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.

Tending our heritage

Jo Collins – Monuments for the Future Volunteers and Community Officer

Our Monuments for the Future project is focused on protecting and conserving the hundreds of Scheduled Monuments in the North York Moors. We work with volunteers, community groups, organisations and landowners, whose support and collaboration is, as usual, invaluable.

An amazing 169 Scheduled Monuments in the National Park were visited by volunteers and community groups in 2019. This means we can have an accurate record of the condition of the protected archaeology in the National Park and it’s the first step in organising works to conserve and repair monuments where this is needed.

We’re very grateful for the help of several local community groups who have stepped forward to look after their nearby monuments. Appleton le Moors History Group and Thornton le Dale Hub are now looking after the medieval wayside crosses in their villages, the Great Ayton History Society are tackling bracken in the field (see below), whilst several walking groups have volunteered to keep an eye on particular monuments close to Rights of Way. If you are part of a community group and might be interested in helping please do get in touch, we would love to hear from you.

Some of the Conservation Volunteers Group after a satisfying day of clearing scrub from a bronze age round barrow (Scheduled Monument). Copyright NYMNPA.

Practical work tasks are sometimes needed to clear damaging vegetation or repair monuments – always with relevant permissions. Recently the Conservation Volunteer Group have helped clear scrub and bash bracken at Fall Rigg prehistoric dyke, Cawthorn Roman camps, and Roulston Scar Iron Age fort to name a few.

One of our Conservation Volunteers (Ann) clearing scrub at Cawthorn Camps (Scheduled Monument). Copyright NYMNPA.

Other times we’ve needed just a few volunteers to help with tasks; for example at Cloughton Dyke where a bike jump had been constructed in the prehistoric earthwork. Two of our expert volunteers led the task to very neatly repair the damage. These kinds of practical tasks not only preserve our archaeology but often make monuments easier for people to see and appreciate in the landscape. This can make for a very satisfying end to practical task days!

Volunteers repairing prehistoric dyke (Scheduled Monument) in Cloughton Woods. Copyright NYMNPA.

Scheduled Monuments are at risk from many things, not least the growth of bracken, gorse and young trees as well as natural and human erosion. Volunteer and community help has helped ‘rescue’ three monuments in 2019, they have been taken off Historic England’s Heritage At Risk Register.

The 18th century Ayton Banks Alum Works near Great Ayton (List Entry 1020347) has been taken off the Heritage at Risk Register. At this site during the 1760s and 1770s alum was extracted from shale rock in a process involving burning, leaching, boiling, and crystallising. Alum was used to treat leather, fix dyes in fabric, and also had medicinal value including as a treatment for nits. Today the earthwork remains of the clamps, reservoirs and stone lined cisterns are best viewed safely from the path above. However the vigorous bracken growth in the summer completely obscures the historic features and is very likely disturbing the below ground archaeology too. Great Ayton History Society are working with National Park volunteers to tackle the bracken; the Young Ranger Group and Conservation Volunteer Group did sterling work this summer and have offered to do so again in 2020, thank you all!

Bracken at Ayton Banks Alum Works (Scheduled Monument). Copyright NYMNPA.

NYMNPA Young Rangers help bash the early bracken shoots in May - Ayton Banks Alum Works (Scheduled Monument). Copyright NYMNPA.A round barrow at Codhill Heights on Gisborough Moor has been ‘rescued’ and is now off the Heritage at Risk Register (List Entry 1016574). A modern walkers’ cairn located on top of the Bronze Age burial mound was encouraging visitors to inadvertently damage the archaeology. Two intrepid volunteers visited the hill top burial mound twice a year for several years to check on the damage. The walkers’ cairn was removed by a team of volunteers and apprentices on a wintry day two years ago, and in 2018 and 2019 volunteers scattered moorland grass seed on the bare ground exposed by removing the stones – the resulting grass will help protect against natural erosion. A previous blog has more information about the interesting work and new find at this site.

Cock Howe is a bronze age round barrow on the western edge of Bilsdale (List Entry 1015761). Footpath erosion was damaging the monument and this has now been repaired by contractors; volunteer surveyors monitored the progression of the erosion before the work took place, and a recent volunteer visit has shown the monument to be in good shape. This work means that the burial mound is no longer deemed to be ‘At Risk’.

Scheduled Monument - Cock Howe round barrow. Photo Credit Anthony Fleming.

Its not all good news, in 2019 another eight North York Moors monuments were added to the Heritage At Risk Register. One of these is Cockan Cross (List Entry 1011747) on Farndale Moor. During a condition survey our volunteer surveyor found that the shaft of the cross has now split into two pieces. We think this was caused by natural erosion and hope to make a high quality record of the cross shaft using photogrammetry (3D scanning) to help with its future conservation.

We’re not downhearted. Watch this space for an update on progress with more of these At Risk monuments in months to come.

All the volunteers for the Monuments for the Future project do a huge amount of work – I haven’t been able to mention it all here. Your help is very much appreciated and we’d like to say a huge THANK YOU to the volunteers and community groups who are helping safeguard the protected heritage of the North York Moors.

D Haida surveying Miley Howe (Scheduled Monument). Photo Credit T Fleming.