24 January, 2012

Late- and post-Roman Binchester

I recently posted about the headquarters building in Late and/or post-Roman York, and by happy coincidence the current edition (February 2012) of Current Archaeology magazine has an interesting article on late and post-Roman Binchester. Post-Roman activity at Binchester was recognised in archaeological excavations in the 1970s and 1980s, and a new excavation programme has added new evidence.


The Roman fort of Vinovia, modern name Binchester, is located slightly north of Bishop Auckland, where the main Roman road to the north, Dere Street, crosses the River Wear.

Map link: Binchester

So Binchester is north of the legionary base at York, and south of the frontier forts along Hadrian’s Wall.

Brief description

The first fort on the Vinovia site was a large fort built in timber in around AD 70-80, which would coincide roughly with Agricola’s campaign in Caledonia (roughly, what is now Scotland north of the Firths of Forth and Clyde). It was replaced by a smaller fort built in stone in the second century, and it is the remains of this smaller and later fort that are visible today.

The stone fort has the characteristic ‘playing card’ shape of a rectangle with rounded corners. Dere Street ran through the middle of the fort, and the praetorium (commanding officer’s house) has been identified in archaeological excavations. A large vicus (civilian settlement) developed outside the fort and has been identified east of the fort and along the line of Dere Street to the north-west and south-east.

The commanding officer’s house and baths suite

The baths suite attached to the commanding officer’s house was one of the first structures on the site to be discovered, when part of the hypocaust collapsed under the weight of a farm cart in the early nineteenth century. The commanding officer’s house and baths suite were excavated in the 1970s and 1980s. This excavation found that the house had undergone a startling change of use in the early fifth century; it went from being a palatial residence complete with expensive decorated wall plaster to industrial use. Furnaces were built in the west wing, and evidently used for ironworking since they were surrounded by iron slag. In the south wing, a flat platform with a drain along one side was built using stone recycled from demolished structures, and a large associated dump contained large amounts of cattle bones showing butchery marks, including cattle skulls with poleaxe holes in the forehead. The south wing of the commander’s house was presumably now being used an abattoir. Radiocarbon dates place this phase in the early fifth century.

The industrial use of the commander’s house clearly continued for some time, as another stone platform was later built on top of this abattoir deposit. Parts of Roman walls were incorporated into the later platform, and post-holes may have supported a timber structure, consistent with the original building having become partly or entirely ruinous by this time and being replaced by a timber structure. This second platform was associated with more animal bone, and fragments of worked antler, bone, jet and shale, implying a sizeable craft industry.

The dating of this phase of industrial use is uncertain. However, a burial in the debris from the collapse of the roof of the associated baths suite was radiocarbon dated to about AD 550. The burial was of an adult woman, and she had been buried with grave goods including a string of beads, a pottery bowl and a copper-alloy brooch in the shape of a reversed ‘S’ with birds’ heads for the terminals, a type normally assigned to the early English (‘Anglo-Saxon’) period of the late fifth to early sixth century - so the stylistic date from the brooch is broadly consistent with the radiocarbon date. This indicates that the baths suite had gone out of use and collapsed at some time before the burial was made in approximately the middle of the sixth century. Radiocarbon dating of samples from other burials without grave goods on the fort site gave dates between AD 600 and AD 1000, suggesting an early medieval cemetery on the site.

Much of the stone used to build the early English church at nearby Escomb was re-used Roman stone. Escomb is only a mile or so south-west of Binchester (see map links), and Binchester Roman fort and/or its vicus may have been the source for much of the stone (Escomb Church official site). Escomb church was probably built in the late seventh century, suggesting that at least some of the buildings at Binchester were regarded by then as a convenient quarry.

