West Yorkshire Archaeology Advisory Service

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The name of the Roman town

The antiquary William Camden was the first to identify Ilkley with the Olicana of the Antonine Itinerary, a kind of 4th-century Roman route map, which lists places a traveller would pass through and gives the mileage between them. This theory has gained widespread acceptance and many attempts have been made to work out the derivation of the modern place name from the Latin form. Modern scholarship has, however, cast some doubt on this identification and has suggested that the name would be better applied to the fort at Elslack near Skipton.

An alternative name has been proposed by Rivet and Smith, who suggest that an altar found near Ilkley may give a clue to the original name of the town. The altar is dedicated to Verbeia, goddess of the River Wharfe. Many Roman place names are derived from the name of the local deity. It is possible that Verbeia may also have formed an element in the Roman name for Ilkley.

The Roman forts

Excavations and watching briefs at Ilkley have revealed the outlines of three successive forts. The first of these was constructed in the early 80s AD. It consisted of an earth rampart on stone footings with timber internal buildings. This fort lasted into the 120s AD without major modifications. At that time the ramparts were pulled down and, presumably, the internal structures were demolished.

A second fort was erected on the same site in the 160s. Its timber-framed buildings were burnt down in c. AD 196-7, and it has been suggested that this occurred during an historically documented rebellion by the inhabitants of northern Britain.

The fort was almost immediately replaced by another built of stone. The exact date of the abandonment of the stone fort is uncertain, but refurbishing of the buildings was still being carried out in the late 4th century. These included a suite of rooms in the commandant’s house, which had underfloor heating.

The name of only one garrison for Ilkley is known from inscription evidence. This was the 2nd cohort of Lingones, who must have occupied the fort at some time in the 2nd century. These were a mixed cohort with a nominal strength of 360 infantry and 120 cavalry.

The civilian settlement

Little can be said of the arrangement and extent of the civilian settlement, as no systematic large-scale excavation has been possible in the area. Even large pieces of monumental masonry may have been removed from their original location for re-use as building material. This seems to be the case with the statue of the Cornovian girl, now on display in the Manor House Museum. (The Cornovii were a British tribe living in the Shropshire area. She was probably the wife of one of the soldiers). A similar example of re-used stonework can be seen in the fragments of Roman stonework revealed by the West Yorkshire Archaeology Service excavations in the foundations of the present church tower. The site of the Roman cemetery may be indicated by an apparently undisturbed cremation burial which was uncovered at the junction of Springs Lane and Cowpasture Road.

Visible remains

Much of the area occupied by the fort has now been landscaped and only a short stretch of wall close to the north-western corner is currently visible. A selection of the finds from Ilkley are on display at both the Manor House Museum, Ilkley and Cliffe Castle Museum, Keighley. Three Roman altars, formerly reused in the building of Ilkley parish church are on display in the church tower. The earthwork remains of the northern edge of the fort can still be seen, and a series of interpretation panels written by the WYAS are on the site.

Related topics

Photo gallery


Larger Image (34 KB)
Ilkley: Artist’s reconstruction of the Roman fort

Further reading

Hartley, B. R., 1996, ‘The Roman Fort at Ilkley’ in Proceedings of the Leeds Philosophical and Literary Society 12

Hartley, B. R., 1987, Roman Ilkley

Rivet, A. L. F., and Smith, C., 1962, The place manes of Roman Britain

Woodward, A. M., 1926, ‘The Roman Fort at Ilkley’, Yorkshire Archaeological Journal 28

Wrathmell, S., 1991, Roman Ilkley; an evaluation for planning (An unpublished document available for consultation in the Sites and Monuments Record)

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This material was compiled by
West Yorkshire Archaeology Advisory Service,
Registry of Deeds,
Newstead Road, Wakefield WF1 2DE
Telephone: 01924 306809
Fax: 01924 306810
Email: WYHER@wyjs.org.uk