The Fort Report – Summer 2019

Continuing on from our research last year, we, the Friends of Castleshaw Roman Forts, undertook 5 days of test pitting and trench excavation. These took place on Saturday 22nd June (to coincide with the Greater Manchester Festival of Archaeology) and all 3 days of the Bank Holiday weekend 24th, 25th, and 26th August, with a final day on Saturday 21st September. The weather over the Bank Holiday was exceptionally hot, a happy reminder of the rare spell of hot weather we had for the Big Dig in 2014!

The turn-out of volunteers was great – we had around 60 Friends helping out in total over the 5 days. Their enthusiasm and dedication is amazing and is crucial in furthering our understanding of this enigmatic Roman site.

The plan below shows mostly last year’s trenches and test pits. We set out to better understand the Roman features found in the re-excavated old Bruton excavation trench which we interpreted as a wall and furnace. But we also wanted to define the extent and character of a stone platform between the furnace and the road existing he east gate. The remarkable thing about this area is that there was no defensive ditch outside the rampart; we were keen to get answers to our questions – Why? and What was its use? One theory was that, as Castleshaw was the next fort along the cross-Pennine highway from Slack 8 miles east, it may have been built in a similar way – with a bath house close to the rampart and a section of ditch missing to accommodate this..                                   


22nd June


In test pit 13, below, Nick and Gill found the eastern edge of the stone platform.

        Whilst in test pit 14, Sonia and Margaret found two layers of stones and lots of charcoal and burnt clay - clearly an area of well-preserved archaeology. Finds included burnt one fragments and nails.

In test pit 14 Sonia and Margaret found two layers of stones and lots of charcoal and burnt clay – clearly an area of well-preserved archaeology. Finds, below, included one burnt fragment and nails.



Luke, Mike and Steve cleaning up a 4 metre long trench (1) to define the edge of the stone platform to the north. Stone flags are visible at shallow depth in the foreground.


Trench 1 with test pit 14 beyond. The stone platform runs between the two.



Trench 1 with test pit 14 beyond. The stone platform runs between the two.




Right, the stone flag floor revealed in Trench 1. It probably dates to the first phase of the fort in the AD 70s, as it lay under a later and cruder stone surface. The stones disappear half way through the trench on the north side where a post hole is evident.


August Bank Holiday

And a bright sunny start to the day, which became increasingly hot. The vegetation has got out of hand this summer for various reasons and there was a real worry that we might have to cancel the dig because the grass and rushes were too long. Thankfully Lee, our United Utilities ranger, stepped in and strimmed the area of archaeological investigation for us. This had the added advantage of allowing us to see the earthworks better, such as the linear depression of Bruton’s old trench where the two figures on the far left, below, are digging.

Looking from the other side towards the fort eastern rampart. Chris and Mark re-open Bruton’s trench on the right, Nick looks for more evidence of the stone platform in the near middle, Steve and Mike extend Trench 1 towards the east gate exit road on the left, and Jayne/Lisa, Margaret/Sonia and Tim/Dave further explore the western extent of the stone floor in the far distance.


Trench 1 was extended by 4 metres towards the road exiting the east gate. Steve and Mike found the southern edge of the stone floor which can be seen at the top (north) side of trench. They also found lots of burnt clay and charcoal in the rest of the trench, together with patterns of stake holes (Steve’s speciality!).

The stake holes (above) were concentrated around a semi-circle of intense charcoal and heat reddened clay, associated with a depression which was partly exposed against the trench edge. Animal bones don’t usually survive in the acid soils at Castleshaw, but here we had several pieces of burnt bone – burning preserves the life of the bone in the soil. Putting all this evidence together, this feature is interpreted as a clay oven probably used for cooking meat.

One of the challenges of the intense sunshine at this time of year is that it casts deep shadows across the trench, making it hard to photograph features. We had to rig up a sunscreen from tarpaulin sheets to provide an even light across the trench – as you can see it was quite a challenge!


Meanwhile, Sonia and Margaret dug a one metre square test pit alongside and to the west of the one they excavated back in June. This was to try to find the western extent of the stone floor. This turned out to be a really interesting test pit with lots of archaeology, as the following photo sequence shows.


Below you see patches of charcoal lying over upper layer of stone floorRevealing the upper stone surface, with more stones below and a possible edge in near half of test pit (the north side).   

A gully or ditch is revealed along with a post hole. These appear to define the northern edge of the stone structure, which has at least two phases. Could they stone floor be set within a timber framed building?



