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.

Evaluating and Characterising Archaeological Remains at Scotch Corner

One of the questions archaeologists are frequently asked is ‘How do you know where to dig?’ And on developer-led projects, a usual reply might sound something like ‘where the houses are being built/road is being widened/quarry is being dug/septic tank is being buried – basically, within the areas directly affected by development’... But, this rather glib partial truth generally rests on a solid foundation of detailed desk-based research and exploratory fieldwork, which together help to evaluate the archaeological resource, determine the level of risk it poses to development schedules and budgets, and inform the archaeological mitigation strategy.


A national-scale infrastructure scheme like the A1 upgrade can affect huge areas of greenfield and previously developed land, some of which may contain archaeological remains that are already known about, and others in which there is no obvious reason to expect such evidence. Evaluation helps to quantify, characterise and ascertain the significance of known remains, and to determine their presence, extent and potential value in apparently ‘blank’ areas. For Scotch Corner, the heritage team (comprising AECOM, Atkins, NAA, North Yorkshire County Council and Historic England) needed to negotiate all of these scenarios, both in the run-up to the scheme, and during the stringent construction phase.


Previous archaeological discoveries made along the A66 and at the Scotch Corner Hotel demonstrated that Iron Age and Early Roman communities occupied land to the west of the modern Scotch Corner roundabout. Aerial photography and geophysical surveys within the A1 corridor, meanwhile, suggested that dense settlement probably did not spread to the south or north, where cropmarks were nebulous and geophysical anomalies were disjointed and faint. Once soil stripping for the A1 construction began, it was quickly recognised that remains similar to those found on the A66 extended into, and even intensified in, areas previously evaluated as being ‘blank’ or low risk. It was this realisation that fully brought home the effects of certain soil types upon non-invasive evaluation techniques: aerial photographs and geophysical survey had proved inadequate to the task of identifying dense and complex remains in variations of the boulder clay that overlies limestone and sandstone bedrock at Scotch Corner.


Pairing NAA’s supplementary geophysical surveys with drone-based topographic modelling and scrutiny of Google Earth images to the west of the A1 revealed that soils there were greatly more amenable to non-invasive prospection techniques: some remains showed up as dark cropmarks and others as well-defined black and white anomalies on the grey background of survey plots. Because of this, NAA was able to better understand the excavated remains within their wider context and tailor the excavation strategy accordingly. Such variability in the quality and reliability of results can lead to misleading interpretations of the archaeological resource and contribute towards difficult situations that need to be negotiated carefully by heritage teams and developers, but also emphasise the reliance on effective evaluation. At NAA, we are proud of our ability to provide advice on evaluation strategies and to carry out the research and fieldwork necessary to characterise the archaeological resource before heavy plant arrives and the clock starts ticking.

Outreach,Coommunity Engagement and Publication for the A1 Scheme

To paraphrase a recent CIfA post, an important part of our role as archaeologists is to create and deliver public benefit from the work we do. On busy infrastructure projects like the A1 upgrade scheme, it may not be possible to include volunteers and interest groups in day-to-day site work, but we still find many and varied ways to successfully engage with communities and present our discoveries widely.


The closest most people come to active fieldwork and freshly unearthed artefacts on developer-led construction projects is at open days and local exhibitions. At NAA, we never hesitate to respond when sharing opportunities arise, the A1 being no exception. Magnificent excavations and finds at Cataractonium drew such large weekend crowds that we thought it best to organise a ticket system for the open day at Scotch Corner, meaning that each group received in-depth presentations with plenty of time left for questioning the lead archaeologists, NAA Director, consultants and Historic England Inspector. Pop-up exhibitions and displays also proved exceedingly popular occasions for people to see artefacts and speak to the experts researching them before they are deposited at the museum.


Some of the same keen individuals attended one or more of the 15 well-received talks our heritage team delivered to interest groups representing the villages and towns along the A1 corridor. Local enthusiasm was matched in the wider region, where an equal number of presentations were given to venues packed with intrigued people who followed news of the discoveries and looked out for muddy archaeologists while passing through the scheme at a steady 50mph. Further afield, academic institutions such as the universities of Bradford, Durham and Sheffield hosted lectures, as did venerable societies in Yorkshire and beyond. A regional meeting of the Society of Antiquaries welcomed an illustrated talk in York, and the wave of interest even carried us to London, where the Royal Archaeological Institute and Roman Society arranged sessions highlighting Cataractonium and Scotch Corner.


This whirlwind of engagement ran concurrently with plenty of exposure through offices of the press, who quickly latched on to the value of Scotch Corner, particularly once Historic England declared it amongst their top ten archaeological discoveries of the decade (here in the mix with Must Farm, no less)! It is also gratifying to see that the success of the scheme’s archaeological mitigation strategy informed sessions at the CIfA conference, and now features in discussions about national policy regarding infrastructure and heritage.


The written word remains a primary medium for the presentation of archaeological revelations, and in this respect the A1 scheme does not disappoint. Booklets continue to be a popular way of introducing new material to the public along with social media posts, and serve a diverse and expanding audience (you can join us on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Instagram). Leading articles in the British Archaeology Magazine and Current Archaeology reach out to larger readerships than other formats currently achieve, although it would be churlish to deny that we are bursting with enthusiasm for sharing and promoting our collection of A1 scheme journal articles and monographs that are variously available through the NAA website and the Archaeology Data Service. We believe that the exceptional range of engagements outlined here represents a forward leap in the broadcasting of an epic archaeological project while simultaneously enhancing the parent scheme. In these uncertain times, we trust that the public will continue to embrace outstanding discoveries about their past in the same spirit that has accompanied the A1 scheme.


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