c.1550 BC – c.1900 AD
Imagine you’re standing at
the site of the Castleshaw Forts, and imagine it’s way before the Romans came
to Britain, in fact in the Bronze Age (in Britain that’s c.2500 BC to c.700 BC)
probably around c.1500 BC. You’re standing on the prominent hill part way down
the valley, streams running down at the foot of the hill at either side of you.
You might be surprised to
find yourself in the middle of a Beaker period settlement. And we can say this
because in the 1964 excavations a pit was found underneath the fort. It
measured 21″ in diameter, cut into the bedrock to 15″ depth, and
containing 122 Beaker pottery sherds subsequently assessed as dating to
c.1550BC. The sherds made 5 vessels in partial reconstruction, including one of
References appear at the end in case you want them, but here’s a
picture of our replica Beaker pots – being investigated by Sonia, Jacqui and
Another interesting piece of information from prehistory is
hiding in the Roman name for Castleshaw – ‘Rigodonum‘.
Celtic in origin it can be translated as ‘king’s fort’ or ‘royal fort’ although
no one has discovered who knows the Celtic royal in question. All agree
that it cannot apply to the Roman fort itself, but we do know that the Romans
quite commonly took Iron Age settlements for their own requirements usually
because they were so well-situated. Nothing has been found so far to being to
answer that question.
But in AD 79 Agricola is in charge in Britain under the
rule of the Flavian Emperor Titus. The road going North East from Deva (Chester)
to Eboracum (York) must go over the Pennines and therefore through the
territory of the Brigantes. A fort is built on the road at the Castleshaw site
and is named Rigodonum. According to Percival 1752 it is 9 – 10
miles from Manchester but a bit longer than that in today’s measuring probably
nearer 13 miles in a straight line. As we know Roman Roads were built for
straightness where possible and that means it was a shorter distance to travel
then than it is now on 21st C roads. In any event that would
represent an easy day’s march for troops coming from Mamucium/Mancunium
(Castlefield) before they hit the wilder moorland. It is possible that the fort
was built to mount offensives against a Brigantes stronghold nearby as some
say, or perhaps more likely to guard the main highway and act as a stopping-off
The first fort was built of
turf and timber and covered 1.2 hectares, but whatever its purpose it was
short-lived and was abandoned c.95 AD. Then, ten years later in c.105 AD
and under the rule of the Emperor Trajan, the site was reoccupied when a
fortlet was built, one third of the size of the first fort. Here’s a plan
of the two forts together.
The new fort had one barrack
room that could sleep only 50 men, but an unusually big granary. It made
the purpose of this fort potentially different to the first fort and explained
variously as: a nerve centre for troops out-stationed locally; a supply and
control centre; a stop-off for messengers and officers; a store for food taxes
gathered from the locals. By 120 AD a vicus was built around the south
side of the fort and the road was diverted in some way around to the north. Although
this begins to feel like the fort was a lively and bustling place, something like
Saddleworth on Whit Friday, another few years saw it abandoned, c.125 AD.
The next thing we ‘know’ of
at the Forts’ site is the Viking era, and we get this potential knowledge via
the brilliant Thomas Percival, writing in 1752. He did a landscape-type survey
of the area and here, in his own words, is the enigmatic story of Knott Hill.
“I mention’d Knothill to be a Roman tumulus. The
people about Castleshaw have yet a tradition, that some great man belonging to
the castle was buried there, and have a confused notion of a march of an army
of Danes. Now as Canutus marched into Yorkshire out of Lancashire, it is
highly probable, that he came over this road: and as Knott-hill gave him a full
view of the Yorkshire moors, it was a proper place and opportunity to harangue
his men: and that speech might alter the old name of the tumulus to Knot-hill,
if it was not made for his use, which, I think, it was not. Several names of
places on this road seem to carry his memory in their names. Knothill
here; Knotty-lane just below; Knotlanes between here and Manchester, very near
the Roman highway; Knottmills near Manchester; and Knutsford in Cheshire, which
way he probably came, in his march from Staffordshire.” (Percival 1752: 230)
So were King Cnut and the
Vikings at Castleshaw? It’s certainly a question.
