Pennocrucium: Roman Penkridge pt4

Introduction: 2015
This is the fourth in a series of articles that ultimately together will make make-up my undergraduate degree dissertation on Roman Penkridge written 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; the third part is on the unidentified, possibly pre-Roman, cropmarks in the studied area, as well as the prehistoric finds. This article is on the several Roman camps in the area and will be followed by articles on the three forts and the final one on the settlement and villa.

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 II: The Roman Camps
Along with the several unidentified cropmarks that appear within our area (see part 3) there are three recognised Roman forts (See fig 5: Stretton, A; Kinvaston, B; and Watling Street, D) and five Roman Camps (see fig 5: three near Stretton, G-I; and two near Water Eaton, E-F). As the camps likely constitute, in my opinion, the earliest phases of Roman construction in the area, they will examined in this section while the forts, settlement and the villa will be in future articles.

The cropmarks and roads around Pennocrucium (after Oldfield 1981)

Fig 5: The cropmarks and roads around Pennocrucium
(after Oldfield 1981)

While little excavation work has been carried out on the forts, no excavation work has been carried out on the camps and, in fact, there has been very little excavation work on camps nationally. The purpose of a camp was varied and sometimes archaeologists attach labels to them if they feel there is enough evidence to justify such a label. So, for example, a ‘marching camp’ is one constructed by soldiers on campaign or simply on the march – and has little internal structure with the soldiers being housed in leather tents. A ‘practice camp’ is a label for those works archaeologists feel have been dug by new recruits or simply to keep the men active – they are characterised by being incomplete, having excessive gate gaps or being isolated corners. Another form of a camp is a ‘labour camp’, which was built for surveyors and troops involved in road building projects for example; but it must be stressed that labelling is generally down to the persuasive argument of the archaeologist that assigns it.

Recently, the Royal Commission for Historic Monuments in England (RCHME) has undertaken a national survey of Roman camps in England, in the hope of enhancing the National Monument Record for this type of site. The results have been written-up by Welfare & Swan (1995). We also have two contemporary literary resources: the ‘Epitoma Rei Militaris’, which was written by Vegetius in the later 4th century AD and the ‘De Munitionibus Castrorum’, written by Hyginius Gromaticus, which is of 1st of 4th century AD origin. Together, they make a fantastic resource for comparing what little we know of the Pennocrucium camps with those nationally and, perhaps, to understand what we should expect to find if the camps were excavated at Pennocrucium.

Welfare and Swan point out that the aim of a camp was to be the simplest defensive enclosure. Defences consisted of either a turf bank , sometimes strengthened with wooden stakes, or one constructed from the spoil material excavated from a ditch or ditches that were on the outside of the bank. The corners of the enclosure would be rounded in true ‘playing card’ fashion. The only breaks in the bank and ditch would be for simple gates.

Gates tended to fall into two categories: they could be of traverse design, where an outer bank and shallow ditch were constructed in front of the gate gap – which can make them difficult to detect archaeologically (the distance between the gate gap and the ditch could also vary considerably – from 1m at North Yardhope to as much as 18m as at Plumpton Head) or alternatively, there was the claviculae gate, where the defences continued to curve into an arc both or either inside or outside the camp, creating a funnelled entrance, as at Troutbeck in Cumbria. Sometimes both systems were employed, as at Chapel Rigg in Northumberland.

Roman camp at Chapel Rigg - showing both kinds of gate, the traverse and claviculae. (Welfare & Swan p84)

Roman camp at Chapel Rigg – showing both kinds of gate, the traverse and claviculae.
(Welfare & Swan p84)

Camp ditches also varied considerably, they could be ‘U’ shaped like at Bromfield in Shropshire or ‘V’ shaped like those at the Swindon camp in Staffordshire. The width of these ditches could also vary, with a range of 1.8m to 2.8m recorded. The depth, again, varies from 0.8m to 1.8m, as recorded at Farnsfield in Nottinghamshire. The ditch may also have incorporated an ‘ankle-breaker’ as well: this was effectively a ditch within a ditch and, as the name suggests, was designed to turn the ankles of an ‘attacker’. If one adds the width of a bank to the width of a ditch, defences could range up to 6.4m (20ft) wide, as they were at Rey Cross in Durham.

