Pennocrucium: Roman Penkridge pt5

Introduction: 2015
This is the fifth and penultimate 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; the fourth article is on the several Roman camps in the area and this one is about the three known forts. The final article will be on the settlement and villa, along with some overall conclusions.

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 III: The Roman Forts
Along with the several unidentified cropmarks (see fig 5: V-Z) and five Roman Camps (see fig 5: three near Stretton, G-I; and two near Water Eaton, E-F) that appear within the Pennocrucium area (see part 3) and there are three recognised Roman forts (See fig 5: Stretton, A; Kinvaston, B; and Watling Street, D). The camps likely constitute, in my opinion, the earliest phases of Roman construction in the area and were discussed in the last article. Camps were transient by their nature, forts were not; they were to be a permanent, or at least semi-permanent, base for military operations.

The cropmarks and roads around Pennocrucium (after Oldfield 1981)

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

There are three types of fort: the fortress was for an entire legion (5,000 men) and both Wroxeter and Chester were the closest fortresses to Pennocrucium; the vexilliation fortress, it has been mooted, dates to around the conquest period and was for housing half a legion – it has been suggested that Kinvaston was one of these; the auxiliary fort was for between 500 – 1,000 troops, be they infantry, cavalry or a mixture of the two. Pennocrucium has two of these.

Depending on their status and longevity, forts would have been built of earth and timber or stone; although stone forts would have likely commenced life as earth and timber constructions. The defences would consist of an earth bank with wooden palisade or a stone wall. Outside of these would be a ditch or series of ditches, surrounding or part covering the perimeter. Natural features would also be used for defence (for example, rivers and cliffs). Like the camps, the three forts 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.

The layout of a fort would vary depending on need, but the buildings it contained would remain pretty much the same. The same playing-card shape as the camps would be employed, with a gate breaking each side and a tower on each ‘corner’. Internal roads and one around the interior perimeter would shape the interior, where would be found, in general, a headquarter’s building (principia), the commander’s accommodation, granaries, workshops, stables, barracks and a latrine. A hospital may also have been found.

A typical fort conjectural layout (Clwyd-Powis Archaeological Trust)

A typical fort conjectural layout (Clwyd-Powis Archaeological Trust)

As with the camps, 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. The same guidelines as for the camps were true for the forts regarding 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 and the purpose of the fort (cavalry as opposed to infantry for example), would with common sense, affect the overall design and size of a fort.

Dating forts is often easier than camps, by virtue of both their longevity (and so locating a datable find) compared to camps and that it is more likely that excavation work will take place; saying that, coins and pottery may only give a broad dating range. Unlike camps, their longer lifespan and nature of their use means that it is more possible to give weight their orientation to a road for example as evidence towards a date or a construction sequence. Anyhow, using what limited evidence there is available, I have attempted a construction sequence for the three forts.

The Kinvaston fort was discovered in 1946, during aerial reconnaissance under taken by JK St Joseph. Kenneth St Joseph had served with RAF Intelligence during the Second World War and in 1948 he became the curator of Cambridge University’s Aerial Photography Unit. St Joseph discovered that Kinvaston was in fact two forts, one inside the other; the larger measuring some 1450ft (east to west) by 775ft (north to south), which is an area of 26 acres, the second fort was shorter on the eastern side by some 400ft, giving an internal area of 18 acres. Both forts were surrounded by a double ditch system, although the larger fort may have had a further outlying ditch.

Camps 1 and 2 (RCHME)

Camps 1 and 2 and the Kinvaston fortress.

Unlike the ditches at Stretton and Wroxeter, which seem comparable (see fig 16), those at Kinvaston give indication of a more gentle slope down into the ditch and a much steeper rise from it. Compared to the ditches at Stretton and Wroxeter, those at Kinvaston appear irregularly shaped (granted this is taken from a section) and the possibility of them being re-cut must not be ignored. The distance between the centres of the two ‘V’ shaped ditches excavated by St Joseph on the west side in 1947 is around 20ft and both the inner and outer ditch were around 16-18ft wide and 6-7ft deep. The ditches were also lined with 2 inches of clay, presumably to avoid erosion. What is clear is that these defences were for a serious military encampment and not a temporary camp like the single ditched camp 1.

