25 June, 2012

Post-Roman York: cremation cemeteries

York was an important military, ecclesiastical and political centre in Late Roman Britain. In the early seventh century it was under royal control of the Anglian (‘Anglo-Saxon’) kings of Deira, and later in the seventh century it developed into a major ecclesiastical centre and the seat of an archbishopric, a status it holds to this day.

In between, the historical record is a blank. There are no definite references to York between the fourth century and the seventh century, although there are one or two snippets whose meaning is less than clear (see earlier post on Post-Roman York: the documentary evidence) for a summary of the documentary records). Evidence from archaeology provides some clues that may help to fill in the gap. I discussed the headquarters building in an earlier post. This post discusses the Anglian cremation cemeteries at The Mount and Heworth in post-Roman York


The Mount
The area around the modern streets of The Mount and Driffield Terrace, York, was the site of an important Roman cemetery.

Map link here
The arrow shows the location of The Mount. The scale is currently set to show the location of the cemetery in relation to the rest of the city. Zoom in for a detailed view showing the street names.

Roman law forbade the burial of dead in urban areas, and The Mount Roman cemetery was outside the south-western walls of the civilian city (the colonia) on the west bank of the River Ouse. It was a large cemetery along the main Roman road approaching York from the south-west, and the part of the cemetery around the junction with modern Albemarle Road (see map link above) was on a local high point. Prestigious memorials and monuments lined the main road, such as the tombstone of the wealthy lady Julia Velva, now in the Yorkshire Museum. Less elaborate Roman burials have been found in the lower-lying area around Trentholme Drive near Knavesmire Road (see map link above), suggesting that wealthy individuals had monuments in the prominent location on the high ground and that more ordinary people were buried in the less prestigious area lower down the hill (Ottaway 2004, p.122). A group of burials in coffins recently excavated at Driffield Terrace (see map link above) contained an unusually high proportion of decapitated adult males, leading to speculation that they may represent gladiators despatched in the arena after losing fights (Hunter-Mann 2006). Burials from the Roman cemetery have been dated to the mid-second century to the early fourth century (Ottaway 2004, p 121).

In the mid-nineteenth century, an unknown number of Anglian cremation urns were found during building work on the north-east side of Dalton Terrace (see map link above) (Tweddle 1999, p 169-170). Six survive, and fragments of a further eight were found in the fill of a nineteenth-century culvert excavated in the 1950s in the same area. A pair of iron shears, a fragment of bone comb and a coin of the Empress Julia Domna (wife of the Roman Emperor Septimius Severus, who died at York in 211) survive from one of the urns. Another bone comb fragment was found with the other urn fragments in the 1950s excavation. The urns are approximately dated to the late fifth to sixth century (Tweddle 1999, p 170), and indicate an Anglian (‘Anglo-Saxon’) cremation cemetery either in the same area as or adjoining the earlier Roman cemetery (Tweddle 1999, p 167, 170).

Another Anglian cremation cemetery of broadly similar date was identified during railway construction work in the late nineteenth century on the west side of Dodsworth Avenue, north-east of the Roman military fortress site at York.

Map link here
The arrow shows the location of Dodsworth Avenue. The scale is currently set to show the location of the cemetery in relation to the rest of the city. Zoom in for a detailed view showing the street names.

About 80 to 90 urns were identified, of which 40 were taken to the Yorkshire Museum, apparently laid out in rows about two feet apart and aligned at right-angles to the ridge and furrow of a ploughed surface (Tweddle 1999, p 235). More had been destroyed before the Yorkshire Museum was notified. Several urns contained glass beads fused by heat , another contained some gaming pieces, and one contained a pair of copper-alloy tweezers. A further ten urns were discovered in a second excavation in 1880. The urns are dated to the late fifth and sixth centuries (Tweddle 1999, p 235). Later excavations in 1965 confirmed that the whole cemetery appeared to have been destroyed in the construction work (Tweddle 1999, p 170).

A Roman cemetery is known nearby, but it was located further south along Dodsworth Avenue near the junction with Heworth Green, which follows the line of the Roman road running north-east towards Malton (Tweddle 1999, p 170). There is nothing to show whether the Anglian cemetery was positioned in relation to the earlier Roman cemetery. However, an enigmatic note from 1879 mentions ‘a Saxon urn found at the side of the tumulus in the garden at Heworth’ and a drawing from 1920 shows a mound near the bend in the River Foss between the Roman and Anglian cemetery sites at Heworth (Tweddle 1999, p 173-5) (roughly at the site of St John’s Walk in the map link above). This may indicate a second Anglian cemetery in the area.


Clearly, the cremation burials at The Mount and Heworth indicate the presence of a group of people who liked to cremate their dead and bury the ashes, sometimes with grave goods, in pottery urns of ‘Anglo-Saxon’ design. The cremations are dated approximately to the late fifth and sixth century. Unfortunately, as the cemeteries were identified during nineteenth-century building work and the original number of burials is not known, it is not possible to estimate the size of the associated population.

It seems reasonable to infer that the people who buried their dead in the cremation cemeteries lived somewhere nearby. This may have been within the area of the Roman city or in the surrounding countryside, or both.

The cremation cemetery at The Mount was either adjoining the Roman cemetery or on part of the same site, and that at Heworth was only a few hundred yards from a Roman cemetery. This could indicate some form of continuity of use. It is interesting that similar continuity of use has been recorded at the Roman fort of Burgh Castle in Norfolk, where the Roman military cemetery outside the fort was also the site of an early ‘Anglo-Saxon’ cremation cemetery (discussed in my earlier post Burgh Castle: Cnobheresburg?).

