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“A thousand roads lead men forever to Rome”; Alain de Lille, 1175

All content © Roman Roads Research Association 2016, all rights reserved; unless otherwise stated.

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Historical Background

It is generally held that the Romans built their roads in the early years of occupation as a tool of conquest and consolidation, and that their function was to provide rapid and easy communication between forts. Whether or not that belief is actually true has been called into question in recent years, particular with evidence that some important roads such as Dere Street were in some stretches thirty years between initial planning and actual construction (Poulter, 2010, p.45). It has also recently been suggested that rather than roads simply linking forts, the forts were actually built to protect the logistical corridors, even if the engineered road hadn’t been constructed (Bishop, 2014, pp. 49-65), the lines of communication being more important than the garrison itself. Whatever was really the case, what is clear is the roads of the Romans were vital to the operation of the Empire, and that rather than being considered as a single entity, should really be considered as a component part of the overall military, civilian and commercial infrastructure.

If Roman roads were so important, and so many are so well known, one might expect that with all the advances in archaeological knowledge of the Roman period over the past century, we would by now have a pretty accurate understanding of the Roman road network in Britain. The reality, however, is that of the estimated 9,500 miles of Roman road in Britain, we are actually only certain of about 4,000 miles (42% - estimates of both figures vary considerably amongst different researchers, but these figures are a reasonable guide). In the Historic county of Yorkshire, there are an estimated 1060 miles of Roman road, possibly more, of which about 480 are known with reasonable certainty (45%), making the picture in Yorkshire fairly typical. Given that Yorkshire has a wide variety of topography that is fairly representative of all the kinds of terrain through which Roman roads were built in Britain and therefore representative of the variations in planning and construction, it makes an ideal starting point for a study of Britain’s Roman roads. There is, perhaps surprisingly given the above figures, a considerable weight of data available on Yorkshire’s Roman roads, however it is extremely disparate, of immensely variable quality, and quite often not easily available. This situation became abundantly clear during the construction of a new website for the Roman Antiquities Section of the Yorkshire Archaeological Society, when it was found that few (if any) up to date and accurate accounts of the various Roman roads in the county actually existed.

The principal aims of the project are twofold. First, to collate all existing disparate data relating to Roman roads and all other Roman period sites in Yorkshire, and construct an accurate and up to date picture of our understanding. The primary sources will be the Heritage Environment Records (HERs) associated with each local planning authority, although there are many others. Data will be extracted from the HERs and other sources, and then entered into a computerised Geographical Information System (GIS), which will enable us to record all the individual sections of a road, no matter how small or whether they are confirmed or just predicted, to a consistent and comprehensive standard. Working to a standardised objective method is crucial, especially as Roman roads have a tendency to attract strong emotions amongst some researchers, and therefore we have to be as open and even-handed as possible, a need observed by CPAT in their similar project a few years ago (Sylvester & Owen 2003). The quantity of data is not exactly small, and the task will involve inputting and checking thousands of records, some that are already in a digital format, many that are not. Many records (some being 50 years or more old) will need checking on the ground, so that we can give an up-to-date account of each road’s current condition. The result will be to establish baseline data which can then be utilised not only by ourselves, but other organisations and individuals, and crucially (provided IT issues can be overcome) producing a dataset that can then be returned to the various HERs to enhance their provision. Of course, it is inevitable that collating and resolving so much data will provoke a few questions, and undoubtedly raise even more questions, most of which will only be solved by further fieldwork. The database will help us to identify those areas where further study and analysis  is needed, mainly on roads, but potentially on other monument types as well. The second aim is to promote an increased interest in the Roman period, and in archaeology in general,  particularly amongst young people and those with no previous heritage experience - the keyword being “involvement”. To this end, much of the identified fieldwork will be conducted by the establishment of discreet but coordinated community based projects, run where possible by already established local heritage groups working alongside ourselves. As fieldwork is completed, we will of course publish our results on an ongoing basis, probably in a combination of print and digital media.

There is, however, a third ancillary aim, which is to identify roads and other sites which might benefit from statutory protection. Most people will be surprised to learn that very few lengths of Roman road in Britain are scheduled and Yorkshire is no exception. In Yorkshire, there are a mere 9 sites totalling just about 5 miles (English Heritage 2015), out of the estimated 1060 miles; of those, 5 sites are on the so called Wade’s Causeway which probably isn’t Roman anyway and another is a mile length of Margary 28b at Hazlewood which has been virtually destroyed since it was scheduled, leaving just three sections of Dere Street at Catterick and Healam Bridge totalling about a mile and a half.  That’s just 0.15% of the total.

Sounds straightforward enough?! An outline of the methodology proposed is given, not surprisingly, on the “methodologypage. There are bound to be many challenges along the way, so to establish the method, we will be starting a pilot project, entitled “Ricknild Street; Fact or Fable?”. Click here for an overview.

BIBLIOGRAPHY Please click on the author to go back to the paragraph you were reading.

Bishop, M.C., 2014. The Secret History of the Roman Roads of Britain, Barnsley: Pen & Sword

English Heritage., 2015. The National Heritage List for England: Available online at accessed 11/1/15

Poulter, J. 2010. The Planning of Roman Roads and Walls in Northern Britain, Stroud: Amberley

Sylvester, R. & Owen, W., 2003. CPAT Report 527; Roman Roads in Mid and North East Wales, Welshpool: CPAT.

Methodology Gazetteer of Yorkshire Ricknild Street Pilot

Bootham Bar, York - built on the site of the Porta Principalis Dextra of the legionary fortress © Brian Chiger 2014.

Part of the A59 from Harrogate near Menwith Hill built along a Roman line. © Mike Haken 2013.

The A1 near Scotch Corner, following the course of the Roman road (Dere Street) north from York  © Lee Foster 2009.

Modern Roads on a Roman Line

A selection of images of Roman roads in Yorkshire, showing how they appear today