Roman Days in Bradford

Fig 2a Trajan Denar Obverse

This coin shows the emperor Trajan whose adopted son Hadrian constructed the famous Wall. Britain contributed a province, or provinces, to the Roman Empire from the time of the emperor Claudius’s invasion in 43 until a notional date of 410. The influence of Rome, if not its government, may have been apparent in Britain for at least a century before the invasion, and there is archaeological evidence that the eastern empire maintained trading links, with west Britain at least, for years after the fall of the western empire in 476. Roman coins, both hoards and casual losses, have been recorded from the neighbourhood of Bradford since the eighteenth century. However, with the exception of the auxiliary fort at Ilkley, there is little evidence of local engagement with Roman culture. The recent additions of the Silsden Iron Age coin hoard and the Riddlesden hoard of Roman denarii to the display collection at Cliffe Castle Museum, Keighley has made me wonder to what extent are local coin data accessible or relevant to local historians who are not numismatists or Roman specialists?

Neither the city of Bradford nor county of West Yorkshire resemble, in area or type, any polity that existed in the Roman Iron Age (RIA). Both were then within the territory of a tribe, or tribal confederation, which the Romans called the Brigantes. Its principal centre was at Stanwick, far to the north, but the Roman authorities created a new capital for them at Aldborough. The historian Tacitus suggested, quite plausibly, that the confederation contained pro-Roman and anti-Roman elements. In his account Queen Cartimandua is associated with support for Rome and she had to be assisted by Roman troops on two occasions even before Tacitus’s father in-law Agricola began the occupation of Brigantian territory of the Brigantes in campaigns of 77-78. It seems certain that Yorkshire in the Iron Age and RIA showed marked regional variation. Halkon has argued very persuasively that East Yorkshire was a recognisably distinct entity in both periods. Some years after West Yorkshire came into being a detailed archaeological survey was published describing the new county up to 1500. The RIA section includes a map of Roman coin find spots and the probable courses of roads but little else relating to the Bradford district. A valuable recent paper commenting on the contributions of modern, developer funded, commercial archaeology to our knowledge of Roman West Yorkshire notes only a single site near to Bradford and virtually nothing in the South Pennines. In the east of the county several major road schemes have been preceded by detailed archaeological assessment. Almost all the sites are on low lying land east of a line connecting Leeds and Sheffield, and consist of dense areas of rural, non-villa, settlement. I suppose there is really no reason to suppose that this pattern did not continue into the western part of the county but evidence is lacking.

There are Roman fort sites in the west such as Adel, Ilkley and Slack, where road or river links generated important military centres. But, to the best of my knowledge, in the whole of West Yorkshire there is not a single civil town and only one certain villa site, at Dalton Parlours, Collingham. Virtually all that is known of the Bradford Metropolitan District in the RIA is that it was crossed by secondary roads and included the auxiliary fort, presumably with a civilian extra-mural settlement, at Ilkley. I think it is a reasonable supposition that the purchasing power of the army, and civilian road use, would have exposed Iron Age Bradfordians to changes of dress, ornamentation and diet. But the area would seem to qualify as ‘an upland military zone where the indigenous population continued their old way of life in remote and isolated settlements’. Did those concerned deliberately reject Roman culture or were their numbers too few, and their situation too remote and isolated, to promote the experience?

Iron Age and RIA settlements and fields were normally bounded by ditches and banks. Farmers in upland areas like Bradford are perhaps more likely to have raised stock than to have cultivated cereals, but barley was grown here in historic times and in the Roman period spelt wheat was planted which is cold tolerant. Gritstone querns, grain grinding stones, are indestructible and are found all over Yorkshire where they effectively form a proxy for cereal cultivation. Land being manured in a Roman fashion should be identifiable by spreads of RIA potsherds. The farming practices of the Iron Age seem to have continued unaltered for a long period but unexplained changes, or land abandonment, occur in the late third or early fourth centuries.

While Britain was an imperial possession millions of coins will have been in circulation, principally providing pay or stipendium for an army of many thousands. Although in rural Iron Age society a barter economy probably continued after the conquest, it is certain that soldiers, officials and ‘Romanised’ Britons would have employed coins for gifts, religious donations, and to exchange for goods and services. Towards the end of the Roman period inflation meant that coinage payments to soldiers became almost inconsequential, compared to precious metal donatives given by new emperors and the annona militaris which consisted of payment in kind. This fact must have influenced the number of coins circulating. This coin portrays Julia Domna. She was the wife of Septimius Severus, one of two emperors to die in York.

Fig. 3 Julia Domna

Gold and silver coins, then as now, had an intrinsic value as bullion. The army and civil service was paid in precious metals, and these were subsequently collected as part of official taxation. A low-value, base metal, coinage was needed for everyday use but such coins naturally circulated for only so long as people had confidence in their ultimate capacity to exchange these worthless items for gold. Roman archaeology is rich and varied but coins occupy a unique place among its artefacts. Portraits, lettering, and the overall resemblance to modern money, seems to bring the Roman world very close to ours. Even detailed records of single coin finds provide very little information unless one is lucky enough to discover an issue that was previously unknown. The classic recent example was the discovery in Oxfordshire of a coin issued by a hitherto unrecorded emperor, Domitianus II. Unlike modern examples Roman coins are not stamped with a year of issue, but the emperor’s name, and the various titles awarded to him, usually permit dating within a year or two.

