By the 2nd century BC, the lowland areas east of the Pennines – stretching from Lothian in south-east Scotland to the Wash, where Lincolnshire meets Norfolk – were densely settled by Iron Age farming communities. These are predominantly represented by small, rectangular enclosures containing roundhouses. On the coastal plain of North Tyneside and Northumberland, heavily enclosed sites have been found as little as 1km north of the line of Hadrian’s Wall. These were the nuclei of extensive and complex farming settlements: the upper range of an evident social hierarchy, with subordinate settlements represented by contemporary unenclosed or more lightly enclosed groups of roundhouses. Their occupation continued right up until the Roman frontier was fortified – indeed, the remains of active Iron Age cultivation have been found and excavated beneath the construction levels of the Wall and its forts.
Strikingly, all these sites located north of the Wall came to an abrupt end relatively early in the Roman period. This abandonment did not coincide with the first contact with the Roman military in the AD 70s, though. Rather, radiocarbon dates from excavated sites suggest occupation continued into the 2nd century, meaning that traditional life had survived for 50 years after the Roman conquest of the region.
Instead, it appears to have been the building of Hadrian’s Wall that heralded an end to Iron Age occupation in the area. Had these lands been deliberately cleared of settlement to make way for its construction? Or did the Wall become a hard border that disrupted traditional life so much that local populations to the north relocated elsewhere?
South of the Wall
We might shed some light on these questions by comparing the situation immediately to the south of the Roman frontier. Before northern England was conquered in AD 71, the Iron Age oppidum at Stanwick in North Yorkshire is thought to have been the likely seat of a client kingdom known to the Romans as the Brigantes (see CA 325). This site may have functioned as a diplomatic gateway for imperial influence into the area – but come the conquest, Stanwick as well as other nearby higher-status sites associated with the upper echelons of Brigantian society were abandoned. This was not the end of the story, however, as Archaeological Research Services Ltd’s recent excavations at Eden Drive, Sedgefield, in County Durham have demonstrated. There, working ahead of a planned housing development by Taylor Wimpey (North East), we uncovered the remains of a late Iron Age/early Roman settlement that had not only continued to be inhabited, but continued to develop in the period beyond the conquest.
Situated on a south-facing slope at Sedgefield’s south-eastern edge, the Eden Drive site’s earliest Iron Age activity was reflected in the discovery of an unenclosed roundhouse, as well as a series of ditches and possible droveways for moving animals to the west – simple structures possibly reflecting small-scale pastoral farming. This was then followed by a more elaborate enclosed settlement with a second roundhouse encompassed by a rectilinear ditch. Continuing on a pastoral theme, these remains were also bordered by a small number of possible droveways, while to the west we found a much larger rectilinear enclosure that could have been used for livestock control. Radiocarbon dating suggests that this activity dates from the late 1st century BC to early 1st century AD, indicating that the site had been continuously occupied from the late Iron Age into the early Roman period.
After the Roman conquest, this site was not abandoned – on the contrary, it continued to grow: during the 1st and 2nd centuries, the rectilinear enclosure was enlarged, and further boundary and enclosure ditches were added nearby. The settlement’s inhabitants had also clearly been enjoying the fruits of contact with Roman trade networks for some time: pottery finds for this phase include amphorae, Gallo-Belgic ceramics, Samian ware, and other imports, with a particularly notable piece being a fragment of a terra nigra platter. This latter object is likely to have been brought to Britain before the conquest, in common with most of the ceramic finds, which are either immediately pre-conquest or Flavian (c.AD 70-100) in date. There is also a small quantity of post-Flavian material, which takes evidence for occupation into at least the 120s.
This settlement, then, had not gone the way of high-status centres like Stanwick in the aftermath of the Roman conquest. Instead, the early Roman occupation seen at Eden Drive is clearly an organic development from the late Iron Age farmstead, and it is possible that the site had continued to be occupied by the resident farming community even as the political landscape was changing around them. Adding to our picture of a pastoral society, we recovered large quantities of animal bone during the excavations, with cattle being the dominant species, but perhaps the most telling find was the presence of a possible fragment of voussoir box tile. These tiles were used in the roofs of Roman bath houses, hinting at the presence of a high-status residence somewhere nearby. Perhaps the Eden Drive enclosure was only finally abandoned after the development of a villa, and a subsequent shift of focus, within the immediate landscape.
These finds fit into a wider sequence: the fertile Durham and Tees lowlands were settled by a series of enclosed sites centred on individual household units by the 1st century BC. Some of these were abandoned by the time of the Roman conquest, while others continued to be occupied, some as late as the 3rd and 4th centuries. In between, we find a number of sites (including Eden Drive) that were deserted as new Roman types of settlement without Iron Age antecedents emerged in the early 2nd century. Other examples include a settlement at East Park, also in Sedgefield, on the Roman route known as Cades Road (CA 239); the enclosure complex at Faverdale (CA 273); and villa estates as exemplified by Quarry Farm, Ingleby Barwick. Through sites like these, we can see widespread landscape reorganisation during the 2nd century.
In other words, the construction of Hadrian’s Wall marked a clear dividing line not only within the local geography, but between two different kinds of development to the east of the Pennines. Immediately to the north of the Wall, traditional Iron Age society came to an abrupt end – but in contrast, a nascent provincial society developed to the south, with dramatic changes to the nature of settlement in this region. What, then, happened to the peoples of the north following the initial destructive effect of the Wall?