Such continuity could be official, if there was a governing authority in fifth- and sixth-century York that designated and enforced certain sites as recognised places of burial.

It could be religious or spiritual, if an established burial ground was recognised as sacred in some way and therefore suitable as a last resting place, or if an established burial ground was considered likely to be haunted by spirits and therefore a place unsuitable for occupation or use by the living.

It could reflect a desire for some sort of connection with previous inhabitants, perhaps claiming inheritance or a shared heritage. This could even reflect a tradition (real or imagined) of direct familial descent. The Roman Army recruited Germanic soldiers and traded goods and supplies across the North Sea. It is possible that families established by Germanic soldiers or traders who settled in or near York may have retained sufficient of their Germanic heritage to choose to use a Germanic burial rite, perhaps to signal a change of status, identity or religion, for a burial in an established Roman cemetery where previous members of the family had been interred. Alternatively, if the legend of Vortigern recruiting Hengest and Horsa as mercenary soldiers reflects a genuine situation in which a post-Roman political authority in Britain recruited Germanic mercenaries, perhaps from families or areas with a tradition of supplying recruits to the Late Roman Army, some may have had ancestors (real or imagined) who had previously served in the Roman Army and been buried in the Roman cemetery at York. The coin of Julia Domna, wife of Septimius Severus, in one of the cremation urns from The Mount may represent such a perceived Roman heritage (“We came over with Emperor Severus, you know”). It is not beyond the bounds of possibility that it was a family heirloom, handed down through generations from an ancestor who really had served in Severus’ army during his campaign in Caledonia until it was interred, perhaps with the last of the line on the family burial plot. I need hardly add that this is speculation.

It could reflect practical convenience. The memorials, tombstones, sarcophagi and mausolea of the Roman cemetery would still have been visible in the fifth and sixth centuries. It is possible that they made the area impractical for cultivation and therefore suitable for use as a burial ground by default, even if the people concerned felt no connection with the people buried there during Roman times.

It could reflect nothing more than geography (the one thing about history that never changes, as the saying goes). The Mount is on high ground next to a major routeway, and therefore a good place to locate a prominent grave.


The cremation cemeteries at The Mount and Heworth indicate the presence of a population somewhere in the vicinity of York in the fifth and sixth centuries who chose to cremate their dead and bury the ashes, sometimes with grave goods, in ‘Anglo-Saxon’ pottery urns in or near Roman cemeteries. Since over a hundred urns have been recorded, it seems likely that the population using this funeral rite was substantial rather than tiny, but its size and longevity cannot be determined. It also seems likely that the population using the cemeteries lived in or near York, but whether they lived within the Roman settlement or in the surrounding countryside, or a mixture of both, is unknown.

The apparent mixture of a characteristically pagan Anglian funeral rite (cremation and burial of the ashes with grave goods) in use at Roman locations (established Roman cemeteries) is interesting. As noted above, it is not unique as a similar combination occurs at the Roman military site of Burgh Castle Roman Fort (and those are just two that I happen to know about, not an exhaustive sample). The significance of this is unknown, and largely open to speculation. It could indicate some sort of mixed culture with Anglian and Roman elements, a new culture trying to claim a link with the past, pure coincidence reflecting geography or practical land use, or any number of other variations. As so often in this period, many interpretations are possible.

Hunter-Mann, K. Romans lose their heads: an unusual cemetery at The Mount, York. York Archaeological Trust, 2006, Archaeology of York Web Series No. 6, available online
Ottaway P. Roman York. Tempus, 2004. ISBN 0-7524-2916-7.
Tweddle D, Moulden J, Logan E. Anglian York: a survey of the evidence. Council for British Archaeology/York Archaeological Trust, 1999. ISBN 1-902771-06-0.

Map links


Rick said...

The Heworth connection seems more ambiguous than The Mount, since 'a few hundred yards' is not all that close. Depending on the lay of the land, travel routes, etc. And also if the 1879 note and 1920 drawing would tend to connect the sites.

The Mount is more suggestive, with the sites adjacent or intermingled. What are the dates of the Roman cemetery? And, if there was some kind of continuity, what happened to the dead between the periods of known use?

Pretty morbid about all those decapitated bodies!

Beth said...

Really interesting stuff, there. I admit that whenever archaeology comes up with these discoveries, my first question tends to be: so where were the Britons in all of this? Because compared to the Anglo-Saxons, they're pretty much invisible, and yet it seems reasonable to assume some were still around (especially considering places like Elmet/Dent/Catlow etc, where we have documentary evidence of their presence.) It's one of the reasons I like the 'mixed culture' idea so much! ;) It did strike me as interesting that the cremations were from the late 5th century onwards, because of what you mentioned previously about the 'death' of Bishop Ebur in 501 possibly referring to the bishopric of York itself. Maybe the bishopric 'died' because the
remaining Britons were taking up Anglian practices. Without more evidence, no easy 'right' or 'wrong' answers, I guess...

Carla said...

