Saturday, 5 December 2015

Stanwick Oppidum revisited

The Tofts in the middle of Stanwick Oppidum, previously surveyed and excavated on numerous occaisions.
I spent this morning (5th December 2015) in the company of Professor Colin Haselgrove in Middlesbrough's Dorman museum (a highly recommended museum), thanks to the Teesside Archaeology Society's annual Elgee Memorial Lecture. His lecture, "The rise and Fall of the Royal Centre of Stanwick Oppidum" (the largest Oppidum in Britain), summarised his work over the last 30 years at the site. His talk has shown how far the theories have come in such a short space of time! It also rendered my undergraduate dissertation (from 2012) as null and void, but we'll let that slide...however it was very nice to meet one of the people who volunteered to help with my geophysical survey at the lecture (thank you Geraldine)! So rather than write an essay on what was said at the lecture, I'll summarise some of the key points (without giving away too much, Colin is releasing his book on Stanwick next year).

Stanwick, in North Yorkshire, is an Oppidum which is free to visit. Oppida are Iron Age ramparts that enclosure a large space, which often contain large amounts of settlement archaeology. They are traditionally seen as "proto-towns" as the Romans refer to them as such; the name comes from the Latin meaning "town". In Britain and the continent many have some features that make them seem like a "proto-town" but Stanwick is almost unique in the huge space that seems to be empty and not doing anything! Usually they lasted for about 100 years but not Stanwick. The most pressing question has been to investigate why Stanwick appeared to be abandoned after about 30 years. Was it built to fend off the Romans? Or to impress them? While there is no definite account of abandonment it is probable that the Romans moved into the area at about the time when Stanwick was abandoned. This was based on Mortimer Wheeler's conclusions when he excavated the ramparts and he reckoned that the Oppidum met a violent end and wasn't used afterwards. However, Colin's research and excavations have demonstrated that Stanwick was in use well before the building of the ramparts, probably about 100 years before. But, the structures at Stanwick at this time were unlikely to have been permanent structures because the excavations showed rapid construction and demolition phases. The structures would be rebuilt over a number of years when they were being used. This is being seen in a number of Iron Age sites in Britain, and it is likely to have a religious or ceremonial function. Having said this there are permanent structures but they only arrive with the ramparts. The site was also likely to have been used after the abandonment of the site for its original purpose as a ceremonial space. Stanwick may also be the crossing point between the west-east route for the Pennines and north-south, roughly following the modern A1.

Wheeler also believed that Stanwick was heavily occupied with lots of housing. However, this has been thoroughly proven to not be the case. Even at the height of Stanwick's life there were only a few permanent houses on site. These also seem to coincide with the first trading links with the Romans, perhaps suggesting high status contacts or at least middle men, with artefacts travelling far and wide; some artefacts come from Africa! The evidence for agriculture comes after the abandonment in 70 AD, and is likely to be medieval, although a number of prehistoric field boundaries and houses have been found as crop and soil marks around Stanwick. The space made by the ramparts/earthworks has been shown to have been a largely boggy area, roughly where the Mary Wild Beck is today. There is a lot of evidence for Iron Age groups using water as a sacred space, and there are a limited number of depositional offerings around Stanwick. But, the biggest development in terms of archaeological evidence is the burials. These seem to have been interred in ditches in both the houses and the large ramparts. In particular skulls with weapons are being found in the ramparts. It has been estimated that the ramparts (8 Kilometres/ 5 miles in total!) could contain up to 500 skulls based on current excavation statistics! So could Stanwick be a giant graveyard? Or more likely, the ramparts are on the highest parts of land in the area, so the emphasis is on displaying the importance of the site.

Incidentally it has also been estimated that the ramparts probably took about 3-4 million man hours of moving clay to create the ramparts! This requires a lot of manual labour. So where did they all live? They were likely to be from the local area, and the archaeology so far supports this idea- there are lots of contemporary settlements around Stanwick, leaving Stanwick as a large open space in the middle of several large villages. So if the Oppidum is not a town, is it perhaps a giant park-cum-graveyard and major highways running through it?
Map showing a distribution of archaeological settlement evidence near Stanwick. Note the emphasis near Roman roads(the A1 and A66), which could be an artefact of archaeological investigations near modern roads!

Finally, this also makes archaeologists think about how Stanwick came about in the first place. With so many settlements nearby, we think that there were several origins (bear with me) for Stanwick, in a theory borrowed from human geography called "poly-focal settlements". This is where 2 or more settlements merge to form one cohesive unit. Stanwick in this interpretation could be created out of a collective decision to place emphasis on the site, rather than an individual decision.


And yes, we still think it is the capital of the Brigantes!

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