According to our literary sources there were standard procedures to building a camp. Ideally, the length and the breadth should be in a ratio of 3:2 and the camp should be laid out on a slight slope with the main gate facing the enemy. The rear gate was ideally at the highest point to give good all around visibility. While the forts and camps at Pennocrucium, well those that are complete anyway, retain regularity, clearly a commander was prepared to abandon it if necessity dictated – as shown by the ‘coffin’ shaped camp at Cawthorn, North Yorkshire.

Water, wood (for fires and building) and fodder should all be close by and, as the place-name evidence already discussed (see part 1) indicates, the vicinity would supply all of these. Guidelines were supplied as to those sites that should be avoided, like forested areas that could offer cover to an enemy for a surprise attack. Ultimately, it seems that local topography, roads (if built), vegetation, troop morale, strength and position of the enemy would, with common sense, affect the overall design and size of a camp.

Dating camps is difficult, as a camp may have only been in use for a day, week or season and therefore the chance of retrieving a datable find is somewhat remote. Further, the camp would have been dismantled after use. Their short lifespan and nature of their use mean that it is even hard to rely on their orientation to a road for example as concrete proof of a date or a construction sequence. Our literary sources don’t help much either: they state that both kinds of gate were used concurrently, so a camp cannot be considered older if it has say a traverse gate and Vegetius gives little away when he says that he regrets that the skill of camp construction had been lost by his day (late 4th century).

The Stretton and Water Eaton Camps were, without doubt, revealed by the biggest advancement in the detection of new sites certainly before the advent of geophysics – that is aerial photography. Thanks to Arnold Baker, who extensively photographed Staffordshire and Shropshire over a number of years, many camps have been discovered. Our camps lie on both sides of the Penk valley, the sides of which generally slope gently, and would have been visible from each other if contemporary.

Camp 1 is the most complete example at Pennocrucium. It lies to the east of the river Penk near a confluence with a small, un-named tributary. The camp, protected by a single ditch, has a north-east/south-west orientation and is almost rectangular in shape, with the north-west end being slightly wider: it is in fact some 162m long with a width varying between 92-97m and while it doesn’t comply with Vegetius’ dimensions it is raised towards the north-west. No gates can truly be discerned, although the modern drain that bisects the camp may have cut through them – and if they were of a shallow-ditched traverse design, no trace may have been left anyway.

Camp 1 from the SW. 1975. (CUCAP BTM 40)

Camp 1 from the south-west, showing the outer ditches and the bisecting drain. 1975. (CUCAP)

The camp is not without difficulty in its interpretation. One may expect a camp to pre-date any of the established forts that were in the area. Judging by the pottery finds we know that the Kinvaston fortress dates most likely to at least the Neronian period (54-68 AD) – although a Claudian date is possible (later 40s-54 AD). Kinvaston, I believe, is the earliest of the structures that had some longevity, so if camp 1 pre-dated it, it would need to be militarily sound and I don’t think it is. It is true to say that that the west side is protected by the Penk around 30m away and the slight scarp, but the site is overlooked both from the south-west and the south-east (by the ground occupied by the alleged camp 2), which would cause it to lose much of its military value.

Camps 1 and 2 (RCHME)

Camps 1 and 2 and the Kinvaston fortress.

I cannot believe this is a practice camp as it simply too complete; nor can I accept that is was a labour camp for road-builders, as it is well away from what would have already been the planned route of Watling St and, as the area would already have been militarised by the Romans, those employed on such a task could have been housed within the Kinvaston fortress.

The camp was clearly vulnerable on its own, so I suggest it must of had a relationship with another feature. There is evidence of several camps on the other side of the Penk, but these are incomplete or frankly, too small – although the alignment between camps 1 and 3 are the same and this camp must date before the construction of the Stretton fort which is vaguely dated between 50-200 AD. Camp 1 does lie over the river from what may have been an Iron Age round house or on the same side as to what may have been a barrow (see fig 5) – near its north-west corner – which may have been used as an observation platform, but I think these unlikely. I can only offer the following suggestion that stories of camps 1, 2 and the Kinvaston fortress are intertwined.

