Bremetenacum: Excavations at Roman Ribchester 1980, 1989-1990

C Howard-Davis, Kath Buxton, 2003 (updated 2009)

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Ribchester (Bremetenacum), on the northern edge of the Ribble flood plain, has been known as a major Roman establishment since the time of Leland, and was also noted by Camden and Stukley. It is famous for the discovery of a fine Roman cavalry parade helmet, now in the British Museum, and frequent excavations have taken place during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The excavations which are reported in this volume were undertaken in 1980 and 1989-90, prior to the use of an extensive area to the north of the fort as an extension to the cemetery of St Wilfred's church and the redevelopment of the Ribblesdale Mill site at the northern edge of the town. The report synthesises this and previous work in an integrated format in order to present the current state of knowledge on the site.

There is little evidence for pre-Roman activity, though a river ford may have been used, and some pre-Roman cultivation took place, probably during the late Bronze Age. The first Roman activity was the establishment of a timber fort, probably during the campaigns of Petillius Cerialis (c AD 72/3) when the Roman army penetrated as far as Carlisle. The first phase of the defence was a timber-strapped turf rampart, built on a corduroy foundation and incorporating a tower. The rampart was fronted by three ditches, which merged into one as the site of a gate was approached. The outer ditch was flanked by a peripheral road, with an extramural timber building to the north, associated with wattle fences and large rubbish pits. A rapid decline in the maintenance of ditches and extramural buildings took place, followed by widespread rubbish dumping across the whole area. The garrison was also well equipped at the beginning of the period but, as campaigning moved northwards, the fort was maintained by a reduced, poorly-provisioned holding garrison.

The renovation of the fort, probably in the late AD 70s, is associated with the Agricolan campaigns. The rampart was extended and the inner ditch recut, with the immediate area cleaned and new buildings erected to the north. There, an apparent builders' yard gave way to fences associated with stable waste and manure, which may represent external horse pickets. During the later first century the fort appears to have been garrisoned by the ala II Asturum, which was certainly at Ribchester in the early second century. This unit may have arrived at the site c AD 86.

Remarkable evidence was recovered for the demolition of the timber fort prior to its replacement in stone in the early second century. The site was demarcated by a Punic ditch, which enclosed the demolition activity. It was subsequently rapidly backfilled with a large amount of organic refuse, including leatherworking waste, cavalry fittings and horse skeletons. This seems to have been derived from buildings which had been cleared out and demolished, and therefore represents activity in the earlier cavalry establishment. The turf and timber rampart was demolished and re-sited, while elsewhere in the fort it was simply refaced with stone: clearly a major reconstruction was embarked upon.

To the north of the stone fort, a large timber building was constructed; the survival of its foundations in the waterlogged conditions allows analysis of structural techniques. This structure is interpreted as an extramural military fabrica, associated with metalworking or some other high-temperature process, perhaps sited outside the fort to mitigate the risk of fire. The building may have been situated in an annexe, but It certainly formed part of an area of industrial activity where metalworking increased c AD 120-25, although there appear to have been garden plots adjacent to the building. To the north, well-made road, leading to Kirkham to the west, was associated with insubstantial structures which were replaced by a major stone building displaying some evidence for high status. Other large stone buildings were erected elsewhere in Ribchester at about the same time, and the extramural settlement was defined or defended by a substantial ditch. The end of the fabrica phase seems to have occurred around AD 135, after which the building was left to decay. Coin evidence suggests a winding down of activity in this part of Ribchester during the Antonine period, when the ditch of the stone fort was allowed to silt up and become overgrown, an action perhaps associated with the blocking of the west gate. The excavated area then fell into decline and was completely abandoned except for the disposal of refuse by the end of the second century.

The waterlogged preservation of artefacts and ecofacts in the excavated area has allowed for an unusually wide range of multidisciplinary studies which greatly enhance the evidence for daily life, hygiene, diet and other important aspects which are not often recovered on sites where preservation is poor.

Files for download

K. Buxton and C. Howard-Davis, 2003: Bremetenacum, Excavations at Roman Ribchester 1980, 1989-1990

With contributions by J. Carrott, S. Cottam, B. Dickinson, V. Fell, K. Hartley, J. Hillam, L. Hird, J. Huntley, J. Innes, P. Kent, H. Kenward, F. Large, M. McHugh, R. Nicholson, A. Olivier, I. Panter, J. Price, D. Shotter, S. Stallibrass, D. Starley and A. Whitworth

Lancaster Imprints Series Number 9. Lancaster University Archaeological Unit. Lancaster. ISBN 1 86220 083 1. ISSN 1343-5205

  1. Introduction
  2. Pre-Roman deposition and environment
  3. Phase 1: the establishment of the Roman fort and settlement
  4. Phase 2: renewal of the fort and rearrangement of the extramural area
  5. Phase 3: demolition and rebuilding
  6. Phase 4: the military fabrica and extramural annexe
  7. Phase 5: decline and decay
  8. Ribblesdale mill
  9. Artefact conservation
  10. The pottery
  11. Metalwork
  12. Glass
  13. Other artefacts
  14. Organic artefacts
  15. Metalworking debris
  16. Environmental evidence
  17. Animal bone
  18. Insect and other invertebrate remains
  19. Discussion