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Projects - Castleford Vicus


Between 2002 and 2005 we completed an assessment project on excavations in Castleford on behalf of the West Yorkshire Archaeological Service.  The sites had been dug as part of Manpower Services Scheme in the late 1980s.  They lie just across Dixon Street from the already published Trench 10 (Abramson et al 1999, 136).  This places them within the late 1st to mid 2nd century vicus.  The assessment showed strong evidence of 2nd century activity and some evidence for 4th century occupation.  As with all excavations at Castleford, these had produced very large quantities of finds. Full analysis would be costly and unfortunately the resources to complete this have never been available.


At the end of the assessment a review was produced for the unit which is now lodged with the West Yorkshire HER, but has never been formally published. As a recent article exploring post Roman activity in the region has made reference to it (note 1), we have provided it here. What follows is a brief overview.





Castleford is a site in West Yorkshire with extensive remains of Roman occupation. Between 1974 and 1985 numerous excavations were carried out by the West Yorkshire Archaeological Service (WYAS) to explore the fort and the civilian settlement (the vicus) outside of it. The results of many of these were published in three volumes between 1998 and 2000 (note 2). The 1987-88 excavations lay immediately to the south of the earlier excavations in the vicus (see figure). First it is useful to summarise, very briefly, what information the earlier excavations had provided.


Castleford was clearly an important military base when the Roman army advanced into northern Britain in the early 70s. There is extensive evidence of occupation dating between c. AD 71-4 and c. 86 and it seems probable that Castleford was the site of large base camps from which the army campaigned. In c. AD 86 a more conventional fort was built and the area to the south was considered to be a vicus. The fort was de-commissioned at the end of the 1st century, but the vicus area saw intensive occupation and by the late Hadrianic period (c. AD 140) large and probably public masonry buildings were being erected on Site 1(74) and in Trench 10. These appear to have been abandoned in the second half of the 2nd century, and the decline of activity in the area was striking. Late Roman activity was found in most of the areas excavated, but its nature was not well understood. The possibility that there may have been occupation in the sub-Roman period is suggested by the fact that one of the late inhumation burials was accompanied by a group of beads that are more likely to be 5th or 6th century than late Roman. Subsequent to our assessment work, the West Yorkshire unit has been conducting radiocarbon determinations of the age of the skeletons and this has indeed shown that this burial is of 5th or 6th century date (note 1).


The earlier excavations produced finds in prodigious quantities, even by the normal standards of what can be expected on a Roman military site. It was clear that a shop or warehouse containing large amounts of samian pottery was burnt down in the vicinity of Site 1(74). The date of this is placed about AD 140-5. So much broken burnt samian pottery was available after this event that it was used as part of make-up deposits when new buildings were built in the vicus. As such it provides a very useful dating horizon.


Castleford has also produced exceptional evidence of the production of metal items. This included evidence that enamelled vessels were being produced under military control towards the end of the 1st century, and that spoons were being made in the 3rd century. The manufacture of enamelled brooches in the later 2nd to 3rd centuries is also very probable as a knee brooch found in the Alford area of Lincolnshire had two panels of letters moulded in relief against a blue enamelled background (note 3). The letters read (in translation) 'Brooch from the Regio Lagitiensis' i.e. brooch from the region of Castleford. An earlier unprovenanced discovery can now be seen to have had the same statement against a background of red enamel (note 4).


Not all of the 1987-88 trenches were fully excavated to natural and on one of them the upper layers had been removed prior to the WYAS excavations. This means that the earliest occupation can only be examined on sites 42 and 51 and the latest on sites 44 and 51. Our current understanding of the sites is summarised below.


Site 42


This site is characterised by a north/south road whichoccupies the eastern side of the site and a sequence of buildings with their gable ends facing onto the road. There are four separate phases of building on the site as well as one phase when the site was occupied only by the road and a ditch. Phase 1 was most probably of 1st century date. Phases 2-5 all appear to belong to the 2nd century. Such evidence for the date of Phase 4 as there is suggests a mid 2nd century date. The evidence from the lane of Phase 5 might suggest a slightly later date but there is no evidence that people were passing along it and dropping things by the end of the century. Given the intense occupation seen up to Phase 5, it might be suspected that by the end of the 2nd century or beginning of the 3rd century, the Phase 5 features might have been replaced by something else, but evidence of this had been removed by earlier interventions on the site.


There is very little indication of the nature of the occupation here. There is no obvious industrial debris either in the form of objects or charcoal, though the ovens in the Phase 1 structure 1 suggest it was probably not a domestic building. Isolated items of 1st to 2nd century military equipment were found stratified in the earliest layers of Phase 1 and the lane of Phase 5


Site 51


Again the site is characterised by the north-south road to the east of the site and buildings with their gable ends facing onto the road to the west. Unlike Site 42, however, the building activity here does not seem to start until possibly the second quarter of the 2nd century (Phase 2). First century activity seems confined to building the road and isolated industrial activity not associated with any obvious structures (Phase 1). Two timber buildings are present in Phase 2 together with external surfaces and a well. It is possible that the two structures are not strictly contemporary, and the northern one (Structure 2) may have been built later than Structure 1 to the south. Probable pottery shop debris was found in the destruction layers, suggesting the buildings were demolished after c. AD 150.


These building were replaced in Phase 3 by two other buildings occupying the same sites. The northern one (Structure 3) was stone founded, while that to the south was again of timber construction. the construction, occupation and destruction of these spans the late 2nd to early 3rd century period. The later history of the site is unclear and no structural evidence has been recovered. At some point the west of the site was used to dig two graves. The date of these is uncertain, and it is possible that they are post-Roman.


