The remains of Roman camps are not exactly scarce, but those at Cawthorn on the North York Moors near Pickering are decidedly different.
Brian Spencer went along there to try to understand what went on in them and why some were built to non-standard designs.
Soldiers have always needed somewhere to train. In Britain huge tracts of land are given over without endangering the rest of the population. Vast areas of places like Salisbury Plain echo to the sound of gunfire and the rattle of tank tracks. Strangely though, they are often the most natural parts of the country; wildlife can cope with the odd shell or two, but hates agro-chemicals! Like their modern counterparts, Roman soldiers needed somewhere to train and it is thought that one of their training camps has been preserved at Cawthorn.
The reason why it is thought that the Cawthorn camps were used for training is two-fold. The first is that there is no sign of any permanent occupation and, secondly only one fort, thought to be the oldest, is in the typical square double-banked format of the usual Roman forts. This one stands to the west of a group of three odd-shaped structures on a north facing escarpment close to the Roman road north across Fylingdales Moor. It is the other structures that are unusual. Running north eastwards along the escarpment in close proximity to the main fort are, first what can only be described as a coffin shaped structure accessed by three entrances, all along its east side. The middle ‘gate’ was open to the ancient Portergate, a trackway pre-dating Roman occupation, and possibly used by them as a side road from the one they built across Fylingdales Moor. Furthest away is another standard square-shaped structure, but with what can only be described as an annexe tacked on to its eastern side. Unlike the standard shaped western fort, none of the side camps or forts has more than a single earth bank around its perimeter, leading to the suggestion that they had no military defensive purpose and were purely for accommodation.
Although the work carried out almost 2000 years ago has stood the test of time, little is known as to why the Romans took such an interest in the area. The Cawthorn camps and well preserved sections of the road across the moor seem to be in the middle of nowhere. Unless there are other as yet undiscovered forts nearby, or on the coast at the end of the moorland road, the choice of this site is something of an enigma. That is unless it was an outpost from a military depot at Eboracum (York) from which, like their modern counterparts, recruits were sent for further training.
Admitting that what follows is pure conjecture, one can imagine columns each of a hundred Roman auxiliaries under the command of a Centurion, marching twenty miles a day. Each soldier carried all the equipment he would need, either for defence as well as attack. Along with fighting implements that included spear, sword, stabbing dagger and a shield, he also carried part of a leather tent and digging implements such as a mattock along with several days’ rations and cooking utensils. All this was slung from a bundle of wooden stakes, known as a fascine; the word later adopted by Mussolini’s fascists in the twentieth century.
Arriving at the site of their training camp the first job was to secure the area of their fortress even though it might only be temporary. In the case of the training area at Cawthorn it is thought that the ‘coffin’ shaped camp was built simply as accommodation, or as stabling for mounted cavalry troops. Why it was created in this fashion is a mystery, but it is certainly not as well defended as the standard shaped fort next to it. Of little military importance, part of it was sacrificed when the outer ditch of the ‘standard’ fort was built overlapping part of the simple rampart surrounding the ‘coffin’ shaped camp. Unlike all the other structures on the site, the ‘coffin’ camp was unusual for Roman camps or forts and has three entrances, all on one side, the eastern. Even so they are not haphazardly made, but are curved in a clavicula design, roughly ‘Z’ shaped between high banks and designed to put attackers at a disadvantage with their right, sword holding sides, unprotected against spears thrown from above. Roman defenders enjoyed the protection of a wall of stakes built from the wooden stakes or fascines each of them carried. With stakes lining an earth wall dug in record time, the outer perimeter was made secure within an hour or two of arriving on site. However, despite the apparent temporary nature of this camp, its ramparts are still visible twenty centuries later.
Possibly abandoning the ‘coffin’ camp, a more traditional fort was built a few yards to the east, maybe as a barracks for later groups of trainees. Although partly obscured by hoof prints of medieval pack horses on the ancient Portergate, it is still possible to trace the outline of a seven foot deep ditch that protected the outer limits of the fort. At some point, possibly to accommodate increased use by trainees, an annexe was tacked on to the eastern side of the fort. Entrances to both this ‘holding’ fort and its annexe, were in the curving clavicula format to facilitate added protection.
Further mystery surrounds a group of mounds in the middle of the easternmost fort. From aerial photography they do not conform to any conventional Roman military layout, one is even a pre-historic burial mound. What they could be is that they were used by officers and senior NCOs when instructing the troops. Although there is no trace of a bath house, an essential part of Roman living, water was readily available from a spring at the foot of a gully running down the escarpment below the camps.
If as has been suggested, that this was a training area, then the fort at the furthest west of the site was created as an up-to-date example of military efficiency. Built in the traditional square shape of Roman forts, but with access on three sides only because its northern walls topped the impregnably steep escarpment, the fort’s defences were far more complex than the other sites. Designed to repel even the most aggressive attack from local Brigantian tribesmen, impassably steep double ditches surround the timber palisaded walls. Each still recognisable ditch has a gently sloping inner wall, but steep outer – easy to jump into, but difficult to leave. A deep, narrow channel now silted up in the bottom of each ditch was known as an ‘ankle breaker’. Any attacker who managed to cross the first obstacle ended on top of the Roman killing ground, an exposed flat platform known as a ravelin. In the unlikely event of anyone crossing the ravelin, they were further confronted by the last line of defence, a high rampart topped by sharpened stakes. Behind it Roman soldiers standing on a walkway could hurl their spears with great accuracy on the attacking hordes. With retreat impossible few if any attackers survived to tell the tale.
As if in confirmation that the main fort was a demonstration model, no trace of permanent buildings has been found. This leads to the presumption that any troops using it were temporary inhabitants on training courses. Trainees using it would camp in leather tents, all laid out in the standard Roman grid pattern around the headquarters, the principia a place designated as the accommodation of their commanding officer. Sentries stood guard on the wooden stockade, with the heavy wooden gates closed at night to all except friendly visitors.
Archaeological evidence suggests that the site was used intermittently until the early part of the second century AD when along with the gradual withdrawal from Britain, it was abandoned. By then many Roman settlers had intermarried with Brigantian tribeswomen, and settled in what, at least for a time, was a peaceful existence. Roman pottery has been found alongside native ware, indicating the co-existence of two entirely different ethnic groups.
A short trail together with a booklet obtainable at North York Moors National Park Information Centres explores the site. The trail finishes at an outlook with far ranging views north over the moors, the very view a Roman sentry would have had two millennia ago.