Rick - Yes, it's The Mount where there's a clear spatial connection. Possibly another York cemetery too, which I'll get to in another post. Less so for Heworth, as you observe. The Roman cemetery at The Mount was in use pretty much throughout the Roman period, although as it's an extensive cemetery that may vary in different parts of the site. As to what happened in between - maybe another site or another part of the same site was being used that hasn't been investigated yet (or was lost without recording), or a different burial rite that doesn't leave dating evidence. If there are no grave goods, or only items that change very little over time (e.g. a corroded iron knife blade), a grave may be undateable unless it happens to be definitely on top of or underneath another feature that can be dated, which is not common. Christianity becomes more and more official in Roman Britain through the fourth century, which may have promoted a shift away from easily identified Roman burials with dateable Roman artefacts in them and towards funeral rites that don't leave evidence (or don't leave dateable evidence). Depending on the dating, there may not even have been much of an 'in between'. Dating on the basis of grave goods style is tricky as even if the item itself was clearly made in a narrow time window (e.g. coins or certain types of pottery where the fashionable 'pattern book' changed frequently), that only gives you an earliest possible date for when the item went into the grave. It might have been buried much later if it was some sort of heirloom or in circulation for a long time - like the Julia Domna coin in the cremation urn. I don't know whether Roman cemeteries were periodically cleared to make way for new burials, like medieval churchyards where every so often the bones were transferred to an ossuary. There's certainly an episode in Bede of a Roman sarcophagus being re-used for a seventh-century abbess; presumably the previous occupant had either decayed to nothing or was summarily evicted. I can also think of a Roman sarcophagus from York with the name of a woman carved on it but which turned out to have a man's skeleton inside and somebody else's tombstone used as a lid. If re-use was commonplace that might account for apparent gaps.

Carla said...

Beth - Beth - my guess would be that Britons used a funeral rite that doesn't leave dating evidence, or no evidence at all. Christian burial in a woollen shroud without grave goods could easily disappear without trace, especially if the ground was disturbed by later ploughing, and even if skeletons and grave-cuts survived and were found in a controlled excavation it would be near-impossible to date unless a radiocarbon sample was possible (which it often isn't). Whereas jewellery and pottery in distinctive 'Anglo-Saxon' styles are much easier to recognise. It's sort of the reverse of the near-invisibility of most early medieval buildings because they used perishable materials that only leave post-holes (if that) instead of durable materials like brick and stone and tile.

It's also possible, as you mention, that at least some of the Brittonic population are actually included among the 'Anglo-Saxon' graves, having simply adopted a new burial rite. Jewellery and pottery of themselves don't have ethnicity. It's a convenient shorthand to say 'Anglo-Saxon' grave, but what it actually shows is something more like 'grave of someone who was buried with jewellery/ pottery/ other item of a style labelled Anglo-Saxon'. The usual modern analogy is to observe that if someone now were to be buried with an iPod it wouldn't make them American (or Chinese), it just tells you they owned an iPod.

'Bishop Ebor' is interesting, because if there was a bishopric in York (as there certainly was in the early 300s), presumably there was a flock to go with it. Were they buried in the Roman cemeteries, perhaps to be near earlier members of the family, or in a particular part of it, or in a separate burial ground of their own (or, indeed, a mixture)? I may come back to this in another post.

Nicola Griffith said...

Have you read Spall and Toop's "Before Eoforwic: New Light on York in the 6th-7th Centuries"? Pretty interesting stuff and directly relevant. (I'm travelling and on someone else's computer right now, but full ref and my thoughts on my blog post here.)

Carla said...

Nicola - Only the abstract. I'm familiar with the Fishergate settlement (have a blog post brewing on the subject, as it happens), though the report I have pre-dates the 2001 dig. I've put early seventh-century Eoforwic as an estate on both sides of the Foss, with Aethelind's family hall sited in the angle between the rivers, not far from the Castle (which would presumably have obliterated any traces) and an associated village on the opposite bank, which (in my imagination)later develops into the Fishergate site.
Did you see the report in the Guardian or the Independent (can't remember which) a month or two ago about the dig under the floor of York Minster that's turned up a couple of post-holes and a lot of bones and raised speculation about it possibly being the site of the seventh-century church? The report didn't say exactly where it was but it sounds like somewhere in the principia courtyard. Which is more or less where I put it, for all the obvious reasons (perhaps rather closer to the Roman cross-hall than I would have guessed since it seems to be actually under the Minster itself, whereas I might have placed it further out in the courtyard, but hey). So if they do manage to identify it I can feel suitably pleased :-)
And congratulations on your publishing deal for Hild!

Beth said...

I keep semi-forgetting that lack of grave goods in Christian burials, although I was kind of thinking - which I didn't make clear - of all and any evidence. In parts of Wales, southern Scotland, even south-west England, we seem to have some evidence, whether burials, or middens, or finds of pottery, etc etc, from the 5th or 6th centuries (e.g. at Dinas Powys, Trusty's Hill, South Cadbury). But in the parts of The Old North now in modern England, I'm not aware that we really have much of anything at all (if I'm wrong in this I would love to be corrected!), save at Birdoswald (and that isn't much) and maybe some of the other Wall forts. Have we just not found it yet? Or did the Britons living in what's now northern England have a different, less visible culture to some of their cousins? Of course, one would exepct York to differ from the sites I've cited, given that it was in the east not the west (what about Cumbria, though?), and of course any buildings could've been wiped from the record by being built over. But...gah...I suppose really the sheer lack of substantive evidence of any kind (that we're aware of) from the English parts of The Old North just sticks in my craw. ;) It's rather like the linguistic 'Brittonic to English' conundrum really: these people, whoever they were, for whatever reason, didn't seem to be leaving much of a trace behind them. Certainly the suggestion that some Britons adopted 'Anglo-Saxon' ways or material culture is an attractive one as it might explain...well, maybe something about why the Britons were so 'invisible'. Anyway, I like it. :P I shall be interested to read your further posts on York. :)

Carla said...

