Society of Antiquaries (2020) h/b 208pp £35 (ISBN 9780854313013)

Interest in Aldborough’s Roman past began in the eighteenth century, when the northern range of the forum and some mosaics were discovered. In the nineteenth century Andrew Lawson, a keen antiquarian, bought much of the town. He developed Aldborough Manor and its gardens, which displayed many of the Roman remains. His family have continued to own that property, although they have put part of it into the guardianship of the state, now through English Heritage. In the 1930s the Yorkshire Archaeological Society organised investigations, which involved cutting trenches to explore the town defences. Between 1959 and 1974 the Ministry of Public Buildings and Works undertook further investigations, exposing the area of the South Gate. There were several small developer-funded excavations in the 1990s and 2000s. In 2009 Ferraby and Millett began a major re-examination of the site. This book is the culmination of that work.

After a concise introduction, there are three main chapters. The first is a detailed account of all previous studies of Roman Aldborough. This is supported by a 31 page appendix, described as ‘Gazetteer of archaeological interventions’. The close attention paid to work done in previous centuries marks this book out from other published reports of archaeological investigations. The next main chapter is an account of the authors’ work over the last eleven years. They divided Aldborough into thirteen areas. Areas 1 to 5 lie within the town walls, areas 6 to 13 lie outside. The authors’ work principally took the form of geophysical surveys, using magnetometry and ground-penetrating radar. There were also excavations at important locations, such as the forum lying beneath St Andrew’s Church and its environs. 

The final chapter, ‘Re-evaluating the history of Isurium Brigantum’, synthesises the work of the authors with the findings of earlier antiquarians and archaeologists. During the late 60s AD, the Romans established a fort at Roecliffe to guard a crossing over the river Ure. The settlement which was to become Isurium Brigantum developed about 2 km east of Roecliffe and the original fort was abandoned. The river looped round at this point, so that it lay both to the north and to the east of the settlement. Stamped tiles record the presence of the Ninth Legion, the Sixth Legion and an auxiliary cohort, Cohors III Breucorum. The river port there served the needs of the army and also contributed the economic growth of the area. The earliest buildings, from c. AD 70, were along the road from York to Roecliffe. A grid of streets developed, with the road from York to Roecliffe forming the main east-west street. The main north-south street led to another river crossing. The land slopes downwards from north to south. The forum in the town centre lay on a terrace cut into the hill side. Three further terraces were created to the south of the forum. The street grid seems to have been planned as a single phase. It covers an area of 370 m x 475 m, making it one of the smallest civitas capitals in the province, probably with a population of 2,500 to 3,000 residents. A new bridge was built over the river to the north of the town. The main north-south street became part of Dere Street, running from York to the northern frontier.

A more difficult question is how and when all this happened. After a careful analysis of the available evidence and alternative hypotheses, the authors conclude that traders probably set up business around the Aldborough port, with mining of lead and silver in the hills nearby. They created a thriving commercial hub. Once Hadrian’s Wall was established as the northern frontier in AD 122, the provincial governor would have regularised the organisation of the hinterland: the social groupings in the Aldborough area became a civitas and their new town became the civitas capital. Laying out the street grid, constructing a stone forum and terracing the southern half of the town were major infrastructure projects. It is likely that the provincial authorities, rather than local communities, undertook these works. The amphitheatre outside the town, first identified in the 1840s (see section G15 of the Gazetteer) fits with the creation of the civitas capital in the early second century.

The town walls, which enclosed both the street grid and some buildings beyond, were probably built in the late second century. They were of limited benefit for defence, because of restricted views on the south and east sides. The authors surmise that they were ‘designed as an expression of civic status rather than for military reasons’ (p. 111). A series of enhancements was added to the walls during the third, fourth and early fifth centuries. Within the town, several élite residences were constructed south of the forum. Some of their mosaics survive. Aldborough seems to have retained its importance until the end of the Roman occupation and into the mediaeval period.

This review offers no more than a brief summary of the highlights. The book contains much scholarly discussion of the evidence and the competing interpretations, integrated with the broader history of Roman Britain. It is also highly readable, lavishly illustrated with photographs and plans. It will appeal to general readers, as well as specialists in the field.

Rupert Jackson