Before the arrival of the Romans, West Yorkshire and much of the Pennine uplands were occupied by a loose association of tribes known as the Brigantes. The name seems to mean the high one, which is a suitable epithet for a group of people living in the more mountainous regions of Britain. In East Yorkshire, their neighbours were another tribe called the Parisii, who appear to have had connections with the Seine valley. This accounts for the similarity of their name to that of the capital of modern France.
Historians know little about the Brigantes before the arrival of the Romans. Presumably their ruler at the time was one of those who surrendered to Claudius at Colchester in AD 43, but they are not mentioned by name. By the early 50s AD they were being ruled by Queen Cartimandua. She lost her control of the tribe in AD 69, following an uprising led by her ex-husband Venutius. The Romans put down the rebellion and then went on to conquer the rest of northern Britain.
It seems probable that the tribal centre of the Brigantes was at Stanwick in North Yorkshire, but when the Romans set up an administrative centre to run their newly conquered province they chose Aldborough, also in North Yorkshire. The town is situated not far from the principal Roman road to the north, the line of which is still followed in many places by the modern A1, but its location may have been chosen for development because it was on or near one of the principal tribal centres.
The native way of life
For many of the people of the region life must have changed little after the Roman occupation of Brigantia. Some settlements, such as Dalton Parlours near Wetherby, did develop into Roman style villas, but many seem to have continued in their old way of life throughout the Roman period. Many of these native farmstead sites can be recognised from cropmarks on agricultural land. Cropmarks are caused by the differing rates of growth between those plants which are over a buried ditch and whose roots can still get water long after the rest of the field has dried out. Such differences in colour can be seen and photographed from the air and plotted onto a map. This technique of aerial photography is especially useful on the Magnesian Limestone belt which lies to the east of Leeds, where archaeologists have identified dozens of traces of small farms and their lanes and fields.
When such sites are excavated they usually turn out to be Iron Age or Romano-British in date. The farmsteads generally consist of a few small circular huts (about 8-10m in diameter), usually within a ditched enclosure. The huts themselves were made of wooden posts forming a circle, daubed with mud and with conical thatched roofs. The interior would be smoky and dark. There were no windows and smoke from the central hearth could only escape through a small hole in the roof. In the west of the county settlements may have looked slightly different. The walls of the huts were built of stone boulders which had probably been cleared from surrounding fields. Boulder walling is also used in early field walls, some of which are found in the Aire valley, and may be very early in date.
Corn storage and grinding
Other than the huts themselves, few other structures can be identified in most native British farmsteads. The remains of a series of four posts arranged in the shape of squares were found at South Elmsall. Archaeologists think that the posts supported the floors of granaries or food stores. Raising the floor off the ground would help keep the food away from rats and mice. Sometimes there may be pits in which corn or other grains could have been stored, but these are rare in West Yorkshire. Burying your crop may seem an odd way to preserve food, but if the pit is lined and sealed with clay the external atmosphere cannot reach the crop and the processes of decay are halted. The principle is really the same as burying goods in air tight sealed bags today. A large number of pits are known from a site near Ledston.
Sometimes small keyhole shaped ovens are also found. Archaeologists think that these might have been used to dry out the grain before it was put into storage. When required the grain could be ground into flour by the use of a quern or hand mill. The ones which the Brigantes used are usually known as 'beehive' querns because of their resemblance to the old-fashioned straw beehive. They were made out of millstone grit and tended to produce a very coarse product as the stone wore away and particles of grit ended up in the flour. For better quality breads the Romans imported lava querns from Germany. These are more hard wearing and are still sometimes used by millers today.
Although coins were introduced into the south of Britain before the arrival of the Romans, the habit of using money had not reached West Yorkshire before the arrival of the Romans. The Brigantes probably measured their wealth in cattle and some of the enclosures which archaeologists have identified on aerial photographs are probably stock pens to keep their animals in.
Branigan, K. (ed.), 1980, Rome and the Brigantes: the impact of Rome on Northern England
Hartley, B. R. and Fitts, L., 1988, The Brigantes
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