Holy Roaming Empire
First published: October 2011
Author: Dave Cook, Priories Historical Society
Nearly 2000 years ago the Roman army marched its way through Bassetlaw, but what did they find and what happened to the ‘locals’ during their 350 year long occupation?
Our area marked the approximate boundary between two Celtic tribes the Brigante to the north and the Coritani occupying Nottinghamshire, Lincolnshire and Leicestershire. Both tribes did not seem to mind the influx of the Romans, there were no great battles recorded and no evidence of burials through warfare during the early years of occupation. The original Roman northern frontier was settled around the Trent in Coritani territory around 47AD. This was probably held by soldiers from the Legio IX Hispana, a civil engineering part of the army, responsible for most of the Roman roads built around Nottinghamshire, South Yorkshire and Lincolnshire. When the Brigantian ruler Cartimandua divorced her husband, Venutius, civil unrest was suppressed by Roman intervention under the control of Gallus. In 69AD she was rescued by auxiliaries after she married Vellocatus, causing a further civil war. This instability opened the pathway for the Romans to extend their empire northward under the Legio II Adiutrix. History records years of fighting with the Brigantes until a peace deal was reached in 211AD.
Archaeology shows our area was largely rural, attested by the aerial surveying carried out by Dr Derek Riley of Sheffield University during the 1970’s and 80’s. Flying over the area revealed ancient field systems in crop marks showing large tracts of land covered in brickwork, nuclear and co-axial field systems (named after their shape) which had been built before the Roman roads. Excavations done at Dunstons Clump and Menagerie Wood show regular enclosures and remains of building timber post-holes of different dates suggesting occupation on the sites lasting for several generations.
These fields would have taken thousands of hours to plan and dig and would need to fit into the natural cycle of farming implying a singular administrative ruling was in charge. It is argued they were used to keep livestock rather than crops as the ditches are far deeper than the need for simple water runoff. Excavations have found cattle, sheep, pig and horse bones. These would
not only be used for meat but milking, riding, ploughing and clothing. Agriculture, however, must have fitted in somewhere - cereal remains are commonly found on excavation sites and corn drying ovens, beehive querns for flour making and bread kilns are also widespread.
Various surveys around Gateford in Worksop have revealed a concentration of settlements. At Raymoth Lane a ‘D’ shaped enclosure was excavated and finds included coinage, a kiln, pottery, animal and human remains during excavations in 2004, three roundhouses have been located near Eddison Park Avenue, a lead lined coffin was found near to Gateford Manor and several decapitated bodies were found during the construction of Bassetlaw Hospital.
There were already long straight roads built prior to the Roman influx, but they were responsible for a major new network of roads throughout the countryside to improve communications and speed of movement between forts and the new towns.
New building methods also came into the country. Opulent land and industry owners as well as wealthy ex-soldiers soon expected lavish villas to be built to prove their wealth and cast aside the old mud and thatch roundhouses. These villas include Gringley-on-the-Hill, Langold, Laxton, Mansfield, Oldcotes, Shirebrook, and Welbeck. It has been noted villas on the magnesian limestone belt are related to industrial processes in the landscape. Oldcotes can be linked to a tile factory and Langold can be found close to bronze workings, a metal which is not naturally found locally.
The Romans also built marching camps and forts at regular intervals throughout the area to keep the local population under control. These were either later abandoned (Rossington Osmanthorpe and Warsop) or developed into settlements such as Littleborough or Doncaster (Segelocum/Danum).
Trade with Europe became more widespread than in the Iron Age with trade links opening with the whole Roman Empire and Latin became the international language of business.
There were many religions in Roman Britain, each legion would have had soldiers from many countries and tribes and most religions were accepted. A Roman shrine was found near Scaftworth by a bend in the river Idle finds included stone pillars, high status pottery, 3rd and 4th century coins and lead ovals which were possibly curse tablets. The dating of the shrine is comparable to the nearby fortlet and may therefore be interrelated. There was also a bronze statue of Mercury found nearby which is now in the hands of a private collector. Other statuettes found in the area include Mars, on the Foss Dike at Torksey, now in the British Museum.
Enclosure ditches which had ceased to be functional seem to have become ritual places to deposit animal and human bodies. There are several cases of human skeletons being deposited in the local area such as the infant and child burials at Raymoth Lane. Large numbers of animal bones have also been found such as a tied up pig at Chainbridge Lane. Quite why ditches were preferred to new graves is unknown but the practice is widespread.
Britannia seems to have been the first place where Christianity was accepted. The oldest examples of Christian iconography come from our island and the first Christian Roman emperor was British.
The occupation of Nottinghamshire is one of many pieces of the jigsaw of Roman Britain. By piecing them together it shows how extensive and widespread their occupation affected the local tribes. three and a half centuries of living with the Romans slowly brought changes to the local inhabtants from the initial changes in government to the adoption of Roman culture.
There are plenty of museums locally which display finds from the this fascinating period of history including Bassetlaw Museum in Retford and Mansfield Museum.
Nottinghamshire Country Council’s Community Archaeology also does a yearly excavation on a Romano-British site at Besthorpe Quarry, Newark where the public can take part.