In 1972, excavation on the eastern defences of the later fort (the shortened side ditch) produced evidence similar to that of the western defences. In 1973, the eastern and southern defences of the larger fort were sectioned: the inner ditch measured 11ft in width and was 5ft deep and the outer ditch, being a lot smaller, measured 5.5ft in width and some 4ft in depth. No traces of a revetment, rampart or gate were discovered and this may suggest all or some of the following: that the Roman levels have been lost to the plough, the structures were of wood and have been deliberate slighted or dismantled at the end of their service. The outer lying ditch, not shown on the plan above, may have been used to protect an annexe (extension) – it was 10ft in width and 5ft in depth (Jones, 1975, p158)

The plan above also appears to show a ditch or ditches inside the fort. This could simply be the work of later ploughing but it is possible these are ‘practice works’, as there appears to be a ‘gate gap’ equidistant from each end. This ditch seems to head into the fort ditches. If it is military in origin, it is currently impossible to give any kind of relationship to the fort.

Fig 16: Ditch sections for Kinvaston, Stretton and Wroxeter. (JK St Joseph, 1955)

Fig 16: Ditch sections for Kinvaston, Stretton and Wroxeter.
(JK St Joseph, 1955)

Dating Kinvaston is difficult. Most evidence came to light during the excavations of 1954-1956 under the charge of Graham Webster (1955, p100-108), actually, it seems that a landslip in 1955, near the river Penk, uncovered probable Neronian pottery (54 – 68 AD) and definite Flavian pottery (69 – 96 AD). The fort’s siting may also offer a clue to a date or construction – in the fact that the fort appears not to be aligned to any road and is some way from both Watling St and the Chester Rd. The only possible roads that head in its direction are the Eaton House roads (see fig 5 above and article on roads), which interestingly, if the north branch were continued, it would have passed the entrance of the reduced fort. The fort would have been aligned however, with its east-west axis, to the advance into Wales in the conquest years. A possible relationship with camp 1 was also discussed in the last article. What evidence dating that can be suggested seems to me to indicate an early date for the fort (c 47 – 75 AD).

Webster’s excavations also tried to reveal details regarding any internal structures as none seemed to be indicated by the aerial photography. Nothing was traced in situ, and all that really could be gleaned was the likelihood of wooden structures within the fort due to the presence of daub within the trench.

Webster suggested in his conclusions that Kinvaston was  what was termed a vexilliation fortress rather than a simple camp or basic fort. The term was originally coined by Professor Frere (1967, p71). These forts, between 20-30 acres (26.5 acres at Kinvaston), were believed to have been occupied by a detachment of different units, probably including one from a legion. Webster compares the size of the vexilliation fortress to the legionary fortresses of 1st century Britain; Lincoln (40 acres), Inchtuthill (55 acres), Chester (60 acres), York and Caeleon (both 49 acres) – which gives an average of just over 50 acres, making Kinvaston about half the size.

Kinvaston also fits into a pattern of larger, earlier military establishments in the Staffordshire and Shropshire area; Wall (probably), Greensforge (32 acres) and Swindon (38 acres), Bromfield (21 acres), Uffington (44 acres), Stretford Bridge (33 acres), Burlington (38 acres) and Brompton (38 acres). These sites could be ‘lone’ forts, such as Bromfield, or a part of a later nesting of sites, such as Greensforge and, of course, Pennocrucium.

The fact that there are two forts raises a big question; was the fort downsized or re-used after a period of abandonment? I believe the original, larger fort was laid-out during the advance into the area during the conquest and the Caratacan campaign in Wales of AD 51. I believe the importance of Kinvaston would have declined fairly swiftly after the successful conclusion of the campaign, the occupation of Wales and the decision to create a legionary base at Wroxeter around AD 58.

