British Archaeology, no 29, November 1997: Letters

Roman roads

From Mr Blaise Vyner

Sir: In response to Rob Witcher’s article on Roman roads (‘Roman roads that reshaped the land’, September) I would comment that when the term ‘Roman’ is used in reference to roads it is usually applied to those which show clear signs of having been designed and built by Roman engineers, usually thought to be army.

While one of their characteristics is straightness, they often do not actually cut through the landscape but tend to run with the grain, especially when approaching river and stream valleys. A good example is the route of Dere Street through North Yorkshire and County Durham. This route is indeed dead straight for many miles because the landscape allows this, but on the southern approach to Piercebridge the road takes a sinuous curve around a piece of rising ground near the southern bank of the Tees, before reverting to its alignment. This and other such variations go unnoticed because the roads are usually drawn straight, or appear to be so when shown on small-scale maps.

In the same area, the road north-west from Scotch Corner (now the A66) passed very close to an Iron Age farmstead enclosure. If there was still a settlement there, its inhabitants must have been uncomfortably aware of the construction (the site was published by Colin Haselgrove in Durham Archaeological Journal 10, 1994).

I should also like to comment on the ‘road’ across Wheeldale Moor, which you illustrated on the front cover. This structure is often referred to as one of the best surviving instances of unaltered, though robbed, Roman road construction. However, apart from being roughly on a line drawn between Cawthorn Roman camps and the Roman fortlet on Lease Rigg, it has none of the characteristics of a Roman road. It is restricted to Wheeldale Moor, and follows a sinuous course. It is also broken by watercourses. For some time I have suspected that this monument is in fact a Neolithic or Early Bronze Age boundary line.

Yours sincerely,
25 September

Govan’s hill

From Mr Quentin Hawkins

Sir: Stephen Driscoll’s article on early medieval Govan (‘Kingdom of Strathclyde’s final chapter’, September) did not mention the recent Time Team work there. Its investigation revealed Doomster Hill to have been an unusually large hill surrounded by a ditch so wide and deep that I can only assume it was a defensive feature. This, together with artefact evidence to suggest a date not earlier than the 13th century, might more reasonably suggest a castle site than Dr Driscoll’s suggestion of a moot hill.

He seems to believe a terraced hill called Doomster Hill could only have been a moot hill. However, unless the name can be traced back to at least the 16th century, it should not be taken too seriously as an indicator of the site’s original function. And for how long is the hill known to have been terraced? Magnus Magnussen has argued that the terracing on Tynwald Hill may be an 18th century alteration. Nonetheless the two theories are not mutually exclusive: the hill may have been a moot hill in Viking times, that was then developed into a motte in the age of castle building.

Yours faithfully,
London SE25
11 September

Stephen Driscoll replies: I directed the excavation in which Time Team were invited to participate. Where they spent three days, we have spent three seasons, which perhaps accounts for our divergent interpretations. The Time Team argument that the Doomster Hill must represent a fortification was based on a misreading of a photograph of a remarkable fortification, Dinvin motte in Carrick. Never having seen the site, they mistook the bivallate rampart of this hybrid motte-dun for a stepped terrace as at Govan. Their interpretation was further undermined by a misunderstanding of the nature and chronology of earthwork castles in Scotland.

While it is true that the earliest mention of the name ‘Doomster Hill’ is regrettably late, neither is there any oral or place-name tradition of the site being a castle. Indeed the royal estate within Govan parish was located across the Clyde at Partick.

Peat destruction

From Dr Colin Wells

Sir: Richard Morris’s article ‘Why peat extraction must be stopped’ (October), although well-intentioned, was misleading about the real reasons for the destruction of Britain’s peat bogs. Horticultural peat harvesting, although superficially alarming, in fact represents a relatively minor threat. The main culprits are, and will continue to be, agriculture, land-fill operations, urban development and conifer afforestation.

A good current example is Ashton Moss in Tameside, Manchester, where a relict raised mire is being destroyed by motorway construction and associated development as I write. The site holds an environmental archive spanning the period from the early Holocene to historic times, in an area of England notable for its lack of high quality pollen data. The mire is about to be completely lost without any challenge from conservationists or archaeologists. At least Thorne Moors, to which Richard Morris referred, has had several palaeoecological studies and therefore has partial ‘preservation by record’.

Just as disturbing is the plight of isolated peat archives which survive in landscapes long reclaimed for agriculture. These features assume even greater value because they provide rare opportunities to generate environmental histories in areas often rich in archaeology. An example is Fenton Cottage in Lancashire, which has revealed hitherto unsuspected evidence for the activities of prehistoric peoples and also the first record of Icelandic volcanic ash tephras preserved in English peat. However, despite its undoubted importance, Fenton Cottage lies unprotected by any conservation agency, and is doomed to a slow death by peat wastage thanks to agricultural drainage.

Since the 1980s, conservationists have allowed themselves to become fixated on the horticultural peat industry, and as a result have largely ignored these much more significant threats.

Yours sincerely,
Lancaster University
10 October

Looks unlike it

From Ms Linda Smith

Sir: There is one further but crucial difference between film archaeology and the real thing (‘How to do fieldwork (when in a film)’, September), but this time it is the movie-makers who have got it right. I have yet to meet an archaeologist with looks to equal Ralph Fiennes (or Harrison Ford). Anyone wishing to dispute this should accompany their comments with a recent photograph.

Yours faithfully,
1 October

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