Camp 2 lies around 50m south of camp 1. Little remains of the camp, just the northern rounded angle and parts of the adjoining sides – possibly indicating it was never finished. The north-west ditch is at least 200m long and is realigned after what is arguably a gate gap in similar fashion to the fort at Housesteads. The area bisected by Water Eaton Lane is a natural platform and would surely have been incorporated into the camp, which would make the north-east ditch at least 175m long and giving an internal area of 8 acres – a considerable size.

If camp 2 was constructed during the initial advance by the Romans it gives credence to our literary sources as the rear of the camp would have been higher to give good all round visibility and the orientation of the camp would face the ‘unknown’ to the west.

Saying that, the camp appears to be unfinished and its size, to me, suggests that this was never intended to be a practice work. What it may suggest is that upon arrival in the area a smaller camp (camp 1) was constructed as initial protection, which was then used to house the men that were going to build a larger camp/fort directly to its more vulnerable south on what was to be a better site. Camp 1 would then be backfilled. However, I believe camp 2 was not completed – possibly due to its being upgraded in size and status from a fort to a vexillation fortress – and so a new site was chosen at Kinvaston to accommodate this. Camp 1 was then backfilled and Kinvaston occupied.

Camp 3 is perhaps the most interesting of the camps and the most puzzling. It sits on a naturally raised area most of which is occupied by the later Stretton Mill fort, which was erected over the camp and destroyed parts of it. Parts of the north-east area were also later destroyed by quarrying. The camp was small, around 90m in length and 40m in width and it is orientated on a south-west/north-east alignment.

The Stretton Mill fort, three camps and two unidentified cropmarks (RCHME)

The Stretton Mill fort, three camps and two unidentified cropmarks (RCHME)

The camp was protected along its eastern side by the natural valley scarp, which allowed it good views towards the south although more restricted to the east and west. The purpose of this camp is a little mysterious, as such a small camp would have been vulnerable on its own. As stated earlier, it could have acted in conjunction with camp 1 in protecting the river and possibly the construction of Kinvaston during the initial advance; this is possible, but no connection other than the orientation of the two camps can be detected. Camp 3 could have acted as a forward post – as did Bewcastle to Hadrian’s Wall or Camelon to the Antonine Wall – but I am not convinced.

Yet again, with the lack of any evidence I can offer little but a suggestion. The camp lies underneath the Stretton fort which in itself is only loosely dated to 50-200 AD. While nothing directly links the Stretton fort to the Chester Road nearby, a fort here would make sense. Chester was occupied by the IInd legion in the 70s AD – and the road must have been constructed around this time. It is my belief, and this is discussed in the next article, that the Kinvaston fortress was abandoned at this stage and I can only suggest that camp 3 was originally a labour camp for the road builders for the Chester Rd, who also established the Stretton Mill fort as a permanent garrison (and smaller replacement for Kinvaston) over their makeshift camp – it being the best site around. The Chester Rd/Watling St junction was very important: it must be remembered that Wroxeter was also a legionary fortress itself until around 88 AD, when the XXth were moved to Chester and it became simply a civilian settlement.

Camps 4 and 5 in my opinion were little more than practice works – if they were originally larger then little of them is now discernible. They occupy weak positions, being overlooked from the west, and seem to offer little practical value. Camps 4 and 5 do not interfere with any other earthworks around them, possibly showing that they are contemporary with each other and possibly camp 3 or the unidentified enclosure just above them; saying that, I think the more likely relationship is with disgruntled troops from Stretton fort digging the ditches for practice, as a punishment or just for the sake of it under instruction from a miserable centurion.

So, to conclude the story of the camps. None of the camps occupy as good a positions as the forts that were established. I think that camp 1 was the first Roman establishment within the area and dates to the initial occupation. The slight evidence, discussed under in the next article, suggests Kinvaston followed on – camp 2 being a possible abandoned attempt. Camp 3 is the awkward one – it is either an early foundation along with camp 1, or it could date, as a labour camp, to the Flavian period (70s AD) and the construction of the Chester Road. Camps 4 and 5, I believe, are little more than practice works.

Next article is on the forts at Pennocrucium.

My thanks to:
Welfare & Swan, 1995, Roman Camps In England, RCHME, London, HMSO

Ordnance Survey
Chris Wardle, SMR for Staffordshire County Council (2000)
Cambridge University
National Monuments Record


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