Elsdon : Romano-British Settlements
The local rural population have left abundant traces in the shape of the rectilinear enclosed sites, which were characteristic form of settlement in Redesdale and North Tynedale during this period (see Jobey 1960). These settlements typically comprise a roughly squarish, rectangular or slightly trapezoidal enclosure, defined by a stone wall or a ditch and bank, pierced by a single causewayed entrance in the middle of the front wall.
Just inside the enclosure, on either side of the entrance, a couple of yards or pens, probably intended to hold livestock, can generally be found. Several round houses usually lay towards the rear of the enclosure.
Rescue excavation of a group of these sites in upper North Tynedale - at Tower Knowe, Belling Law, Kennel Hall Knowe near Plashetts, and Gowanburn Camp - directed by George Jobey in the 1970s, prior to the construction of Kielder Water, revealed that this type of settlement originated during the late Iron Age (Jobey 1973; 1977; 1978; 1983, 199ff; Higham 1986, 122-3, 134-7, 193-5).
The original sites were built of wood, featuring timber roundhouses and palisaded enclosures, which were replaced several times over. Radiocarbon dates clustering in the last two centuries BC and 1st century AD were associated with these earlier phases, which were followed by a rebuilding in stone no earlier than the mid second century AD. However, whilst the building material was different, the overall form of the original settlements was very similar to the later ones and the change in material was probably related to an increasing shortage of good building timber as settlement, cultivation and population expanded during the late Iron Age and the Romano-British period.
Indeed, some of the settlements provide evidence for population growth with the single round house usually evident in the earlier timber phase being replaced by up to three roundhouses when the sites were rebuilt in stone, accompanied by a corresponding increase in the size of the enclosures. Elsewhere roundhouses are visible outside but adjacent to the enclosure suggesting further expansion which could not be contained within the established compound.
In the upper reaches of the valley, the form of these enclosed settlements changes from rectilinear to oval or circular in plan, a form more characteristic of settlements in the hills of north Northumberland, particularly in and around the Cheviot massif, and the Scottish Uplands. This was perhaps in part a response to the narrower valleys and steeper slopes which caused the settlements to be terraced into the hillsides, and which in turn must have given rise to a different architectural tradition defining the proper form of a settlement. However the basic components of all these settlements remain the same, i.e. walled enclosure, stockyards and roundhouses.
Despite featuring stone-walled, ditched and embanked or palisaded enclosures, these settlements were not fortified in the way that the earlier hillforts were. It would be better to see their enclosures as protective rather than defensive, i.e. they were designed to secure the livestock from predation by wild animals and perhaps keep out small groups of thieves and rustlers. The enclosure ditches would also have helped to create well-drained site platforms.
We should imagine these settlements as compounds housing individual family groups - extended families at the most - who were perhaps linked with the inhabitants of neighbouring settlements by notional bonds of kinship to form lineages, clans and tribes. The sites were distributed relatively evenly along the valley to form a dispersed settlement pattern of farmsteads not dissimilar to that prevailing in more recent periods. It is likely there was a strong emphasis on pastoralism, based on the exploitation of the extensive moorland grazing which was available to these upland communities, enabling them to rear substantial herds of cattle and flocks of sheep.
Cattle may have been more important than sheep at this time, as was also the case in the medieval and early modern periods periods, with the latter vulnerable to foot-rot and liver fluke and less suited to the poorly drained pastures prevalent before the agricultural improvements of the later 18th and 19th centuries, but sheep would important for their wool. In largely unmonetized economy livestock would have been the principal form of transferable wealth, and represented a family’s savings to be drawn on in times of crisis, as is the case in pastoralist societies in the developing world today - a deposit account on the hoof.