Pennocrucium: Roman Penkridge pt3

Introduction: 2015
This is the third in a series of articles that ultimately together will make make-up my undergraduate degree dissertation from back in 1999/2000. The first article dealt with the introductions followed by the location, extent, topography and the origins of Pennocrucium as a place-name. The second dealt with the road system, known and suggested. This third part is a short article on the unidentified, possibly pre-Roman, cropmarks in the studied area, as well as the prehistoric finds – and it will act as a prequel to the examination of the Roman forts, camps, settlement and villa in the forthcoming articles.

Please remember, these articles are a product of their time: I have not kept track of any advances at the site since 1999, so much more may be known now, and equally the illustrations are now a little dated (I have had to photograph those in the project and dissertation and make them as clear as I can). Penkridge is a little out of this Blog’s area, however, the places referred to will be known to everyone locally (anyone that has driven from the Gailey island towards Brewood has gone through or past these sites). Finally, I have re-written parts for certain reasons, but ultimately it remains a dissertation – in other words it wasn’t written for the Wyrleyblog audience but to impress the University – so please bear that in mind and I hope some find it of interest.

Pennocrucium: Construction Sequence Evidence

Part I: The Unidentified Cropmarks
There are several cropmarks that appear within our area that are curious to say the least and I believe need to be examined separately rather than placed into an attempted construction sequence for the Roman features at Pennocrucium (see fig 5: W-Z).

The cropmarks and roads around Pennocrucium (after Oldfield 1981)

Fig 5: The cropmarks and roads around Pennocrucium, the unidentified are marked W-Z. Remember to click on photo to enlarge (after Oldfield 1981)

I first started investigating this site in 1996 for an A-level project, and so at that time I consulted the Staffordshire Sites and Monuments Record; to my dismay, the Record offered vague descriptions and subsequently dates for these marks, if they mentioned them at all. The truth is that the marks, which can be seen in better detail on the Welfare & Swan maps below, could simply be anything from a prehistoric or Roman ditch to a medieval plough mark. It may seem like a futile gesture to try to explain such markings one-by-one and I agree, however, there are four markings that really cannot be ignored no matter how tenuous the suggestions proffered.

Cropmarks are evidence of fixed archaeological features and owe their existence to the level of moisture that the surface crop can draw upon in order to grow, so for example, a buried wall will starve a crop of moisture and stunt its growth. Aerial photographs and geophysics can often give insights into such features, but a better understanding will generally be gained through excavation or other field work, such as field walking, metal detecting or pollen analysis in order to retrieve portable finds or environmental data for example. As the name suggests, portable finds are usually items that originate in one place and then are transported to a site and left deliberately or by accident.

The Sites and Monuments Record lists several finds made locally that show the landscape was exploited by people long before the arrival of the Romans.

A palstave with ring, the description of the now lost axe-head from 1726. (J-M B Alvarez)

A palstave with ring, the description of the now lost axe-head from 1726. (J-M B Alvarez)

The first of these, and the oldest, was a scatter of flint cores and flakes found in the area of the crossing of Watling St over the River Penk, along with a flint scatter from Ivy House Lane in Brewood and a pebble hammer found near to the Rowley tumulus: all of these could be Lower Palaeolithic in origin (250,000 years ago, at least). Near the bridge over the Penk was also found a flint barbed arrowhead that is possibly of the same date, but maybe as recent as the Bronze Age (c 1,500 BC). In 1726 a looped bronze palstave (axe-head) was found and exhibited at the Society of Antiquities, but has since been lost – a part of a second plastave was also found recently near Stretton. An Iron Age (500 BC – AD 43) horse bit was also recovered from near Broom Hall and a believed Iron Age bowl from north of Brewood.

