Archaeologists to search York stadium for temporary camps set up by Roman armies at outpost

By Ben Miller | 21 May 2015

Roman soldiers used stadium area to learn building skills for marching camps which offered protection during campaigns in north

A photo of three male archaeologists in high-visibility jackets at an athletics stadium
York archaeologists get ready for the starting pistol at Huntington Stadium© YAT
The athletes carrying out their final training sessions at Huntington Stadium, the York arena which will be turned into a community facility following a four-week dig commencing during the Bank Holiday weekend, are following in the footsteps of soldiers who toiled at the site 2,000 years ago.

When the stadium was built in 1989, archaeologists admit that its distant past as a Roman military camp was little known. An RAF aerial survey in the early 1950s illustrated the obvious visibility of the settlement, but it took until 2002, when York Archaeological Trust began investigating the neighbouring Camp 2 and earthworks in the field below the stadium, for the extent of its former incarnation to become clear.

“This is a site that we know is of archaeological significance from aerial surveys and our own geophysical surveys of the ground,” says Ian Milsted, who is leading the project and has overseen a number of meetings with local volunteers who will help the project.

“This is one of two sites identified which we believe were the site of either encampments or training schemes for soldiers.  We excavated the first ten years ago, and now this development will give us chance to explore the second.

“York was one of the most northern outposts of the Roman army, and this site could well have been where soldiers learned to build the marching camps which offered them protection during their campaigns in the north and during the building of Hadrian’s Wall.

“York’s land is boggy and difficult to work with, so it would have offered a challenging yet realistic example of what was to come during their border campaigns.

“There are similar, occupied encampments all the way up to the borders which show how the Roman soldiers put into practise what they learned in York during their early colonial times.”

The use of the pitch by rugby players has, predictably, masked and disturbed the stadium’s archaeology. The area of an expected scheduled monument, though, is said to be in “amazing” condition, having only seen use as a pasture after being ploughed and cultivated during the medieval period.

Open fields and scattered farms characterised the surrounding area, historically known as Huntington South Moor.

Reaching further back, evidence of Neolithic pottery, Bronze Age pits, ditches and livestock enclosures and Iron Age activity were discovered during the previous dig at the stadium.

The two Roman camps detected by the overhead surveys doubled the number of known camps in York, proving true the words of William Stukeley and Francis Drake, a pair of 18th century antiquarians who wrote of seven or eight camps in the moorland around the city.

Camp 2, identified just to the south-east of the stadium, appeared as a “spectacular” cropmark when the field was ploughed.

Experts believe the camps may have been used as temporary stopovers. The swiftly-formed ditches seem to have been made by different gangs at a camp only used briefly during the 2nd century, yielding late 1st and early 2nd century pottery beneath its ramparts.

The only features found inside the camp were prehistoric ring-gullies and postholes, established before the arrival of the Roman camp creators. They implemented few new features, adding to the sense that the camps were short-lived.

“The new stadium will provide a home for a new generation of professional and amateur sportspeople,” says Tim Atkins, the manager of the stadium development for the City of York Council.

“It is a great thought that they will be honing their skills just a few metres above where their Roman forbearers would have done the same.

“We are fantastically lucky to have so much history on our doorstep – and below our feet – in York, particularly here, where new history will be made in the not too distant future.”

Students, local historians and residents have reacted enthusiastically.

“We’ve been working very closely with City of York Council to ensure that the community is involved in this stage of the process,” adds Milsted.

“All of our volunteer places have already been snapped up, but we will be welcoming visitors to the site each week to see how the excavations are progressing.”

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