|Information Board: Stanwick Camp North Yorkshire|
|One of the many overgrown fortification ditches|
The majority of fortified Iron Age sites in the North are hillforts, and Stanwick stands out, not just because of its sheer size, but also because of its unusual construction, which has lead to it being classified by some as an 'oppidum' (large fortified Iron Age settlement associated with the late Celtic La Tené culture, thought by some to be early 'towns.') - a structure much more common in Europe and Sourthern Britain.
The Brigantes and their Leaders
The Brigantes were initially loyal to Rome and first appear in the written record when Caratacus, the British leader of resistance to Roman rule for over a decade following the invasion in AD43, was defeated in Wales and fled to Brigantian territory, perhaps hoping for their support. The Brigantian Queen, Cartimandua, showed her loyalty to the Romans by promptly handed him over in chains: a contributory factor in two subsequent Brigantian revolts against Cartimandua and her Roman allies. These revolts were lead by her former consort, Venutius in AD50, and again in AD69.
|Caractacus delivered to Ostorius by Cartimandua - Print by Francesco Bartolozzi 1781 - 1797|
There were obviously also other factors at play, as Tacitus relates:
As the largest fortified site in Northern Britain, Stanwick Camp must have played an important role in these events.
Excavations at Stanwick Camp
So far there have been two excavations at Stanwick:
|Ramparts Stanwick Camp, North Yorkshire|
The first one was undertaken by Mortimer Wheeler in the 1950s. He concluded that the site had been constructed in three seperate phases starting with a small earthwork enclosure on a low hill known as 'The Tofts' in about AD40 which was then extended to the North in AD50-60 and enclosing over 130 acres. The final phase in AD72 extended the site to over 700 acres. Wheeler felt that it had been the rebel stronghold of Venutius during the two revolts.
Wheeler left an enduring legacy on the site by digging out part of one of the ditches and reconstructing part of the stone rampart. This wall is only two feet high above the rampart, but Wheeler estimated that it would originally have been closer to 15 feet. The site is under the care of English Heritage, and does give quite an impressive indication of just how awe-inspiring the fortifications would have been in their time.
|Mortimer Wheeler's reconstructed ditch and (partial) rampart wall with 6ft bod figure for scale|
Stanwick's name is thought to derive from the old Norse word steinvegges meaning 'stone ways' or 'stone walls'
The next excavations were undertaken by a team from Durham University in the 1980s, led by Percival Turnbull and professor Colin Haselgrove. They concluded that the outer fortifications had been completed first during the middle of the first century AD, and then the inner area subdivided. They argued that it was far too big to be a mainly defensive structure, and was rather intended to reflect power and status, so, rather than being the stronghold of Venutius, they felt it was the royal estate of Queen Cartimandua.
Finds of Roman Samian ware and other luxury goods found on the site could support this view.
|The Tofts area of the camp, which contained evidence of high-prestige trade with the Romans|
The famous 'Stanwick Hoard,' found in the 1840s: a hoard of 140 metal artefacts including four sets of horse harness for chariots, and a copper alloy horse head (it is not clear whether the 'Hoard' was found within or without the fortifications, or a short distance away) also lends weight to the importance of the site.
|The Stanwick Horse Mask.|
So we have two excavations with apparently opposing conclusions, or, could they both be right, with the 'camp' starting as Cartimandua's estate, and ending as Venutius' stronghold?
I must admit that before I visited, I had heard Stanwick called a hill fort, and this is what I was expecting. However, despite some low hills and mounds within the site, the land is fairly flat and not at all what I was expecting. It's also extremely difficult to gain a true appreciation of the sheer size of the site, even after walking around the ramparts, and I couldn't find anywhere that provided a view over the whole area. So it does seem to be an unusual siting if thinking about defense when there are so many very defensible hills in the area.
|Even walking the ground, it is hard to get a grip on the sheer size of the site|
|Miles of ramparts....|
Whether it was Queen Cartimandua's seat of power, or Venutius' rebel stronghold, or both, it is obvious that Stanwick was a site of major significance, and must have played a role in those key events in the first century AD. Although there are only Tacitus' accounts, it does appear that the second revolt was quite extreme, with Tacitus remarking that Vespasian, once emperor, had to "recover" Britain. Even after the Romans crushed the uprising, which took them almost three years, Northern Britain remained a Military Zone for the duration of the Roman Occupation, and there is a school of thought that one of the reasons for the positioning of Hadrian's Wall was to control and split the Brigantes.
As this is my favourite period of history, and Yorkshire is my county, I would love to know so much more about these fascinating events in the story of the occupation of Britain by the Romans. I imagine that Stanwick holds a vast amount of information within its many ramparts, bumps and mounds, perhaps information that could unlock some of the mystery. Maybe one day....
However, at the moment, and to quote Alen McFadzean from his article about Stanwick:
Earlier Occupation and the Church of St John the Baptist
|Tthe circular churchyard of St John the Baptist, Stanwick, North Yorkshire|
|Carved cross shaft Church of St John the Baptist, Stanwick, North Yorkshire|
A plethora of interesting stone carved items await the visitor, including an intricately carved Viking ring cross-shaft and several saxon carvings including cross-heads. Built into the wall are a large number of old grave covers, and fragments of carvings. A helpful ringbinder within the church has illustrations and descriptions of all the carvings.
|Carved Viking ring cross-shaft. Church of St John the Baptist.|
Visiting The Site
|Stanwick Camp, entrance to Wheeler reconstuction|
Stanwick Camp is a really interesting and intriguing site to spend a few hours, but quite difficult to find and navigate. If you are interested in visiting, I thoroughly recommend downloading one of the walks listed in the 'Sources and further information' section at the end of the article, and planning your visit before you go.
The Marooned Roman Bridge: Piercebridge, Co.Durham
|Visit our Lovers Page|
Wikipedia: Stanwick Iron Age Fortifications
Historic England: Stanwick Camp
British Museum: Stanwick Hoard
Historic England: Oppida (PDF)
The Stanwick Group: Church of St John the Baptist
Alen McFadzean 'Stanwick Camp'
The Celtic Heroic Age: Literary Sources for Ancient Celtic Europe and Early Ireland: John T. Koch and John Carey
Britain Begins: Barry Cunliffe
Roman Britain and the English Settlements: Collingwood and Myers
Gnor Bodi: Rederick Covins
Daughters of Fire: Barbara Erskine
Northern Echo: Stanwick Camp (PDF)
Brigantes Nation: Stanwick Iron Age Hillfort