Yorkshire Archaeological Journal (1924) - Excavations at Meltham, near Huddersfield

Reproduced from Volume XXVII of the Yorkshire Archaeological Journal.

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


About half-a-mile south-west of Meltham, the 900 feet contour line crosses an irregularly shaped fort, about 260 by 220 feet in size, of which the main four angles face the cardinal points. A week's excavation was made here at the end of April under the direction of the writer. The fort is surrounded on three sides by a vee-shaped ditch, excavated for six feet partly in the solid mill-stone grit; and upon all sides by a rampart composed of earth and stones, or of upcast from the ditch, and resting upon an artificial bed of clay which was levelled over uneven ground. Corner towers were searched for in vain at three corners. The fort was entered on the north-eastern side only by a double gateway, simply built in wood, unprovided with guard-chambers, and floored with a roughly gravelled road, which only existed here. The road bordered the ends of the ditch on either side of the gateway and was drained at the eastern corner by a small open channel which ran into the ditch. Despite careful search not a trace of buildings was found within the fort, nor were there any roads; the only "find" was an upper stone of a millstone grit "bee-hive" quern, embedded in the south-western rampart.

Both ditch and rampart are typically Roman, and, while the type of fort suggests for it an early Flavian date, the excavations show that the occupation of the site was short. The fort lies on a spur of the hills where its only purpose can have been to guard the obvious route across the Pennines from Meltham to Saddleworth; and its position here, upon rather irregular ground, accounts for its shape, a successful adaptation of the standard rectangle to irregularity.

Historically the fort is best taken with a very similar erection at the foot of the valley of the Colne, in Kirklees Park, excavated by the late Sir George Armytage in 1906. Neither fort fits in well with the Agricolan fort-system, represented by Castleshaw and Slack, and they seem best explained together as the relics of an early and abortive attempt to cross the hills by a high and inconvenient route. This may hardly have occurred after Agricola had built his less obvious but well-engineered road through Castleshaw and Slack.

An explanation of this sort fits the results of excavation at Meltham, and also what is known of the history of the legionary fortress at York. This was founded as tells the Agricola, cap. 17, confirmed by archaeology, under Petilius Cerealis, between A.D. 71 and A.D. 74. Once built it must have been connected somehow with its sister-fortress at Chester. But the country between them is difficult and was newly conquered; road-making, moreover, takes time. Therefore it seems likely that for seven years at most, until Agricola built the new road across the Pennines in A.D. 79, the fortification of the route between the two fortresses remained of the temporary sort which is found at Meltham and at Kirklees. When at length a proper road was built across the hills it used a different valley to approach them, and so the forts at Meltham and at Kirklees may have passed out of use.

Permission to excavate was given readily by the owners of the site, Messrs. J. E. and E. Hirst, and the tenant, Mr. J. Fielding Woodhead, gave every help. Mr. W. H. Sikes took photographs of the sections exposed. The excavations, of which the cost has been defrayed by the generosity of Alderman T. Canby, will be described and illustrated in the forthcoming handbook "Huddersfield in Roman Times," to be issued by the Tolson Memorial Museum, for which the excavations were undertaken.

I. A. Richmond.
Corpus Christi College, Oxford.