7.0 Discussion

by K. Hunter-Mann, with D. Petts

Introduction | Economy | The status of the Roman settlement | Summary


The 1991-4 excavations at Brough-on-Humber produced evidence that occupation commenced during the late Iron Age and continued for much of the Roman period. Field ditches, a droveway and a possible hut circle indicate that the area was settled and being farmed by the later 1st century AD. The Period 1.1 activity corresponds with the evidence of late Iron Age occupation identified in the excavation campaigns of Corder and Wacher. A curving ditch was found at Brough House, cut by the outer ditch of Wacher's Period IIb (Flavian) fort (Wacher 1969, 5). Corder found evidence of extensive settlement in the southern part of Bozzes Field, mainly huts with gravel floors, wattle and daub walls, and drainage ditches (Corder 1942, 5f.). The ditches were all backfilled with clean grey sand, as was the case with the Period 1.1 features; a similar deposit sealed the remains of the huts found by Corder. This suggests that the extensive late Iron Age settlement was obliterated, and the site prepared for Roman occupation by the deposition of a layer of clean sand. If this was a single operation, which included the construction of the Period IIb fort, the coin of AD 77-78 found in one of the 1994 features provides a terminus post-quem. However, if there was an earlier fort or camp of c.AD 70 (Wacher's Period IIa, it would appear that at least some of the Iron Age features were not backfilled at this stage. The Period 1.2 activity points to a revision in the field system during the later 1st century, but it cannot be precisely dated; nor can it be associated with any of the stages of Roman activity.

There appears to have been a significant change in the layout of the field system by the early 2nd century, to an east-west axis (Period 2.1). This may have been in response to the establishment of the civilian settlement (Wacher's Period V). It is suspected that a realignment of the field system took place later in the 2nd century, which respected the newly established road that exited from the east gate of the reorganised settlement (Wacher's Period VI).

The farming activity appears to have become increasingly intensive into the 3rd century (Period 4). Buildings were constructed, notably a probably aisled structure with a corn-drier or malting kiln. Nevertheless, there was still space for the occasional human burial. The field system was maintained throughout the 3rd century, but there was no evidence that it continued long into the 4th century.

The mid/later 2nd century date for the Roman road (Period 3.1) that ran from the east gate of the walled area suggests that this road was not associated with the military consolidation of the area, but with the development of the economic and administrative infrastructure. Consequently, it serves as a useful reminder that the construction of the Roman road network was a massive undertaking that should be seen as a continuous, evolving process rather than a short-lived operation.

Although roadside plots were laid out soon after the road was established (Period 3.1), there is no evidence that buildings were constructed within these plots. This may simply be due to the difficulty in identifying insubstantial buildings in such limited excavations. Certainly, the plots were subsequently maintained (Periods 4.1, 4.3, 4.7 and 5.1) and deposits were dumped within them (Periods 3.2, 4.2, 4.4 and 4.8). Substantial buildings were erected in the later 3rd century (Period 5.1). Even then, the evidence for aisled buildings, set apart from one another, does not give the impression of intense sub-urban activity. It is possible that the road became the focus for the farming activity to the east of the walled area that was previously more dispersed. These buildings may not have been occupied for long; in the early 4th century, thick dumps of domestic and industrial waste sealed the southern part of the roadside plots and extended up to the rear wall of the roadside building (Period 6.1). On the other hand, this suggests that waste was still being produced in quantities due to activity elsewhere at Brough, and that the disposal of this waste was being controlled.

The presence of locally manufactured pottery, including wasters, in the north-west part of the site suggests that pottery production was taking place in the vicinity, perhaps outside the east gate of the walled area, adjacent to the Roman road. This also points to a lack of intensive settlement in the south-east quadrant of the extra-mural area.

7.1 Economy

One of the chief problems in interpreting the archaeology of Welton Road and putting it in its wider context is the tension between the activity represented by the structural remains, which can be directly tied to the site, and the large amount of artefactual evidence that may be derived from off-site activity, elsewhere in Brough. However, a judicious examination of the evidence allows certain conclusions to be drawn.

It is also important to keep in mind that there are two distinct foci of activity at Welton Road: the agricultural activity, including the T-shaped kiln, Building C and the field-system, and the road-side strip-buildings (A and B). The two areas need not have been related in any way during the Roman period, and it is important to be cautious when generalising about the site as a whole.

The excavations at Welton Road produced evidence for a wide range of economic activities occurring on the site. The environmental assemblage showed that the cattle, pigs and caprovids were exploited on the site. The dominant species in terms of meat was cattle, with smaller quantities of mutton and pork. It is clear that the cattle were not being bred purely for meat, as the deliberate selection of adult cattle for slaughter and the presence of a range of arthropathies on the cattle bones suggest that they were multi-purpose beasts. There is some evidence for primary butchery at the site, but it seems that many of the larger joints were consumed and deposited elsewhere. The most likely location for such consumption would have been elsewhere within the settlement, but it is noticeable that the dumping of rubbish found in Period 6.1, and assumed to be derived from within the walled settlement, does not contain the remains of these large joints either. The assemblage of caprovid bones also indicates that they were being used for a range of products including wool, meat and milk. The kill pattern suggests that meat may have been more important than wool, and it is noteworthy that no textile equipment was recovered from the Welton Road site.

