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The Romans in Derbyshire


The Camp in the Field

A surprisingly large audience of around five hundred gathered at a public meeting at the Winding Wheel in Chesterfield in 2003 to hear Professor John Walker, the Director of the Department of Archaeology at Manchester University deliver the results of his findings following the latest archaeoligical "˜dig' in the town. But the bearded and bespectacled Professor, who described himself as "˜simply a sad fat man who digs holes in the ground' revealed far more information about "˜Roman Chesterfield' than did the actual ground that he and his team had recently excavated!

After explaining that archeology was "not exactly rocket science"? Mr Walker went on to say that as an academic subject it was "˜imprecise' and that his job was to "read the signs and interpret the ground - thus, by its very nature archeology is speculative, open to interpretation, and this is why everything we claim for Roman Chesterfield must be prefixed by the word possible"?. For example, on the outline map showing the extent of Roman Chesterfield the site is marked of the "˜possible extent of the fort ditch'; by the same token, and despite the widely accepted fact that the Roman road of Ryknield Street passed close to the eastern boundary of the "˜possible' fort - following the course of Lordsmill Street and St.Mary's Gate from Derby Road and up past the Crooked Spire - there has never been any "˜hard evidence' on the ground to actually confirm that a Roman road passed through the site of the later town at all! Hard factual evidence of this road, (Ryknield Street) - which ran from Derventio (Derby) to the Roman fort at Templeborough (Rotherham) - have been found as far north as Wingerworth and as far south as the Yorkshire border beyond Barlborough. In between these two points the "˜possible' course of Ryknield Street reputedly runs directly through Chesterfield!

Roy Cooper, in his excellent "˜Book of Chesterfield' (1977) opens his first chapter with, "Early man came close, but the Romans created Chesterfield. Before their time, the site was simply a spur of high ground to the west of the marshy valley of the Rother"?. This may have to be reviewed in the light of the "˜Revised Chesterfield Chronology' revealed by the Manchester University team whose recent discoveries suggest the pre-existence of an Iron Age ditched hilltop enclosure on the site of the later Roman fort.

Iron Age Derbyshire
Prior to the Romans arrival here in 60 - 69AD the area around Chesterfield was controlled by the Brigantes who were led by the Celtic warrior Queen Cartimandua. This was border country and Chesterfield marked the invisible dividing line between north and south and was strategically valuable because of its position in the centre of the country, almost equidistant from both east and west coasts. Frequent tribal battles took place in this area, and it is possible that the hilltop site of the later Roman fort was originally a defensive stronghold for the southernmost outpost of the Brigantes.

The Romans Arrive!
When the Romans arrived in the Trent Valley there was a population explosion and many new farms were established to grow grain and other crops in order to supply the vast legions who were pushing north. These grew alongside the newly constructed roads, as evidenced by Roman Farmsteads discovered at Roystone Grange, near Minninglow, which stands alongside The Street, the Roman road which ran from Derby (Derventio) to Buxton, and others alongside Hereward Street and beside Rykneild Street at both Higham and Pentrich.

All who resisted were mercilessly put to the sword and their villages destroyed. The conquered Celts and Britons were enslaved, used as forced labour in the massive road building programme, and were sent in as front line troops wherever the Imperial Roman Army met with native resistance.

The Imperial Roman Army consisted of 50% "˜regular soldiers' and a 50% auxiliary force of conquered and integrated natives. The Romans established forts in Derbyshire at Buxton, Little Chester, Derby (Derventio), Chesterfield (Castrafeld), Brough (Navio), and Glossop (Melandra/Ardotalia). There was also a small fort at Pentrich along Rykneild Street.

Queen Cartimandua was possibly the first Derbyshire lead trader, for she collaborated with the invading army and signed a treaty with Rome very early in the campaign. Thus in parts of Derbyshire the local tribal population worked willingly alongside the Romans in the mining of lead, but by the time Julius Agricola's force arrived at Chesterfield around the year 70 AD she had betrayed her husband Venutius, who in turn caused an uprising which led to the Romans finally defeating the Brigantes and annexing their land.

The Roman Fort of Castrafeld was built and occupied by a Cohort of 480 Roman soldiers between 69 AD and 117 AD. Only commanding officers were allowed to marry and have their wives and families with them on such a campaign, although the legionnaires - all over the minimum height of 5'-8"?, aged between 20 and 25 and of "˜honourable family status' - were allowed to have their girlfriends along, so the fort at Chesterfield would have contained possibly 1000 people. It also had two Vicus (civilian settlements) outside the confines of the fort to the south and east. No civilians were allowed inside.