The 'Anglo-Saxon' population is mostly visible via graves - someone memorably said that we knew a lot about the Anglo-Saxons in death but almost nothing about them in life - so if you take out burial evidence they would probably be about equally invisible. If that is any comfort :-)

There's an earth bank piled over part of the Roman ramparts at Vindolanda, some structures (can't remember the details) on top of the latest Roman layers at South Shields fort, and a fifth-century abbatoir at Binchester . My feeling, for what it's worth, is that in the fifth/sixth century in the northern part of the Roman province (now northern England) the ex-Roman forts were roughly equivalent to the hill forts and promotory forts (South Cadbury, Tintagel, Degannwy etc) in Wales, the West Country and southern Scotland as centres occupied by the local king/warlord/Mr Big, though without the highly recognisable Eastern Med luxuries. Why there should be a difference in site choice (Roman forts vs hill forts) and material goods is up for interpretation. The material goods might be a matter of straightforward distance from the Atlantic seaboard where ships from the Eastern Med came to trade, or a cultural/political difference that might also tie in with site choice.
Lower down the social scale the number of sites is small but not zero. I can think of Irby in the Wirral, where there's a sequence of circular buildings (2nd C AD) follwed by rectangular-ish buildings (3rd C AD), followed on top of that by two more phases of rectangular buildings, together with a sixth-century brooch and a radiocarbon date from the fifth-sixth century. Also Fremington near Brougham in Cumbria which has seventh-eighth C loom weights and some pottery that isn't like anywhere else and may be locally made. The Museum of Liverpool has an interesting overview here if that helps. There's also an interesting article about early medieval Cumbria/NW England by Rachel Newman here, which interestingly mentions 'numerous undated upland settlements', some of which might be early medieval. A culture that uses mostly organic materials and is thrifty about recycling can be nearly invisible. It can also be mis-assigned if even a small number of artefacts from a more recognisable material culture find their way onto a site and end up being the only identifiable items found - so a site with one fragment of Roman pottery or one 'Anglo-Saxon' brooch among some amorphous ditches and pits is likely to end up being dated and categorised on the basis of the recognisable find, unless radiocarbon sampling is possible. Ken Dark has a theory that Roman artefacts like coins, jewellery and manufactured pottery continued in use for decades or even centuries after 410, which is supported by occasional finds of Roman pottery repaired by riveting the pieces back together (not uncommon for valued china in comparatively recent times, until the advent of Superglue). He points out that if this is the case then plenty of sites that have been dated as 'Roman' on the strength of a Roman brooch or coin or pottery fragment might actually be post-Roman for all we know. So the invisibility of the post-Roman Brittonic population in northern England may be more apparent than real. Perhaps some day someone will find a waterlogged deposit full of organic materials - shoes, wooden bowls, bits of timber buildings - that will change the situation completely, like Viking Jorvik or the Vindolanda Letters.

Beth said...

Thank you, I shall indeed take some comfort from that. ;) I had a vague idea of the finds at Vindolanda, South Shields, etc, but I really need to read up on them more thoroughly. The Roman forts being the northern equivalent of hillforts cetainly makes sense given the distribution of finds so far. I know that the Museum of Liverpool PDF you linked to mentions the Castle Crags hillfort at Thirlmere as having a possible date of the (very) late 6th century, but I don't recall that they mentioned anything about finds of material goods, so presumably nothing, or nothing special. (You wouldn't really expect it in that location, I suppose.) Looking at the number of hillforts in northern England generally, in the Iron Age, shows that they were nowhere near as numerous as those in the south, so maybe the apparent lack of occupation - and perhaps other cultural differences - in the early medieval period was carried over from then? It does surprise me a bit that we have things like the pottery from so many sites in the west, but not a peep from Cumbria; but as you point out there could be any one of a number of reasons. My sense of the geography of Cumbria's coastal regions is somewhat shakey - is there even any appropriate location for a high status hillfort anyway, I wonder? Of course if you do take the kingdom of Rheged as encompassing both Cumbria and Dumfries and Galloway (which at least for the purposes of fiction I will) then I suppose that solves your problem of having to assign a separate set of high status goods to Cumbria. Unless someone does discover that waterlogged deposit (not to mention a few handy signposts) I suppose the reality will never be known.
Thanks for the link to Newman's article. I could've sworn I had that on the PC somewhere, but I appear to have lost it...so I'm grateful to be able to snag it again.
I certainly like Dark's theory about re-use. A couple of weeks ago at the Corinium Museum I was looking at some Roman brooches found in 'Anglo-Saxon' graves - no reason why the Britons couldn't have done the same. (As I believe the finds from Birdoswald hint at.) Yes, I was actually thinking that about the dating of finds the other day, especially those that are found 'out of context': could be Roman, or could be Roman material re-used, and who'd really know? Still, if someone could dig up a nice Brittonic settlement of c. 500 at say, Carlisle, I'd be most grateful. ;)
Thrifty recycling...yep, that sounds just about right for the north. ;)

Nicola Griffith said...

Carla, yes, I read about the recent Minster find. I was excited. (I wrote a blog post here. We're pretty much in agreement about the location of Paulinus's/Edwin's church.

And thanks for the congrats. I'm pretty excited about that, too! Any news from your end? (I'm still looking forward to the next book...)

Rick said...

Aren't the finds disproportionately representative of elites?