It is interesting that burials were made at Binchester in the period after the church at Escomb was built. One might have expected that after the conversion to Christianity the people of the area would be buried in the churchyard at Escomb, which is not far away. Perhaps the Binchester fort site also had a church or chapel with an associated cemetery. Or perhaps the female burial in the remains of the bath suite was that of an important individual, whose grave then became the focus for a cemetery for a local or family group that continued in use as a traditional burial place in parallel with the church at Escomb.

Recent excavations

For information on the recent excavation programme, see the project website, and the excavation blog (updated regularly in season).

Excavation in the east corner of the fort identified a possible barrack or stable block, with patches of paved floor associated with pits lined with stones or clay. Some of the pits had associated gullies, and one was connected to a pit in the rampart of the fort that could have acted as a water storage reservoir. As with the commander’s house, the pits were associated with many fragments of animal bone.

Excavation in the vicus east of the fort identified a substantial building that may have been a bath-house. Like the barrack/stable block inside the fort, this building also contained large stone-lined pits (one was 6m, approximately 20 feet, across and occupied almost an entire room), together with fragments of animal bone, jet and shale.

The Binchester Blog says that a radiocarbon date from a pit in the fort had a 50% probability of being later than AD 400, whereas a sample from a pit in the vicus area had a 2% probability of being later than AD 400 (see Day 33, 2011).

Exactly what industrial activity the pits represent is not yet certain. However, the pits and the large volume of associated animal bone would be consistent with a substantial leather-producing industry. Tanning requires a lot of soaking of animal skins in water and various other chemicals to soften the hide, remove the hair and convert the skin into leather.

The pits in the vicus and barrack/stable block are currently interpreted as tanning or possibly flax-retting pits, suggesting a substantial industry busily processing large numbers of animals into leather goods and worked bone and/or antler objects. Industrial and craft activity on a substantial scale implies in turn either that there was a large population in the vicinity, or that the fort was supplying a wider area than its immediate region.


The radiocarbon date from the vicus sample, with only a 2% chance of being later than AD 400, fits easily with a substantial leather- and bone-processing industry serving a market well beyond its immediate area, for which the most obvious candidate is the Late Roman Army. It is easy to imagine that Binchester fort could have been converted to a production and supply base, taking in large numbers of animals on the hoof from a considerable area and processing them into dried meat, leather, glue, bone tools and so on to supply army units. If the building in the vicus was indeed a bath-house, it might be a convenient candidate for conversion to leather processing, since bath-houses by definition have water supplies and drains that can be adapted to industrial use for processes requiring large volumes of water.

If more radiocarbon dates confirm the initial result of a later date for the pits inside the fort, it may indicate that industrial activity continued after the end of formal Roman administration, but possibly moved to a location within the fort rather than in the vicus. If industrial activity did continue on a large scale into the post-Roman period, this is potentially interesting, as on first sight it may appear inconsistent with the mud-huts ‘Dark Age’ stereotype of post-Roman Britain. Perhaps it could indicate a powerful local ruler, controlling the livestock resources of a wide area and perhaps with a large (very large?) warband getting through a lot of beef and leather for their own use. Perhaps it could indicate that there was still a commercial economy of sorts, so that an industrial centre could obtain raw materials and sell finished products as part of a wider market. Perhaps it could indicate a regional or even province-wide government, able to operate on the same sort of scale as the previous Roman administration. The school of thought that sees Vortigern as a ruler over all or most of the former Roman province, able to oversee large-scale population movements from one end of the province to the other, would have no difficulty in accommodating centrally-organised large-scale supply chains. Depending on the exact dates, it might even fit with Ken Dark’s theory of a revival of the post of Dux Britanniarum in the late fifth / early sixth century, with authority spanning most or all of the ex-Roman military sites between York and Hadrian’s Wall (Dark 2002).

If Binchester fort was the seat of a local ruler, or the centre of a substantial industrial operation, one might perhaps have expected whoever was the boss there to move in to the commander’s luxury house as a symbol of status, rather than convert it to industrial use. Perhaps there was no boss as such, and the activity represents a sort of giant co-operative of semi-independent craftsmen and traders, or perhaps the local boss was a relatively low-status overseer for an external owner, not considered important enough to be assigned a luxury residence. Or perhaps a new residence for the boss was built elsewhere in the fort and has not yet been identified, like the ‘chieftain’s hall’ built on the site of the granary at Birdoswald.

