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Interview: Mark Patterson on Roman Nottinghamshire

15 August 11 interview: James Walker
photos: Laura Patterson

Whilst other places in the UK wear their Roman origins like a badge of honour, there’s virtually nothing to look at in Notts – so much so that we’ve been described as an ‘archaeological blackspot’. Mark Patterson’s book Roman Nottinghamshire is the first step towards reclaiming our Roman heritage…


What is it about the Romans that fascinates you?
Who wouldn’t be interested in the Romans, with their strange eating habits and invincible legions clad in shiny armour? I’m also very keen on exploring how the cultural heritage we’ve all inherited from them continues to affect the modern landscape and our lifestyles, and how the ancient Romano-British landscape lies just under the contemporary landscape. Take our roads; A46 Fosse Way, the road from Derby to Long Eaton, or from Littleborough to Bawtry, or the A614 north of Bawtry- they largely follow the routes of the Roman roads, as do the villages that developed along them. So, our lives are still being shaped by the ghosts of Rome.

So what’s all this about us being an ‘archaeological blackspot’?
That’s down to something R.W. Butler, who was a member of the Thoroton Society of Nottinghamshire, wrote in the 1950s. The point he was making was that there was little awareness of Nottinghamshire’s ancient past among the general public. Why? Partly because there was very little to actually see above ground, partly because there were so few museums to show artefacts, and partly because, well, the county has just always been relatively awful at showcasing its ancient past.

Why’s that?
Quite why this should be is a mystery, but only the other day one contemporary archaeologist quietly confided to me that Nottinghamshire was a “catastrophe” when it comes to matters of preserving and showcasing its ancient heritage. Nottinghamshire has been very badly served in this department by people and organisations who should know better. The result is that there is now barely a Roman brick above ground for anyone to see and even the stuff we know is there continues to be either threatened with development, or is closely hemmed in by new concrete. Nobody can expect the structures of the ancient past to put a total stranglehold on the building of new homes or businesses, but equally it is quite amazing – disgraceful, even - how you can travel from one end of Nottinghamshire to the other without seeing a sign telling you that the mighty Roman Empire even had a presence here. You could be forgiven for believing the Roman Empire had a day off between Leicester and Lincoln.

Let’s start to redress the balance then, starting with roads. Why is the Fosse Way so straight?
There are lots of theories. Suffice to say that one theory is because they joined two places together in the quickest way; rather, that straight roads were a result of the particular surveying methods used by the clever Roman road planners. The Fosse Way was and is a very interesting road since it seems to mark a divide, at the Trent, between lowland England and highland Britain, between southern and northern British cultures. This is why Daniel Defoe said that crossing over the Trent was like crossing the Rubicon.

Felix Oswald, a Roman pottery specialist and founder of The University of Nottingham Museum, is the big hero of your book…
Oswald merits lengthy mention because of his single-handed devotion to the excavation of Margidunum, the Roman town near East Bridgford now mostly flattened by the roundabout on the A46. Oswald excavated the place between1910 and 1936, mostly by himself. He wasn’t even stopped when a farmer said he couldn’t continue to work in his field - some of his supporters simply bought the field for him. He revealed a full picture of what seems to have been the largest Roman town in the county, and then went on to effectively found the museum by donating his vast collection of pottery and artefacts from it to the university. The museum itself was very useful when I was researching the book because so many of the biggest Roman artefacts can be seen there. It’s a bit of a hidden gem, and should be better known - as should Felix Oswald.

Tell us about the current campaign in Southwell to save a Roman site…
There was once a huge, luxurious villa in Southwell - perhaps the largest in the Midlands. Ongoing work around the site near the Minster just seems to emphasise that the place was the centre of a large, productive estate, with workshops and all sorts. Despite that, a local house builder wants to put 29 houses on top of part of the site that isn’t protected and - much to the frustration of local campaigners - this is being supported by English Heritage. The ongoing campaign to prevent the house building is a textbook demonstration of how protecting the Roman landscape continues to be a ‘live’ issue in modern communities - one bloke is even dressing up in a toga to get names on a petition. The campaigners want the site to be carefully remodelled as a ‘Roman Heritage Park’ to showcase Southwell’s history, which would have tourist and educational value too. Given the lack of anything similar in the county, and Nottinghamshire’s dreadful record on this kind of issue, it’s difficult not to see virtue in their campaign.   

