The 2003 discovery of a major Roman-period site at Faverdale, on the north-west fringe of Darlington, was completely unexpected. Lying about midway between Dere Street and Cade’s Road, the two major north–south Roman roads traversing the North East, the settlement proved to be a prosperous trading settlement. But it was not one built in the Roman manner. Instead the clusters of roundhouses, enclosures, and ditches were unmistakably indigenous in style. From at least AD 70, the settlement’s inhabitants were able to access Roman objects on a scale unimaginable to those living in the rural North even a generation before. The wealth of Roman artefacts was equally surprising for modern archaeologists.
Traditionally, the lengthy Roman military presence in northern England is not believed to have done much to improve the lot of the native population. As well as the casualties and disruption inflicted during the AD 70s conquest of the region, the later creation of a permanent frontier zone was seen as condemning local producers to economic stagnation. The lingering influence of the Roman military machine stunted the development of civilian structures in the area to the south of Hadrian’s Wall, in contrast to the prosperous towns and villas that emerged in southern England. Away from army bases the North remained a landscape occupied by scattered and poverty-stricken subsistence farmers, unable or unwilling to indulge in the luxuries of Classical living. The result appeared to be two superimposed worlds of occupier and occupied, each interacting with the other as little as possible.
That picture is gradually changing. The identification of a string of villas in the Tees valley, the settlement at Sedgefield astride Cade’s Road, and the evidence for widespread settled farmsteads (see CA 239) is forcing an acknowledgement that some locals were canny enough to cash in on the arrival of a market economy. Estimates place between 30,000-34,000 soldiers in the 2nd- and 3rd-century frontier zone. As well as successfully catering to the needs of a static military force, these North East entrepreneurs chose to use at least some of their new-found wealth to acquire the trappings of their occupiers’ lifestyle. But they did so selectively. Now, the publication of the Faverdale excavations has provided a unique glimpse of how the opportunities brought by the development of a stable frontier moulded a distinctive way of life; one that could be considered truly ‘Romano-British’.
Trade follows the standards
The first hint of a major settlement at Faverdale came from a GeoQuest Associates geophysical survey undertaken in 2003 on behalf of Pre-Construct Archaeology (PCA). Carried out during planning for a new out-of-town business park, the geophysics picked up a network of ditches and a monumental enclosure in the western part of the new development area, close to the site of the supposed deserted Medieval village of Whessoe. The following year, with Argos proposing to build a major distribution centre at the site, PCA returned to trial trench the area identified by the geophysics. This work was followed up with extensive area excavation in the summer of 2004. To everyone’s surprise, the complex rural site this revealed, covering at least 6.5ha, proved Roman, rather than Medieval.
Faverdale lies around 10km north-east of the massive Iron Age settlement at Stanwick. Its 8km-long rampart circuit, still standing up to 5m high in places, enclosed almost 300ha. It is widely believed to be the power-centre of the populous and powerful Brigantes tribe; Roman sources record this group was ruled by Queen Cartimandua until her former husband seized power and revolted against Rome in AD 69. Wheeler’s 1950s excavations at Stanwick led him to view it as a stronghold from which resistance to the AD 70s Roman advance could be conducted. More recent work by Colin Haselgrove has revealed that the site was instead abandoned around AD 70. A programme of radiocarbon dating has pushed Stanwick’s origins back to the 1st century BC, and established that this cosmopolitan site was enjoying high-status Roman goods before the AD 43 invasion, something more commonly associated with southern sites.
The Roman objects Stanwick acquired did not circulate widely in its hinterland. The meagre quantities of fine Roman pottery at broadly contemporary sites to the south, such as Rock Castle and Scotch Corner, have raised suspicions that access to this imported material was deliberately restricted. Were these exotic commodities seen as a mark of status and controlled accordingly? If so, the abandonment of Stanwick when Roman forces overran Brigantian territory may well have been a crucial moment for the development of Faverdale. As well as fundamentally changing the supply of imported goods, it is also possible that the site was founded by people displaced from Stanwick. Exactly when Faverdale was first established remains unclear, but the earliest datable material is samian pottery. While an origin in the late pre-Roman Iron Age cannot be excluded, the samian dates to the AD 70s, dovetailing perfectly with the period when Stanwick was abandoned. Such a precociously early appearance of this pottery on a rural site could easily imply knowledge of the trade contacts that had previously supplied Stanwick.