Work on Romano-British bone assemblages has drawn attention to variations in the assemblages found at different classes of settlement (King 1984). The main contrast is between military sites, which have a very high proportion of beef in the diet, and civilian settlements in which there is more emphasis on sheep. Generally the bone assemblages from canabae and vici tend to reflect the pattern found at forts and fortresses, rather than completely civilian settlements (ibid. 189). Although cattle bones dominate the assemblage from Welton Road, they do not reach the high level found on military sites.

Evidence from military sites suggests that meat would have been butchered locally and imported on the hoof rather than as cuts of meat, making it unlikely that the Welton Road site was supplying meat to military sites. One possibility is that Brough could have been supplying small amounts of meat to smaller military sites such as the east coast signal stations, for example Filey, where the meat appears to have been imported in joints of the type missing from the Brough assemblage (P.J. Ottaway, pers. comm.). However as the composition of the bone assemblage from Welton Road reflects that of a civilian rather than a military site, it seems that even if the settlement was supplying meat to the army, the occupation at the site itself was civilian. The environmental evidence also suggests that some of the meat from both cattle and caprovids may have undergone long-term curing, possibly implying that there may have been a trade in both fresh and processed meat.

Although there was only slight environmental evidence for plant remains, the presence of a corn-drier testifies to the importance of arable agriculture in the site's economy. Although such structures are typically labelled ‘corn-driers' their exact purpose is not clear. Research has suggested that they may have had a variety of functions, ranging from roasting malted grain for the manufacture of beer to the drying of grain to facilitate milling (Van Der Veen 1989). They have a broad lowland distribution and are found across the country from East Yorkshire to Somerset. Although some early examples are known they become increasingly common in the 3rd and 4th centuries (Morris 1979, 5-22). T-shaped corn-driers are a relatively well-known type, and have been found at nearby sites such as Hibaldstow where one was inserted through the floor of an aisled building (Building IV). Though such ovens are commonly found on rural sites in Roman Britain, often associated with aisled buildings, it is much less common to find them in the extra-mural areas of Roman towns. Other evidence for the processing of crops from the site is limited to the presence of several querns.

There are a few hints of craft and industrial activity on the site. The presence of two blacksmithing tools and a range of iron smithing slag may imply some on-site smithing, though it is noticeable that the bulk of the slag is found in secondary contexts and may be derived from off-site activity. This contrasts with the evidence from Wacher's excavations which found definite evidence for both iron and bronze working from sites within the walled area (Wacher 1969, 227-31). If derived from off-site activity the slag could have come from within the walled area, and may even be associated with the activity revealed by Wacher.

There are also two fragments of worked antler tine, which may reflect the working of bone and antler in the area, and one reason for the under representation of horncores on the site may be that they were being processed. The evidence for such working on site is only slight, however, and it seems that it was not carried out extensively.

It is apparent that the settlement at Welton Road fulfilled a number of economic functions. The environmental evidence suggests that it functioned as a producer rather than a consumer site, processing livestock and arable products for consumption or secondary processing elsewhere. The evidence for primary processing, such as the corn-drier and evidence for butchery, contrasts with the lack of evidence for secondary processing such as any textile equipment or the remains of major meat joints. Most of the economic produce of the settlement was clearly used elsewhere.

It is possible that the site acted as a processing centre for the settlement within the walled area, but there is no definite proof, and it is noticeable that the Period 6 dumps of rubbish, which may derive from inside the walled area, do not include remains of the major meat-bearing bones from cattle, which may suggest that the meat was being consumed away from Brough.

Although the building stone was obtained locally, the stone needed for special functions and activities was obtained from a number of sources, including the Continent. The distribution of sources for the stone objects is such that they would appear to have generally reached Brough by water. Brough lay close to the centre of the catchment area of the River Humber and its tributaries; the navigable routes in this catchment formed a huge inland waterway system covering most of the central eastern part of Britain. In addition, Brough also lay on the route by which goods were transported to and from the Continent and the south and east coasts of Britain by sea (Fig.1).

The most extensive evidence for the Welton Road settlement's economic foundation comes from the large pottery assemblage. Although no kilns have been found it is clear from the presence of wasters that as well as importing pottery there was also local production. Analysis of this pottery has shown its affinities with continental ceramic traditions from the southern part of the Upper Rhine, and it is suggested that the potters may have been of foreign extraction. This local pottery production was seemingly established in the Hadrianic to Antonine period, parallel to the growth of the vicus.