Lisa (below left) was digging for the first time and was ably supported by one of our veteran volunteers, Jayne. They excavated TP 16 which was 3 metres north of the stone floored structure. As can be seen below, they encountered an area of intensely heated (red) clay alongside a deposit of charcoal. The excavation stopped at this stage but suggests that this could be part of another oven. A very interesting piece of archaeology that will repay exploring more widely in the future. A pretty good result for Lisa for her first ever dig!


Dave and Tim weren’t as fortunate in test pit 19, which was several metres westwards toward the fort east rampart. No archaeological features were found which suggests there was a gap between the rampart and whatever activities the Romans were undertaking in this general area.

Below the tripod sits on the fort’s east rampart. Dave and Tim are working on the test pit in the background beyond Jayne and Lisa.               

 Jayne and Margaret excavated one more test pit (21) in the area west of Trench 1, located 1 metre south of test pit 14 to try and confirm the southern edge found in Trench 1. However, this test pit produced a different type of stone surface at a much shallower depth. As can be seen this is made up of small angular pieces of gritstone, with a couple of larger, flat and smooth stones. This could be a track or a yard surface and the two larger stones being a post pad for a timber structure. The shallow depth of this stone surface suggests it could be a later phase, perhaps belonging to the early 2nd century AD fortlet. A larger area needs to be opened up to understand this feature properly and so the excavation was halted at this level.

Below left, opposite test pit 16 on the other (eastern) side of Trench 1, Nick carried on his quest to define the extent of the stone platform. He did find a stone deposit with a clear edge – but the stones were jumbled and there was plenty of evidence of heat reddening of the stones and charcoal. This feature wasn’t explored further but looks as though it could be the edge of an oven/furnace.


And Nick had the star find of the day – rim sherd of a mortarium showing part of the spout. Here is the object.

Mortarium rim sherd – side view



Here is the sherd viewed from above




And here a more complete mortarium excavated in the Castleshaw fortlet by GMAU in the late 1980s, with the spout part reconstructed





And here is a complete reconstructed example showing two forms of spout and the grit set into the interior to make it easier to crush herbs and spices with a pestle



Chris, Cliff and Mark revisited the ‘furnace’ and possible Roman wall revealed in last year’s re-excavation of Bruton’s old trench, initially cutting extending the trench in a metre square area to follow the line of the possible flue exposed last year (where the photo scale is below).


This found lots of burnt red clay and a concentration of stones so it was decided to re-open last year’s dig to help understand what was going on in an increasingly complex area of archaeology. The photo shows the line of the cut of Bruton’s trench of c 1908 (marked by the two photo scales) and the possible furnace site far left side, with the possible wall top middle of the photo to the right of the photo scale.

Once this area had been carefully trowelled and cleaned it was possible to understand the features. It became apparent that there were two discrete areas of stone concentrations forming two separate stone structures (the left side of the blue line shows the gap between) .

The ‘wall’ exposed last year was actually the rear of what can now be interpreted as a stone domed oven. Bruton’s old trench had cut right through the middle of this structure so that only one of the flag stones of the oven floor had survived (shown by the horizontal blue arrow below). The stoking area and front of the oven (previously thought of as a furnace flue) is indicated by the vertical blue arrow.

A second stone oven lay immediately to the east, with the outside curving wall shown by the blue arrow, and the centre of the oven being infilled with collapsed stones from the dome roof in the middle of the photo above.Above is another full trench view with the photo scales showing the centres of the two stone ovens. There was not enough time to excavate the second oven with the collapsed stonework and this is something we may come back to in the future.


To give you an idea of how this may have looked, above is the stone oven set into the rampart of Castleshaw fortlet, as excavated by Bruton in 1907 but with the dome missing (left). The image on the right shows how it looked after 80 years of exposure to the elements when GMAAS re-excavated it in 1986.



There weren’t many finds from the trench (2) of Roman date – no pottery and a burnt piece of bone (possibly a sheep tibia) and a twisted chunk of melted lead being the main finds.


However, there was delightful sherd of blue and white pottery dating to the mid-19th century which showed a family group, which remarkably has survived almost intact!



Nick and Gill were set the task of digging a 2 metre long test pit (22) to the west of the where we re-excavated Bruton’s trench last year to see if there were any further Roman structural remains. In this photo they can be seen to the left of the Cliff, Chris and Mark digging the oven features.

The two photos above are from last year, the left hand one showing the 5m trench re-excavating part of Bruton’s old trench. In the foreground can be seen stone work originally thought to be a wall of a building. The right-hand photo shows this stone work at the top of the photo, with the ‘furnace’ now interpreted as an oven in the foreground.

As can be seen left, the new trench revealed very little in the way of stonework except for some random stones at the top of the picture. We now believe that the photos above show remnants of a third oven forming a bank of ovens. Debris from the edge of this third oven is revealed in Nick and Gill’s new test pit.