It is not only the presence of samian that makes 1st century Faverdale exceptional; its size is also conspicuous. Despite severe plough damage, the PCA team detected traces of nine roundhouses. Concentrated in four clusters, these may be the homes of a community comprising several family groups. Elsewhere in the Tees valley, farmsteads consisting of a single roundhouse group are more common. The Faverdale farmers were growing spelt wheat and rearing cattle, sheep, and pigs. But despite being able to procure samian pottery, the inhabitants were still heavily dependent on more rudimentary Iron Age ceramics known as ‘Local Handmade Ware’. Widely used in the region, such pots were rarely traded over any distance. Although no kilns were found at Faverdale, the degree of plough damage could easily have obliterated any trace of a simple bonfire kiln, making it entirely possible that this traditional pottery was being manufactured on site.
Faverdale’s fortunes were transformed in the early 2nd century. The establishment of Hadrian’s Wall 40km to the north coincided with a new era of prosperity for the settlement. It is impossible to be certain whether these two events were linked, but once the frontier was formalised it would be natural for army units to take a keen interest in what goods could be sourced nearby. Although there is no evidence for a direct military presence at the site, the influence of the army and its purchasing power is abundantly clear in the archaeology.
The most obvious early 2nd century change at Faverdale is that the previously open settlement became enclosed. Ditched compounds of varying size were cut, with the largest lying at the northern end of a complex of linked enclosures. Dubbed ‘enclosure 7’ by the PCA team, its ditches measured approximately 60m by 70m, encompassing an area of about 0.5ha. A single causeway led to a stout timber gateway with postholes around 1.6m wide. Dwarfing the other compounds, the scale of enclosure 7 hints at a degree of social hierarchy not previously visible at the site. Although much of its internal arrangement was lost to the plough, pottery, building materials, and domestic rubbish recovered from the perimeter ditches show that the enclosure probably contained several domestic buildings. Tentatively interpreted as the residence of a headman or other important person, this neatly fits with the nature of the best preserved building in the enclosure: a miniature Roman bathhouse.
Far too small to indulge the full Classical bathing experience, the modest bathhouse consisted of only two hypocaust rooms measuring, in total, 4.7m by 2.35m. The absence of any kind of plunge pool, coupled with the presence of food waste – including oyster, mussel, and cockleshells – discarded in raked-out hypocaust ash, could be taken as a sign that the building was employed as a winter dining room to ward off the harsh winter chill. Yet the widespread use of opus signinum flooring, a signature Roman waterproofing agent made of crushed brick and concrete, strongly implies that the facility was designed to get wet. Perhaps the most likely explanation was that the complex served as a sauna, with buckets of water emptied on the heated floor creating a hot, steamy atmosphere.
For all its modest scale, the implications of this bathhouse are substantial. This is mainstream Roman engineering, requiring both specialist knowledge and specialist materials. As well as opus signinum, the bathhouse incorporated tufa blocks to create a lightweight vaulted roof, box flue tiles to allow the hot air to circulate through the walls, lead, and window glass. It was decorated with wall plaster painted gaudy shades of red, white, green, yellow, orange, black, and pink.
Once finished, the building would have ongoing maintenance needs.
How all this was paid for is unclear – there is little evidence for a monetary economy at Faverdale. Only four Roman coins were found, with two dating to the 3rd and 4th centuries AD. Yet the bathhouse was clearly not some unwanted diplomatic gift. It was well used and rebuilt on at least one occasion. Equally, there were limits to what the owners could afford – the pigments for the painted plaster were all locally occurring, rather than more exotic imports such as lapis lazuli or malachite. The evidence for snacking on shellfish within the building would be highly unusual in a mainstream Roman bath, but finds a parallel in the fine dining occurring in the Holme House villa bathhouse, just a few miles to the south-west. The impression is of a building tailored to both the means and tastes of its owners.