I would guess that elite culture was up for grabs to an unusual degree. Roman culture was fading. An alternative indigenous British high culture was just taking form, and so was early English high culture.

In this setting I'd imagine that cultural allegiances could shift almost as quickly as political loyalties. When among Anglians, do as the Anglians do.

Carla said...

Beth - the one that leaps to my mind is the Mote of Mark near Rockcliffe in SW Scotland, which makes sense if you see Rheged on both sides of the Solway. Which, on the basis of geography and the importance of water transport as a means of getting around, seems quite plausible to me, at least when Rheged was at the height of its power (its territory might well have waxed and waned according to the relative military strength of its own and neighbouring kings). The coast of Cumbria itself is mostly rather flat, so there aren't a vast number of nice rocky headlands suitable for coastal promontory forts like Tintagel or Degannwy.
There are one or two rather vague findings from Carlisle that may suggest post-Roman structures of some sort in the city, which could indicate some sort of occupation, although it's all terribly uncertain. I think it's mentioned in one or both of the documents I linked to. So don't give up hope! Someone may turn up with your 500-AD settlement in Carlisle yet :-) The great thing about archaeology is that it turns up genuinely new evidence, which can sometimes change our whole view of the past (e.g. Birdoswald, the Sutton Hoo ship burial). You never know. Personally, given that it seems someone rich and powerful was building timber halls at Birdoswald in the fifth/sixth century, I'd look for his equivalents in Cumbria in Roman sites like Carlisle (the name itself may be significant) or the Lake District forts like Maryport or Ravenglass.
Yes, I like the theory about re-use too. I wear a ring that's 100 years old, and I expect people in the past did just the same.

Nicola - it's nice when evidence turns up to support a hypothesis, isn't it? Though it's quite likely that no-one will ever be able to identify those post-holes under the Minster for sure. Thanks for your interest! I'll post here as soon as there's anything definite.

Rick - Yes and no. In general terms, durable objects that are fashionable enough to change quickly and thus be useful for dating are more likely to be associated with people who have enough money to follow fashion, whereas your stereotypical peasant with their wooden bowl and functional iron knife may have a material culture that either doesn't leave traces or that hardly changes from one generation to the next. Anglian cremation urns like the ones at The Mount, though, as I understand it, aren't particularly elite. The grave goods aren't particularly elite, either, except perhaps the Roman coin - bone combs and beads are fairly commonplace, perhaps more middle-class than right at the top level. There was a very handsome 5th/6th century glass bowl, which I forgot to mention in the post because there are no details about when or exactly where it was found, that's supposed to have come from somewhere on The Mount. That would certainly have been a high-status item, maybe a posh holder for a cremation burial, like a hanging bowl.
Yes, I would imagine that culture was subject to considerable flux in the post-Roman period - did you cling tenaciously to anything left of Roman culture, did you consciously reject it and copy something different, either from the past (real or imagined) or from your neighbours, or did you try to develop something entirely new, or any combination thereof. I should imagine that people with enough resources to make choices (as opposed to those who were just concerned with subsistence) made all manner of different decisions, which may have changed very quickly, as you say.

Gabriele Campbell said...

It seems to have been typical for the local 'barbarian' population to move into the Roman structures. We got the same exapmle along the German border, Frankish chieftain in Trier, some Alamannic thane in the villa at Wachenheim .... And if you can turn something (including a Roman gate in case of the Porta Nigra on which I'm preparing a post) into a church, that's even better. :)

Beth said...

Yes, it was the Mote of Mark I really had in mind when I said that; Trusty's Hill as well, given this year's finds of pottery and other material.
Ah, so there being no high status coastal hillfort in Cumbria at least makes a bit of sense geography wise. I did suspect there mightn't any suitable place for one - which I guess would leave you with Carlisle. I agree, the fact that the name was retained at least suggests that someone was still there - and given that Birdoswald was occupied, as you say, it seems strange that they'd ignore such a potentially high status (and useful) location as Carlisle. And although I realise that breaks in continuity can occur for any number of reasons, it's certainly interesting that late Roman to early 5th century occupation seems to be attested there, as is occupation in the Anglo-Saxon period - so why not in between? Hmm...maybe I'll take a trowel with me when I visit... >:) (Of course, just because the name Carlisle survived doesn't necessarily mean that they were literally within the boundaries of the Roman walls, I suppose - Cirencester retained its name, after all, but the Roman city itself was abandoned for a while. I know it's been suggested that the the 'Cirencester' whose king was defeated at the Battle of Dyrham may actually have been referencing the Cirencester amphitheatre settlement, not the town. Nothing like complicating matters! ;))
Maryport...I believe Dark suggested that it was part of a post-Roman defence network? I don't have that particular article, though, so I'm not sure. Certainly the effectively post-Roman inscriptions seem to suggest that some people of at least middling importance (that is, not subsistence farmers or similar) were around.

Carla said...

Gabriele - I'll be interested in your post on the Porta Nigra. There's a church in Leicester that incorporates part of a Roman bath-house, and a theory that the large timber buildings in 6th-C Wroxeter were part of a complex that included re-using part of the Roman bath-house as a church.

Beth - Yes, interesting to speculate how the symbol stone at Trusty's Hill fits into the picture, isn't it? I rather like the idea that Trusty is a variant on Drust or Drustan (which itself is a variant on Tristan).

