This map shows something intriguing about East Yorkshire’s earliest Roman settlement

Artefacts from our excavation site near Driffield suggest it may have been occupied by some of the first Romans to cross the Humber. Now, this map suggests that it’s perfectly placed to be a Roman mansio…

It’s been an incredible year for archaeology at DigVentures. With help from people all over the world, we’ve made all sorts of amazing discoveries spanning thousands of years, from Anglo-Saxon Lindisfarne, to prehistoric Cornwall. But the real icing on the cake came when we unearthed a Roman settlement in the East Riding of Yorkshire.

Encountering Roman sites is nothing new, but the artefacts we found are already telling us that it’s one of the earliest ever to be discovered in the region. But what were these early Romans doing out near Driffield? Now that we’ve had time to look at the bigger picture, using maps to help investigate their story, things are getting even more interesting…

How early is early?

Pottery from the excavation near Driffield.

For two years we’ve been investigating the landscape around Driffield in an attempt to flesh out the detail behind its past. In 2017, we found part of a deserted medieval village, and this year we entered the Roman period.

There’s plenty we could tell you about all the cool stuff we found, but that’s not for now (you’ll just have to wait for the official site report, or read a little bit more in the articles published in The Telegraph, The Guardian, and in our Site Diary).

What’s important to know is that as a whole, the pottery assemblage is both pretty rare for East Yorkshire, and pretty early. Most of it appears to have been made in York around the end of the 1st century AD, and the beginning of the 2nd century AD, with some nice imports from France and the Mediterranean.

Coins of Titus (AD 79-81) and Vespasian (AD 69-70)

This matches up perfectly with some of the coins from the site, many of which date to the rule of Vespasian (AD 69-79) and some from Titus (AD 79-81).

Such early dates are pretty surprising, especially for East Yorkshire, because the Romans didn’t establish a base at York (Eboracum) until AD 71. Our site near Driffield appears to date to the same period, which means we could well be looking at a site that was occupied by some of the very first Romans north of the Humber. So when we say early, we mean really early!

But that still leaves us with two big questions: what exactly were the Romans doing all the way out near Driffield at this time? And how could we possibly find out?

Working hypothesis: it’s a mansio

One theory proposed by our pottery specialist is that we may have stumbled across the site of a mansio, or posting station.

Mansios were effectively stopping places that were maintained by the government for use by officials, and found at regular intervals along roads. Immediately this got our GIS (Geographic Information System) senses tingling, so we took to the computer to find out as much as possible about early Roman settlement in the surrounding landscape.

Testing the theory

Assembling a clear basemap of your study area is a great place to start before delving deeper into the question. In this case, we wanted to do a little exploration to test the theory that Driffield might once have been the site of a posting station by looking at whether it was any useful distance from other key sites in the area. For that, we’d need some data about locations of nearby forts, and routes, and fortunately there’s actually quite a lot of information already online: The Rural Settlement of Roman Britain, Roman Britain and The Secret History of the Roman Roads of Britain.

After stripping all this data back to the essentials, we ended up with a map that looks like this:

Map illustrating all known pre-Hadrianic forts in the region (pre AD 117), and all known Roman roads. These roads won’t necessarily all have been built by the 1st century AD, but they do add a bit of perspective to Roman influence in the landscape at the time. 📷 Chris Casswell

The speed of an ox-drawn cart

The next step would be to figure out whether our site was any convenient distance from its nearest sites. To figure this out, we consulted Wikipedia, which led us on to William Smith’s Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities. It seems that the general consensus is that 30km would have been around the maximum distance an ox-drawn cart could travel in a day.

Each station would have probably been placed around 25-30km apart, to account for variations in local topography and road conditions. Plug this information into a map, and this is what you get:

Map showing 25-30km buffer intersections from Driffield’s five closest Roman forts. When we look at the areas of overlap, we end up with quite a neat and informative graphic showing where we might expect to find a posting station in pre-Hadrianic Roman East Yorkshire… Shout when you see it!

Result: Driffield is a prime location for a posting station!

The result is a map showing a clear hotspot around Driffield, making it a prime location for a posting station. In short, it’s a great piece of evidence that supports our theory!
Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean we can start claiming to have discovered an early Roman mansio… yet.

Before we can say really start testing the theory and exploring the site’s purpose in depth, we still have loads to do. We need to establish our site chronology, get our finds analysed by experts, do some more research into comparable sites.

And, of course, we still need to return to Driffield to continue the excavation in August 2019, and find out what other evidence we can recover. But for now, it’s an interesting discovery that leaves us wanting to know more!

If you want to support the dig by joining us on site, or online, just click here.

If this update gets your GIS senses tingling, you can read the extended version here.

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Chris Casswell

Written by Chris Casswell

Chris is DigVentures' Head of Fieldwork, and has a bit of a 'thing' for mapping. He loves using digital survey techniques, Geographic Information Systems (GIS) and Photogrammetry to create new and immersive data visualisations. He never really stops working, but when he does, he likes cricket and gardening.

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