British Archaeology - September/October 2011
maintained? Was construction a communal activity or resourced by a powerful ruler? Can we suggest, for example, a parallel with medieval rulers and view the road at Sharpstone as a highway built to enable a peripatetic lifestyle for the king’s household – the powerhouse of the local Cornovii tribe – as it migrated from one tribal centre (the Wrekin) to another (Old Oswestry)? What do such roads imply for the economic activity and longdistance exchange mechanisms for the communities who built them?
At Sharpstone perhaps we have a road built for movement of heavy goods and valuable livestock between the productive farmlands of the midlands plain and the mineral-rich resources of the Shropshire and Welsh uplands. This we cannot prove, but what we can challenge in future is the bland assumption that any road that is relatively straight, built with an agger and with a cambered, compacted stone surface, must be Roman. The work at Sharpstone Hill has shown that a pre-existing road was partially incorporated by Roman surveyors into the new network of roads they created, which has helped explain the rather illogical pattern from Watling Street west past Wroxeter towards Wales. There are other known examples of Roman roads that followed earlier routes, some with iron age dates for timber structures found beneath them. A fresh analysis of such roads, examining them from a prehistoric perspective, may significantly alter perceptions of the impact of Romanisation on Britain’s infrastructure.
It is also important to avoid potential misinterpretation of terminology, so that we understand the nuances that distinguish a road from a route, a track, or a highway. Finally as archaeologists we ought to apply the principles of scientific dating, using multiple samples to corroborate results and a variety of techniques to help confirm the calculated dates, as standard procedure for the vast majority of investigations. We rely too much on serendipity in finding distinctive pottery in the fill of a feature in order to date a site. We need to mature as a discipline, and instead realise the full potential of other means of dating, so that we can establish the chronology
The first sign of a made road was an elder brushwood layer that consolidated the mud of a track used by cattle (scale 2m). Later road surfaces can be seen above it in section (below)
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After careful removal of a road surface that may have been used by Roman vehicles, but not built by Roman engineers, a prehistoric road is revealed. Wheel ruts run parallel to a line of stakeholes near the edge of iron age road 2b (scales 1m/2m)
of what might otherwise appear to be unexciting remains, whose true age could be concealed by lazy assumptions.
For example if such an approach was taken throughout the country and applied to the ubiquitous field system or enclosure ditch, how might the quantity of dates assembled help to refine our understanding of the development of the prehistoric and later landscape? Perhaps every regional research framework should have two overriding research aims before focusing on period-specific themes. These would be to establish the ancient communication system, and to apply scientific dating routinely and intelligently so that we can refine our knowledge of almost all archaeological evidence, rather than relying on techniques and preconceptions that were developed 50 years or more ago!
Tim Malim is technical discipline manager for archaeology and heritage at SLR Consulting; Laurence Hayes is an associate archaeologist at SLR. The archaeological programme was commissioned by Malcolm Lawer of Tarmac, and the fieldwork was completed by SLR Consulting with Gerry Martin Associates. The analysis programme
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