Pennocrucium: Roman Penkridge pt6

Introduction: 2015
This is the final in a series of articles that ultimately together will make make-up my undergraduate degree dissertation on Roman Penkridge, which was 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; the fifth was on the three known forts and this 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 IV: The Roman Settlement and Villa
The settlement of Pennocrucium lies astride Watling St, like the fort at Housesteads (Hadrian’s Wall) lay astride the Military Way and the settlement at Corbridge astride the Stanegate. The settlement site at Pennocrucium would really be the prime location in the area for a civil development; it is on high ground and would not only have initially had a Roman garrison to financially exploit, but plenty of passing trade as it was at the junction of several major roads. Its origins are far from clear: the surrounding military ditches give the impression that it may have grown from a fort itself, but limited dating evidence suggests to me that it started out as a vicus (that is a civil settlement attracted by a military installation, for example) around the Watling St fort in the latter 1st century AD.

The settlement - see caption

The settlement – see caption – click photos to enlarge.

In 1947, Professor JK St Joseph began his limited excavations on the north side of the settlement (1956, p1-5) and by his own admission, these were far from extensive. He undertook an investigation of the ditch system (see fig: 20), which proved to be a triple ditch system, over 80 ft wide, with the middle ditch showing signs of re-cutting. No trace of a rampart could be found, although it must be remembered that the 5-acre site has been subjected to continual ploughing since the medieval period – indeed, the deep furrows of the medieval ploughs are still evident in the aerial photographs

The settlement - see caption.

The settlement – see caption.

St Joseph went on to excavate several exploratory trenches in the interior of the northern half of the settlement – covering over a 200 ft stretch of Watling St. He claimed to have uncovered three of the 12-15 ft wide cobbled lanes that sub-divided the settlement. Suggested by the depth of the surface soils, St Joseph thought that the buildings on the road frontage, between the lanes, appeared to be timber constructions that grew organically and they possibly had rear gardens. He also offered two clear occupation phases with the first ending around the time of an extensive fire, as indicated by the carbonised wood and clay found in the cobbles of the lanes.

The finds were disappointing: the coin evidence, a dupondius of Vespasian (AD 69-79), an as of Nerva (AD 96-98) and an as of Antoninus Pius (AD 138-161) can only give a terminus post quem (meaning a ‘date after which’ – the dupondius dates to Vespasian, so the earliest it can date to is AD 69), as they were found in an un-stratified context anyway. The pottery (see fig: 21a) ranges from the 1st to the late 3rd centuries AD, indicating a substantial occupation period. Now housed at the Birmingham Museum, the finds included part of a Samian ware dish stamped CVTI.MA (dated to AD 81-117), a fragment of ‘rusticated’ jar in  ‘blue-grey’ ware and fragments mug handle and amphorae neck.

Pottery found by St Joseph. See caption.

Pottery found by St Joseph. See caption.

These excavations were followed up in 1953/4 by work on the southern section. Once again, these were small-scale excavations and were ‘insufficient to establish a dating sequence for the structures found; but there was evidence for at least two (possibly three) periods of occupation’. (Barton, 1956, p7).

The first period of occupation, represented by a gravel layer, pottery (see fig 21b) and clay dates to the late 1st – early 2nd centuries AD. The pottery, now also at Birmingham Museum, consisted of a piece of decorated Samian ware (AD 81-117), some ‘Flavian’ pieces of Samian ware (AD 69-96) and some unlisted Samian ware fragments. Sometime after Hadrian’s reign – and placed somewhere between AD 130-160, as Hadrianic pottery was found underneath, large cobbled pavements were laid down. This may represent a period of prosperity for the settlement, which if it did, came to an end with its destruction by fire at some point between the latter half of the 3rd century and around AD 320. This supports St Joseph’s analysis of his excavations; it would suggest either the deliberate sacking or levelling of the settlement, both unlikely to me, or the widespread accidental damage to the site that resulted in abandonment – which, to me, is more likely.

Pottery from the 1953/4 excavations - see caption

Pottery from the 1953/4 excavations – see caption

Further small-scale works were carried out in 1956 when the road was widened; Webster’s notes (1956, p10-11) are vague and claim that the ‘road works’ were carried out, in part, under the care of the Ministry of Works. There seems to have been little archaeological input, apart from members of the Wolverhampton Archaeological Society visiting the site to retrieve pottery, however, some important information was gleaned.

Firstly, the site was extended considerably further to the east than the settlement ditch system suggested, with Webster placing it to around 110 yards past the Water Eaton Road; however, this is somewhat put into context by the two mile occupation area suggested to the east of the ditch system at Wall (Webster, 1983, p6). There was still no evidence uncovered  for any stone walls.

