The Lost Roman Town of Durobrivae – “the bridge fort”

At the northern end of Huntingdonshire, unharmed by the passing of Boudicca and the Iceni in 60AD the fortresses at Longthorpe and Water Newton still stood. By 65AD the Longthorpe fort – far from any major thoroughfares and obsolete as the border steadily moved north – was abandoned. The fort at Water Newton, however, began to develop a fledgling township outside its walls.

Magnetometer survey of the urban area inside the walls of Durobrivae taken in 2018 showing how built up the 20 acres inside the wall were.
© Archaeological Services Durham University

Similarly to Durovigutum (Godmanchester) to the south, Durobrivae (Water Newton) covered some 20 acres to start with, but by the time defensive walls were built in the 2nd century they contained over 40 acres. Durobrivae would appear to have developed organically as side-streets off Ermine Street, although there were municipal buildings, temples and a mansio as there were at Godmanchester.

Evidence of a large temple site and at least four shrines have been found within the city walls and immediate suburbs, while religious offerings have been found in the Nene – thrown in, as was the traditional Celtic fashion. On the far outskirts of the urban sprawl (near AIlsworth) shrines have been found either side of Ermine Street, supposed to have been used by travellers commencing or ending a journey.

Travellers would have been a very common occurrence within Durobrivae as the town was criss-crossed by several key roads, including Ermine Street, the Lincoln Road and the Leicester Road, and was located directly on the Nene. The site was therefore well situated for the imperial officials administering to the fens, an important Imperial estate, and in time a huge palace complex would be built overlooking the town (of which more anon). As well as these excellent transport links, Durobrivae had two things Durovigitum did not; ready supplies of clay and mineable iron.

Castorware Pot with charioteer and horses from the collection of the British Museum.

The first pottery from Durobrivae appears in 125 AD, the style is known as “castorware” or “nene valley ware”. In order to minimise fire risks and the disruption of tons of raw materials being delivered and finished pots being shipped, Roman law prohibited manufacturing pottery inside the town limits. As a result, the industry moved outside the town walls. These industrial zones would, at their zenith, cover some 250 acres stretching far to the north, south and west of the town boundaries, with the finished pottery discovered as far afield as Germany.

The iron deposits in surrounding countryside were likewise exploited. Metal-workers, with iron-foundries based near the Nene, surrounded the town to the east. One example at Orton Longueville is complete with furnaces and pits; another in the north-eastern suburbs features twenty furnaces in a wide aisled hall. Evidence of bronze casting has also been found in the archaeological record. Such extensive industry suggests that metal was also being shipped (literally along the Nene) to be cast into tools and weapons by the skilled smiths of Durobrivae.

As the town grew, other industries started to develop. As the Nene was still tidal past Peterborough, salt could be extracted to cure meat – an extraction site has been identified at Stanground. The building materials required for urban growth saw stone quarries flourishing at Sibson and the careful cultivation of local woodland. Such successful industries saw a influx of wealth, and with it the desire for decoration and ornamentation, resulting in a local school of mosaicists operating from Durobrivae by the fourth century.

Satellite image of the extended Durbrivae site by Peterborough Archaeology Group. The magnetometer survey above is solely the large field marked Durobrivae on this image.

Needless to say such a thriving population required feeding, and the fertile plains of the Nene valley were farmed extensively by a plethora of villas and farms. These were located in the area directly around the town and further afield in the territory of Durobrivae – which extended as far south-west as Thrapston. The fenland to the east would also have provided a good deal of food, with farms and fields on islands and along the very edges of the fens providing an excess for export.

The very size of Durobrivae has lead some historians to believe it was deliberately established as a regional administration centre, depot and capital. By the third century, just over the river and up the hill at the site of what is now the village of Castor could be found the second largest Roman building ever unearthed in Britain. Unfortunately there is little in the archaeological or written record pertaining to the site and much is therefore conjecture.

An artists impression of the view down over Durobrivae from the Praetorium at Castor. From Peterborough Museum

We do know that this was a 300m building, with hypocaust, fine mosaics and bath complex. It has been interpreted as a “working palace” – an elaborate dwelling-cum-workplace for an important imperial official to overlook the distribution and administrative centre he was responsible for.

Around the same time as the palace at Castor was inhabited, a remarkable treasure was hidden nearby on the outskirts of the town. It is one of the most important hoards ever found from Roman Britain and now housed at The British Museum; an elaborate collection of almost thirty silver items packed into a large pot, including a dish, cup, bowl, strainer and triangular plaques. The thing that makes these one of the most important Romano-British finds is the clear Christian iconography they all bear. Pieces have the greek Chi-Rho (a symbol that predates the cross), inscriptions with references to an altar and to individuals from the community. The silver plagues are borrowed from the existing religious rites of Rome; such plagues would be inscribed with thanks, vows or requests and nailed to the outside of temples.

It was not always safe to be a Christian in the Roman Empire, and it is tempting to imagine the small congregation’s priest sneaking from the city at midnight to bury their church-silver before the next crack-down on Christians. It is also possible that the silverware was hidden by thieves or even early Saxon raiders – which may well explain why it was never dug up again.

By the late fourth century, Saxon raids had led to a military command being created for the defence of the “Saxon Shore” (England’s east coast), and certainly around this time the pottery industry at Durobrivae was declining. The city walls were strengthened and extra bastions added, and whilst this kept the town safer it may well have resulted in the abandonment of the suburbs which were outside these defences.

After the withdrawal of Roman forces in the early years of the fifth century, the trade that had built and sustained Durobrivae slowly drained away. With money no longer being minted, roads and bridges no longer maintained, the collapse of the town was inevitable. Unlike Durovigitum, the town does not appear to have been violently sacked. There is some evidence of Saxons briefly settling in the remnants of the town but the settlement was never developed and instead the surviving stone was taken away and repurposed over decades.

A new Saxon settlement was founded nearby on the Nene; we know it as Water Newton, translated from the old English “niwetun waeter” meaning “new town on the river”. The site of the palace at Castor was also plundered for building material, in this case by the site’s new occupant St. Kyneburgha. She was a Mercian princess who established a nunnery and monastery, around which grew a settlement which they named “ceastre”. To this day the village of Castor has the only church in the UK dedicated to St. Kyneburgha.

The modern site of Durobrivae with the roman roadways clearly visible in the foreground, Ermine Street can be seen running arrow straight from bottom centre to top left of this image.

This is the end of our three-part Roman Blog, next month we’ll be looking at some Anglo-Saxon women with guest writer Victoria Calleway.

Matthew Calleway is a reader, writer and all round creative type. He can often be found behind a desk planning things for the Huntingdonshire History Festival or else in the Cambridgeshire countryside walking, cycling and swimming in rivers.

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