Picking and choosing
The Faverdale bathhouse is far from being the only sign that the settlement’s inhabitants were selectively adopting and adapting Roman ways of living, though it is worth noting that most of the relevant artefacts came from the enclosure 7 ditch. Study of the samian ware revealed a conspicuously large number of cups, while the pottery in general indicates a keen interest in the storing and serving of drink. This extends to one of the finest finds from the site: a fragment of a copper alloy wine jug. Decorated with a stylised female face, this exceptional artefact was probably made in Italy. Given the obsession with drinking, the small quantity of amphora fragments used to import wine is striking. While it has been mooted that wine supply to Hadrian’s Wall was, in general, more often transported in less archaeologically visible wooden barrels, it is possible that the inhabitants of Faverdale retained a taste for native tipples. If so, those samian cups would have been charged with mead and beer rather than Gallic wine.
Two pot sherds had graffiti scored on them after they were fired. One, inscribed ‘IANVA/RI’ gives the Latin name ‘Januarius’. While there are numerous ways in which such a pot could have arrived at Faverdale, it offers the tantalising prospect of a degree of literacy at the site, and the possibility that one inhabitant was either born with, or took, a Latin name.
The availability of Roman pottery did not eclipse Local Handmade Ware. An enduring demand for such pottery throughout the region has been seen as part of a conscious decision to reinforce a sense of native identity. Yet the potters manufacturing these products were not above being influenced by the invaders’ ceramics, and the assemblage from Faverdale displays a remarkable readiness to copy Roman prototypes. Most astonishing is a handmade mortarium in Local Handmade Ware, the first of its kind to be found in Britain. Mortaria were introduced to Britain during the conquest, and are intimately linked to new, Mediterranean forms of cuisine. Caution has been expressed about the extent to which the presence of these pots proves a taste for such food, as opposed to providing a convenient receptacle to cook in. Residue analysis on the Faverdale mortaria by Lucy Cramp, however, shows that here at least they were routinely used to pulp leafy material in the Mediterranean style.
Animal bones also exhibit Roman influence. Instead of being butchered with a knife, the Faverdale livestock were cut up using a cleaver. This method is more commonly found at high-status ‘Roman’ sites such as towns and villas. There are also signs of improved animal husbandry techniques at Faverdale, with cattle, sheep, and pig bones all conforming with the larger, Roman breeds rather than smaller Iron Age stock.
Alongside this wholehearted adoption of Roman stock-rearing methods comes the continuation of a decidedly Iron Age ritual associated with grain-processing. The deliberate destruction or ‘killing’ of quern stones used for grinding corn into flour is a celebrated feature of Iron Age Wessex, but is also becoming increasingly recognised at sites in the North East. Fifteen quern stones were found, with a particular concentration around two small compounds to the south of enclosure 7. Whether these offerings were made as part of the agricultural calendar, or had a wider significance symbolising a dowry or other cultural exchange is unknown. What is certain is that this treatment of quern stones reflects enduring native belief systems.
Farewell to all that
In the absence of widespread evidence for coinage, it seems likely Faverdale secured the Roman artefacts its inhabitants desired by supplying the army with a range of agricultural products. The static military units would have created an insatiable demand for food, leather, and beasts of burden. On the strength of Faverdale, and hints in sources such as the Vindolanda tablets, such commodities were not simply requisitioned or taxed from local producers. The army was prepared to pay, meaning there were fortunes to be made. It was not to last.
Comparison of the samian pottery with other sites in the region indicates that supply was tailing off towards the end of the 2nd century. By the close of that century, or the beginning of the next, Faverdale had changed dramatically once more. The enclosure 7 ditches were deliberately backfilled, the bathhouse was demolished, and the great timber posts of the compound gateway appear to have been ripped out. Timber buildings in the northern part of the enclosure may have been destroyed by fire. Following this, the site was abandoned and not revisited until the late 4th century. There are many possible explanations for this, but perhaps not everyone took kindly to the site’s cosy relationship with the Roman army.
Source: Jennifer Proctor BA MA MIFA, Faverdale, Darlington: Excavations at a major settlement in the northern frontier zone of Roman Britain, Pre-Construct Archaeology Monograph No. 15 (ISBN 978-0956305466) The monograph is available to purchase from www.pre-construct.com, www.durham.gov.uk or www.oxbowbooks.com Acknowledgements: The Faverdale fieldwork was funded by Darlington Borough Council (DBC) and Argos, while post-excavation work was funded by DBC and Durham County Council.
All images: Pre-Construct Archaeology, unless otherwise stated. TEXT: M Symonds.