One thing that strikes me about the post-Roman activity at Binchester, Wroxeter, Birdoswald and in the principia at York is the apparent ease with which formerly impressive high-status buildings were converted to humdrum industrial uses or demolished. The baths basilica at Wroxeter became a builders’ yard and bakery, the principia at York acquired non-ferrous metalworking hearths and a lot of animal bone in the cross-hall, a barrack-building at Birdoswald had re-used an inscribed stone from the commander’s house, and at Binchester the commander’s house was turned into an iron-working site and an abattoir. Looking at Roman remains from a twenty-first-century viewpoint, it seems slightly surprising that such impressive structures were apparently not preserved as symbols of past glory. Perhaps this reflects a straightforward pragmatism on the part of late- and post-Roman decision-makers, who looked at the structures they inherited with an unsentimental eye and put them to whatever use seemed most practical and/or profitable in current circumstances. I wonder if it could also reflect a conscious rejection of aspects of Roman Imperial identity and hierarchy, perhaps as a symbol of a break with the past and the establishment of a new social order. It reminds me a little of the Dissolution of the Monasteries, an episode when a change in political power structures resulted in many formerly important high-status buildings (abbeys, priories, associated churches) being demolished and the materials sold off, leaving evocative ruins for later ages to marvel at and mourn.

Binchester Blog
Binchester excavation project site
Dark K. Britain and the end of the Roman empire. Tempus, 2002. ISBN 0-7524-2532-3.
Escomb Church official site

Map links
Escomb Scroll north-east from Escomb using the arrows on the map to see Escomb church and Vinovia/Binchester Roman Fort on the same screen.

22 January, 2012

January recipe: Sticky toffee pudding

Sticky toffee pudding is rich, sweet and filling, very satisfying to eat on a cold winter day. There are many variations on the basic theme of a baked date sponge covered in a toffee or fudge sauce. My recipe uses black treacle*, which gives a dark colour to the sponge and sauce, and a slight bitterness to take the edge off the sweetness. You can keep the baked sponge for several days in an airtight tin, and then you only have to cut a slice and make the sauce for an instant pudding.

Sticky toffee pudding

Sponge (cuts into 10-12 slices)
4 oz (approx 100 g) dried dates, chopped
0.5 pint (approx 280 ml) water
2 Tablespoons (2 x 15 ml spoons) black treacle
1 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
2 oz (approx 50 g) butter
4 oz (approx 100 g) dark brown soft sugar
1 egg
1 teaspoon (1 x 5 ml spoon) vanilla essence
1 teaspoon (1 x 5 ml spoon) baking powder
8 oz (approx 250 g) plain flour

Sauce (serves 6)
1 oz (approx 25 g) butter
3 oz (approx 75 g) dark brown soft sugar
0.25 pint (approx 140 ml) single cream
1 Tablespoon (1 x 15 ml spoon) black treacle

To make the sponge:
Grease and line a loaf tin.

Put the dates, water and treacle into a saucepan, and bring to the boil. Remove from the heat.

Cream the butter and sugar until fluffy.

Beat in the egg and vanilla essence.

Add the flour and baking powder, and mix well.

Sprinkle the bicarbonate of soda onto the date and treacle mixture, then stir into the cake mixture and mix well. It should form a thick batter.

Pour the batter into the greased and lined loaf tin and level the top.

Bake in a moderate oven, about 170 - 180 C, for about an hour, until the top is crisp and golden brown and a skewer comes out clean.

Cool on a wire rack. Cut into slices, and serve with toffee sauce (see below).

