Exciting finds from Healam Bridge




Greg Speed

This month we're looking at the excavations that NAA carried out in advance of the A1 motorway upgrade and exploring the range of finds and features that we discovered. In today's blog post, we asked our Senior Project Officer, Greg Speed, "what was the most exciting find from the excavations at the Roman roadside settlement at Healam Bridge?"

An exceptional assemblage of Roman finds was recovered by NAA during extensive excavations at the Healam Bridge Roman roadside settlement. The site produced large quantities of pottery, glass, metal objects, quern stones and a wide variety of other material. Important environmental assemblages were also recovered. Probably the most interesting element, and what tells us most about what was happening at Healam during the Roman period, was the animal bone assemblage.

The make-up of this assemblage was, unusually, heavily dominated throughout the Roman period by remains of members of the horse family (equids). These were often deposited as whole or partial carcasses in ditches, pits and other contexts, and included both young and old animals. In some phases, the equid remains outnumbered those of the larger common food animals, such as cattle, sheep and pigs. Several also proved to be mules, which have rarely been identified in Roman Britain, although they were common in contemporary continental Europe.

Mules were a significant part of the Roman transport economy, particularly for the military, and breeding such animals is believed to have been a tightly controlled state monopoly. Mules are bred from a male donkey and a female horse (the opposite pairing of a female donkey and male horse normally produces a smaller and less desirable hybrid termed a hinny). Domestic donkeys, which originate in arid areas around the Eastern Mediterranean, are not naturally well-suited to the cool, damp climate of northern Europe, although continued selective breeding has resulted in the more robust animals that we see in Britain today. Because of their origins, they are also rare finds in Roman Britain, although several probable donkey bones were also found at Healam Bridge.

Large areas adjacent to the roadside settlement seem to have been laid out as paddocks, and most of the buildings excavated at the periphery of the site appeared to have had non-domestic functions. One building, in particular, was interpreted as a possible stable with a drain built into the floor, and waterlogged deposits nearby produced evidence for the disposal of manure.

The significance of equids to the inhabitants at Healam Bridge is suggested by several deposits of bone that are possibly ritual in nature, including a small, neat pile of horse teeth placed below the floor of a structure that may have been a shrine or mausoleum, and the near-complete articulated skeleton of a mule beneath the floor of another building. In addition, a donkey bone appeared to have been deliberately placed across the abdomen of one of the human burials.

The Roman site at Healam Bridge is usually referred to in the archaeological literature as a fort and accompanying vicus, although the evidence for the presence of a fort at the site is tenuous and the character of the finds assemblage recovered by the recent excavations did not suggest any significant military presence at the site. The supposed fort, a large rectangular enclosure recorded by geophysical survey at the centre of the settlement but not investigated by NAA’s excavations, could equally have had a non-military function. Similar enclosures have been excavated at several settlements further south in Roman Britain. The assemblage of equid remains, including horses, donkeys and mules, strongly suggests that the economy of Healam Bridge, and possibly its origins, centred around horse and mule breeding, and that it had an essentially rural rather than military character.

You can find out more about our excavations at Healam Bridge in our monograph covering the site. You can download and read it for free from the Archaeological Data Service.

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