Friday, 27 January 2012

North Arden Local History Society - January 2012 Report

Wall in the 2nd Century (after 130AD)


At the January Meeting of the North Arden Local History Society members were most excellently entertained by Society member Joanne Wenlock who is also a member of the ‘Friends of Letocetum’ and does a lot of voluntary work on the site and its associated museum. Roman Wall was, as Joanne said was a ‘Premier Inn’ of the Roman period (a posting stop-over or Mansio) on the Imperial Road we know as Watling Street (the former A5).

After a brief introduction in which the content of the talk was explained Jo told us that the name should be pronounced as “Layto-Katum” [the ‘c’ being a ‘hard-c’ as opposed to a ‘soft-c’] this is derived from a Celtic/British place name “leito kato” meaning a grey wood – possibly from the local vegetation which is known to have been birch trees. Both historically and archaeologically there is little, if any, evidence for a pre-Roman (Celtic) presence before the Roman military period in the late AD40’s although an Iron Age Round House/Farmstead is known to the east of the Roman settlement, but this could have developed after the Roman presence and the military road.

To put the site into context it was necessary to have a short history lesson. The Claudian invasion of 43AD landed in Kent with its first objective being the capture of the tribal capital of the Trinovantes/Catuvellaunii at Colchester After this three of the four legions involved fanned out across the country - across the south west towards Exeter, north towards Lincoln and north-west towards Wales. As the legions advanced they cut roads to provide rapid communication with the base (then still at Colchester). The XIVth Gemina Valeria Victrix headed North West building what later became Watling Street during its advance. This advance ceased in 47AD when a change of Governors was due and Ostorius Scapula replaced Aulus Plautius: before he left Plautius had the Fosseway created to police a frontier zone that ran from Lincoln to Exeter leaving Letocetum outside Roman control. Under Scapula (48 to 52 AD) the advance into Wales was crucial and camps were created at Mancetter (Atherstone) and Wall/Letocetum and others until Viroconium Cornoviorum (Wroxeter near Shrewsbury) was reached: this was when the settlement at Letocetum was created – initially a fort, later civilian settlement. [Watling Street (A5) showing the route of the XIVth Legion] – (Editors Note: most Roman Road names are of Saxon origin).

Remains of the 3rd Mansio
The geographical setting was described in detail and the wet peaty nature of it may partially explain the lack of a Pre Roman presence although excavations since the 1960’s have produced artefacts of the late Neolithic and Bronze Ages but no actual settlements sites. The Round House mentioned above can not be firmly dated being a type in common usage from the 4th century BC well into the Romano British period. The Roman fort was built in the AD50’s on the hill overlooking today’s remains and it is thought that the mansion was created for officials travelling along the military way. This fort was manned by men from the XIVth Legion but closed down when the fortress at Wroxeter was established. Several pieces of Roman pottery (potsherds) have been recovered from the native farm to the east but most likely point to the integration of Romans and local Celts; the site itself is set in the area where the lands of two local tribes met the Cornovii from Shropshire and the Coritanii -(Corieltauvi) whose capital was at Leicester. Joanne then described the Roman army’s method of creating temporary/marching camps as they advanced through an area – these were rectangular ditched and banked enclosures in which 8 man leather tents were erected. Throughout the country several temporary camps developed into stone built legionary forts (i.e. Exeter, Lincoln, Gloucester and Chester) – some evidence of these camps has been found around Wall and are thought to date from the post 47AD period when Plautius was consolidating the captured territory or during the advance into Wales. Numerous small finds have been identified as belonging to the period from about 70AD to 130AD, Jo showed photographs of some of these including excavations that belong to a private collection and are not in the public domain. The first Mansio was built coincidental to the Boudiccan Revolt of 60AD and military occupation ceased around 130 after which the Mansio remained but was passed to the civilians for its administration.

The first (60AD) building was of timber construction with uprights anchored into sleeper beams in the ground with walls of wattle and daub with, in all probability, a thatched roof. Recovered evidence shows that this was destroyed by fire around 100AD – possibly as a result of local hostile action since similar damage and dating are known at Wroxeter - the area was by no means peacefully settled or consolidated to Roman ways. The importance of the Mansio at Wall on the Watling Street is evident because work n the second building was begun immediately following the loss of the first although the timber/wattle and daub construction was still favoured by the locals. Fragments of painted plaster were identified amongst the debris of the first building whereas that recovered from this second building were far more sophisticated and brightly coloured. A well cut over 6 metres deep into the underlying sandstone was also identified in this phase. In addition to these building remains iron tools associated with wheel making and animal husbandry were also found indicating that a workshop must have been present to care for the horses and transport passing through; bones were recovered belonging to oxen, and other farm animals possibly suggest butchery for feeding the customers.

Evidence is such that this second mansion was deliberately dismantled (rather than being destroyed by fire) to make way for third, stone based, mansion whose remains are those seen by today’s visitors. Joanne then took us on a tour of the bath house, describing the function of each room and stressing that these facilities would have been available to travellers on a 24/7 basis thanks to slave labour! The floors of the heated rooms (tepidarium and caldarium – closest to the furnace/stoke area) where supported by hypocausts (pillars of tiles about 9” square) that were on show in the 1970’s have now been covered-over for their preservation. Finds from past excavations of the bath house included numerous pieces of glass from toilet flasks/phials but unusually no ‘seal/curse’ tablets that are common in many bath house excavations elsewhere – Jo explained the ‘curse tradition’ in the Roman world. Mansiones throughout the country could be dangerous places with thieves, pickpockets’ and muggers at large not to mention ladies (and men) of easy virtue – even your clothes where not safe when you were using the baths! By far the worse were the governments’ spies who were known to frequent the public areas eaves dropping on conversations on the chance of picking up seditious gossip they could turn to their advantage. In confirmation written evidence of their presence at Letocetum is known.
The Mansio and Bath house
Bath house in foreground.