The cropmarks and roads around Pennocrucium (after Oldfield 1981)

The settlement and suggested limits of occupation to the east and west. (after Oldfield 1981)

Secondly, the Ministry of Works was informed that a skeleton had been disturbed to the east of the settlement, but Webster could give no further information or, indeed, a more precise location. If this skeleton was indeed found, it would be consistent with the Roman burial practice of being outside a settlement and next to a road. A cemetery was found next to the road and outside the settlement area of Wall, but the 30 or so burials here were cremations. This lost skeleton is very frustrating – inhumation took over from cremation in the latter second century AD and the position of the body, if it were proved to be Roman, would have indicated the maximum extent of the settlement at that point (latter 2nd century at least).

Finally, a stone-lined well, some 3 ft in diameter, was located within the settlement, on the south side of Watling St. This well could only be excavated to a depth of 8 ft below surface level due to water seepage. The filling had pottery wares dating to the 3rd and 4th centuries AD, together with a couple of coins: a quinarius of Allectus (died AD 296) and an aes of Gratian (died AD 382). Allectus, and his predecessor Carausius, whom he murdered, were the British-usurpers – although Roman, they were self-proclaimed emperors of Britain until defeated in battle by the establishment.

Again the well is a frustration, as a full stratification of the well could not be obtained and so the full life-span of the well remains unknown; yet we know it must have been exposed in the late 4th century for the Gratian coin to have found its way in and some of the broken pieces of pottery also dated to this period – this, to me, suggests that the well had become a midden (a rubbish dump) at this time, yet there was still some sort of occupation of the settlement – after all, who would transport broken pot to a deserted settlement’s well simply to dispose of it?

The fortification ditches are also a puzzle. Despite their military nature, suggested by the rounded corners (see above photos), Webster places them to the latter phases of the site. Webster claims similar fortifications to those at Pennocrucium can be found at Red Hill, Wall and Caves Inn. He terms these places as burgi, and that they formed ‘a chain of strong points along Watling St, a plausible case having been made for the fortification of the road [a vital communication and trade route] by Constantius Chlorus when he regained Britain for the Roman empire after the period of independence under Carausius and Allectus (1983, p6). Webster supports this theory with mid-4th century pottery evidence recovered from the ditches at Wall, where excavation has shown a three-ditch system backed with a rampart. One thing to say, is that Pennocrucium, with its timber buildings (although stone was available, as shown by Engleton Villa and the well) does appear to be a poor relation to Wall – the posting station theory may well be correct.

The problem we currently have is that the vague dating structure we have from inside the settlement ditches has the demise of the settlement at around AD 320, although the pottery and coin evidence from the well has a later date. I suggest the following, which is based upon the fortifications being built sometime around AD 296 after the fall of Allectus: that the fire that engulfed the settlement around AD 320 was actually contained by the fortifications and that the east and western ‘growth’ beyond the fortifications was either created by those displaced after the fire, or continued unaffected for a period.

Engleton Villa was excavated in 1937 by the Wolverhampton Archaeological Society and a full report on the excavations appeared the following year written by Diana Ashcroft (a copy of which is somewhere in my loft 😦 ). The villa appeared to be a winged-corridor type, and was approximately 120 ft long by 72 ft wide in size, with a surrounding boundary ditch or drainage channels (see fig: 22a).

Engleston Villa - see caption.

Engleston Villa – see caption.

Built of local sandstone, on what was virgin land at the time, the villa appears to have had three distinct phases of construction (see fig: 22b). The pottery evidence from the site suggests that the first period, and the core of the villa building, date to the latter 1st century AD. Two things spring to mind: the first is that I cannot see a link at such a late date between the possible Iron-Age round-house cropmark (see part 3) and this villa; the second is that it is interesting to note that Barton dates the cobbled pavement within the settlement to around  AD 160, so there maybe a link between that phase of settlement construction and the initial building of Engleston Villa. This would suggest a significant investment of private or state finance into the area – indeed, was the settlement partly a quarry for the villa to exploit as a workforce?

Periods II and III correspond to the 3rd and 4th centuries AD. They show that there was extensive expansion and rebuilding of the villa, in stone, and especially of the bathing facilities. Indeed, phase III coincides with what Barton and St Joseph see as the destruction of the settlement by fire. If this is the case, then again, a few thoughts come to mind: its survival supports an accidental fire, otherwise it too would likely have been sacked; if the settlement completely collapsed after the fire, from where did the villa get a workforce? Indeed, where did it sell its produce?

