General thought and debate about Roman Britain has moved rapidly in recent years. So it is curious that there has been remarkably little discussion of the major towns, one of the most extraordinary sets of monuments from the country’s long history. At some cities, like London, there has been a massive increase in archaeological knowledge since the 1970s. Yet there is sometimes a feeling that we are learning more and more about less and less. Meanwhile, ideas about urban origins and functions – sometimes no more than a quest for signs of the Roman army, bolstered by an assumption that Iron Age traditions were a spent force – seem to have been left behind by the great debates about what it meant to be alive in Roman Britain. New evidence and new ways of thinking are desperately needed.
Aldborough (Isurium Brigantum) is one of the most interesting towns in Roman Britain, since it was the chief centre of the Brigantes. This was a tribal group absorbed into the Roman administrative structure, which held power over the lion’s share of northern Britain. Aldborough was also perhaps Britain’s most northerly such administrative town, controlling an area of strategic significance from the later first century AD right through until the end of Roman rule.
The site has been known since the 16th century, when Roman structures were seen and first recorded by John Leland. This pioneering antiquarian also associated Aldborough with the town of Isurium Brigantium noted by the Roman geographer Ptolemy. It is thus all the more remarkable that we know so little about it.
There was significant exploration in the 19th century, which was published in 1852 – driven, it seems, by the desire to create Britain’s first antiquarian garden, with excavations, sculptures, inscriptions and a grotto. Smaller scale excavations through the 20th century investigated the defences and various structures as piecemeal housing development required.
Then in the 1980s, Colin Dobinson led a Yorkshire Archaeological Society (YAS) project which undertook a detailed field survey of an area outside the town walls. He also drew together all past evidence, and speculated that the town had grown up on the site of a fort, built when the Flavian imperial dynasty ruled Rome (AD69–96). He argued that this fort had influenced the street grid, and hence the modern village layout.
However this hypothesis was thrown into question in the 1990s, when the widening of the A1 road to the west revealed an actual Roman fort of this period. It seemed clear that a geophysical survey in the open areas within the modern village would help greatly to better understand the history of this key town.