There was a less intensive occupation as the Roman army moved north and Castra-feld became more or less a supply depot, a staging post for food and supplies being transported north to feed the troops from the fertile Trent Valley. After the completion of Hadrian's Wall and the later Antonine Wall, the Roman province of Britain was finally settled and after about 175 AD the fort at Castra-feld saw only sporadic civil activity and was eventually abandoned.

The most recent excavations at Vicar Lane prior to the construction of the new shopping complex were outside the fort, and the post-holes of two or three buildings confirmed this as the site of the south Vicus. According to the sketch produced by the university archaeologists, the centre of the original fort was about 50 yards to the west of the Crooked Spire in the area currently occupied by Woolworths. From this point the fort complex extended outwards for about 75 yards in all directions. An annex was added to the south between 140-150 AD, by which time the eastern Vicus just to the north of Spa Lane was out of use.

The major find from the latest excavations around the Vicar Lane/Vicarage Gardens area was a large, almost intact Roman jar which is said to be "˜Trent Valley Ware' from the late first century AD. This is currently on display in the Chesterfield Museum along with other archaeological artefacts from the Roman period, including the wonderfully preserved and well presented selection of Roman coins from the Morton hoard found in the 1980's, and the large hoard found at Grassmoor in 1998.

The archaeological team also found "˜tantalising suggestions of an Anglo-Saxon presence but little hard evidence'. What they did find in the area that was once the vicarage gardens was evidence of a 13th century Post-Mill used for grinding corn, and the remains of a 13th century builders yard! Could this have stored material for the later foundations of the Crooked Spire?

One mystery remains, as John Walker explained:
"The name Castra-feld which the Romans gave to this place, meant literally "˜standing walls in a field'. This suggests that when the Romans first arrived here they found pre-existing standing stone-built walls. Subsequent archeology has failed to find any trace of them, so what did the Romans see, either in or near this place, that caused them to name it thus"?? Perhaps there is another mystery lying beneath the surface of pre-Roman Chesterfield just waiting to be unearthed?

The Romans farmed, built potteries, mined lead and began opening up trading routes which fully utilised their new roads, and the legacy left by them can still be traced today in place names and roads throughout the county.


The Romans put the salt in Saltergate!

Saltergate. The name is known by soccer fans throughout the land as the home of Chesterfield Football Club, and perhaps more importantly, it is also the home of my editor and the staff of Reflections Magazine.

Bosses at both establishments have a track record for bemoaning the efforts of their charges by frequently complaining that they are "˜not worth their salt' - whilst the charges themselves, footballers and scribes alike, proclaim themselves "˜the salt of the earth' and complain about their meagre "˜salaries' - all of which may make for a "˜seasoned' argument, but still begs the question, "˜who did put the salt in Saltergate?'. Perhaps it was the Romans? After all, it was they who gave the word "˜salt' to the English language; Roman soldiers were partly paid in salt, in fact the word "˜soldier' comes from the latin "˜sal dare', meaning "˜to give salt', and from the same source we get the word "˜salary'. A Roman soldier who didn't do his duty properly was said to be "˜not worth his salt', a phrase which is still used today.

Even the bible compliments some men as being "˜the salt of the earth' - and from biblical times up to the late Middle Ages to sit above or below the salt identified precedence in the seating arrangements at a feast according to ones rank in society.

Apart from its historical significance, the humble grain of salt plays a major and vital role in all our lives. Without salt we cannot live. It is found in every cell of the human body and in fact, an average human body contains about 250 grammes of salt. It ensures the transmission of nerve impulses to and from the brain, and the contractions of the heart and other muscles; it is necessary to the flow of nutrients around the body and is vital for the digestion of food.

The Romans knew all this, and when Caesar first landed in Britain in 55 BC he brought with him his "˜salinators' or salt-makers - only to find to his amazement that the native Britons already had their own long established flourishing salt industry!

