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Roman Chesterfield Revealed!

Posted Thursday, June 7, 2007

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Roman Chesterfield Revealed! (Reflections Magazine 2002)

A surprisingly large audience of around five hundred avid listeners gathered recently at a public meeting at the Winding Wheel in Chesterfield to hear Professor John Walker, the Director of the Department of Archaeology at Manchester University deliver the results of his findings following the latest archaeoligical ‘dig’ in the town. But the bearded and bespectacled Professor, who described himself as ‘simply a sad fat man who digs holes in the ground’ revealed far more information about ‘Roman Chesterfield’ than did the actual ground that he and his team had recently excavated!

After explaining that archaeology was “not exactly rocket science” Mr Walker went on to say that as an academic subject it was ‘imprecise’ and that his job was to “read the signs and interpret the ground - thus, by its very nature archaeology is speculative, open to interpretation, and this is why everything we claim for Roman Chesterfield must be prefixed by the word possible”.

For example, on the outline map showing the extent of Roman Chesterfield the site is marked of the ‘possible extent of the fort ditch’; by the same token, and despite the widely accepted fact that the Roman road of Ryknield Street passed close to the eastern boundary of the ‘possible’ fort – following the course of Lordsmill Street and St.Mary’s Gate from Derby Road and up past the Crooked Spire - there has never been any ‘hard evidence’ on the ground to actually confirm that a Roman road passed through the site of the later town at all! Hard factual evidence of this road, (Ryknield Street) - which ran from Derventio (Derby) to the Roman fort at Templeborough (Rotherham) - has been found as far north as Wingerworth and as far south as the Yorkshire border beyond Barlborough. In between these two points the ‘possible’ course of Ryknield Street runs directly through Chesterfield!

Roy Cooper, in his excellent ‘Book of Chesterfield’ (1977) opens his first chapter with, “Early man came close, but the Romans created Chesterfield. Before their time, the site was simply a spur of high ground to the west of the marshy valley of the Rother”. This may have to be reviewed in the light of the ‘Revised Chesterfield Chronology’ revealed by the Manchester University team whose recent discoveries suggest the pre-existence of an Iron Age ditched hilltop enclosure on the site of the later Roman fort.

Prior to the Romans arrival here in 60 – 69AD the area around Chesterfield was controlled by the Brigantes who were led by the Celtic warrior Queen Cartimandua. This was border country and Chesterfield marked the invisible dividing line between north and south and was strategically valuable because of its position in the centre of the country, almost equidistant from both east and west coasts. Frequent tribal battles took place in this area, and it is possible that the hilltop site of the later Roman fort was originally a defensive stronghold for the southernmost outpost of the Brigantes.

When the Romans arrived in the Trent Valley there was a population explosion and many new farms were established to grow grain and other crops in order to supply the vast legions who were pushing north. All who resisted were mercilessly put to the sword and their villages destroyed. The conquered Celts and Britons were enslaved, used as forced labour in the massive road building programme and sent in as front line troops wherever the Imperial Roman Army met with native resistance. Mr.Walker confirmed that the Imperial Roman Army consisted of 50% ‘regular soldiers’ and a 50% auxiliary force of conquered and integrated natives.

Queen Cartimandua collaborated with the invading army and signed a treaty with Rome very early in the campaign, but by the time Julius Agricola’s force arrived at Chesterfield around the year 70 AD she had betrayed her husband Venutius, who in turn caused an uprising which led to the Romans finally defeating the Brigantes and annexing their land. The fort at Castra-feld was built and occupied by a Cohort of 480 Roman soldiers between 69 AD and 117 AD. Only commanding officers were allowed to marry and have their wives and families with them on such a campaign, although the legionnaires - all over the minimum height of 5’-8”, aged between 20 and 25 and of ‘honourable family status’ - were allowed to have their girlfriends along, so the fort at Chesterfield would have contained possibly 1000 people. It also had two Vicus (civilian settlements) outside the confines of the fort to the south and east. No civilians were allowed inside.

There was a less intensive occupation as the Roman army moved north and Castra-feld became more or less a supply depot, a staging post for food and supplies being transported north to feed the troops from the fertile Trent Valley. After the completion of Hadrian’s Wall and the later Antonine Wall, the Roman province of Britain was finally settled and after about 175 AD the fort at Castra-feld saw only sporadic civil activity and was eventually abandoned.

The most recent excavations at Vicar Lane prior to the construction of the new shopping complex were outside the fort, and the post-holes of two or three buildings confirmed this as the site of the south Vicus.

According to the sketch produced by the university archeologists, the centre of the original fort was about 50 yards to the west of the Crooked Spire in the area currently occupied by Woolworths. From this point the fort complex extended outwards for about 75 yards in all directions. An annex was added to the south between 140-150 AD, by which time the eastern Vicus just to the north of Spa Lane was out of use.

The major find from the latest excavations around the Vicar Lane/Vicarage Gardens area was a large, almost intact Roman jar which is said to be ‘Trent Valley Ware’ from the late first century AD. This is currently on display in the Chesterfield Museum along with other archeological artefacts from the Roman period, including the wonderfully preserved and well presented selection of Roman coins from the Morton hoard found in the 1980’s, and the large hoard found at Grassmoor in 1998.

John Walker’s team also found ‘tantalising suggestions of an Anglo-Saxon presence but little hard evidence’. What they did find in the area that was once the vicarage gardens was evidence of a 13th century Post-Mill used for grinding corn, and the remains of a 13th century builders yard! Could this have stored material for the later foundations of the Crooked Spire?

One mystery remains, as John Walker explained: “The name Castra-feld which the Romans gave to this place, meant literally ‘standing walls in a field’. This suggests that when the Romans first arrived here they found pre-existing standing stone-built walls. Subsequent archeology has failed to find any trace of them, so what did the Romans see, either in or near this place, that caused them to name it thus”?

Perhaps there is another mystery lying beneath the surface of pre-Roman Chesterfield just waiting to be unearthed?

Revised Chesterfield Chronology: short summary by John Walker

This short note summarises revised views about the development of the Roman site derived from recent discoveries. (see map).

Local Date Activity

Brigantia as client Kingdom (defence by treaty).

Iron Age Ditched hilltop enclosure?

AD 60 – 69 Some Roman activity

The move north through Brigantia into Scotland (defence in depth)

AD 69 – C 117 Fort with Vicus to east and south.

Creation of Ryknield Street?

At the time of Hadrian’s Wall (defence by barrier)

AD 117 – 140 Shrinkage of fort (to fortlet?)

Contraction of south vicus

Redevelopment of eastern vicus.

At the time of the Antonine Wall (revised barrier)

C AD 140/150 Mansio?

Industrial working in south vicus

Eastern vicus out of use

Annex to south

Back to Hadrian’s Wall (the development of a settled province)

C AD 175 – C 300 Sporadic civil activity?

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