To make the toffee sauce:
Put the butter, sugar and cream into a small saucepan. Heat gently until the butter melts, and stir until the sugar dissolves. Stir in the treacle.

Pour over slices of the baked sponge (see above). Serve with vanilla ice cream or whipped cream if liked.

The baked sponge will keep in an airtight tin for several days, and can be frozen. The sauce will keep for a couple of days in the fridge.

*Similar to molasses.

14 January, 2012

Thorn, by Michael Dean. Book review

Bluemoose Books 2011. ISBN 978-0-9566876-4-7. 252 pages.

Set in Amsterdam in 1656, Thorn centres on the (fictional) friendship between the philosopher Spinoza and the painter Rembrandt. All the major characters are historical figures, although in many cases their personalities as portrayed in the novel are imaginary.

Benedict, or Baruch, Spinoza is twenty-four, a Jew of Portuguese descent living in Amsterdam, where the Jews are accepted because of their trading skills. In theory, Spinoza is the majority shareholder in his deceased father’s trading company, but his passion is for philosophy (and for his nubile Latin teacher, Clara Maria van den Enden). A chance meeting introduces him to the great painter Rembrandt van Rijn, and despite their disparate backgrounds the two men strike up an unlikely friendship. Each is a giant in his own field, Rembrandt already acknowledged as a genius, Spinoza just at the start of his career. Each places the demands of his calling higher than any other consideration – including the need to fit in with the rest of the world. Their refusal to compromise brings them into conflict with just about everybody who matters in mid-seventeenth-century Amsterdam – the Jews, the Calvinists and the city authorities.

Thorn is a witty, intelligent black comedy, funny and sharp by turns. It is narrated throughout in first-person by Spinoza, in a racy and humorous style that makes it seem as though he is talking directly to the reader. I could almost hear his voice. The name Spinoza means ‘thorn’ (hence the book title), and it suits the character down to the ground. Witty, sarcastic and intellectually brilliant, Spinoza is also utterly clueless on a social level. He is sufficiently self-aware to recognise this in himself – he says to his sister, “The universe is so much simpler to me than any person in it” – but he can’t seem to stop himself causing trouble and even pain for other people. He never means to hurt anyone, but his breathtaking insensitivity made me both laugh and cringe. Watching Spinoza clomp his way through delicate situations – a tricky business negotiation, family relationships, courtship and a proposal of marriage – blissfully oblivious to the trail of disaster in his wake, is both funny and poignant. Spinoza as created here is an engaging character, but cannot have been easy to live with!

The other characters are also vividly drawn. Rembrandt is the character we see most of, after Spinoza (who naturally dominates the novel). Rough, honest and warm-hearted, Rembrandt places his art above all other considerations and, like Spinoza, is impatient with those who don’t share his opinions. The secondary characters are a colourful collection of eccentrics. Seen entirely through Spinoza’s eyes, their human foibles are magnified – demanding relatives, arrogant physicians, pompous burghers, thuggish businessmen. Rembrandt’s kind mistress Hendrickje and competent son Titus are the most sensible and well-balanced people in the book; just as well for Rembrandt and Spinoza, for whom things would have been much harder without their support.

In their different ways, both Rembrandt and Spinoza reject the hypocrisy and religious intolerance of contemporary society (though, to be fair, both of them can exhibit a fair degree of intolerance themselves to people they disagree with). Spinoza pursues his philosophy even though it marks him as a heretic and threatens his brother’s business. Rembrandt refuses to paint flattering portraits of self-important burghers. Both men stick to their honesty and integrity even though this earns them powerful enemies, who can – and do – make their lives very difficult indeed. Yet both are also flawed characters who bring many of their difficulties on themselves, Rembrandt through his financial recklessness, Spinoza through his social ineptitude and capacity to alienate people.

As well as its characterisation and humour, Thorn also has a lot of convincing background detail about life in seventeenth-century Amsterdam, from the political situation of the Jews to details of domestic life to a memorable description of a public dissection. I’m not familiar with the period, so almost all of this was new to me; hence I can’t comment on the accuracy, but I can say that it felt authentic.