The names could have been purely descriptive, of course - if your language calls a fortified place a 'caer' or a Roman fortified place a 'caster', then it's logical to call such places by those names when you encounter them even if they are long ruined and abandoned. However, the '-lisle' part of Carlisle is a direct descendant of the Roman name Luguvallium, which is I think consistent with some cultural continuity as that wouldn't be purely a description of the site. You can recognise something as a(ex-) caer just by looking at it, but it's hard to see how you'd know the name unless someone told you (or unless you could read the 'Welcome to Luguvallium' sign over the main gate, which itself implies some continuity of language and literacy). It's interesting that Chester / Caerlegion seems to have lost its Roman name (Deva).
I should think it's difficult to be certain whether the whole of Roman Cirencester was abandoned, unless the whole area of the Roman town has been excavated? Timber buildings leave very slight traces, if any at all, and post-Roman material culture finds tend to be slight. It's hard to distinguish between evidence of absence and absence of evidence.
I came across Dark's 'revival of the Dux Britanniarum' theory in his book 'Britain and the End of the Roman Empire'. Well worth a read.

Beth said...

I rather liked the idea about Trusty's Hill myself...so much, in fact, that I'd slotted it into my novel. (Which, one day, I will actually back off the research enough to start writing properly!)
I find it particularly intriguing that we have such symbol stones both at Trusty's Hill and also at Dunadd - both well out of traditionally accepted Pictish territory, and both hillforts
showing broad similarities such as the prescence of relatively high status metalworking. Coincidence, or connection? Either way, something mighty interesting.
As regards Carlisle, absolutely. As for Chester, that is a strange loss, if we assume continuity (Battle of Chester and all that); that said, the River Dee, at least, retains 'Deva'.
Cirencester...er, you know, I have to admit, I just took John Wacher's word for it. I'd imagine that they haven't excavated the whole town - his theory of abandonment was based on the apparent and very sudden cessation of traffic along one of the streets, demonstrated by the filling of the ditch alongside with weeds, grass, leaves etc, instead of the silt deposits from road use shown in earlier periods. From what I can see, since no datable objects were found in the ditch, his suggestion that the abadonment came in the post-Roman period relies on the lack of coins in the frequently swept forum area, implying that such cleaning continued until after the end of coin circulation. He dates this to c.430, so the end of traffic to around the same period, and couples this with the two unburied bodies found to posit a departure from the town due to the plague of the 440s. As you say, though, there may be all manner of evidence that simply hasn't been discovered. Wacher just decided that the city was abandoned and the chieftain moved to the amphitheatre. Certainly possible, but there may be more going on.
Tsk, I'd forgotten Dark mentioned that in his book. I've just been flitting about between too many sources, forgetting what I read and where. :P

Carla said...

Good for you. Trusty's Hill is begging to be included in a novel :-) Good luck!

It's interesting that the name of the river survives (Dee) but not the Roman name derived from it. It makes me wonder if the Roman name for Chester never really took root among the locals, who perhaps always called it 'the fort of the legion' and ignored the official Latin name. I drew a possible analogy with modern Fort William, which is An Gearasdan (The Garrison) in Gaelic.

At York there's a large build-up of debris on top of a Roman street in one of the excavations, which has also been interpreted as abandonment, yet the animal bone in the principia and the cemeteries suggest that someone was in or around post-Roman York. It may depend on exactly what's meant by abandonment. I'll buy that the end of Roman administration could have precipitated a sudden economic collapse, particularly in the parts of the economy that relied on money exchange, not least because the flow of Imperial funds to pay the army in Britain would suddenly have ceased. Taking that much money out of an economy overnight has potential to be catastrophic. The parts of the economy that provided specialist manufacture/services in exchange for money that was in turn used to buy food would be hit hardest, and that would be concentrated in the towns. However, I don't think the Roman towns would be utterly deserted, simply because people tend to stay put if they possibly can, and part of the town population may have been able to shift to growing their own food and get by after a fashion. This would likely be many fewer people than had been living in the town previously, though, because a lot of the previous ways of making a living that relied on a working money economy might well have ended abruptly. So I have no problem with a drastic (and in some places probably brutal) change; or with a shift in the centre of power, which might well be consistent with a New Boss in the amphitheatre replacing the previous town council in the forum or wherever. I just don't necessarily think that's the same as 'abandoned'. Maybe Gildas' phrase 'the cities are not inhabited as once they were' covers it.

Beth said...

Thank you. :) I'm looking forward to getting started. Eventually. ;)

I'd forgotten that about Fort William. It's easy to see something similar happening with Chester; and indeed Caerleon, where we have the same sort of pattern - Isca surviving in the river name Usk, and the fort becoming known as the Fort of the Legion(s).

I see your point with York. As far as Cirencester goes, Wacher was obviously thinking of complete abandonment, but then he was clearly very attached to his interpretation of the two bodies and cessation of traffic as being markers of a devestating plague which would leave no option for the survivors but to leave the infected Roman town. I wish he gave a bit more information about the finds in the amphitheatre itself - 'weathered late-Roman pottery' and 'late-Roman coins' isn't as specific as it could be. Contemporary with the supposed abandonment, earlier, or later? No doubt there's more in the excavation reports, but at £20 a piece, I don't think I'm going to be getting hold of those just at the moment. I believe the Saxon occupation was comparatively late (but then they only 'conquered' the region c.577 anyway) and in a restricted area of the town, but whether that has any link whatsoever to a possible plague is anyone's guess. (I can't remember enough about their settlement, I'm afraid.)

Carla said...

Indeed. It's interesting that both Chester and Caerleon have essentially the same name (Bede says that Chester was called Caerlegion by the Britons), and that the surviving name was a functional description rather than a derivation of the Roman name, whereas the other permanent legionary base (York) has a name descended from the Roman name.