Banks of ovens are not unusual at Roman military site. Two classic examples, below, can be seen at Caerleon, Newport, Wales (left) and Elginhaugh, Scotland (right).  

At Castleshaw, in the 2014 community excavation, re-digging of an old excavation trench through the eastern defences of the fort revealed that the old trench had cut through the edges of two ovens set into the eastern rampart of the Agricolan fort. Note the similarity with the recently excavated features.

Here is a plan showing the 2014 excavation trenches in light red shading, older excavation trenches in grey, overlying the resistivity survey plot. The stone platform is shown as a blue rectangle and the ovens are in bright red.


Above, the trenches had to be backfilled at the end of the Bank Holiday so here is the team making progress on Trench 1 and then a final group shot before filling in Trench 2.


Dirty Lane

We also put in a line of one metre square test pits close to the fence by Dirty Lane to examine the potential for Roman deposits and to look for evidence of the defensive ditch coming round the corner of the fort defences.

One of the test pits revealed a previously unrecorded old excavation trench (perhaps one of Bruton’s) – this photo shows the dark humic soil backfilling the old trench which is cut into natural yellow clay visible on the left.

Another test pit, below, showed a concentration of stones sealed under the brown plough soil horizon. No Roman finds and these appear to be within the natural clay subsoil.



There was no evidence for the fort ditch but this test pit did pick up the edge of the rampart, showing the individual turves of clay and decayed grass (the black humic material).




21st September

This was the final day’s exploration and once again we were bathed in glorious sunshine! This time we focused on a strip of flattish ground away from the fort on the opposite side of Dirty Lane, as well as undertaking further test pitting on the slope running away from the north-east corner of the fort rampart to confirm the presence/absence of the ditch.

Steve, Mike, Jim and Dave excavating several test pits near where the fort ditch should swing around the north east corner of the defences.

All the test pits were devoid of Roman material and features such as test pit 28, left.

However Test pit 34 was only 3 m from the Friends’ Trench 5 excavation in 2017 which confirmed the presence of the Roman ditch so we must be very near to the terminus and this is something we would like to go back to next year.


On the other side of Dirty Lane, test pitting focused on a promising square earthwork immediately adjacent to the stone wall which bounds the road. 3 test pits were dug close together, by Chris and Mark (top), Nick and Gill (right), Sue and Jayne (bottom).


This test pit dug by Nick and Gill found that the earthwork feature was made up of series of dumps of spoil, possibly from construction of the road and subsequent repairs. The black lines are humic soil horizons represented decayed turf lines. But interestingly there appears to be a shallow ditch at the bottom of the test pit – no finds came from this but it could be Roman in origin and might possibly be a defensive ditch for a military annexe (or enclosure).

Another test pit, dug by Chris and Mark close to the one above, shows the other side of the ditch (running from left to right in bottom half of the test pit. The ditch cuts a Roman deposit which yielded several pieces of melted lead.

Two more test pits, were dug by Mark and Sue roughly opposite the corner of the fort but on the flat ground beside the wall bounding Dirty Lane. The orange bucket to the left and the figure in the middle of the picture show the sites of these two test pits.


There was not enough time to complete the excavation but both test pits showed promise – the  one above left suggesting a negative feature possibly a continuation of the ditch, whilst the other (right) had a concentration of stones. This flattish area adjacent to the north-east corner of the fort will be worthy of more detailed investigations.

And finally

So, all in all, another fascinating few days of archaeological evaluation at Castleshaw Roman Fort. Still no evidence of where the bath house might be but we are certainly narrowing down the areas it could possibly be located, if it ever existed. The work outside the eastern rampart is painting a picture of a possible military annexe that contained banks of ovens and buildings. Could this area have been given over to providing refreshments for travellers climbing the Roman road up to the Pennine pass – the equivalent of a motorway service station?! We have much more to do yet in this area, and of course it is more complicated by the likelihood of later fortlet activity overlying the earlier Agricolan fort archaeology. Fascinating stuff and watch this space for next year’s news.

The above report was written by Norman Redhead, Heritage Management Director (Archaeology) for the GM Archaeological Advisory Service, University of Salford.

Edited, formatted and produced by Jane Neild. Please note with apologies that the formatting isn’t always consistent with viewing on smaller hand held devices.

With grateful thanks to all the wonderful volunteer digging crews for their many hours of selfless hard work (and probably enjoyment!)

And to Phil Barrett (and sometimes Jane Neild) for the Geophyz efforts.

Till next time, I am, faithfully, your Bloggerina





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