A helpful Author’s Note at the end outlines the underlying history and the fictional interpolations that make up the story, and provides a list of further reading for those who would like to explore the period in more detail.

Witty, intelligent black comedy exploring religious and social intolerance, centred on the (fictional) friendship between Rembrandt and Spinoza in Amsterdam at the height of the Dutch Golden Age.

08 January, 2012

Post-Roman York: the headquarters building

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 English (‘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; definite references to York between the fourth century and the seventh century number precisely zero, 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.

Minster excavations

Roman York was a legionary base from the date of its founding, and remained so throughout Roman rule in Britain. The legionary headquarters building (principia) was the most important building in a legionary fortress, always placed in the centre facing the main gate. It housed administrative offices, a great aisled cross-hall where the commander could address his assembled troops, a strong room for the legion’s pay chest and the soldiers’ savings, and the legionary shrine where the standards were kept. The principia at York was the centre of Roman military power in what is now north and north-east England.

The present York Minster is sited partly on top of the Roman principia (see my earlier post on the possible location of the seventh-century church in York for a sketch of the relative position of the two). When the Minster required urgent structural underpinning in the late 1960s to save the central tower from collapse, the engineering work provided a rare – possibly unique – opportunity for archaeological excavation on the site. One can only admire the archaeologists who carried out the excavation, which must have been the archaeological equivalent of keyhole surgery, conducted under difficult conditions in the middle of a major building project frantically trying to shore up a collapsing cathedral.

Clear, if sparse, evidence emerged of activity in the cross-hall in the late and/or post-Roman period. The Roman flagstone floor had been removed (at an unknown date), and replaced by multiple layers of trodden sand and charcoal. In some places these layers also contained fragments of ‘York ware’ pottery, which was in use in the eighth or ninth century (Rahtz; Carver 1994). In other places the layers contained large quantities of animal bone. Unusually, the animal bone contained a high proportion of pig (over one-third) and sheep (about one-third), instead of being dominated by cattle, and still more unusually, many of the bones were from juvenile animals less than a year old (Carver 1994). A sample of the bone was radiocarbon-dated to 343-416 AD (Rahtz). These layers were overlain by the collapsed roof of the cross-hall.


So, it seems that at some time after the removal of the Roman flagstone floor and before the collapse of its roof, the cross-hall of the principia had seen some activity that resulted in the accumulation of multiple layers of sand, a lot of juvenile animal bones and a few sherds of pottery. As so often, the dating of this activity is the subject of much debate. The earliest possible date of the roof collapse is constrained by the latest date of objects sealed beneath the collapse layer (provided the objects have not found their way under the collapse layer at a later date, see below). There are two groups of datable artefacts in the layers under the collapsed roof, the animal bone radiocarbon-dated to the late fourth-early fifth century, and the York ware pottery fragments dated to the eighth-ninth century.

  • If you take the deposition of the York ware pottery fragments as the last event before the roof collapsed, this suggests the cross-hall was standing until at least the late eighth or ninth century.

  • If you take the deposition of the radiocarbon-dated animal bone as the last event, this suggests the cross-hall was standing until at least the early fifth century.

In either case, the cross-hall could have been standing much later – it must have collapsed after the latest object underneath was deposited, but how long after is a different question.

The original excavator, Derek Phillips, interpreted the findings as showing accumulation of material, and therefore some sort of activity in the principia, up to the ninth century, whereas Martin Carver interpreted them as fifth-century activity (Rahtz). When two respected practitioners disagree by 400 years, it probably tells you that there is not a definitive answer. It seems to me to depend on whether you think the York ware fragments were lying on the floor underneath the roof when it collapsed, or whether you think they were intruded underneath the collapsed roof at some later date, perhaps when the remains of the Roman principia was being used as a giant stone quarry for Anglo-Scandinavian and medieval York. I prefer the idea that the the cross-hall stayed standing until around the ninth century, but you can take your choice.

