BMCR 2008.04.19

Roman Manchester. The University of Manchester’s Excavations within the Vicus 2001-5

, Roman Manchester : the University of Manchester's excavations within the Vicus 2001-5. Oxford: Oxbow Books, 2007. 197 pages : illustrations, maps ; 29 cm + 1 CD-ROM. ISBN 9781842172711. $100.00/£50.00.

This volume reports on a series of major excavations within the vicus of the Roman fort of Mamucium, conducted by the University of Manchester Archaeological Unit (UMAU) in 2001-5. As the excavations were developer-funded rescue projects associated with the redevelopment of the modern city centre of Manchester, the purpose of the report is to document the ‘preservation by record’ of the threatened archaeological remains, rather than the pursuit of a specific research agenda. Therefore, the value of this book lies in its role as a source of evidence for fieldworkers and academics interested in the archaeology of the north-west Roman provinces, particularly Britain. The impact of the Roman military on the region is also a main concern of the volume.

Chapter 1 locates the 2001-5 excavations within the wider context of research into Roman Manchester. A brief chronological account of the Roman settlement is also given here, describing its origins as a Flavian timber fort possibly associated with Agricola’s campaigns against the Brigantes, the settlement’s later expansion in the second century, and the construction of stone walls and gates at the start of the third century. The author also provides a vital figure showing the locations of the four excavation sites against the topography of the modern city.

Chapters 2-5 make up the bulk of the report, each one relating to the findings of one of the four discrete excavations within the vicus,which collectively form part of an archaeological transect across the northern part of the settlement, with the order of the chapters following the sites east to west. These sections all follow a consistent structure, each providing detailed descriptions of the phasing of the structural remains, and they are generously illustrated with well-annotated scale plans, section drawings of archaeological features and black and white photos. The descriptions are followed by specialist finds reports. In this sense the volume reads more like a compilation of four separate excavations rather than a coherent whole. Of the four chapters dealing with excavated material, three of these are very slim, with chapter 2 focusing on the discovery of three phases of Roman activity at 73/83 Liverpool Road, chapter 4 describing the results of a watching brief at Southern Street, and chapter 5 detailing the excavation of part of a possible mansio at Deansgate. The structure of the report is potentially problematic in that a synthesis of the data analyses from the individual excavations is largely avoided. Nonetheless, given the pressures of developer-funded rescue archaeology, the authors should be congratulated on the remarkably short gestation period of this report, especially considering that most Romano-British excavations often take at least a decade to reach print. Nevertheless, as the three chapters in question are brief and contain very little in the way of interpretive or synthetic content, it is difficult to see the merit of publishing such material separately (particularly in the case of chapter 4), other than as a time-saving measure, which in this case most likely seems to have been the motivation.

Chapter 3, which deals with the excavations at Barton Street (pp 20-148), forms by far the largest part of the volume., , This part of the excavation yielded over 6500 artefacts as well as evidence for three successive timber strip buildings and significant industrial activity. In addition to the stratigraphic account of the excavations, this chapter contains comparatively lengthy specialist reports on the pottery, building materials, small finds, and environmental analyses of many aspects of the site. Such comprehensive treatment of the finds is welcome, and should permit those wishing to analyse this material in the future to do so without much difficulty. Of the specialist reports, the pottery section is the largest and deserves further comment. In addition to the ubiquitous sections on imported fabrics (Samian and amphorae), the Romano-British coarse pottery is discussed extensively by Ruth S. Leary. Here, key assemblages from stratified contexts are illustrated and listed in detail, no doubt providing valuable reference material for pottery specialists working on military sites in the region. This catalogue is supported by three tables of composite ceramic data (p. 79), which are quantified by estimated vessel equivalents (or EVEs, the statistically least biased means of counting fragmentary pottery). This ceramic analysis provides an overview of changing pottery supply to the settlement by phase, in terms of form, fabric, and deposition by archaeological context (e.g. pits, ditches, etc.). Issues of quantification aside, Leary’s overview of the ceramic evidence at Barton Street is illuminating. Her discussion of the social practices implicated in the use of the pottery in probable ritual contexts, and her consideration of evidence from other specialist finds reports in the volume are especially interesting. It is pleasing to see this kind of treatment of the evidence alongside more traditional concerns such as trade and supply, since Romano-British pottery is too often portrayed as being predictably utilitarian and uninteresting, as opposed to being a used in a diverse range of eating and drinking practices.

Chapter 6 provides a brief synthetic overview of the main findings of the excavations described in the previous chapters, outlining the extent of an early military annex, the growth of the vicus, and the excavated commercial and domestic buildings. Special attention is given to a large timber and stone building excavated at 340 Deansgate, interpreted as a mansio that functioned as a rest house for government officials using the cursus publicus. This interpretation is convincing in the light of the increased supply of Samian and other fine wares to the site that coincided with the building’s construction, in addition to the inclusion of Manchester in the Antonine Itinerary. Finally, the last major section of this chapter deals with evidence for ritual practice in late second century structures at Barton Street. Here, a large assemblage of artefacts was deposited in a pit, including a lead Venus figurine, the lid from a bronze jug, a copper-alloy zoomorphic mount of a horse, Samian ware featuring erotic scenes, several complete pottery vessels, sherds with graffiti, and other rare forms of pottery. This assemblage was located close to an earlier pit interpreted as a foundation deposit, and was also closely associated with a later building tentatively interpreted as a Romano-Celtic temple, suggesting that this area of the vicus had been a focus of ritual activity over several generations. Such findings underline the extent to which certain aspects of Romano-British society remain poorly understood, despite the intensity of excavations in Roman Britain relative to the rest of the Roman Empire. Indeed, as this kind of intentional deposit is being reported with increasing frequency at a range of Roman period sites in Britain, a question mark hangs over the use of catch-all terms such as ‘ritual’ to describe such phenomena. Further research examining ‘ritual’ assemblages against the background of more mundane forms of deposition is needed in a range of settlement contexts in Roman Britain to shed light on this problem.

In spite of some minor reservations over structure and the presentation of data, this book nevertheless succeeds in providing some vital insights into the development of Romano-British society in northern Britain. With military vici in the north-western Roman provinces being comparatively poorly understood in relation to forts, the results of these investigations will undoubtedly make an important contribution to the understanding of the impact of Roman imperialism at the fringes of the empire. However, whilst excavation reports such as this should be given the same analytical attention by archaeologists as written sources are by historians, this is rarely the case in practice. Ultimately, the implications and potential of the data preserved here can only be fully realised through future comparative analyses with material from elsewhere in the region and beyond.