Engleston Villa - construction. See caption.

Engleston Villa – construction. See caption.

Of course, the villa may not have had an agricultural purpose at all. Villas had many purposes and get lumped together under a generic term, as motte and bailey, curtain wall, shell keeps, concentric and fortified manor houses are lumped together as castles. Engleston may never have had an agricultural aspect to it at all or just beyond some sort of self-sufficiency, and it must not be over-looked that this building could have supplied similar facilities to the bath-house and mansio at Wall for state officials (the postal system, for example). Indeed, to some degree this is supported by the 1937 excavations, which really failed to uncover any evidence of Roman agricultural equipment, a walled farm-yard or the produce.

Iron implements found during villa excavation. See caption.

Iron implements found during villa excavation. See caption.

Construction Sequence – Personal Conclusions
What follows are my personal conclusions based upon the slight evidence we have and, in some respects, simple logical argument – however, if you have read all the articles in this series (six in total), you will be aware of the limitations of the evidence. I pose many questions, alas there are few answers.

The landscape into which the Romans arrived, possibly via a roadway that existed in some format prior to Watling St, would certainly have been more wooded and a great deal wetter, with every possibility, as shown by the cropmarks, that the area was being exploited locally by farmers. The military posts were the first to be established and topographically the site seemed ideal with abundant water, flat-ish terrain and fuel/construction materials close at hand.

While there is every likelihood that camp 1 could have been the first installation on site and camp 2 may have been an abandoned fortress, I firmly believe that the Kinvaston fortress was the first semi-permanent facility in the area. I believe, with its proximity to the Rowley Hill tumulus, that the Latinised-Celtic name of Pennocrucium (meaning chief or hilly mound), was originally attached to Kinvaston. I believe it was laid out during the original push into Britain and the Caratacan campaign of AD 51. I think the defences were re-cut but it was down sized, possibly at the time of the Boudiccan revolt or the push into Brigantia around AD 71.

I think Kinvaston was abandoned in the 70s as the focus had moved to the road system and the occupation of Chester by the IInd Legion at that time. The Stretton Mill fort was then founded at a more practical location. The military value of Pennocrucium had declined as a front-line facility, but it was an important communications and transport hub in the military and political network – especially as Wroxeter was still a legionary base until AD 88.

I believe the Stretton fort was itself replaced a decade or so later by the fort on Watling St. I cannot think of any other reason for this other than a planned intention to start a community – a vicus – on the best ground possible. This actually makes sense, the fort is still needed as both the geographic and economic focal point to start the settlement; however, in my opinion, the Romans knew that the need for a military garrison at Pennocrucium would likely be short lived, but if they wanted a civil settlement (and its role of a postal station was mooted by Webster and others) then it would need a boost to get going. We know the settlement is established by the late 1st century – and some time later the fort must go out of use.

The organic growth of the settlement may well have been regulated with the laying down of cobbled lanes around AD130 – 160. This date also seems to tie in with the first phase of the villa, and may indicate financial investment from public or private sources. The settlement and villa are extended over time, until the settlement is ravaged by fire in the latter 3rd or early 4th century. The ditch system may have been in place and contained the fire, although it could have been after the fire and after the Allectus rebellion that the ditch system was put in place. Logically, I think the ditches were in place before the fire, as the community never regains its former status and such an undertaking for what was a devastated community seems futile.

The community seems to remain active but, very much reduced. The villa seems to continue its growth unabated, and I wonder if it became a lodge for official road traffic. As Romano-Britain faded so did the remains of the settlement. After the Roman withdrawal, it is believed that the population plummeted. Many Roman sites were abandoned in favour of new builds a few miles away and so Penkridge emerges. Many former farmsteads and isolated settlements were re-founded by the new rising populations in the 7th and 8th centuries and Water Eaton, Kinvaston and such smaller, dispersed settlements probably date to this time.

This final article, well I suppose all of them, are dedicated to the people of Penkridge – but especially to Pancho Clayton for running the Facebook page to allow me to post this for those interested.

With thanks to:
WA Baker
Birmingham Museum
Diane Ashcroft, report on the Roman Villa at Engleston 1938 (with illustrations by Sykes, Whitehead and Knight)
IM Barton Further Excavations near Stretton BAS vol 74 1953-4
JK St Joseph Roman Forts on Watling St BAS vol 73 1951
JK St Joseph The Roman site near Stretton BAS vol 74 1956
G Webster Road Widening at Pennocrudium BAS vol 74 1956