Animal bone
What might the animal bone represent? There is a lot of it, so someone slaughtered a lot of juvenile sheep and pigs in the vicinity. If the bones accumulated over a period of years or decades, which is quite possible even if the same radiocarbon date range applies to them all as radiocarbon dating is approximate, this might help to explain the quantity. I don’t know if it is possible to estimate the number of animals represented by the bones, which could help to assess how long they would have taken to accumulate. If, for example, there are more year-old animals than could be produced by the surrounding agricultural area in a year, that might indicate that the bones accumulated over several years (or were brought in from a distance, although transporting large numbers of juvenile animals over long distances would require considerable transport resources). The exact relationship of the sand layers to the bone might also be able to distinguish between a single event or a succession of events.

The proportion of juvenile animals is unusually high, quite different from the findings from the Roman town, the later Anglian settlement at Fishergate or the Anglo-Scandinavian town (Carver 1994). So it seems to me unlikely that the animal bone represents the routine debris of a subsistence farming community. Subsistence farming needing to maximise the amount of food from each animal would be more likely to let animals grow to full size, and probably get some useful work out of them (cattle) or some wool clips (sheep) into the bargain before eating them. The high proportion of juvenile animals suggests to me the consumption of expensive luxury food. Sucking pig in particular was a favourite Roman delicacy, if the recipes for cooking sucking pig in Apicius’ late Roman cookbook are anything to go by. Taken with the radiocarbon date, this would be consistent with the animal bones representing high-status feasting in or shortly after the Roman period, by people who had Roman tastes in food and/or wished to proclaim some sort of Roman identity and status.

As the bones are still there on the floor of the cross-hall, evidently no-one swept up the debris in antiquity and threw it out on a rubbish heap. This sits rather uneasily with the feast being held in the cross-hall itself. It seems unlikely (though not impossible) that an expensive Roman-style luxury feast would be served and consumed amongst a pile of smelly discarded bones. Possibly the cross-hall was being used as a butchery and/or kitchen, with the feast being consumed somewhere else in the vicinity, either in a different part of the headquarters complex or in another nearby Roman building. The commander’s house, baths complex and granaries would all have been nearby, and it is possible that one of these had become the focus of activity (as happened at Birdoswald, where the granaries seem to have been successively adapted for use as living halls, see earlier article on Birdoswald), with the headquarters building relegated to more workaday uses. This would be consistent with the evidence of metalworking hearths found in a room behind the cross-hall (Ottaway 2004, p. 146), which may suggest that the building was being used as a sort of industrial unit. This may seem a bit of a come-down for such a grand building, but something similar happened at the baths basilica in Wroxeter, which was used as a builders’ yard and bakery for a while in the late fifth century before demolition (see earlier article on Wroxeter). Another possibility may be that the cross-hall had gone out of use so completely that it was being used as a rubbish tip, although if this was the case one might have expected a thicker layer of debris, more like the ‘dark earth’ deposits elsewhere in York that are thought to result from dumping of domestic rubbish.

If the cross-hall was being used as a kitchen or butchery, it may still raise the question of why the bone debris was not cleared away. Possibly the cross-hall was used only intermittently, and the debris from the previous feast had ceased to be noisome by the time the next one came round and could be ignored. Perhaps the layers of trodden sand associated with the bones were scattered over the bones specifically to form a new floor surface from time to time, perhaps each time the cross-hall was used. One might imagine a ruling group progressing round various strongholds and consuming the local resources at each in turn, like a medieval king. Or if all the bone was deposited in a single event (as mentioned above, I don’t know if the quantity or layer structure is consistent with this), perhaps the debris was simply abandoned afterwards. One might imagine a scenario of one of the various usurper Emperors of the late fourth and early fifth century throwing a grand feast of Imperial style and scale for his troops and followers before marching off to try grabbing the top job, leaving the clearing up to look after itself.