Any Dan Brown moments in your research?
One of my favourite stories concerns the remains of a villa at Oldcotes, in north Notts, which was last seen in 1870 when a new Catholic church was being built. The architect saw a labyrinth floor mosaic with an image of Theseus at its centre. There aren’t many mosaics like this in Britain and - if it’s still there, under the church - then we would have a Roman treasure worth showing off to the world. But I noted that the official historic record for the villa mentioned that the Catholic priest had ordered no excavation of the church for 50 years. Why? What were they hiding? I went up to see the current priest, who said he had no idea what it was all about and referred me to the diocese in Sheffield. They said the previous priest had made that order because he simply didn’t want his church being disrupted by archaeologists. What really amazed me, though, was that the priest told me that nobody before me had even asked him about the villa in the previous five years. Has nobody else been interested in a picture of Theseus slaying the Minotaur, all under a Nottinghamshire church? If the mosaic is still there, then I think some effort should be made to see if it’s still intact. All the other villa mosaics in the county have been destroyed through vandalism, or have been somehow lost.

Why did the Romans bother to invade an island so far from Rome?
Mad Emperor Caligula had considered invading Britain, to the point of actually lining his troops up on the Channel shore, before suddenly telling them to fill their helmets with seashells. After they got rid of him, his doddering uncle Claudius came to power, and it seems that he thought he could shore up his shaky claim on the throne by scoring a quick military victory in Britain. So over he came in 43AD with four legions and some war elephants.

And what would they have been after in Notts?
Nottinghamshire and the East Midlands were on the invasion path as the legions moved north, so it was inevitable the Roman military machine would march in. Once here they would have got stuck into the region’s plentiful supply of ironstone, plus the lead in the Derbyshire Peak District.

Did our local boys, the Corieltauvi, put up a fight?
The classical texts are silent on the issue, which has led some to conclude that the local Iron Age tribesfolk simply rolled over and surrendered. To be fair, though, the absence of references can’t really be interpreted as evidence for anything much; maybe the bit in Tacitus that mentioned the Corieltauvi never got written, or has been lost over the centuries. The point I make in the book is that it is highly unlikely that a warrior tribe like the Corieltauvi would have failed to make some resistance to the invading Romans; There was a serious rebellion against the Romans to the east and south of Corieltauvi territory in 60 or 61 led by Queen Boudicca, which almost threw the Romans out of the country. Hearing news of dramatic events like this, wouldn’t you or one of your friends in ancient Nottinghamshire be encouraged to take up sword and shield to fight against the invaders?

So who was where in Notts when the dust settled? Where did the poshos live?
They would have lived in villas and in and around the bigger towns such as Margidunum. Estimates for villa numbers in Nottinghamshire have varied widely, but I reckon there’s sound evidence for around 20. Some of them would have been simple farmhouses; but others, such as those at Southwell and Mansfield Woodhouse, were evidently large, luxurious buildings of multiple rooms with baths, central heating, wall frescoes and rich mosaic patterns on the floors. The occupants may have been wealthy Roman landowners, possibly absent for most of the year, or native Britons who were doing well from the Roman establishment.

And the scabbier areas?
According to certain archaeologists, Besthorpe is believed to have contained what’s known as the ‘Roman working class’, who may have been employed at the estate of the villa at Cromwell, on the other side of the Trent. Of course there was a ‘class’ below them – slaves. It’s been deduced from artefacts found at Leicester that some wealthy households seem to have had dozens of slaves working for them. But I’m not sure how contemporary concepts of class transfer to a pre-capitalist society such as that of Roman Britain. If class means pure economic power, then yes, there would have been a hierarchical system of the poor, the aspirational middle class and propertied people of inherited wealth who expected to walk into jobs running the army and government.

Finally, are all archaeologists a bit batchy, or is it just the ones on Time Team?
Many archaeologists today can come across as a bit odd, but that seems to be a side product of the devotion and passion you need to do the job properly. There was George Campion, for example, who lost all sense of taste and smell after sticking his face into a medieval plague pit in Broxtowe in the 1930s. Then there was T.C. Smith Woolley, from Collingham, who excavated at Brough on the Fosse Way in the early 20th century and who was tragically killed when cycling on a February night. The only words he uttered after the collision and before his death the next day were; ‘Oh dear.’

Roman Nottinghamshire is published by Five Leaves, £11.99

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