Special status for Roman town dug out of fields

A Roman town, rediscovered beneath farmland in Stamford Bridge, East Yorkshire, has been scheduled as an ancient monument after investigations by archeologists.

MODERN TOWNS: A large part of Stamford Bridge's Roman predecessor still survives buried under farmland.
MODERN TOWNS: A large part of Stamford Bridge's Roman predecessor still survives buried under farmland.

Believed to have been called Derventio, and so giving rise to the name of the neighbouring River Derwent, the settlement is a rare discovery as most Roman urban centres now lie completely beneath modern towns.

The Romans created urban centres in Britain by official policy, granting them legal status, but Derventio was not an official town. It grew organically thanks to its riverside location and over time it developed urban characteristics through trade on the river and surrounding roads.

Aerial photographs reveal a road junction and property boundaries, with the town extending both sides of the river. Archaeologists believe the remains could advance understanding of Roman Britain and so the site has now been scheduled by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport on the advice of English Heritage.

Nick Bridgland, the conservation body’s designation team leader for the North, said: “It is a fascinating site because it developed of its own accord, rather than being planned. It can help give us an insight into an aspect of life in Roman Britain which was far less well recorded than the state-sponsored towns and fortresses. We believe it later became the origin of the medieval settlement of Stamford Bridge further to the North – but it is not entirely clear why they abandoned this part of the Roman town.”

Derventio was first identified in 1736 by the respected Pontefract-born surgeon and antiquarian Francis Drake, but it was forgotten until the hot summer of 1976 revealed crop markings. Digs have been carried out at the site since the 1990s and finds include a bathhouse and extensive evidence of industry.

The town is believed to have been founded around 70 AD when the Romans first advanced into the area and it grew up until the fourth century.

Eric Branse-Instone, designation adviser at English Heritage said: “The town is a good illustration of the importance of river transport to the Roman economy. The stony ford across the Derwent (hence the medieval name Stamford) was a block to navigation and the settlement would have been a transhipment point for shipping upstream to Malton and with the Roman roads crossing the river.”

Not all of the settlement is believed to have been unearthed with more expected to have been buried beneath modern housing developments.

“There is almost certainly a Roman fort at the western end of the site but it is under pasture and has not shown up as crop marks. There are reports of a mosaic pavement being uncovered and recovered again when modern housing was built but we don’t no where that was. Stamford Bridge is probably overlying more of the settlement, how much is hard to say, but possibly 70 per cent.”

Around 1,000 people were likely to have lived there, he said.

“We know there was a pottery industry. There’s also evidence of metal work, including iron smelting used to produce fittings for the military, nails for the soles of shoes and buckles. It wasn’t a high status settlement.

“There are quite possibly other unearthed settlements like this elsewhere in Yorkshire. Small rural settlements are cropping up all the time.”