We know the fort was active in the Flavian period, so it may simply have been downsized but remaining commissioned as a support/supply base. Two other possibilities do come to mind. First, the Boudiccan uprising took place in AD 60, forcing Governor Paulinus to withdraw from Wales. If Webster is correct (1978, p97-111) and the confrontation took place near Mancetter then both armies used Watling St to reach each other; so the defences may have been re-cut and shortened at Kinvaston in response to this threat as Paulinus raced southward. The second possibility is that Kinvaston was re-fortified when Rome decided to march north into Brigantes territory around the year AD 71. I believe the fort was decommissioned in favour of a smaller fort at Stretton Mill when the road to Chester was completed and the II Legion headquarters was moved there in the AD 70s.

The Stretton Mill fort lies 1,000ft north of Watling St on the west side of the river Penk. It is orientated north-west/south-east. It sits on a naturally raised area and it actually overlies part of must be one of the earlier Roman camps (camp 3, see below and previous article). Its tactical position is good, being on a level platform with a gentle slope down to a marshy hollow and then onto the Penk that protects the south-east of the fort.

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

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

The fort was also discovered by aerial photography in 1946 and it showed that the fort was protected on three sides by a double-ditch. The enclosure was then subject of a small excavation the following year by JK St Joseph (1951, p50-52). These excavations revealed that the ditches were ‘V’ shaped, the inner being 10-12ft in width and 6ft in depth and the outer being 9ft in width and 5 ft in depth. The ditches were lined in clay as a precaution against decay due to the crumbling nature of the soil.

Interestingly, the silt at the bottom of the inner ditch was covered in ‘turfy’ material, consistent with its proximity to eroding turf rampart over a period of time; although ‘decay time’ is somewhat irregular, and experiments at the Lunt fort gave around 8 years before the ditches needed clearing, this evidence suggests the fort was operational for at least that period of time – but also that it seemingly wasn’t maintained.

A poor copy of JK St Joseph's photo of 1946.

A poor copy of JK St Joseph’s photo of 1946.

No remains of the rampart or revetments were found in position, which St Joseph estimated would have been around 20ft thick, suggesting that the fort was deliberately dismantled at some stage. Saying that, with hard sub-soil around 18 inches from the surface, as at Kinvaston, continued ploughing may have destroyed the Roman levels. A large trench inside the fort also failed to find any evidence for internal structures and gates; in fact all that was discovered was the neck of a red flagon and a piece of Samian ware, which can only place the fort to a vague and fairly useless period between AD 50 – 200.

Aerial photo of the site in 1971 (WA Baker)

Aerial photo of the site in 1971 (J Pickering)

The internal area is hard to gauge, as the south-east defence may have been cut-back to reduce the size of the fort or extended to include an annexe; indeed, Arnold Baker believed there were two forts occupied at different times by different auxiliary troops (Webster, 1981, p76). The annexe option is perhaps more likely, as this face of the fort is naturally protected and maybe could afford  single ditch protection (it may have been a double-ditch). Also, an examination of the ditches revealed an indentation, in the east corner, where the ditch would normally have continued around (see above). This suggests that the annexe was a later addition to me. The area covered by the fort, including the annexe, was given by JK St Joseph as 3.6 acres.

The use of an annexe was by no means unusual and it is interesting to compare the design of the Stretton fort with other early sites linked to it by the road system; namely Wall, Metchley and Greensforge. The Neronian/Flavian fort at Wall is still undergoing excavation by the Staffordshire Archaeological & Historical Society and has not been clearly defined, where as those at Metchley and Greensforge have (see below)

Metchley (left), the larger fort was 14.5 acres, the reduced fort half the size. (Webster). Greensforge (right) 9.7 acres (welfare & Swan)

Metchley (left), the larger fort was 14.5 acres, the reduced fort half the size. (Webster). Greensforge (right) 9.7 acres (Welfare & Swan)

Despite their size difference it is tempting to suggest that these forts were designed to a set plan around the same time – but suggest is all we can do. I would go further and say that these were forts that had been converted from active fortifications to support and supply bases after the significant threat has been removed – Metchley is Neronian, but is further east than the other forts and so would have qualified as out of the front line sooner.