Archaeologists have found evidence of a pre-Roman, iron-age salt industry centred between Middlewich and Crewe in Cheshire.Neolithic trade-routes crossed the salt-fields and throughout recorded history "˜saltways' have been travelled by pack-horse teams carrying salt from Cheshire to all parts of the country. Vestiges of these ancient routes are recalled today in names like Saltersford, Salterswell, Salterwall, Saltersgate - and Saltergate.
Street names can tell us much about our history, and Saltergate, first recorded in 1285, literally meant "˜salt-way entrance' - or "˜salt-gate' - into the town. In medieval times the market town of Chesterfield stood at a major crossroads where the old Roman road of Rykneld Street which ran south to north and the ancient "˜saltway' from Cheshire, which ran from west to east crossed.
These major routes led directly to the old market place which in those days stood at Holywell Cross. Modern Saltergate begins where Ashgate Road ends at the junction with Foljambe Road, and continues into the town as far as Holywell Street - the site of the original market place. The original `saltway' - or Saltergate - followed exactly the same route, pre-dating the medieval road of that name and was probably in existence as an east - west route long before the Romans ever set foot in Derbyshire.

Of course, salt was in use long before recorded history. Over many millenia man learned how salt helped to preserve food, cure hides, heal wounds, and early nomadic tribes would have carried salt with them and traded it for other goods.

About 4,700 years ago one of the earliest known Chinese writings recorded more than 40 different types of salt and described two basic methods of extracting and processing it, and those same methods have remained unchanged for almost 5,000 years.

Evidence of late Iron Age salt production has been found in many areas of Britain including Teesside, Tyneside, Worcestershire, East Anglia and Cheshire. The Domesday survey records the existence of 1,195 "˜salinae' or "˜salterns' along the coast between Lincolnshire and Cornwall, the main concentrations being in Sussex and Norfolk. But of all these only Cheshire remains as a major centre for edible white salt production, although rock salt is still mined in Teesside and Northern Ireland. The Domesday Book also provides the first written evidence of salt in Cheshire, giving considerable space to the three "˜Wiches' at Northwich, Middlewich and Nantwich, ("˜wich' is Anglo-Saxon for "˜salt town').

The Romans actually named Middlewich "˜Salinae' and excavations there have revealed brine kilns and lead salt pans indicating a major Roman industry. Roman production methods were simple; they collected saturated brine from natural springs and then evaporated the brine in open lead pans over a fire to retrieve the salt crystals. The need for lead in order to make the pans resulted in a trading exchange across the pennines which continued for many centuries afterwards, with pack-horse teams of up to 40 animals carrying salt from Cheshire and returning laden with lead from Derbyshire.

Each pack-horse, usually the small "˜Galloway' ponies later used in coal mines, could carry 120 lbs in each of two panniers, thus allowing the transportation of over four tons of salt or lead in a single journey.

Salt production also helped shape the landscape: Roman lead pans had been small, about 30 - 40cm square, but following the Norman Conquest pans grew considerably larger. By the fourteenth century pans made from sheets of cast lead measured about 170cm x 90cm, and vast areas of Royal Forest in Cheshire and Derbyshire were cut down for fuel to evaporate the brine. Iron pans were introduced between 1620 -30 and timber controls were tightened in the rapidly depleting forests, with coal arriving on the same pack-horse trains that took salt to the growing industrial centres in Derbyshire, Staffordshire and Lancashire. In 1670 vast beds of rock salt were discovered around the Cheshire "˜wiches' and production quadrupled. Huge iron pans the size of swimming pools were heated by coal - it took about one ton of coal to make two tons of salt - and when the river Weaver was opened for navigation in 1721 over half a million tons of white salt was annually barged downriver to Liverpool for export, and by 1860 this had risen to one million tons.

Slowly boiled brine produced large crystal salt used amongst other things for salting fish, whilst fast simmering brine created finer crystals. These were shovelled into wooden tubs and placed into a hot house until the salt dried into solid blocks; this was sold as "˜lump' salt for cooking and table use. The development of vacuum evaporation, first used in Liverpool sugar refining in 1812, was applied to salt making with the first vacuum plant being built at Winsford in 1905. In 1948 ICI finally produced granular salt by shaping crystals in a strong up-current of brine and this finally replaced the coarser grades of open pan salt. The last open pan salt was produced in Cheshire in 1986, bringing to a close a method that had survived there for at least two thousand years. The salt industry remains the largest and oldest commercial industry in the world, and today salt is used in more than 14,000 different commercial products. It is the life-blood of all life, whether plant, fish or animal - and you can bet your life that though he remain anonymous, whoever was responsible for putting the salt in Saltergate certainly earned his salary - and was most definitely worth his sodium chloride!

After the Romans, much of the salt coming across the Pennines from Cheshire was brought along former Saxon trading routes by pack-horse trains and ended up at Chesterfield Market, the longest established business in town, which has been trading successfully for at least eight hundred years!

This article has been brought to you by our resident peak district writer Tom Bates