evolved over generations. ‘Romanised’ villa farms fringe the Dales, like the one at Gargrave, but so far none has been found in the heart of the uplands. It is the settlements of native farmers that we can see across the Dales, but we have difficulty even being certain if the lumps and bumps belong to the period of Roman rule or not. Mass-produced Roman pottery found its way into these farmhouses and is sometimes thrown up to the surface by moles, but this need not tell the whole story. Radiocarbon dates from samples carefully collected during a few research excavations has shown that there may be a similarly complex pattern of growth and decline to that seen along the A1 corridor. Some farms may have been in existence for centuries before the new Roman pottery made its appearance, and some may have carried on for centuries afterwards.
The evidence of ‘Romans and Natives in Central Britain’ will be examined during a day school at Grassington on Saturday October 29. Speakers from Scotland and England will look at evidence from both sides of Hadrian’s Wall, and at how life did, or didn’t, change for the widespread farming communities whose social and political allegiances may have been split in two by the imposition of the Imperial frontier.
Three speakers will address the impact of the Roman garrison in the north, which must have numbered in the tens of thousands. In a paper entitled ‘Scratching a living or fleecing the army’ Sue Stallibrass of Liverpool University will look at the evidence for livestock farming in Central Britain, surely in these terms the ‘northern powerhouse’ of its day. Richard Tipping of Stirling University will review evidence for large scale forest clearance, due to the activities not of Roman conquerors but of their Iron Age predecessors. On a different scale speakers will present the scientific analysis of artefacts, some of which were found in the region’s caves. A final presentation by Dr Fraser Hunter from the National Museum of Scotland will consider changes on a cultural level, through Roman influence on Celtic art in a ‘world in transformation’.
The day school is being organised by the Yorkshire Dales Landscape Research Trust in collaboration with the Roman Antiquities Section of the Yorkshire Archaeological and Historical Society, and support from the Roman Society. Attendance costs £15 which includes refreshments: for further details and a booking form go to the website ydlrt.co.uk.