If the pottery was 'weathered' it suggests it had been hanging around for a while, and coins can stay in circulation for ages, so there's probably quite a wide possible date range. How were the two bodies dated? - presumably not by grave goods if they had been abandoned rather than buried, so I guess by radiocarbon or stratigraphy. Radiocarbon generally has quite a wide date range, and stratigraphy depends on what's stratified. It may be a case of 'other interpretations are possible' (as so often).

Beth said...

I find it particularly intriguing that the local Britons gave up
using/never really used two names based on their own language, indeed based on place names that were presumably there before the Romans turned up. As for York, would its differentiation be down to greater importance, perhaps? Or maybe another Caerlegion was just one too many! (Though I have a recollection that someone on the Heroic Age journal argued that a certain text discussing 'the City of the Legions' actually referred to York and not Chester or Caerleon. That may be opening a can of worms, though... ;))

The book I've got all of this from (The Towns of Roman Britain) actually doesn't say anything about the dating of the
two bodies. (Oh dear.) Wacher's picture is interesting, but I'd like a bit more information about what he's basing it on! Maybe I'll drop someone like the Corinium Museum a line and see if they can point me in the direction of something more substantial. Although I was surprised to see that they didn't even mention the later occupation of the amphitheatre. (They do have some stunning Anglo-Saxon jewellery, though!)

Carla said...

Good question. My feeling is that Caerleon/Caerlegion may have always had two names among the local population, the official Roman name used when people were speaking Latin or dealing with officials and documents, and the local name used by the locals among themselves when speaking British. The local name referred to the place by its function 'city of the legion', and there was no need for anything more specific because it was the only place that came anywhere near that description locally and so everyone knew what was meant. You see a variant of this in modern speech when people will talk of 'going to town' without needing to give a specific name, because there's only one local town. When the Roman officials went away, people just carried on using the local name, which survived all the way to now either unchanged (Caerleon) or translated and then shortened (Caerlegion/ Legacaster/ Chester). The hypothetical local name might be purely for convenience, as in the modern examples, or it might perhaps have had an additional political and cultural dimension.

Why was York different? Another good question. The idea of a local descriptive name suggested above would presumably have applied just as much to York, which was also the only legionary fortress in its area. Possibly it did, and it's pure chance that the Roman name survived instead. Possibly a different level of importance, as you said - York was a provincial capital and a colonia as well as a legionary fortress, which doesn't apply to Chester or Caerleon. The other provincial capitals were London, Cirencester and Lincoln, all of which retain some of their Roman names, so York is completely consistent there. Possibly the population around York was keener to adopt and keep the Roman name, for whatever reason.

I remember that article arguing for York as Gildas' City of the Legions. It's possible. There were three places with that function in Roman Britain, two of which are known to have been called 'city of the legion', so why not the third one as well? I don't know of any reference to York as 'city of the legion', but it's notoriously difficult to prove a negative (especially with almost no evidence!) so we can't say that York never had that name. However, I happen to think it's simpler to interpret Gildas' reference as being to one of the two places that we know had the name 'city of the legion', rather than to one that could have had.

The amphitheatre at Chester has signs of possible post-Roman occupation as well, so it would be interesting to compare that with Cirencester's amphitheatre. Logically, an amphitheatre is an easily defended space that's a lot smaller than a full city, and therefore potentially well suited as a chieftain's stronghold.

Beth said...

Yep, I'll go with those explanations, they make good sense!

I had no idea that they'd found possible post-Roman occupation at Chester amphitheatre! That's really interesting. Is there any article or whatnot out there about it that you know of? Definitely agree about amphitheatres being well-suited to a chieftain's stronghold. Having been in the Cirencester one recently, I got a good sense of that - reckon you could fit a reasonable, albeit not huge, retinue in there, with the livestock kept elsewhere. (Cirencester also has the advantage of a deep Roman-era quarry ditch on one flank, which provides extra protection from one direction.) And here I was thinking it was unique...now I'm wondering how common such occupation was!

Sorry I've taken a while to reply. Got back from up north on Saturday, but still haven't quite got back into the swing of things! Off to read your latest post on York now...

Carla said...

Beth - I have a print out of an article from the Chester Amphitheatre Project website from a few years ago, but the URL attached to it now seems to have disappeared off the web. If I find where it's moved to I'll post a link.

Yes, I wonder how common it was! There's a logic to it, in that a well-constructed and intact amphitheatre would be an easily defended space. It may also have appealed to groups that were looking for a clearly delineated 'separate' space, rather than for a defensive site per se. Early monasteries liked to have a clear boundary between the sacred and the profane - islands are ideal, but a circuit of walls would do just as well. I've seen this advanced as an explanation for the siting of monasteries within previous fortifications, like Cnobheresburg (if it was Burgh Castle or a similar site), and perhaps also Bewcastle if the church (with its famous cross) in part of the fort site is descended from an early monastery.

Hope you had a good trip!

Beth said...

That's a shame; thanks, though. I'll keep an eye out too.

Yes, an amphitheatre is essentially a ready-made fort, after all - not to mention that it looks impressive. I like the idea of it being a 'separate' space, as well. I've seen the same explanation you mention when it comes to religious sites; I'd never explicitly articulated it to myself in terms of a potentially 'secular' settlement, but now I come to actually think about it, it's a good way to demonstrate your unique status as a chieftain figure and combine it with a site you can defend with relative ease. Given that, I wish I knew whether there was an amphitheatre at Carlisle. ;) I'd assumed there would be, but if there was, presumably it's been wiped out - I haven't found anything about one yet.
I'm looking forward to getting to see Bewcastle. One of these days... :)

Thanks, we had a great time. (Catbells was super.) Glad we managed to keep dry, too!