Coin hoards should be separated from casual losses since hoards were evidently not mislaid but buried deliberately. It was once assumed that coin collections were concealed in times of trouble, but many seem to date from relatively peaceable periods. A sacrifice to chthonic gods is possible or perhaps, in the absence of banks, some may simply represent a reasonably safe way of protecting surplus cash without the knowledge of Roman taxation officials. Evidently hoards must have entered the ground after the date of the latest coin. It is known that coin hoards in Britain are common (more than 1600 discovered) when compared with other Roman provinces. In the past hoards were frequently discovered by ploughing or quarrying but as a means of discovery both activities have now been superseded by metal detecting. There is acceptable evidence for ten hoards from the Bradford area, including one very recent example. The most famous collection of this type is the Bingley or Elam Hoard. This was found at Morton Bank, between Keighley and Bingley, during ploughing in March 1775. The silver coins had been placed in a copper or metal bound chest and represented 100 lb weight. The hoard is now lost but apparently included almost every emperor from Nero in 54 to Pupienus in 238; accompanying the coins was a silver image, six inches long. This hoard has been considered as representing accumulated wealth on its way to a place of safety in a time of trouble, but this is interpretative speculation.

Fig.4 Riddlesden Hoard

The recent Riddlesden hoard (illustrated) consists of 110 silver denarii, the first scatter of nine were found by metal detecting in 2014. The finds were promptly reported to the local Finds Liaison Officer of the Portable Antiquities Scheme and excavations by the members of the West Yorkshire Archaeology Advisory Service were undertaken. No archaeological features were found but more coins were recovered. The hoard might possibly be remnants of the Bingley Hoard reported from the same general area; the Riddlesden Hoard has a very similar composition. It consist solely of denarii, ranging from the reign of Vespasian (77/8) to the first half of the reign of Maximinus I Thrax (235/6). This later date is within a decade of the time when denarii ceased to be struck. The Riddlesden hoard is on display at Cliffe Castle museum as is an Iron Age coin hoard almost certainly buried early in the Roman period. This, the Silsden Hoard, consists of 27 gold coins together with a ring of Roman provenance. Most of the coins were issued by Cunobelin the ruler of the tribes named the Trinovantes and Catuvellani. His main centre of power was in Colchester, over 200 miles away. The Brigantes themselves are not thought to have struck coins.

Single coin finds are generally of low value copper alloy. In nearly 400 years of Roman occupation a great many losses of this type will have occurred, as happens in the present day. These should not be randomly placed but would be expected to aggregate in positions where coin carrying individuals were themselves common: along the course of Roman roads for example, or markets, religious sites, or at bridges and fords where the offering of small coins to tutelary deities might be anticipated. Coins that were casually lost may not be a representative selection of those available. Silver, and especially gold, issues were of great value and well worth a prolonged hunt if mislaid. Small denominations, the equivalents of today’s 1p or 2p coins, may have hardly been worth the effort of picking up if dropped. In Roman times the coinage of an unsuccessful pretender would almost certainly be de-monetised, indeed it may have been treasonable even to attempt to spend it. It might be more correct to say that such issues were discarded rather than lost. Coins found in secure sites at excavations, for example a building foundation trench, will not have moved and so provide excellent dating evidence. Coins of the British based pretenders Carausius (286-93) and Allectus (293-96), found in 1994 during an excavation of a section of Roman foundations at Pevensey Castle, strongly suggest this shore fort was constructed as a defence against other Romans. I found it quite difficult to draw up a reliable list of single coin finds in the Bradford area. My estimate is that there are about 115 and of these the find spots of 60 are known accurately enough for the coins to be mapped. These numbers are tiny in comparison with the number of finds from a coin rich location. No less than 55,000 coins were found at Richborough alone, although this is an exceptional site. The first coins lost in the Bradford area were issued by the emperor Nero. This is perfectly reasonable; the north of England was conquered by the late 70s and the earliest coins of Nero were minted after 64. They last coin find is a copper alloy coin of Arcadius, eastern emperor in 395-408, found in Manningham. It is an example of the Salus Reipublicae issue which marks the end of low value coins found in Britain.

Not one of Bradford’s coins is an excavation find and there is no possibility of using surface finds for dating purposes. What use can be made of the coins we have? Not much I am afraid. The total number of Bradford coins is really too small for valid conclusions to be drawn although there seems nothing exceptional about them. None of these coins was issued by a previously unknown ruler, or provided any new insights into the titles and campaigns of emperors, nor the hair-styles of empresses. Their presence is good evidence that some people in, or travelling through, the area were operating a money economy, and not depending on barter. Coin data are accessible but are of diminishing relevance to local historians with only an average knowledge of, and interest in, the Roman period. In fact there have even been major changes in the type of Roman history that concern enthusiasts. The contemporary feeling is that we should be concentrating on archaeological landscapes, not sites. Modern techniques like geophysics and aircraft mounted lasers (LiDAR scanning) provide a very powerful means of examining those landscapes. Studying a large area because it is selected for modern development is likely to produce a more realistic appreciation of rural life than investigating elite sites like villas. Finally the popularity of metal-detecting has provided the Portable Antiquities Scheme with hundreds of thousands of data points which can be computer processed, and mapped. What influence did Roman prestige goods have on Iron Age society in the pre-invasion period? How heterogeneous was RIA society in Britain and why? How did the economy function? Why was the army in Britain so large and, finally, by what processes did Roman Britain become Anglo-Saxon England?


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