The Stretton Mill fort, three camps and two unidentified cropmarks

The Stretton Mill fort, three camps and two unidentified cropmarks (Welfare & Swan)

Moving to the cropmarks, the first two features can be found near the Stretton Mill fort, as seen above, to the west of the River Penk. They are part of a cluster of features that take in the fort, what are described as Roman camps 3, 4 and 5 and then the two unmarked features that I label W and X on Oldfield’s plan (fig 5).  The Sites and Monuments Record (now on-line) describe the two features as being, ‘Cropmark features including a ring ditch and linear features immediately north-east of Stretton Mill Roman Camp or Fort (PRN 00061). Some of the latter have been interpreted as representing Roman temporary camps, but the interpretation is open to question. The whole area is overlain by ridge and furrow earthworks.’ The dating is placed vaguely at 3,000 BC to AD 409.

Unidentified 1 (fig 5:W), at first glance, could be taken as a similar cropmark to those described as Roman camps that are adjacent to it, in that like them it too looks like an unfinished enclosure of some kind – the Roman features will be discussed in the next article. With no evidence to work with, the conclusion would be that this seems most likely; saying that, the observation must be made that the corners are in fact square rather than the rounded corners expected from a Roman military feature. There also appears to be a small gap in the ditch, possibly indicating some sort of entrance.

Unidentified 2 (fig 5:X) is far more interesting. It appears to be a circular feature surrounded on three sides by a rectangular ditch. This must be seen as structural remains and is located too far from Stretton Mill to be something modern, like a water tower. The square corners make a Roman military provenance doubtful, but it could be civil.

Iron Age farmstead at Thorpe Thewles, Cleveland, shows a strong likeness to unidentified 2 cropmark at Pennocrucium (Millett)

Iron Age farmstead at Thorpe Thewles, Cleveland, shows a strong likeness to unidentified 2 cropmark at Pennocrucium (Millett)

If it isn’t Roman, what could it be? Well, I was struck with the likeness of the crop feature at Penkridge with that of Thorpe Thewles in Cleveland. Thorpe Thewles is an Iron Age farmstead, although they obviously continued into the Roman period – there was no mass conversion in AD 43! I suppose it could possibly be a temple, like Hayling Island in Hampshire, but from observation alone I very much favour the farmstead. It is possible that those farming here ended-up at Engleston Villa – or were supplanted by it – in the 2nd century.


Unidentified cropmarks 3 and 4 are on the West side of the River Penk (Welfare & Swan)

The second two unidentified features lie on the east side of the River Penk, but somewhat apart (fig 5: Y-Z). They are very different in character from both the other unidentified cropmarks and to the surrounding Roman ones. As with first unidentified features, the Sites and Monuments Record date these features vaguely as between the prehistoric to the Roman.

Unidentified 3 is intriguing (fig 5:Y); it is a ring ditch that lies next to the River Penk, just north of camp 1, and measures some 35-40 metres in diameter. It appears to contain an inner ring ditch, with a possible entrance directly facing the River Penk at its closest point. A second feature, a single linear one, seems to bisect the entire ring ditch and extend some 5 metres beyond this. The neat bisection indicates to me that there is a connection between the two, but it may of course be just later medieval ridge and furrow that happens, by coincidence, to split the feature neatly.

Once again, the origins of this cropmark could be modern for all we know, although nothing appears on the 25″ OS maps from the 1880s onward to suggest as such; equally it could be ancient in origin, but if that is the case then surely there must be some suggestion as to what it could be.

If it is pre-Roman, then the site maybe consistent with a ploughed out Bronze Age burial barrow. By the Bronze Age (c 2,500 BC) the Neolithic long barrows were out of fashion and some of these barrows could reach 50 metres in diameter (Pearson, 1994, p91) – much larger than this proposed one. A barrow would not be out of place juxtaposed with the River Penk and it could add further weight to origins of the name of Pennocrucium – ‘the chief or hilly mound’. Saying that, this barrow would be significantly larger than the Rowley Hill tumulus, which is 24 metres in diameter, and the function of the bisecting ditch would need to be explained.

If it is a Roman feature then it seems to me that it must strongly be connected with the first camp or the vexilliation fortress at Kinvaston, giving it an early date, otherwise it would be an anomaly separated from the later Roman features. Saying that, it must surely have been constructed when the main fear of a military threat had gone, otherwise, as it is outside of the forts, it would be military hazard. It is surely too large to be a shrine, but then there are a couple of possibilities of what it could be – although I am not overly happy with any option.

