The earthworks of Huntington Marching Camp 1 lay unnoticed beneath quiet farmland north of York for the better part of two millennia. The turbulent times of the Roman invasion and consolidation of power in the north of England came and went and, as quickly as the multitude of camps and forts sprang up around York, the vast majority disappeared. Untroubled by Viking incursions, unaffected by the Norman harrying of the north, overlooked by two world wars and only slightly damaged by the construction of the Ryedale Stadium in 1989, the banks and ditches of the encampment patiently awaited the keen eyes of an aerial photographer who happened to pass overhead in 2002. Only then did our site step into the history books.
The community excavation has felt a long time coming, and following a flurry of volunteer-led research and investigation the project is now finally underway!
On Monday May 25th, our first team of enthusiastic volunteers arrived on site. The mood was one of excitement and anticipation. The line of the ditch was clear in the ground, but did it survive to any depth? Would any internal features remain preserved within the defences? Would any dateable material be recovered?
Boots and hard hats were donned and trowels distributed, it was time to find out!
The first task in hand was to clean the SE section of the camp’s defensive ditch and something of a reality check was quickly administered – this would be no easy task!
There is one word that can strike fear and trepidation into the heart of even the most dedicated archaeologist, a word synonymous with adversity and heavy work.
Definition of clay in English:
Thankfully, our community volunteers are a hardy, enthusiastic bunch and the difficult task of cleaning up the ditch and defining its edges was met with a steely determination by the team. It wasn’t long before the feature was ready to be photographed and the first of our slots into the ditch backfills could be set out.
While the majority of the team jumped straight into the troweling, other volunteers tried their hands at some different tasks. On top of the Roman defences, the field is riddled with plough furrows and field drains and as we are using a single context recording methodology, each of these will need to be individually recorded. This process involves the assignment of a context number for each archaeological event that we identify. Each context is then photographed, surveyed and described in detail on a context card prior to excavation, leaving us with a detailed record.
The survey element of this process is being carried out predominantly with a Leica GPS unit that records three dimensional points to an accuracy of millimetres. More complex features are hand drawn using arbitrary survey points that are then geo-located using the GPS. As we have hundreds of features to record, there’ll be a lot of survey to carry out throughout the excavation and as many of our volunteers are archaeology students or members of amateur societies, these new survey skills will be really useful for them in future projects.
Elsewhere on site, a team of metal detectorists began a complete survey of the trench, using flags to identify strong responses. These responses have been used to inform the locations of our slots through features and to maximise finds recovery.
As the week progressed, the team split into smaller groups and began work on various features. Close to the corner of the camp, Tonnie and Andrew excavated and recorded a brick-lined drain or culvert. Dating to the 18th or early 19th century, this feature is all that remains of an agricultural building, perhaps a lambing shed.
Numerous discrete features within the camp were investigated by half-sectioning. By excavating half of the backfill, we are able to view the deposits in section and to quickly work through features. As the site has been agricultural land for much of its history, many of these features are heavily root-damaged, making their edges difficult to define. It’s taken a good deal of persistence and postulation to get the measure of many of them!
The lowest point of the site sits just outside the corner of the camp, beneath the running track of the athletics ground. Naturally occurring ground water collects here, providing a useful (if somewhat muddy) place to fill watering cans. By giving the areas being excavated a good soak, the hard clays can then be made to be far more manageable.
A main aim of the project is to investigate the defences of the camp. While the bank was entirely destroyed by the construction of the stadium, the ditch appears to be quite well-preserved. By Tuesday May 26th, the first slots into the ditch were well underway.
If the ditches contain one or only a small number of fills, this will suggest that the camp was short-lived and may indeed represent a practice exercise. After all, it wouldn’t be wise to create a ready-made fortification in what could be enemy territory and leave it for others to use. Practice camps like Huntington Camp 2, which now lies beneath the Monks Cross M&S, were quickly and deliberately destroyed shortly after their completion. The ditches were well-laid out, but highly irregular in depth and profile, suggesting that they were dug by various groups with somewhat contrasting work ethics.
As work progressed on a number of possible pits and post-holes, it became apparent that much of their extent had been sheered away during the construction of the stadium. While some turned out to be nothing more than tree-boles (disturbances in the ground that reveal the location of ancient trees), some did have convincing edges and have been interpreted as possible refuse pits.
At times, a good deal of chin-stroking and pondering was required to resolve more difficult edges…
As week one drew to a close, supervisors Jane, Arran and Maddy were delighted with the progress made by our volunteers. Numerous ditch slots were underway, the site survey was coming together and a number of other features were already fully recorded.
The first Friday of the excavation was somewhat marred by heavy rain, but all was not lost as the team retreated to the cabin for a masterclass on identifying and dating pottery. On-site, a small number of enthusiastic visitors braved the weather to attend the first open day of the dig.
Away from the trench, York Archaeological Trust fieldwork manager Ian Milsted led a study session on Roman and prehistoric York at the nearby Huntington Memorial Hall. This session gave people a chance to learn more about the distant past of the area as well as shelter from the rain!
With site manager Jane away on holiday, Maddy and Arran were joined by project manager Ian for the week. As the edges of the ditch had been cleared up in week one, it was now possible to take a more aggressive tack with the excavation of the backfills.
Mattocks and shovels were used to lift the backfills from the ditch, and wheelbarrows of spoil were sifted for finds before being taken to the spoilheap. Finds haven’t occurred in abundance, but this is is typical of marching camps as they were never permanently occupied. One sherd of what appears to be second century Ebor Ware was however recovered from the upper fill of the ditch. This gives us a date after which the ditch was backfilled, although the heavy wear on the ceramic suggests that it was around for some time before being deposited in the ground.