Percival says “At Castleshaw
I was well pleased to find a double Roman camp” and so, for me, should anyone
be who goes there.
Nothing more can be said from
sources until we reach the late 19th century and step into 115 years or so of
the age of archaeology at Castleshaw.
Percival, T. 1752. Observations on the Roman colonies and
stations in Cheshire and Lancashire. Philosophical Transactions of
the Royal Society, 47: 216-230.
Redhead, N. 2012. Renewed Interest in the Castleshaw Roman
Forts. Saddleworth Historical Society Bulletin 42/3
Stonehouse, W.P.B. 2001. The Prehistory of Saddleworth
& Adjacent Areas.
D. Chadderton (Ed). Saddleworth Archaeological Trust.
The next involvement comes from another antiquarian, this time one of poetic
renown, the world famous Ammon Wrigley. All finds shown in this section
are from the Wrigley collection, photos taken by Phil Barrett, but if you want
to reproduce one or more of them for any purpose whatsoever permission must be obtained
in writing from Sean Baggaley at Gallery Oldham.
Here's a picture of the redoubtable Mr Wrigley, who, in 1897, was reading
the work of Percival from 1752 that I include above.
All diary extracts are from Wrigley (1912).
15.8.1897 Mr Wrigley says he was lazing about in one
of the high fields above Broadhead and looking down across the valley, and
suddenly saw the outlines of the 'Roman Station'. It seems that local
historians knew of the camp, but none had been sufficiently interested to explore
further, as he could find no record of any kind. He measured it up and he says
'to my great satisfaction' it aligned with Percival's (1752) plan, relevant
segment shown here.
That afternoon he went with two chums and they confirmed it by re-measuring
the area with a chain. Then Ammon Wrigley went about gaining permission to dig
from the owners, the Messrs Schofield, and he was allowed to dig on condition
that the ground was 'made good for the spring of 1898.' He notes that in
early October - 'We sank trial holes in various parts of the camp area,
and were rewarded by finding fragments of Roman tile and pottery. ..... It was
decided that the work should be continued every Saturday afternoon if the
9.10.1897 'Begin explorations under the
distinguished patronage of several immortal "roughyeds" from Oldham.'
They send an 'envoy' to the "Horse and Jockey" and he returns 'with a
large brown bottle on his shoulder...' 'I appoint myself Chief Controller of
all liquids (water excepted) hereafter to be consumed on the Roman Station.'
'Mallalieu finds a piece of red tile near the inner rampart, and creates a
profound sensation; Oldhamer wants to fight him for it, - heated discussions
and hostile demonstrations.'
Not sure if it was one of these tiles in the Wrigley collection, but it just
may be possible.
'I find a piece of tile and am forcibly deprived of it by Winterbottom.'
'Winterbottom finds a piece of grey
....'and goes about with the dignity of a Co-op committee man who has
just finished testing a new consignment of cheese. Another squabble, I am
charged with attempting to "pinch" Winterbottom's pottery and am
warned off the field.'
It seems that they easily get back into high spirits with the aid of the
'brown bottle' and repair to an ale-house called the "Mop" (?) where
plans are made for the next day.
10.10.1897 'Winterbottom and self arrive on the
ground at 9.30 a.m. Find Schofield and Mallalieu performing hurricane work in
the greater fort. They ignore us, - look as if they owned the
"blanking" Roman station.'
After trouble with Winterbottom - 'The law of self-preservation demands that
I should open a trench in another part of the field. We work in
silence...' 'I hear "cusswords" coming from a distant trench,
Mallalieu and Schofield are holding an excited discussion over the possession
of an old button - believed to be Roman; hope they are going to fight. Winterbottom
finds a piece of grey-ware bearing incised ornamentation, and we retire to the
"Horse and Jockey" for lunch.’
Lunch was cheese and dry bread with raw onion, clay pipes and twist for
dessert, and fourpenny liquor to close.
Later that day - Under observation by a group of
'Owdhamers' bearing 'ponderous volumes' on Roman antiquities - 'We dig for the
next ten minutes in the most approved scientific manner; we are rewarded by
finding a beautiful frog and several fine, healthy-looking worms,...'
