Journal of Roman Studies (1925) - Review: Huddersfield in Roman Times by Ian A. Richmond

The following is a transcription of a historic journal article and may contain occasional errors.


By Ian A. Richmond, B.A. Huddersfield: the Tolson Memorial Museum. 1925. Pp. 116, 62 illustrations, 1s. net.

The embarrassing fact that there was no Huddersfield in Roman times has not prevented Dr. T. W. Woodhead from adding this useful little handbook to the publications of the Tolson Memorial Museum. He has entrusted its preparation to Mr. I.A. Richmond, a Craven Fellow who has already produced a considerable bulk of original work at an age when most students are still learning the alphabet. Indeed, if Mr. Richmond errs, his sins may be attributed to his knowing the alphabet too well. As the years go by, he will find his knowledge less and less secure, and his work will gain in steadiness and permanent value what it will probably lose in ‘inspiration’ and flamboyant courage. In the meantime the latter qualities help the reader through a guide-book which might easily have been a dull catalogue of facts.

The handbook deals principally with the (? Roman) earthworks at Meltham and Kirklees, the Roman forts at Slack and Castleshaw, and the famous road over the Blackstone Edge. Into his accounts of these Mr. Richmond weaves an historical summary, a description of Roman military life under the Empire, and a series of theories for which he himself is largely responsible. The most piquant of these theories are those which relate to the pre-Hadrianic occupation of the district. Mr. Richmond postulates four main phases in this occupation :—

  1. A.D. 71-78, the adoption, by Cerialis, of a native hill-track across the Pennines, defended at Meltham and Kirklees by lightly-constructed forts of polygonal plan.
  2. A.D. 80-90, Agricola replaces the earlier route by a more comfortable road via Castleshaw and Slack ; these forts are founded by him on the usual four-square plan, with timber buildings ; but for some unknown reason they (or at least Castleshaw) arc deserted c. A.D. 90.
  3. At ‘a date about A.D. 104’ the Slack fort is partially reconstructed in stone, and a small outpost-fort is built over part of the site of Castleshaw. Mr. Richmond associates these works with Trajan’s first governor in Britain, Lucius Neratius Marcellus.
  4. Shortly before A.D. 125 further work of reconstruction at Slack is abandoned, and the fort deserted. Castleshaw also is dismantled. The consolidation of the northern frontier under Hadrian provides the explanation.

This postulated sequence of events is on the whole consistent, and may be correct. But the evidence upon which it is based is, in detail, neither simple nor complete. The polygonal earthworks at Meltham and Kirklees have both been partially excavated and have yielded a native ‘bee-hive’ quern, but apparently nothing Roman ; it can only be said of them that their structure is generally not inconsistent with a Roman origin. This minor difficulty need not be laboured, though it cannot wholly be ignored. More perilous is Mr. Richmond’s handling of the evidence of coins and pottery on the other sites. Thus at Slack a pit under the stone granaries contained pottery which presumably preceded the stone-work. ‘Both the Samian ware and the rustic ware in low relief,’ writes Mr. Richmond of this pottery, ‘belong to a date not much Later than A.D. 100, and a date of about A.D. 104 thus is given to the building of the stone granaries above the pit.’ This somewhat sudden inference is at first sight a startling tribute to the precision of ceramic evidence ; but it appears subsequently that the date is really determined in Mr. Richmond’s mind by the fact that Marcellus came out to Britain in 104 as governor of the Province, and it is to Marcellus that he would ascribe wholesale the new work of the Trajanic era at Castleshaw, Corbridge, Newstead, Gelligaer, Castell Collen, and other military sites in the north and west. He may be right ; but the suspicion arises that this Marcellus, if he owed something to Trajan, also ow'es something to Mr. Richmond, and that, with less confidence in the prowess of his hero, Mr. Richmond would have hesitated to place so much responsibility upon a few sherds of pottery which might have been dropped at any moment within thirty years of the founding of the fort.

It may be added that on the other sites named the evidence is equally indecisive. Mr. Richmond is altogether too eager to meet it half-way, and this weakness is here stressed because it is associated with much knowledge and much ingenuity which it continually falsifies. One more example must suffice. At Slack the stone granary, dated to the year 104 on the evidence already discussed, was roofed with stamped tiles. A similar tile was found by the hypocaust-building in the smaller and later of the two forts at Castleshaw. It is inferred, therefore, that constructional work was carried out here likewise in 104. But the Castleshaw hypocaust-building was, unfortunately, itself of two periods, and it is of obvious historical importance to determine whether the work of the year 104 was the initial construction of this building or merely a secondary modification of it; if the former, then it presumably tells us also the date of the construction of the reduced fort to which it belongs. The position is difficult, and Marcellus trembles for a moment in the balance. But he is saved. ‘Although the floor of this heated room was reconstructed, there is no proof that it was provided with a new roof.’ Therefore the roof-tile belongs to the first construction, and dates this (together with the small fort) to the year 104, to Marcellus. This conclusion is further ‘suppported’ by the conjecture that the site had been unoccupied between 90 and 100, for ‘if the fort had been occupied between A.D. 90 and A.D. 100 typical pottery of this decade would have been found within it’ ; whereas no such finds have been recorded throughout the fort.’ Therefore the hypocaust-building, which cannot conceivably be earlier than 90, is certainly later than 100. Note the ingenious facility with which hypothesis supports hypothesis — and it all comes down to the three or four sherds which found their way into a pit beneath the granary at Slack! Incidentally there are many students of Roman Britain who would be glad to share Mr. Richmond’s exact information as to the pottery of A.D. 90-100, and to know how to distinguish it from pottery of the years 89 and 104, in both of which Mr. Richmond maintains that the site was occupied.

A problem of some interest, which affects not merely Slack and Castleshaw but also a great many other forts south of the Wall, is the date of the withdrawal of the garrisons in the second century — whether at the time of Hadrian’s consolidation of the northern frontier, or some twenty years later at the time of the renewed advance into Scotland. In the case of the Yorkshire forts Mr. Richmond suggests an evacuation under Hadrian, and the evidence seems to support his view. But the matter is not settled, nor is it likely to be until our knowledge of pottery of c. 120-140 as distinct from that of 100-120 is considerably more advanced than it is at present. Moreover, the great flood of Samian pottery which poured into this country at the beginning of the second century complicates on some sites the allowance for survival. The comparative poverty, however, of the occupation in the Huddersfield area in itself helps the inference of a withdrawal at the earlier date.

At the end of the third century the widespread insecurity of the era left its traces in the Pennines, where they have been localised by Mr. Richmond into a rebellion of the hill-men. But similar traces (principally coin-hoards) are of universal occurrence at this period, and it is doubtful whether any more serious revolutionary action than a general participation in the crime-wave of the period can be attributed to the inhabitants of the Huddersfield district. It is not, however, upon a note of deprecation that this review should close. Mr. Richmond’s handbook is full of information, and his general descriptions are both lively and succinct. It is one of the ablest guides yet produced by a provincial museum. Its faults have been emphasised not because they materially mar this booklet but because they are of a type which, if not checked, will affect adversely the valuable work that we are entitled to expect from its author in years to come.