Roman Walton-le-Dale

The Roman site at Walton-le-Dale lies on the east bank of the river Darwen, near its confluence with the Ribble, in an area formerly known as the Flats, crossed by Winery Lane. Nothing suggests that there was any local knowledge of the Roman remains before the mid-nineteenth century, when local antiquarian Charles Hardwick recorded the discovery of Roman coins and sandstone walls by workmen digging gravel.

It was not until the 1950s that a local archaeologist, Ernest Pickering, undertook systematic small-scale excavations, revealing evidence of a large and well-preserved Roman site. In 1981, the prospect of redevelopment prompted three seasons of excavation (funded by the forerunner of English Heritage), completed in 1983. In the event, no development took place until 1996, when a second large-scale excavation to the south of the original was funded by the developer. Most of the site now lies beneath a retail park.

Although the main focus of the excavations was the Roman site, large numbers of Mesolithic and Neolithic flint tools and waste material from beneath this show that there was prehistoric activity in the area, and a small pit produced Bronze Age pottery.

Roman activity probably began in the late first century AD, when a substantial road was built across the site, towards the river Ribble, at the beginning of the Roman military occupation of northern England. The road surface was already well-worn, and heavily patched, before the site developed, early in the second century, the earliest activity probably being closest to the Ribble. Rectangular plots, bounded by ditches, were laid out on either side of the road, and a single burial dates from this period, which probably then marked the southern extent of the site, as it was Roman practice to bury the dead outside their settlements. An unusual round building, probably a forge, was, however, erected even further south, which was later incorporated into the site.

During the Hadrianic period (AD 118-38), large rectangular workshops were built on many of the plots. They were all of similar size and appearance and many of them contained metalworking hearths, being associated with intensive industrial activity. Many were later destroyed by fire. They were soon replaced in the same style, but generally on a grander scale, and still contained hearths.

The site was cleared and the main buildings replaced on the same plots, probably in the early third century. The buildings were, however, built in a different style, with very large earthfast posts rather than sill-beams. Few contained hearths now, suggesting that something different was happening at the site. Later, many of them were abandoned and decayed, before being replaced by new buildings in the same style.

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Ernest Pickering excavating in the 1950s.

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Excavating in 1996.

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A samian ware dish and two black-burnished ware jars were probably funeral gifts placed by mourners in an early second-century cremation burial. As was usual in the Roman period, the burial was set alongside the main road, at this time outside the settlement, although this subsequently spread across the area.

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From its earliest days, it seems that Walton-le-Dale was associated with intensive industrial activity. This unusual early second-century building, with two large hearths inside, was probably a blacksmith's forge. Soils around the hearths contained a large amount of hammer scale, which are tiny, slaggy fragments made from hammering hot iron.

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At least by the third century, pottery and tiles were being made on the site. This kiln set on the edge of the settlement to avoid the risk of fire, made distinctive orange storage jars.

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Their unusual rims are also seen on jars made at Wilderspool, near Warrington, suggesting that some potters moved northwards to Walton-le-Dale.

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Although the archaeological deposits were only a few centimetres below the surface, they were well-preserved and extremely complex, with as many as four buildings superimposed one upon the next. Here the long, deep sill-beam foundation trenches of the large Hadrianic buildings can be seen, set at right-angles to the main road (in the foreground).

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Partially complete flagon in situ.

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