The presence of the Mansio and bath house obviously attracted settlers, both native and Roman citizens to the area due to the trade opportunities and a proper settlement – prototype town became established in the second century most likely in the form of a ribbon development along the Watling Street and Ryknield Street which crossed Watling Street just to the east of Letocetum on its way to Derby/Burton. Most of the traffic would have been horse or pony drawn two wheeled carts, but mounted horsemen, military units or the more affluent travelling in four wheeled wagons and the idea of posting stations (as in the 18th Century) was that changes of horses would have been available. Joanne referred back to native settlement (Round House/Farmstead) - saying that it may have provided a breeding place for horses as well as a rest area for animals from the Mansio. It is known that as well as a well documented pottery industry (mortaria) at Mancetter (Manduesedum) it is now known that it was a centre for the manufacture of the two wheeled pony carts that were known as ‘essedum’. As well as ponies it was more likely that many of carts were pulled by oxen or mules, they had no suspension and after a 20 mile journey (the usual distance between posting stations) you would have been grateful for the bath house facilities that included masseurs.
Mansio (3rd) taken in April 1980

Although in the border lands (above) Letocetum was under the direct control of the Cornovii of Viroconium the general opinion is that although partially ‘Romanised’ the natives had no feelings of loyalty to the invaders and may well have been responsible for the uprising that lead to the fires at both Letocetum and Viroconium around 100AD. However perhaps the ‘pax-romana’ won through because after the military pulled out around 130 the native civilians were put in charge of the running of the Mansio for the next 250 years. Joanne went on the tell us of the appearance of the Ancient Britons (Celts) using information from Julius Caesar’s personal diary when he lead expeditions to Britain (55 and 54 BC) which covered their clothing and method of fighting including the use of Woad for body painting (a blue dye extracted from the plant - Isatis tinctoria in the family Brassicaceae). It is currently thought that whilst no pre-Roman settlement evidence around Letocetum has been found – because the nature of the geology of the area was not suitable for agriculture - settlers attracted by the trade advantages of the Mansio may have moved from the Castle Ring area (an Iron Age hill fort on Cannock Chase). Joanne described in detail sites and finds from archaeological work that support this hypothesis.

The Cornoviian government at Viroconium had direct control and responsibility for the running of the Mansio and would have been responsible for the rebuilding of the third phase (stone) Mansio as well as providing finance, animals, vehicles, slaves and civilian staff. It is thought that overall charge would have been the responsibility of a retired Roman administrator. We then listened to several quotations from Roman edicts on the rules and regulations for the running of Mansiones that covered the Empire up to about 400AD. A civil servant may well have had second thoughts on accepting such a posting!

 The Bath House Hypocaust in 1971                    
 Joanne went to give us a tour of the third Mansio and told us that the stone used in its construction as well as surviving timbers had all been obtained locally (Hopwas near present day Lichfield). We saw carved stones as well as inscriptions some from the private collection mentioned above and a description of the functions of the various rooms. If you visit the site there are ‘official’ artists impressions of how daily life in the Mansio may have appeared which may make life 2000 years look a lot more desirable than it actually was! Evidence was seen of a builders ‘dodge’ when the well was filled in during the construction that later collapsed and had to be repaired; tiles were made on site because transport was so rough that any brought onto site would have broken in transit –a tile showing a dogs paw print was shown – these are not an unusual find on Roman sites. A selection of numerous finds from the site and its surrounding was very interesting (much of which can be seen in the site museum) and included Romano-Gallic Samian pottery (the ‘Wedgewood’ of the Roman world). Remains of glass vessels, toilet implements and other pottery vessels are also included. Jo completed the talk telling of daily life, food and diet from finds (animal bones and oyster shells) gambling counters, marriage, illnesses (typhoid, TB and malaria were liable to strike all classes of a community – and found by study of skeletal remains; arthritis and brittle bone disease were common in adult skeletons), and finally death. Roman practice was largely cremation and we were shown two cremation urns excavated locally; inhumation burials may also have taken place but many remains have not survived 2000 years: Any bodies found within a settlement area may well be the result of foul play since the practice was that all burials were outside the town walls.

It was a very well researched and informative talk and we offer our most sincere thanks to Joanne for sharing her knowledge with us. We heartily recommend our readers to spare a day to visit the site which is signposted off the Birmingham to Lichfield road just after the Lichfield exit on the A5 Island. If you are an internet user just type LETOCETUM into your search engine and you will find a wealth of links – happy surfing!

We are always pleased to welcome guests and visitors at our meetings, the next of which will be on 8th March when the topic will be ‘Recent Archaeological Developments’ presented by Dr Mike Hodder. The following meeting will be our Annual General Meeting on 12th April. Meetings are held in the Spencer Lounge Bar at Arden Hall, Water Orton Road at 7.45pm.



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