Some Thoughts on the Project

Scotch Corner, A1 Scheme




Dave Fell

A northern Late Iron Age capital at Scotch Corner?

One of the most rewarding discoveries arising from NAA's work at Scotch Corner was a new appreciation for the Late Iron Age settlement's intricate relationship with Stanwick. Barely 6km to the north-west, this huge earthwork enclosure is widely believed to have been a royal centre at the heart of Brigantian tribal territory from the 1st century BC. A sinuous earthwork known as Scots Dyke spanned a low limestone ridge between the Rivers Swale and Tees, passing between Scotch Corner, areas of metalworking and occupation at Melsonby, and Stanwick. Its position and proximity hints at close links between the neighbouring communities, which occupied a prominent strategic position at the junction of the Vale of Mowbray and Tees Valley.   


Excavations, geophysical surveys and aerial photography are complementary methods that have been used to reveal how buried remains and earthworks were connected components in what can only be described as a sprawling oppidum. Amongst the tessellated enclosures and specialist activity zones, a cluster of workshops at the heart of Scotch Corner manufactured coin blank or micro-bullion pellets from gold, silver, and the high-grade near-surface copper mined at Scotch Corner. By the time Claudius invaded southern England in AD43, Stanwick and Scotch Corner had together become a focus of enterprise, exchange and power in the north, making them natural destinations for the consignments of exotic imports that helped Roman diplomats establish a philo-Roman client polity of the type operating in southern England and the Continent.


Such cooperation with the future invader seems to have exacerbated discord between Brigantian Queen Cartimandua and her consort Venutius. Their fateful schism escalated from a civil concern to one that required Roman intervention in support of the queen. This loss of control proved to be a prelude and catalyst for the assimilation of northern land, resources and subjects into the expanding Roman province of Britannia. By the early AD70s, Stanwick-Scotch Corner quickly ceased to be the pre-eminent regional centre of native society, instead being adopted as the nexus for campaign routes and successive roads that were fundamental in the conquest and consolidation of the north.


The Impact of Roman conquest at Scotch Corner


Life for the remaining and new inhabitants of Scotch Corner changed drastically after AD70 once the Brigantes submitted to Roman control. The earthwork stronghold at Stanwick had been deserted in the early years of annexation, which was soon followed by abandonment of Melsonby. Maybe some members of these communities relocated a short distance to Scotch Corner. If so, the settlement that greeted them was undergoing radical reconfiguration with a surveyed grid system referencing axial alignments. These shifted at least twice in response to the changing course of Dere Street's extension to the north-eastern frontier, which complemented the road forged westwards over Stainmore during the earliest stage of Roman advance. New rectangular buildings at Scotch Corner were of standard size, except for larger apsidal and winged structures near the central road junction—the focus of administration and site of conspicuous displays of consumption. Habitation areas were flanked by paddocks with interconnected boundary gullies and water cisterns, perhaps provisioning a mansio or official contingent.   


This vicus-like roadside settlement may have been conceived as a proto-small town appended to a nearby military post, although its status and role remain elusive, with elements of native and Roman traditions represented in a confused amalgamation. Like the roads and settlement layout, however, artefactual and environmental materials demonstrate that Roman military imperatives triumphed over native traditions, as might be expected. Cattle and sheep butchery reflected practices associated with the army, Continental disc quern and millstone technology was emulated for food production at the settlement, which involved adoption of mortaria and a boom in olive oil consumption, while dining with imported ceramic and copper-alloy vessels supplanted earlier wine-fuelled feasting events. The metamorphosis was short-lived, however. Seemingly, Agricola's failed Caledonian mission heralded a sequence of troop movements that left Scotch Corner neglected militarily by c.AD85/90, after which time activity contracted to the road junction, a possible stable, and a small compound with a building.                


Aside from fastidious maintenance of the roads, the few traces of activity suggest that very little of lasting consequence occurred up to the time of the settlement's demise between c.AD135/150. The rising populations of Cataractonium and other forts and vici in the region represent a counterpoint to Scotch Corner, and fixed the settlement pattern that survives to this day.

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