The site was devoted to industrial activity. Scattered evidence for metal-working and enamelling was found in a number of contexts. Crucible fragments were found in the fill of a post-pit associated with Structure 2, and in the fill of the gully marking the north wall of Structure 4. Vitreous slag (probably fuel ash slag) was also found in the post pit and raw red glass for enamelling came from a robbing layer associated with Structure 1(5). Coarse pottery sherds from the possible make-up layer for Structure 2 were noted as having unusual vitreous slag deposits. The pottery from this layer, however, may be associated with the pottery shop (see below), and detailed examination will be required to establish whether these are indeed related to industrial activity or are a by-product of the fire. The industrial activity can also be traced in the structural record as the middle room of structure 1 has a dense deposit of charcoal and slag.


Isolated items of late 2nd to 3rd century military equipment have also been recovered from the site. Unfortunately all either come from unstratified contexts or those associated with the indeterminate occupation of Phase 4. They do, however, strengthen the impression gained from the previous excavations that the army continued to have an interest in Castleford at that time.


Site 44


This site was not excavated to natural and the earliest phases are missing. The buildings recovered appear to be strip buildings orientated on the road (not present on this site). Five phases of occupation can be established starting with the earliest extant building dating to the second quarter of the 2nd century (Phase 1). This is replaced after the middle of the 2nd century by another building with external surfaces and a second building to the south (Phase 2). The northern of these is replaced by a masonry building, possibly before the end of the 2nd century (Phase 3). The two final phases of building (Phase 4-5) are to be dated to the 3rd century. Of all the sites excavated within the vicus at Castleford, Site 44 is the one with the most convincing structural history extending well into the 3rd century. It may also be significant that this was the site where the unstratified context produced a late 3rd to early 4th century crossbow brooch and a large amount of 3rd and 4th century pottery.


Evidence for industrial activity of the type seen on Site 51 is also seen here. A mould fragment was recovered from the cobbled surface of Phase 2 - 3, and more raw red glass came from a Phase 5 context. The late 2nd to 3rd century scabbard slide from a Phase 5 context again points to military interest in the area.


Of particular interest is the fact that fragments of at least four tazze were recovered from this site. Tazze were incense burners and their role in religious life is well established. Three were recovered from the well fill of Phases 2-3, and one from the fill of the beam slot of Structure 3 (Phase 2). Though it is impossible to extract any definitive figures of vessel use from the earlier excavations from the published record, it does appear that tazze were particularly common on Site 10 during Phase 3 (AD 140-180). It has been suggested that on Site 10 during Phase 3, building AX had a religious function. The tazze on Site 44 might suggest that the northern area was part of the religious complex, if that is what it was, and that Phases 2-3 were equivalent of Phase 3 on Site 10. The dating so far established for these phases on Site 44 would not be at odds with that interpretation.


Conclusions so far


The evidence from Sites 42, 44 and 51 suggests that development in the vicus area may have been more piecemeal than hitherto thought. Whilst late 1st century building activity can be seen on the most southerly Site 42, on Site 51 it is absent and the first building was not erected until the equivalent of the end of Phase 2 in the earlier excavations. Equally the sites have not produced anything indicative of the erection of major public buildings as was suggested by the evidence of Trench 10.


Whilst the loam deposits of Phase 4 on Site 44 might be equated with the development of the black earths in Phase 4 of Trench 10, it is clear that not all of the area was abandoned in the later 2nd century. Structure 3 (Phase 3) on Site 51 seems to have been built towards the end of the 2nd century at the earliest; whilst on Site 44 the Phase 5 activity seems to indicate a revival of activity after a period of disuse. This is a similar state of affairs as was seen in Trench 10 when the Phase 4 building AY was erected. Whatever the late Roman defences were defending in the area of the former fort to the north, it indeed they are Roman, there is increasing evidence that it did not represent the only area occupied at Castleford at the time.




(1) Roberts, I. 2014. Rethinking the Archaeology of Elmet, in Haarer, F. (ed.) AD 410: the History and Archaeology of Late and Post-Roman Britain (Roman Society, London), 182-94.


(2) Cool, H.E.M. and Philo, C. (ed.) 1998. Roman Castleford Excavations 1974-85. Volume I: the small finds, Yorkshire Archaeology 4 (Wakefield).


(2) Abramson, P., Berg, D.S., and Fossick, M.R. 1999. Roman Castleford Excavations 1974-85.  Volume II: the structural and environmental evidence, Yorkshire Archaeology 5 (Wakefield).


(2) Rush, P., Dickinson, B., Hartley, B., Hartley, K.F. 2000. Roman Castleford Excavations 1974-85. Volume III: the pottery, Yorkshire Archaeology 6 (Wakefield).


(3) Tomlin, R.S.O. and Hassall, M.W.C., 2001. 'Roman Britain in 2000: Part II Inscriptions', Britannia 32, 396 no. 39.


(4) RIB II.3 no. 2421.44 (RIB II = Collingwood, R. G. and Wright, R. P., The Roman Inscriptions of Britain Volume II Instrumentum Domesticum (personal belongings and the like).


(5) The red glass has been published in Bayley, J., 2005. 'Roman enamel and enamelling: new finds from Castleford, Yorkshire', Annales du 16e Congrès de l'Association Internationale pour l'Histoire du Verre London 2003, (Nottingham), 72-4.


Distribution of sites excavated at Castleford.

Knee brooch with the name of Castleford from the Alford area (drawn by Don Mackreth - see note 3)

Red raw glass from Site 51 (see note 5)

Crossbow brooch from

Site 44

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