The first possibility, as a circular feature, could be a gyrus – an example of which can be found at the Lunt fort at Coventry. A gyrus was a cavalry training ring, the example at the Lunt being 34 metres in diameter – so about the size of the Pennocrucium feature. It has been suggested that the gyrus at the Lunt may have also been used to corral and ‘break’ in horses seized after the collapse of the Boudiccan revolt in AD 61 (Rylatt, The Lunt Roman Fort). Kinvaston would have been occupied at this time and so may have had a similar resource for the same function – however, there are two problems with this interpretation: the gyrus at the Lunt had a funnelled entrance and was also positioned inside the fort.

A second option, looking at the possible concentric circular nature of the feature, is a small amphitheatre. I am not suggesting anything on the level of sophistication of Caerleon, but it is concentric (elliptical, rather than circular) and the bisecting ditch could be explained as a drainage channel as shown at Caerleon.

The amphitheatre at Caerleon shows a drainage ditch bisecting the building. (Knight, 1988, p31-38)

The amphitheatre at Caerleon shows a drainage ditch bisecting the building.
(Knight, 1988, p31-38)

Amphitheatres varied in size, although at around 35 metres this one would be small. The purpose of such a construction, I can only guess, would be to entertain the large body of troops at the Kinvaston vehiliation fortress, but I do remain sceptical.

The smaller, cruder, yet significant amphitheatre at Caerwent - 65m in diameter. (Wacher)

The smaller, cruder, yet significant amphitheatre at Caerwent – 65m in diameter.

Unidentified 4 (fig 5:Z) is equally bizarre. It is located to the south of the Kinvaston fortress. The Sites and Monuments Record describes it as ‘an irregular enclosure containing two sub-circular enclosures and linear features. There has been some debate over the form of the enclosure, at one point it was seen to be rectangular and interpreted as a possible Roman temporary camp. These features appear to be overlain by medieval ridge and furrow.’ It goes onto say, ‘In 1984 K. Fellows reported discovery of two silver coins in this enclosure. One is of Paullus Aemilius Lepidus of 55 BC… cropmarks show the enclosure to be irregular and to contain two sub-circular enclosures and linear features and also a second contemporary enclosure to the west. All suggests this is not a Roman camp.’

Again, the square corners and the overall irregularity of the shape suggest it is not of Roman military origin and likely belongs to an earlier period. The coin does not date the feature simply the coin itself, which would have stayed in circulation for a long period of time. Initially, further round houses seemed a likely candidate, but they would be significantly smaller than the possible one at unidentified 1.

What is clear is that the unidentified features, like the identified Roman ones, need a lot more investigation through geophysical surveys, field-walking and excavation before much can be said categorically on their origins.

Part 4 coming soon – this part is dedicated to Andrew Penny, my old O-Level History teacher at Hodge Hill School.

My thanks to:
Knight, JK 1988 Caerleon Roman Fortress, Cardiff, CADW
Lynam, C(ed) 1908 VCH vol 1, Oxford, OUP
Millett, M 1995 Roman Britain, London, Batsford
Pearson, M 1994 Bronze Age Britain, London, Batsford
Percival, J 1981 The Roman Villa, London, Batsford
Rivet & Smith 1982 Place-Names of Roman Britain, London, Batsford
Rylatt, M ud The Lunt Roman Fort, Coventry, City of Coventry Leisure Dept
Wacher, J 1976 Towns of Roman Britain, London, BCA
Webster, G 1983 The Roman Site at Wall, London, HMSO
Welfare & Swan, 1995 Roman Camps in England, London, HMSO

Ordnance Survey
Chris Wardle, SMR for Staffordshire County Council (2000)
National Monuments Record
J-M B Alvarez
D Oldfield

  1. […] Pennocrucium: Roman Penkridge pt3 […]

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