In the case of East Yorkshire, it has been suggested that the distribution of wares from the earlier Roman pottery industries in the civitas Parisiorum did not extend much beyond the tribal territory due to social constraints. Dales ware was largely confined to the civitas Corieltauvorum for the same reason. However, other evidence suggests that the social constraints have been over-estimated. For example, a ‘Petuarian' mosaic school appears to have constructed mosaics at sites in the territories of the Parisi, Brigantes and Corieltauvi. In addition, the positions of Brough and Malton, on the periphery of Parisian territory, suggests that they were involved in trade between civitates. It is more likely that the restricted trans-Humber trade was due to geographical factors. The transportation of goods via the York-Lincoln overland route would have required two changes in transport, from land to water and back again, a time-consuming and expensive process. Many products would not have been able to compete on this basis with goods that could be transported more cheaply.

Indeed, the growth of industrial activity at Brough, including metal-working (Wacher 1969, 227f.) and pottery production, may have been due to such economic considerations. Costs would have been minimised by allowing goods to be transported to their destination in a single operation: along the Humber-Trent catchment by barge; to the east coast and the Continent by ship; and by road to the north of the Humber. Only trade with the south side of the Humber would have required a change of transport, and even then only once.

7.2 The status of the Roman settlement

The character of the settlement at Brough-on-Humber has long been a subject of debate. Whilst its origins in an early Roman fort with an associated vicus is clear, the nature of its subsequent development is less certain. Broadly speaking the main issue is whether the town developed as a normal Roman civitas capital (e.g. Ramm 1978, 60), or whether its development followed a more unusual trajectory, strongly influenced by a continued military presence.

This second point-of-view has been strongly argued by John Wacher (Wacher 1995, 394-398), who has pointed out a series of characteristics which differentiate the occupation within the walled area of Brough from other civitas capitals and may instead imply a more military character for the site. These include the military nature of its defences, its lack of organised street system and the lack of early urban sophistication.

The importance of the Welton Road site is that it represents the first extensive excavation outside the walled enclosure. The important question is whether this site represents civilian settlement outside the walls of a military site, and was thus a true vicus, or whether the Welton Road occupation represents the type of extra-mural occupation that would be expected outside the walls of a Roman civitas capital.

The artefact assemblage is not conclusive. Although a few items of military equipment are present, such items are often found in civilian contexts, and they are not compelling evidence for the military nature of Brough.

The evidence for agricultural and industrial production at the site is more interesting. The presence of a thriving local pottery industry is important, and if Brough was a military supply base it may have been taking advantage of a military market. However from the 3rd century onwards there was a general increase in local pottery production in Britain (Millett 1990, 165-74). In late Roman East Yorkshire there were a number of other local pottery industries, the major production centres being at Knapton, Norton and Holme-on-Spalding Moor (Evans 1988, 324). The presence of Norton type fabrics at the fort at Malton as well as many civilian settlements in East Yorkshire suggests that such industries could supply both military and civilian demands, and that there is no a priori reason to associate the growth of such industries with military supply systems.

The evidence of the buildings is equally equivocal. The aisled buildings (Buildings A, C and possibly E) are of a well-known Roman type. They are common on rural sites (Morris 1979), but they are equally well known from other contexts, and there is nothing particularly distinctive about their use. The placement of structures end on to the road (Buildings A and B) is typical of the Romano-British strip buildings, often found in urban contexts.

It is of course difficult to generalise about the nature of a site the size of Brough-on-Humber on the basis of a small excavation, such as Welton Road. Most of the evidence is ambiguous. The production of pottery and the processing of meat and grain could fit into the context of a military supply base, but they would be equally at home in other contexts. If anything the bone assemblage and the corn-drier make the site seem more like a rural settlement than either an urban or a military site, and it is clear that Brough, no matter what its status, was capable of supplying its own agricultural needs, and possibly supplied those of others.

7.3 Summary

The archaeological evidence from Brough can be used to interpret the settlement in several ways. Its identification as Petuaria would point to it having been a civitas capital, as could the fact that it was defended from an early date. Its situation, on major routes to the north, south and perhaps the east, could also indicate some importance as an administrative centre. On the other hand, Brough complies with the criteria indicative of a small town (Millett 1990, 145); it was associated with a military site originally, was sited on the road network, and may have lacked public buildings. Its position on the road system suggests a significant economic function. Brough was walled, but this could have been due to its strategic position rather than to the status of the settlement. The evidence does not preclude a military role for the site.

With reference to the civitas Parisiorum and Brough, Ramm (1978, 40) said ‘clearly there is something unusual about both civitas and vicus'. Using the evidence currently available, Brough can be interpreted as a town, port or military base. It is possible that, as a civitas capital on the edge of the civitas, Brough declined as a public centre at the same time that it developed as a peripheral production centre. The possibility of such a contradiction in settlement function indicates how dangerous it might be to overlook the potential diversity of roles undertaken by settlements such as Brough.


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Last updated: Tue Nov 28 2000