West Yorkshire Archaeology Advisory Service

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LIFE IN A ROMAN TOWN

Roman towns in West Yorkshire

Written sources can tell us little about the Roman towns in our region. Some of their names can be worked out from Roman route planners and occasionally inscriptions can be found. However, no written descriptions of the towns themselves survive. In West Yorkshire towns tended to grow up around Roman forts and so we have Castleford (Lagentium or Legeolium, depending on which source is consulted), Ilkley (traditionally associated with the name Olicana, but modern research has suggested the name Verbeia as a possibility), Adel on the outskirts of Leeds and Slack near Huddersfield. Another settlement in the area which is now occupied by central Leeds seems likely: this may be the town referred to by classical writers as Cambodunum. A small town may also have existed at Wetherby, but no fort is known there. The county town or administrative centre for the region was at Aldborough (Isurium) in North Yorkshire, where English Heritage have a small museum and mosaics and remains of the town defences can be seen.

Little can be said about the layout of most of the West Yorkshire Roman towns. The best archaeological evidence comes from Castleford, where excavators found the remains of several buildings fronting onto the principal street. One of these was built around a courtyard and could have been an inn or a mansio, a kind of staging post for the government mail system. An alternative interpretation is that it could have been a shrine. Another building was a pottery store or shop containing expensive imported samian pottery from the Continent. This building seems to have burnt down at some time in the 140s AD and the fragments of many bowls were found in the debris of the building. A number of Roman bodies have been excavated but no major Roman cemetery sites have been identified. Roman cemeteries normally lay some way outside the town centre for reasons of hygiene and it is likely that they lie some way from the buildings excavated by archaeologists.

Roman pottery

Excavations at Castleford have revealed a large range of items which give a good indication of the lifestyle of its citizens. Perhaps the most useful find for archaeologists is Roman pottery. This can often be dated on stylistic grounds or by association with other objects such as coins. A careful examination of pottery fragments can often give an idea of many different things including levels of technology, the use of various parts of the site, and patterns of trade. The majority of pottery finds at Castleford were of native British greywares. These are common for two reasons. One is that they were relatively cheap, being made locally. No pottery kiln site has been identified in West Yorkshire, but there are dozens in the vicinity of Doncaster in South Yorkshire. The second reason for greyware being a common find is that the Romans used pottery for a large number of household purposes which we would not use it for now. More cooking was done in pottery than at present. Food could be boiled in pottery jars floated in a cauldron instead of using a metal saucepan as we do today. Many kitchen containers were also made of pottery, (as they continued to be until plastic boxes and bags became available). Many drinking vessels were also made out of pottery, even for the drinking of wine. Wine glasses could only be afforded by the very rich.

Other types of pottery came from abroad. Samian ware, from what are now the borders of France and Germany is a distinctive bright orange or red in colour. It is a better quality than the pottery made locally and much samian pottery has elaborate patterns on the outside of the vessel. This is the kind of pottery that would nowadays be described as ‘best china’ and was used at mealtimes by wealthier people especially if they were trying to make an impression on their guests.

Fragments of amphora are also another common type of pottery find. These were large vessels containing wine, olive oil or other foodstuffs imported from the Continent.

Personal items

Archaeologists have also recovered a large number of personal items from the excavations at Castleford. Many of these were made of animal bone which is easily carved and shaped. The excavators recovered bone hair combs, hair pins, what might be buttons or toggles, and knife handles. Another interesting class of personal items to be found were the tools from manicure sets. These included such items as tweezers for plucking the eyebrows, and a small spoon for cleaning the wax out of the ears. A number of items of costume jewellery were also found. Among these were copper brooches inlaid with enamel and glass beads.

The world of work

A Roman town would be a centre for many different industries. In Castleford archaeologists found evidence showing how the Romans made objects out of copper. On one part of the site they uncovered the moulds for making drinking flasks. These are a unique find in Roman archaeology. Archaeologists on the Continent have found similar flasks elsewhere, but the discovery of the moulds in Castleford is unique.

A popular report on the results of the excavations at Castleford can be purchased from West Yorkshire Archaeology Service, Telephone 0113 383 7500. Price £2.00 (incl. p+p)

Related topics

Photo gallery

Roman towns

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Castleford: Artist’s reconstruction of a Roman street scene

Castleford: Artist’s reconstruction of a Roman street scene II
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Slack: Artist’s impression of a Roman fort

Roman pottery

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Castleford: A Roman wine amphora over a metre in length
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Castleford: Samian pottery. This Roman fineware was on sale in an excavated shop
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Castleford: A samian maker’s stamp

Personal items

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Castleford: A bone comb
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Castleford: Bone toggle
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Castleford: Drawing of manicure set
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Castleford: Eyebrow tweezers
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Castleford: A glass bead approx. 20 mm in diameter
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Castleford: A Roman brooch

The world of work

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The Roman spoon moulds

Further reading

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

Alcock, J., 1995, Life in Roman Britain

Brown, A. E. (ed.), 1995, Roman Small Towns

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

Hartley, B. R., 1987, Roman Ilkley

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


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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