The Wansbeck Valley
For a long time, traces of Roman-period activity in Northumberland have proved elusive. Indeed, until 2000, only one settlement producing post-2nd-century Roman pottery had been excavated in the entire area extending 50km north of the Wall – this was Huckhoe, which lies 16km from the frontier. Then, in 2000, Pre-Construct Archaeology’s excavations at Pegswood Moor (near Morpeth in the Wansbeck Valley, 22km north of the Wall) added another site to this tally. Their investigation revealed a complex of Iron Age enclosures and houses that had been completely abandoned, and subsequently superseded by a stock enclosure and a fenced droveway, after the late 1st or earlier 2nd century.
More recently, in 2015 we carried out an excavation just 1.5km to the west of Pegswood Moor, on the site of a housing development (by Linden Homes Ltd) at St George’s Hospital. There, on a strategic bluff overlooking the Wansbeck valley to the south, we found the remains of an Iron Age farmstead radiocarbon dated to the 4th-3rd centuries BC, with a single roundhouse enclosed by a rectilinear timber palisade. Both roundhouse and palisade were rebuilt on two ensuing occasions, but despite this continued investment in the site, these structures were subsequently abandoned. After something of a hiatus, like at Pegswood Moor these earlier remains were then replaced by a new farmstead in the Roman period. This was more extensive than its predecessor, boasting a shallow-ditched sub-rectilinear enclosure, three smaller interior enclosures, a droveway, a possible domestic structure, and feed stores or animal shelters. Four radiocarbon dates from these remains suggest that the farmstead was in use in the 2nd-4th centuries AD.
Notably, neither site produced Roman pottery or other significant traces of domestic activity, which might indicate that they were not settlements at all, but could have simply been collection points for livestock organised from a more established site such as Huckhoe. We did find evidence of much earlier prehistoric occupation, however; the site also yielded pits containing fragments of early Neolithic Carinated Bowl, late Neolithic Grooved ware, and Beaker pottery, indicating that the site had been a focus for episodic activity from the Mesolithic period onwards. Most significantly, hazel charcoal from the pit with the Grooved ware (Clacton style) fragments produced a radiocarbon date of 3365-3106 BC: one of the earliest dates so far available in England for this style of pottery.
The impact of the Wall
What, then, can we conclude about the impact of the frontier fortifications on local communities? While we see social collapse and abandonment of the distinctly dense form of late Iron Age settlement in North Tyneside and Northumberland following construction of the Wall, it is apparent that the landscape was not left wholly depopulated or disused for the rest of the 2nd-4th centuries. Sites like those above hint at farming activity eventually returning to the landscape, while extramural settlements grew up outside frontier forts during the 2nd century, and continued into the late 3rd century (CA 365). These were occupied by members of the wider military community: for example, soldiers’ families, veterans, craftspeople, and merchants. Evidently, the Roman authorities were also content to manage their oversight of the area immediately north of the Wall through relatively autonomous groups (for example, the residents of Huckhoe), and obtained economic products – especially cattle for meat and hides – from them by means of trade rather than taxation or requisition.
Recent discoveries on the east side of the Pennines indicate that, when the Wall was imposed, there followed a wholly different trajectory of social development on either side of the barrier, creating a stark division between north and south that endured until the collapse of the Roman Empire. The immigrant military community associated with the Wall would have consumed locally obtained perishables, and so the local indigenous population to the south were probably taxed or subject to the requisition of commodities, such as foodstuffs, collected in kind. Accordingly, a different pattern of settlement and society more akin to that which evolved elsewhere in eastern England developed south of the Wall as the heartland of the Brigantes was drawn more formally into the Roman world. By contrast, following the abandonment of pre-existing settlements in the north, contact and exchange appears to have continued with specific surviving groups where this was useful. We can see echoes of this in Northumberland, but it may have also reached further north still, to the lands of the Votadini group who inhabited the northern part of Northumberland and East Lothian.
– Philippa Hunter is Projects Manager, Rupert Lotherington was (until 2022) Contracts Manager, and Clive Waddington is Managing Director at Archaeological Research Services Ltd.
– Nick Hodgson was (until 2020) principal archaeologist at Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums.
– James Bruhn and Nick Hodgson (2022) ‘The Social and Economic Impact of Hadrian’s Wall on the Frontier Zone in Britain’, Britannia, 53, pp.125-157.
– Clive Waddington and David Passmore (2012) ‘On the Edge of Empire’ (in David Passmore and Clive Waddington, Archaeology and Environment in Northumberland: Till-Tweed studies, volume 2, pp.259-280). Free to download at: https://archaeologicalresearchservices.com/wp-content/uploads/2023/05/Archaeology_and_Environment_in_Northumberland_Twill-Tweed_Studies_Volume_2.pdf
– The report on the archaeological excavations at Eden Drive is in the 2022 Durham Archaeological Journal, 22, pp.75-108, and the report on the prehistoric and Roman settlement at St George’s Hospital is due to be published in Archaeologia Aeliana.
All images: Archaeological Research Services Ltd, unless otherwise stated