If the animal bone is all late fourth-early fifth century (I am not sure how much of the bone was sampled for radiocarbon dating), and the cross-hall stayed standing until after the York ware fragments were dropped on its floor in the late eighth to ninth century, this raises the question of what happened in between. (Needless to say, if the roof collapsed in the fifth century and the pottery is a later intrusion, this question does not arise).

If there was activity in the cross-hall in the sixth-seventh-eighth centuries, it left no trace that was detectable by the Minster excavations (unless some of the bone is later than the radiocarbon date range). This may indicate that the cross-hall was disused or used only infrequently or intermittently, even if it was still standing and more or less intact. The York ware fragments are consistent with activity in the eighth or ninth century (or later), although the cross-hall may have been abandoned previously and then re-used for some reason. The Life of Wilfred says that the seventh-century stone church in York (location unknown, although it may have been in or near the principia, as discussed earlier), built in the 630s, was so neglected by the time Wilfred took it over in about 670 that the roof leaked and birds were nesting in it (Tweddle 1999, p. 126). If the church in York fell into temporary disuse for a time perhaps the principia cross-hall did too, either because its function was no longer needed at all or because it had been replaced by a different building.

Alternatively, the lack of finds could merely indicate that later users were tidier than their early fifth-century predecessors and either did not drop much debris or cleared away on a regular basis. If the animal bone was covered with trodden sand, it would have ceased being unpleasant after a while and could have consolidated with the layers of sand to form a relatively innocuous surface. If the cross-hall was later brought back into use, perhaps as a statement or as a replacement for another building nearby that had gone out of use, this surface could have formed a floor that was regularly swept, or possibly covered by a later floor that has left no detectable trace. The Minster excavations were confined to the areas where structural work was being carried out and did not cover anything like the full floor area of the cross-hall, so it is possible that isolated or slight traces could have been missed. I need hardly say that this is speculative.


For what it is worth, my interpretation of the post-Roman fate of the principia at York is broadly as follows. First, in the late fourth and early fifth centuries, a period of use as a political centre for a ruler or series of rulers who were either the direct successors of Roman authority or liked to claim they were, who had sufficient power and resources to consume Roman luxury foods like sucking pig in or near the cross-hall. Whether the cross-hall was itself a site of feasting or whether it was used as a preparation area for feasts that were consumed nearby is open to question. I would tend to favour the latter. The presence of large quantities of young animals also implies the presence of an agricultural economy and associated population, in or at no great distance from the city. This phase would be represented by the animal bone and trodden sand layers. How long it lasted is uncertain; it might have been only a few years, or it might have been decades or more if the bone accumulated over time.

Following this phase, a period of tidier or infrequent use, perhaps punctuated by periods of disuse if the focus of activity shifted between different locations, until the cross-hall roof came down some time in or after the ninth century (either by itself, or as a result of the Norse invasions of the later ninth century, or by deliberate demolition to clear the site for the Anglo-Norman cathedral).*


Apicius, De re coquinaria, translation available online
Carver MOH. Environment and commodity in Anglo-Saxon England. In: Rackham J (ed). Environment and economy in Anglo-Saxon England. Council for British Archaeology Research Report 89, 1994. ISBN 1-872414-33-8.
Ottaway P. Roman York. Tempus, 2004. ISBN 0-7524-2916-7.
Rahtz P. Review of Phillips D, Heywood B. Excavations at York Minster I. Medieval Archaeology, available online
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


*In Paths of Exile, I have imagined the cross-hall of the principia in use as a royal hall during the later sixth and early seventh centuries, by the Brittonic kings of Eboracum until Peredur’s death in battle in 580 and then by the Anglian king Aelle of Deira. Then a period of disuse or occasional use during the rule of the Bernician king Aethelferth, who controlled Deira and Eboracum but whose heartlands were further north.