While nothing directly links the Stretton fort to the Chester Road nearby, a fort here would make sense as a replacement for Kinvaston due to its size and location. 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 that the Kinvaston fortress was abandoned at this stage and the focus switched to the Stretton Mill fort. 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.

The Watling St fort perhaps occupies the best position of all the military establishments in the area, as it gives extensive views in all directions by utilising the highest ground available. It was only positively identified by aerial photography in the early 1960s and was captured again in 1970.

The Watling St fort (Webster, 1981, plate 9)

The Watling St fort
(Webster, 1981, plate 9)

The fort appears more square than rectangular in shape, being around 480ft x 480ft. The platform of the fort is clearly distinguishable and some traces of the defences are still detectable. A prominent mound marks the position of the west rampart, which seems to have been incorporated into a later medieval system of ridge and furrow. The other ramparts are marked by slight mounds and the aerial photographs do show evidence of a double-ditch system on the north and eastern sides of the enclosure.

According to JK St Joseph, in 1965 (1965, p76-77) the site was being ploughed to a depth of 18 inches. Field-walking revealed light-coloured ‘turfy’ soil from the rampart, burnt oven-debris, gravel from the intervellum (road around the interior of the fort) and daub from former wooden buildings. The gravel from the central north-south aligned road was also detected, unfortunately it isn’t known if this connected to Watling St but the likelihood is very high. Although it can be dangerous to take camp-road alignments as dating evidence, it may not be so with forts: their permanent nature requires suitable access. The Watling St fort is the only fortification south of Watling St and it is aligned to both Watling St at its north gate and the possible route of the Greensforge road prior to its diversion into the settlement site at its west gate.

The Watling St fort in relationship to the settlement andthe road. (Welfare & Swan)

The Watling St fort in relationship to the settlement andthe road.
(Welfare & Swan)

Once again, direct dating evidence is lacking as no excavation work has been undertaken. The few finds were recorded from the top soil after ploughing; these being a fragment of rusticated ware, some samian ware fragments, an amphora neck, a mortaria (a shallow mixing bowl) and a gritstone quern (indicating grain processing on site). These help little with a firm date and, more so, may actually be contamination from the later settlement site.

The is strong reasoning to accept this fort as the last of the truly military establishments at Pennocrucium. Added to the orientation evidence, there is the topographical evidence: in that the Kinvaston and Stretton would have been supplied with water from the Penk, this fort, unless it had a well, would have relied on a small stream – maybe indicating the site was considered very secure. Further, and more telling, it that the settlement site is adjacent, suggesting it grew from a vicus that sprang-up around this fort and on the road junction on Watling St. Dating evidence from the settlement would suggest this was right towards the end of the 1st century AD.

Final article is on the forts at Pennocrucium.

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

Ordnance Survey
Clwyd-Powis Archaeological Trust
Chris Wardle, SMR for Staffordshire County Council (2000)
Cambridge University
National Monuments Record
Frere,S 1967 Britannia vol 8, London, SPRS
St Joseph, JK 1951 Roman Forts on Watling St, Birmingham AS Trans vol 73
St Joseph, JK 1956 The Roman Site Near Stretton, Birmingham AS Trans vol 74
St Joseph, JK 1965 Air Reconnaissance in Britain 1961-1964, JRS vol 55
Webster, G 1955 Further Excavations at Kinvaston, Birmingham AS Trans vol 73
Webster, G 1978 Boudicca, London, Batsford.
Webster, G 1981 Rome Against Caratacus, London, BCA