'Work is continued, and we suddenly lay a piece of pavement bare, -
trumpets, balloons, fireworks, and circus elephants!' Mayhem does ensue
and after clay being thrown about, Wrigley 'roars his appreciation' when
Winterbottom falls over in the attempt to throw clay over Heights Chapel.... 'am
promptly stoned from the field;' ..... 'I am forgiven on condition that I
carry all the spades, picks, etc., down to Castlehill. We knock off for
the day, the finds include the pavement and fragments of tile, pottery, and
16.10.1897 'Stormy meeting of directors....
breaks up in disorder. We dig anywhere. "Owdham
Roughyeds" arrive. Schofield behaves in an extraordinary manner; I
gather he has discovered a large piece of amphora, probably part of a wine
vessel; he believes that the wine cellar is not more than a yard away to the
left.' ....... 'He claims an exclusive right to the trench.'
'Oldhamers are permitted to watch the excavations on condition that they
keep their hands off the finds. Winterbottom is going savagely round the field
armed with a long, sharp-pointed iron probe; I keep out of his way, and wonder
if he is fit to be at large.'
17.10.1897 'Tempestuous work in the inner fort by
Schofield,...' 'Party of ladies arrive.' 'I hold a grand reception
on the northern rampart....I explain its constructive values...and so forth. I
make a great show of Latin terms used in connection with Roman stations: ...
all of which I had seen in books. I have not the faintest idea what the terms
mean, but notice that my hearers are greatly impressed.'
21.10.1897 'I discover that the Roman relics which I
had placed carefully away in a cupboard, at home, are missing.' Wrigley
asks his mother where they are and she says she's thrown them on the midden. ‘"But
they are Roman relics," I say. "They look like Irish!" she
answers. 'Did you throw the Samian ware on the midden?" I ask.
"All the dirty lot!" she answers.' 'I spend a miserable
half hour on the midden with the lantern. At last I discover the best fragments
almost buried under objectionable malodorous refuse. I resort to strategy,
and finally hide them upstairs.'
Here's some of his very fine Samian.
25.10.1897 Mr G F Buckley leases the field for a
year, thus allowing Wrigley to continue with the dig.
Summer 1898 A number of diagonal trenches were
opened near the inner fort, resulting in a visit by the Lancashire and Cheshire
May 1899 Wrigley contributes an article on
Castleshaw to the Yorkshire Weekly Post, this subsequently appears in the
'Antiquary'. Wrigley says 'it was written with the object of calling attention
to the Yorkshire Archaeological Society to the station in the hope that the
Society would undertake further explorations...' Here's an extract from
"Many patches of well-worn cobble pavement may be seen running in
various directions, and in some parts well crowned. The pottery fragments
include the red Samian ware, decorated with figures, etc., the border
decoration being that generally called "cup and spear"; also pieces
of amphora, with varieties of the black and grey wares. A few of the
latter fragments bear the well-known incised decoration of interlacing lines,
while other pieces show a curious zigzag work in relief. Four or five
varieties of tile have been turned up - from a bright red to a white, some
examples bearing a kind of geometrical design." (Re-printed in Wrigley's
book referenced below, the reference of the article itself is not available at
From 1898 to 1907 Wrigley and co did 'occasional digging on the site'. At
that point Samuel Andrew and Major Lees bought the land and quickly began
comprehensive excavations, with Francis A Bruton. Of this Wrigley says 'By
doing this they earned, I hope, the thanks of every Saddleworthian who has any
respect for the historical values of his homeland.' Of his own work he
says 'A beginning is a beginning, if it is nothing else.'
I'll leave you with a few more images of finds from the Wrigley collection.
And grateful thanks to Sean Baggaley, Director, Gallery Oldham, for
allowing us to photograph the collection and to post a selection of images
Percival, T. 1752. Observations on the Roman colonies and stations in
Cheshire and Lancashire. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society,
Wrigley, A. 1912. The First Excavations of the Roman Camp at Castleshaw. In
Ammon Wrigley, Songs of a Moorland Parish, 298 - 314. Saddleworth: