Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Article - What did the Romans ever do for us? Created Broxtowe's hidden fort

What part did Broxtowe play in the rise and fall of the Roman Empire? In the first of a series of articles on Roman Nottingham, Mark Patterson revisits the amazing story behind the city council estate...

NO sign or plaque today marks the spot, but around 2,000 years ago the invading Roman army built a fort on the land now occupied by Broxtowe estate.

The structure was first discovered in late 1937 when the Corporation was building the new estate and workmen digging drains and foundations found three Roman coins in Lindbridge Road, and later the floor of an ancient hut.

Subsequent excavations revealed what seemed to be a fully-fledged Roman military installation with a defensive ditch and parapet 600ft long aligned with the edge of the estate where it drops down to Broxtowe Park.

The discovery was big news. The Nottingham Journal ran a headline announcing "Striking Roman Finds on the Broxtowe estate" and listed many fascinating artefacts found in the fort, including coins, jewellery, metal knives and tools.

Also found was a complete and striking Roman skillet marked with the name Albanvs, which can now be seen in the University of Nottingham Museum.

The fort was, perhaps, an unusual shape, being more a squashed triangle than the classic "playing card" shape of most Roman forts.

Nevertheless, the discovery was a significant one that helped reshape understanding of Notts' ancient landscape and the regional movements of the Roman army, which may have built the fort within 10 years of invading Britain in 43AD.

The discovery was an "event" in other ways, too, propelling local ancient history into the newspapers and public consciousness while effectively gifting Nottingham with its first major Roman structure.

Until the excavations, it was known that the Roman army had built a few garrisons and roads in Notts, while evidence of dense civilian settlement had been seen in the remains of villas up and down the Trent Valley and in the north and west of the county.

But the ground occupied by Nottingham, founded by the Saxons or Danes, seems to have been bypassed by the Romans and the evidence of Romano-British occupation was decidedly thin on the ground.

The discovery of the fort changed that because it pulled Nottingham – or at least its north-western estates – into the story and the grander narrative of Roman Britain. Why, then, did the Corporation decide to cover the fort over?

In 1938, work on building Broxtowe estate resumed and the remains of the Roman fort were reburied. To modern eyes the speed with which such an important site was covered over again may seem puzzling, and perhaps akin to an act of cultural vandalism at the most. Yet then, as now, local authorities needed space for housing as the slums of Nottingham were being torn down.

Seventy-odd years later, the fort, if it is still intact, is untouchable because of the estate which sits on top of it. This inaccessibility is a problem, as it hinders modern archaeologists from reinvestigating the site to discover more or to confirm original conclusions.

The man who led the original 1937-38 excavations, George Campion, like many of his peers working in this area at the time, was a passionate, but amateur, archaeologist.

Campion had been director of the family motorbike manufacturing business, the Campion Motor Cycle Company, but had retired to pursue his enthusiasm for archaeology.

Working from premises in Castle Boulevard, he helped recover Bronze Age canoes from the Trent at Clifton and investigated Lenton Priory and the city's cave system. Yet his name today has almost become a byword for archaeological unreliability. As a short biography of the man said: "His interpretation of the finds left a good deal to be desired."

Suspicions that Campion's conclusions about the Broxtowe site may not have been quite right were raised in 1964 when a ditch was found that didn't fit the plan of the fort that Campion had produced.

The confusion was compounded because Campion and one of his chief excavators had produced different plans of the fort. Worse, Campion's pre-war records of the excavations have since disappeared.

In 1955, when Campion died, the records were left to his son-in-law Herbert O Houlds- worth, of West Bridgford, but they disappeared after Houldsworth's own death.

Houldsworth's papers are in Nottinghamshire Archives and while they contain many details about the fort, including Campion's colour drawings of pottery he found, the excavation records are not there.

Despite all this, the Broxtowe site is generally accepted to be a Roman fort and is marked as such on the Ordnance Survey maps of Roman Britain.

But what was the value of the Broxtowe discovery? The Roman army's expedition to Britain, ordered by the Emperor Claudius, began in 43AD and it is accepted that at least one legion had conquered the Iron Age people of the East Midlands by around 47AD. The founding of the fort has been dated to around 50 or 60AD, which both confirms an early military presence in the area and shows the Roman army underlining its dominance.

The fort's location to the north and west of the Trent also suggests that the army was beginning to establish strong points to strengthen its advance into possibly hostile territory to the west.

However, just as significant is that the coin finds suggest that the fort may have been garrisoned no later than around 70 or 71AD. If the Roman army command no longer felt the need to man forts such as Broxtowe, this suggests that the area was considered to be safely pacified by this point.

In Rome, a general with much experience of fighting in Britain, Vespasian, had become Emperor at the end of 69AD and a new period of military campaigning in the early 70s began to push the Roman legions north from the land now known as Nottinghamshire. The Broxtowe garrison may have been abandoned as part of this move northwards.

The excavation led to the discovery of pans and brooches, pots and silver cutlery – which remind us that ancient Notts was once connected to the rise and fall of the Roman Empire. That there are no signs at Broxtowe telling anybody about the fort's existence is curious, or perhaps even shameful.

Roman Nottinghamshire, by Mark Patterson, is published by Five Leaves Publications, £11.99.

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