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CASTLEFORD

Introduction

The first person to identify Castleford as the site of the Roman settlement of Lagentium or Legeolium (the spelling varies according to which Roman source you use) was the 16th-century antiquarian William Camden. A fuller description of the site was given by William Stukeley, who visited the area in 1724:

The place where the Roman ford was, is a little above the cascade: the stones are in great part left, but the mill-dam lays it too deep under water. Hence the paved road goes up the bank to the east side of the church, and forward through the fields, where innumerable coins are ploughed up …South of the Church is a pasture, called Castle Garth: here were buildings of the city; but the Roman castrum was where the church now stands, built probably out of its ruins … The low ground of the ditch that encompassed it is manifest.

These earthworks must soon have been built over as later antiquarians were to note that little trace of them was to be found, and eventually the whole site disappeared under the Victorian development of the town.

The first fort

Excavations and watching briefs have revealed a complicated pattern of growth and decline. The first fort at Castleford was built in the early 70s AD. Its exact area is uncertain, and although archaeologists have the foundations of several buildings, the remains are too fragmentary to allow for a detailed analysis. Perhaps the most interesting area lay to the east of Church Street, where a large midden deposit was discovered. This contained waste and offcuts of leather which might suggest that the earliest fort at Castleford was some form of supply base where equipment was overhauled and repaired. Some of the items have thrown light on the leatherworking techniques of the Roman army. A leather saddle cover, for instance, has enabled specialists to make a hypothetical reconstruction of the original. A leather shield cover, possibly that of a standard bearer or a musician, is believed to be a unique find in the Roman Empire. More mundane objects recovered from the deposit included sandals and parts of leather tenting.

The unit carrying out this work was probably the Fourth Cohort of Gauls. Tiles bearing their makers’ stamp have been found at Castleford. We know that the unit was stationed at Templeborough (South Yorkshire) later in the century, and it seems probable that they were moved there after an earlier tour of duty at Castleford.

The second fort

The first fort at Castleford was decommissioned in the mid-80s AD, and a second fort was built soon, if not immediately, afterwards. This was defended by a turf rampart on a stone footing which enclosed an area of approximately 2.8 hectares. There was also a defended annexe to the north of the fort itself which contained a well preserved Roman bath-house.

The only gate to be investigated was the one which led from the fort into the annexe. The western tower of the gate was erected around six large timber uprights. The eastern side of the gate was not excavated, but it seems likely that there was a tower either side of the gate.

Archaeologists identified several internal structures, including stable blocks, barracks and a granary. In their initial phase of building these were all constructed of wooden frames with wattle and daub infill. The granary was, however, rebuilt in stone, presumably to facilitate greater loading stresses. The military bath-house in the annexe was also constructed in stone.

The civilian settlement

The civilian settlement at Castleford sprang up soon after the establishment of the fort there. However, it outlasted the fort by several decades. In the middle of the 2nd century AD people were using the area previously occupied by the fort as a rubbish dump. The fort might have gone, but it would seem that the civilian settlement was still thriving.

Among the buildings identified by archaeologists was a pottery store or shop, which seems to have burnt down at some time in the late 140s AD. Fragments of over 700 samian vessels were recovered from the shop, and others were scattered throughout the surrounding area. The excavators thought that a building with a courtyard fronting onto the main north-south Roman road might have been a mansio or staging post for Roman government officials, a place where official travellers, such as couriers, could sleep, change horses, and bathe. Next to this was another building which might have been a market.

The source of the prosperity of the civilian settlement in this period is unclear. It is possible that there was still sufficient traffic on the road to allow for a trading settlement by the ford over the river. Equally it is possible that there may still have been a garrison stationed nearby. Among the rubbish found on the former site of the fort, were a few items of 2nd-century military equipment.

It is also difficult to ascertain why such an apparently thriving community should go into decline, but this was certainly the case at Castleford. At some point after the late 2nd century the area covered by the civilian settlement was being used as a cemetery and several burials were recovered from the site. As the Romans did not usually bury their dead in town centres, this would perhaps suggest that the main area of settlement had moved elsewhere.

Late Roman Castleford

By the 4th century the area occupied by the earlier forts had been refortified. This was done on a massive scale, comprising four defensive ditches running roughly parallel to the modern Carlton Street. The western limit of these defences can be inferred by reference to the O. S. map of 1883. This shows the corner of an earthwork adjacent to the church, where the outermost ditch turned towards the River Aire. Excavations revealed that the innermost of these ditches had been backfilled to form the foundation of a massive wall. Presumably this would have fronted onto an earthen rampart, as was the case with other fortified sites in later Roman Britain. Whether this was a military site, or a fortified settlement in the turbulent decades preceding the end of Roman Britain, we do not yet know.

Only fragmentary traces of buildings within the enclosed area survived. Associated with one was a collection of moulds for making copper-alloy spoons. The spoons themselves are a relatively common find on Roman sites, but the collection of moulds would appear to be a unique archaeological find.

Related topics

Photo gallery

Castleford

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Artist’s reconstruction of fort defences
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Part of a Roman tent
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Military footwear
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Samian pottery
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The mansio under excavation
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The Roman spoon moulds
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Victorian map showing edge of Roman defences
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Defensive ditches of later Roman town
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Footings for late Roman rampart

Further reading

Abramson, P., Berg, D.S. and Fossick, M.R., 1999, Roman Castleford Excavations 1974-85. Volume II: The Structural and Environmental Evidence

Cool, H. E. M. and Philo, C., 1998, Roman Castleford Excavations 1974-85. Volume I: The Small Finds

Rush, P., Dickinson, B., Hartley, B., and Hartley, K. F., Roman Castleford Excavations 1974-85. Volume III: The Pottery

For younger readers

Abramson, P., 1990, The Story of Roman Castleford

This popular report can be purchased from West Yorkshire Archaeology Service, Telephone 0113 383 7500. Price £2.00 (incl. p+p)


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This material was compiled by
West Yorkshire Archaeology Advisory Service,
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