Work in a neighbouring slot was also coming along well, as Clive and Brian made excellent progress following the sloping edges of the ditch. As the ditch cuts into yellowish-brown natural clays, there is a clear contrast between the natural and the grey-brown backfills. Difficulties began to arise as the middle fills of the ditch were exposed as they were far more mixed and contained a lot of re-deposited natural clay. This mixed layer actually tells us quite a story as it is now all that remains of the defensive bank that occupied the inner edge of the ditch.
As the Roman soldiers that originally excavated the ditch cast up huge amounts of earth, this was used to create the bank. Much of the material they dug through will have been untouched natural clay and when the bank eventually slumped into the ditch, the clay went with it! This makes it more difficult to distinguish between ditch fills and the edge of the feature as they are effectively made of the same material!
Overnight rain on the Monday of week two meant that the site was somewhat waterlogged the next morning. To allow the half-excavated ditch slots time to drain, the team turned their attention to the NE ditch of the camp, cleaning along its edges and starting three new slots including one through a ditch terminus at an entrance into the camp.
As the team cleaned around the two ditch termini that define the north-eastern entrance to the camp, a number of interesting features on an unusual alignment began to appear. These may be contemporary defensive features or later intrusions and will be investigated later in the excavation.
By the end of the day, the site was far more workable and it was good to have opened up a second front. We were even treated to a visit by the site cat!
By midweek, the site was back to its usual baked hard self and the sun was shining again!
As work resumed on the ditch slots to the south-east, a fascinating discovery was made in Chris and Russell’s slot! What had been thought to be the base of the ditch was now clearly a ‘false bottom’ (classic archaeological terminology…) and there was still more fill to excavate. As this material was peeled away, the angle of the ditch edges changed abruptly, becoming far steeper – we were looking at an ankle breaker.
Ankle breaker ditches are a classic feature of Roman fortifications and they frequently prompt fierce debate. Some believe that they are primarily defensive, some that they aid drainage, others believe that they are purely a product of ditch bases being repeatedly cleaned out. The truth of the matter is likely to be a combination of all three.
As a defensive feature, ankle breakers are delightfully macabre in their simplicity. Anyone attempting to charge the defences would be forced to run to the base of the ditch before climbing the bank. With an ankle breaker at the base of the ditch, it would be all too easy for your foot to slide into the base and wedge in place while your forward momentum carries your body to the other side of the ditch – at this point you would be likely to hear the gruesome crack of breaking bone…
Even if you were to adopt a more cautious approach, your reduced speed would make you a far easier target for defenders!
The discovery of this style of ditch is quite telling. Whether the feature was cut for drainage or defence (or both!), our defences are clearly more substantial and considered than at the neighbouring Camp 2. Could we be looking at a more long-lived defensive position? Needless to say, the day ended on a high note!
Thursday of week two saw more exciting developments! At the southern extreme of the site, a ditch slot close to the trench edge was proving difficult to pin down. Ian asked Clive and Chris to step into the base of their slots to provide a reference point over distance and as they did so, it appeared that there is a slight kink in the line of the defences. It is possible that another defended entrance into the camp may lie close-by, as work progresses on the southern ditch slot next week, we hope to solve this riddle.
With Chris and Clive’s ‘false bottom’ now removed, their slot was nearing completion. Cleaning out the narrow base of the cut without leaving bootprints was proving tricky, so Ian lent a hand with an unconventional technique…
The completed section revealed not only a second ankle breaker, but also an interesting sequence of infilling. All told, five fills are visible. At the base of the ankle breaker, a layer made up of thin lenses of clay and silts represents the ditch being open to the elements and natural processes of erosion creating the first event of infilling. Overlying this is a thin layer of dark, organic material which is particularly interesting as it most likely relates to the use of the camp. The organic nature of the soil could derive from decayed refuse thrown into the ditch by the inhabitants of the camp. An environmental sample of the deposit may tell us more about what was happening inside the camp.
The mixed yellow and brown layer above the dark deposit show the camp being deliberately slighted as the legionaries abandoned the site. The bank was clearly pushed into the ditch to avoid the camp falling into enemy hands. Finally, with the ditch at this point in time only a shallow depression, the feature appears to have slowly filled in with naturally accumulating grey-brown silts over a long period of time.
All of the above is strong evidence that the camp was not a short-lived practice camp and may have served a genuine strategic, if short-term purpose.
Inside the camp, the team continued to investigate a number of features. Emma completed work on a truncated pit cut with a rich, black backfill. The feature would have originally been around a metre deep before being heavily damaged by later ploughing and the stadium construction. The organic fill suggests that we may have come across one of the camp’s cesspits. Again, this deposit will be an excellent candidate for an environmental sample and could even shed new light on the diet and lifestyle of the legionaries.
Another nearby pit had a similarly organic fill and as we excavate more of these features, we hope to learn more about how the camp was organised.
Week two ended as busily as it began, with work continuing in various features. As each of these were completed, more and more recording was required, all of which kept the team very busy!
It wasn’t all recording though, as several new features were started, including what appears to be another cesspit.
Slots were also started through two of our ridge and furrow plough scars, revealing an interesting assemblage of post-medieval pottery.
As packing up time arrived, we had officially reached the halfway point of the excavation. Two fantastic weeks of archaeology have revealed that the camp may be more than a simple practice exercise. We have substantial ditches with a uniform ankle breaker profile and possible evidence of cess and waste disposal on the interior. There is clearly more to this camp than meets the eye!
As we enter the second fortnight of the excavation, we must thank all of our volunteers for their fantastic work! Dig York Stadium has been set up to engage local people from day one and it’s been wonderful to see the story of the site begin to come together.
There are more discoveries to make yet so watch this space.
Onwards and downwards!