Carla said...

I've no idea if there was an amphitheatre at Carlisle, sorry. However, although the Roman fort at Carlisle was a bit bigger than Birdoswald, it was a lot smaller than a legionary fortress like York, so the fort itself might have been a suitably-sized space for a local chieftain.

Glad to hear you enjoyed Cat Bells! It's a terrific walk.

Beth said...

Re Carlisle - that's certainly true!

Catbells was more like a 'slide' than a 'walk' in places. ;) I was a bit disppointed we didn't get to do the whole spine (we ended up going up and down the flank instead), but maybe next time. Amazing views, too!

Carla said...

Yes, Catbells has fabulous views, being on the end of a ridge and right above the lake on one side and a deep valley on the other. One of the reasons I like it so much :-)

Was the 'slide' the wet grass or the wet slate? That little rocky top-knot on the north summit (Skelgill Bank), the first one you come to if you start from Hawse End, is so polished by a gazillion pairs of feet that it can be like greased glass in wet weather.

You can look forward to doing more of the ridge another time :-)

Beth said...

The view over the valley may just have pipped the lake view to the post as my favourite, although I honestly wouldn't say no to either. ;)

I'm not quite sure where Hawse End is? We climbed from somewhere near where the north western edge of Brandelhow Wood meets the road (I think). The 'slide' was actually dry scree - we avoided the main scree slope, but managed to encounter plenty lining the easier paths, all the same (though it was only a slide on the way down, and not for far.) Greased glass...I can well imagine. Fortunately it was dry when we were up there, which was rather impressive since it had been tipping down on and off - but then the sun did get pretty strong. One thing that did astonish me was just how busy it was - a traffic jam seemed imminent at one point... We thought we were latecomers, having to park in a layby instead of the car park, so coming down to see the road lined with cars was something of a shock!

I can't wait to do it again. But maybe we'll take the bus next time!

Carla said...

Hawes End (not Hawse End, sorry, spelling mistake) is at the foot of the north end of Cat Bells ridge. I'm guessing you probably climbed up somewhere near the saddle between the north summit and the main summit. It's steep on that side; I tip my hat to you :-) Yes, the traffic is astonishing, especially in summer and on a fine day. It's a popular hill, and justly so.

My favourite way to get to Cat Bells is to take the launch from Keswick to Hawes End. If you're staying in Keswick you just walk to the boat landings from wherever you're staying, or if not there's a long-stay car park near the lake. They sell single tickets, so you can take the launch one way and the bus the other.

Beth said...

Ah, I see. And yes, somewhere near that saddle sounds about right given the terrain we covered. It actually didn't look that steep from the bottom. (Although it felt it!)

Taking the launch sounds like a nice way to arrive. We were actually staying near Thornthwaite, so just nipping into Keswick and parking would have been easy enough. We can certainly think about that for next time. :)

Just returning briefly to your original subject of cemeteries, by the way, have you seen about the recent discoveries at Maryport? I guess I'll have to stop complaining about lack of finds now. ;)

Carla said...

The probable early Christian cemetery at Maryport, you mean? Yes, you didn't get Carlisle, but you did get Maryport! It will be interesting to see if they can get enough material for carbon dating.

Carla said...

PS: The Maryport cemetery (if it's Christian and if the date is confirmed) is surely consistent with the sort of place where St Patrick might have come from before he was kidnapped and taken to Ireland. (Maybe there is something similar waiting to be discovered at Ravenglass, if Banna Venta = Glannaventa). Although the cemetery is completely new evidence, in a way it isn't surprising to me at all because it fits so well with St Patrick's letters.

Beth said...

That's the one. Yes, I look forward to seeing whether they can get any radiocarbon dates. What really caught my interest was the textile fragment and, more than that, the beads. They're lovely - but there's a poignancy about them, too, in that maybe they were put in a child's grave as a 'keepsake'.

I have to admit that I'm not too familiar with Patrick's letters,
although I'm aware that he describes Northern British-Irish
contact when complaining to Coroticus about taking Christian Irish slaves; so it's easy to see it working the other way.
Ravenglass's coastal location, I suppose, makes it an ideal place for capturing slaves, perhaps more so than Birdoswald or even Banwell (which are the only other candidates I can remember at the moment!) We visited Ravenglass briefly to look at the bath house walls - I wonder if the potential post-Roman population made any use of them at all. From what I understand the actual fort was badly affected by Victorian activity, but it's interesting that a memory of it remains in the 'caster' element of Muncaster. Evidence of post-Roman occupation? I'd like to think so. But I'd like it even more if they found something similar to that at Maryport! (Never satisfied, me. ;))

Carla said...

I was thinking of Patrick's Confessio, where he says his father was a deacon and his grandfather a priest. A sizeable Christian cemetery, if that's what Maryport is, would be consistent with the sort of community that had a priest.

It seems likely to me that the Ravenglass bathouse was used for something since the walls still stand to quite a height, suggesting that it was more useful to leave it standing than to demolish it for the stone.

Beth said...

So it would! I hadn't really thought about it in that way.

Maybe they'll find something at Ravenglass yet... :)

Carla said...

Maybe someone will. Archaeology turns up new evidence all the time :-)