In the footsteps of Legionaries

Graham Lee – Archaeological Officer

Roman Forts and Camps are to be found throughout England, Wales and Scotland as evidence of the Roman occupation of Britain from AD43 until the early years of the 5th Century. Sites of some of the major forts can be found within and underlying some of our main towns and cities, such as York, Chester and Lincoln in the north of England, showing the focus of their original Roman settlement. The forts and camps are generally connected by the lines of Roman roads, many of which have been followed as main routes for communication ever since. Roman camps lie along these roads, marking both the lines of military campaigns and the distance covered each day since a fortification would be built at the end of each day’s march. Although only defended, primarily, by banks and ditches, many of these marching camps have survived as earthworks, as well as being known from cropmarks, when plough-levelled, to indicate their former presence. The camps are recognised by their distinctive ‘playing-card’ shapes, a rectangle with rounded corners, with entrances in each side to allow rapid deployment of the Roman forces in any direction.

If you travel north from Pickering to the edge of the Tabular Hills, you will discover a remarkable series of surviving Roman earthworks first excavated early in the last century – now known as Cawthorn Camps  One of the most important groups of archaeological remains within the North York Moors, these banks, mounds and ditches represent a pair of Roman forts, both with several phases of occupation, defined by massive ramparts and large ditches, together with one unusual temporary camp which has a squashed and elongated form, lying between them, built over 1,900 years ago. The shape, and lesser earthworks (presumably supplemented by at least a line of sharpened stakes), of the temporary camp, known as C, indicates that it was subsidiary to the fort (D) to its west, leaving a clear space to the east where fort A (later enlarged with annexe B) was subsequently built.

View across Cawthorn Camps. Copyright NYMNPA.

As well as its unusual shape, camp C lies in a strange position for a military fortification. Its northern rampart does not lie along the northern scarp edge of the Tabular Hills, some 35m to its north, which would be the strongest defensive position, and it is also sited very close to fort D, to its immediate west. They lie so close together that when Fort D was re-fortified or re-occupied with the addition of a second outer ditch, the latter cut through camp C’s defences, showing that by then it was no longer in use. Although connected to the eastern entrance into fort D by a narrow entrance in its north west corner (just 20m apart), camp C is also distinguished by having all its main entrances within the line of its eastern defences which is very unusual.

LiDAR image of Cawthorn Camps overlaid with OS earthworks. LiDAR © Environment Agency 2019.

LiDAR © Environment Agency 2019.

The earthworks of these three entrances survive very well which help us to understand how they would have functioned. Known as of external clavicula-type (clavicula means “key” in Latin), it can be seen that an advance towards the entrance would force attackers to approach the gateway from its right (from the attackers’ point of view), exposing their less protected right-hand sides to the Roman defenders, since right-handed warriors would tend to hold their shield in their left hands.

Although the history of Roman Britain is quite well understood, there is still much about the Roman occupation of the North York Moors to be discovered. How long was this site occupied and by which units? Why were they there? Were the Romans involved in a series of military campaigns or was this more of a policing exercise? – local control by intimidation? Was the site re-used / re-occupied after the soldiers had left? A joint project by English Heritage (now Historic England) and the National Park Authority, involving two seasons of excavation in 1999 and 2000, has been seeking to clarify some of these issues.

View by drone of Cawthorn Camps (Camp D) taken by Graham Smith, NPA Volunteer - August 2018.

The camps are owned and managed by the National Park Authority. Because of the encroaching nature of trees, scrub and weeds, regular management is required to control vegetation and tree growth which would otherwise mask and cause harm to the sensitive earthworks. Much of this work is done by the Authority’s dedicated volunteers. Recently, the Conservation Volunteers have been pulling up and cutting back saplings, seedlings and brambles – this makes it easier to see and appreciate the archaeology in the landscape. The group will be revisiting the site in 2020 to continue this ongoing task – thank you for all your hard work!

Cawthorn Camps are open permanently and are partly wheelchair accessible. Visitors are encouraged to stay on the well-marked trail that runs around the site to try to avoid too much damage from excessive footfall to parts of the vulnerable and sensitive earthwork archaeological remains.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.