Romano-British Scrooby

Heidi Robbins

It is not often that we are given a chance to glimpse how people used to live two thousand years ago, but in Scrooby we are lucky enough to have been given an insight into the past.

With the arrival of air photography something surprising became apparent about the low ridge running north-south between the river Ryton and the Idle. Air photographs revealed a landscape of fields, access ways and farming enclosures which are found over the Sherwood sandstone formations of South Yorkshire and North Nottinghamshire.

Derrick Riley identified and mapped these field systems between 1974 and 1980. The light sandy soils show the shape of the fields well from the air during the summer, as the crops growing on top of ditches will show as greener stronger growth. He called them â??brickwork field systemsâ?? because of their shape.

In 1997 an excavation was undertaken at the enclosure at Scrooby Top in advance of an extension of the sand and gravel quarry there. The enclosure was small and rectangular with an entrance on the east side. It contained a house, hearths, oven and several pits. A large midden had formed inside the entrance to the enclosure and there was a well. The enclosure was surrounded by fields with a trackway down the hill to the river meadows. Pottery found in the pits and ditches date from the mid-first to the mid-third century AD.

Finds from the site included lots of pottery, iron and copper metalwork and slag from metal-working. There were three coins and two brooches. Most of the pottery was local Greywares from the kilns near Doncaster (there were large commercial kilns at both Cantley and Rossington), but there was also imported pottery from abroad including Samian ware (a fine tableware made in France?) and Spanish amphora sherds (typically used to import exotic goods such as olive oil and wine), showing that the people living here were part of a developed trading economy.

Archaeologists excavating the site were particularly interested in the way that different types of finds were distributed around the enclosure as this gives clues as to the use of space within and around the enclosure. Smithing slag concentrated just outside and south of the enclosure. The south side of the enclosure was the focus for domestic activities; here there were large numbers of cooking pots, some soot-covered, and fire-cracked stones, as well as three hearths. The north side of the enclosure contained many large storage pits. Later in the history of use of the enclosure, it was divided into two halves by a small ditch. The eastern half was dominated by a large midden (heap of domestic rubbish) and the western half contained the house, oven and storage pits. A hollow way (road which has worn a hollow through use) developed cutting across the enclosed area to the east of the enclosure in the later history of the site, perhaps a droveway for herding animals out to the pasture land.

The pattern of activity around the house and enclosure is fairly typical of what is found at other Iron Age/Romano-British sites. At this time people used their living spaces according to daily and annual cycles, and activities can be seen to follow a sunwise (or clockwise to us) path around the house. Generally entrances to houses and enclosures face east, entrances often being aligned to the midwinter solstice or equinox, and metal-working often takes place near the entrance. Domestic processing activities such as grinding, weaving and pottery manufacture take place on the south side. The west is associated with ceremonial activities and the north side with storage and also sleeping. Later in the Roman period this use of space starts to change.

The evidence for agriculture was limited, largely because bones do not survive well in the acid sandy soil at Scrooby. However, a few soil samples contained botanical remains and provided evidence for the later stages of crop processing of barley and spelt (a type of wheat). The soil samples also contained flax, which could have been grown for its seeds or stems for the fibres used to make linen. There was also heather present which may have been collected for animal bedding and this was mixed with the residue from crop processing, suggesting animl stalling and feeding. Despite the lack of evidence for animals, cattle and especially sheep would have been an important part of the farming system as the thin sandy soils required lots of manure to keep them productive.

In the area around Scrooby many of the other known enclosures are similarly situated on the ridge between the rivers Ryton and Idle. The field ditches run east-west, enclosing strips of land from the higher sandy ground down into the marshy valley bottoms. There are no field boundaries visible down by the rivers, possibly because they are hidden under alluvium or maybe because there were never any boundaries there. The wet marshy land may have been communal grazing.

Archaeologists have speculated in the past that the regular patterns of fields and enclosures were imposed from above by some sort of elite and lived in by tenant farmers. The evidence does not really support this, especially as at Scrooby, the exotic pottery and items of jewellery show that the people living here were not dirt-poor farmers. Also there is evidence that the field systems did develop through time and that there was a complex evolving system of settlement and economic relationships.

Bibliography

Riley, D 1980 Early Landscapes from the Air Sheffield: Dept of Prehistory and Archaeology

Davies, G et al 2000 Scrooby Top Excavation Sheffield: ARCUS unpublished excavation report