'MELANDRA CASTLE', ROMAN FORT
O.S. MAP REF. 008915 1” SHEET 102 1:50,000 SHEET 110
Brigantia was a client kingdom of the Roman invaders for about twenty-five years following the landing in 43 AD but a 'civil war' developed between the Brigantian 'Queen' CARTISMANDUA and her husband VENUTIUS in 69 AD, leading to Roman intervention and the gradual occupation of the tribal territories in the course of the next ten or fifteen years.
The early, wooden fort at Melandra probably dates from the seventies of the first century AD in the course of the 'pacification' of Brigantia.
MELANDRA is a relatively recent name and so far no-one has agreed what it means: it is thought that the Roman name for the fort was ARDOTALIA (the place of the high, dark hill - 'talia' is a celtic word for a steep hill which passed into Latin but it has also been suggested that the fort and the river ETHEROW both took their name from the winding, heather covered valley).
The fort lies within an outer defence system (now almost vanished) which may be either an early 'marching camp' or the 'building site' within which the fort could be built in comparative safety: this early enclosure had a clavicular entrance lying to the south of the present gate.
The timber fort had disappeared completely under the present stone fort but the traces of the wooden palisade have been found in the ramparts. This early fort, dating from the last quarter of the first century AD could have been built more quickly - modern experiments suggest that forts of this size could be built in about a month. No-one knows which units built the wooden fort.
The stone fort owes its existence to the decision taken by the Emperor Trajan to have some forts in Britain rebuilt in stone because they were still needed. It is known from evidence found on the fort that two auxiliary units - Ist COHORT FRISIAVONES and IIIrd COHORT BRACARA AUGUSTANI worked on it, as they did on the Manchester fort.
Clearing the site, re-aligning some of the buildings and rebuilding the walls was a lengthier process than building a timber fort so that 108 AD, give or take a few months, is a reasonable date for the stone fort.
As far as can be ascertained, this fort had an overall life of some ninety years, being finally abandoned in the mid-second century when most of the Derbyshire forts had their garrisons withdrawn. The abandonment of the fort was a routine one and the gates were removed and burnt by the departing garrison to prevent its use by others; no evidence has yet been found of re-occupation.
The fort is of the common 'playing card' shape and covers approximately three and a half acres. The defences consisted of an outer line of ditches (some of which were filled in while the fort was still in use) and stone walls, backed by earth ramparts.
Each gateway had two flanking towers; three of the gates were double but the south gate was much narrower because the approach from this side was easier, making it more likely to attack. There was a tower at each corner of the fort but so far no trace has been found of 'internal towers'.
The fort interior held barrack blocks; store sheds; granaries; officers' billets; commanding officer's house and the Headquarters building; at present only the foundations of the Headquarters are visible - most of the other buildings appear to have been timber framed and have little trace. The camp ovens were built into the rampart on the eastern side of the fort so that the prevailing wind would carry sparks away from the fort.
Melandra was a 'one cohort fort' - a nominal garrison strength of 500 officers and men so 6 barrack blocks were needed, each housing a 'CENTURY' of 80 men.
A 'Bath-block' lay outside the northern rampart and various small huts lay between the ditches and the outer palisade. A 'MANSIO' or 'posting station' lay between the fort and the present Melandra Castle Road and a fair sized native settlement or VICUS lies under the present Gamesley Estate.
The accumulating of building materials; the clearing of grazing land for pack and draught animals as well as the continuing gathering of fuel had a considerable effect on the land around the fort: plant evidence suggests that small farmsteads were established in the vicinity.
The two units who worked on the site were both auxiliary infantry cohorts and used as skirmishers in battle and as the garrisons of the small forts which were built to keep occupied territory quiet.
I Cohort Frisiavones was recruited north of the Rhine - as this area was in revolt in 96 AD, the raising of this cohort was probably done some time between 98 AD and 100 AD: there is no mention of their being in Britain until early in the second century and it is likely that they were brought in as a re-inforcement in the early Trajanic period.
III Bracara Augustani came from the colonies of BRACARA AUGUSTANOREM (BRAGA in Portugal) and were probably Iberian Celts. They were transferred from the Legionary Headquarters on the Rhine to Caerleon in 89 AD and seem to have been attached to the XX Legion Valeria Victrix at Chester.
The Ist Cohort of Frisians being a '1st Cohort' would have roughly a thousand men for the 1st Cohort included the specialist craftsmen such as carpenters and stone-masons who could do the skilled work of building - which explains why the 'centurial stone' from the walls of Melandra is of the Frisians and not the Bracara.
We do not know which unit provided the permanent garrison at Melandra but it seems likely that the Bracara, being 'hill-men' and the more experienced unit, would have been better suited to hold Melandra and the Frisians, from low lying land beyond the Rhine may have been divided between Manchester and Northwich.
Auxiliary units were not equipped to the same standard as the legionary infantry - they were often issued with slightly old fashioned, cheaper helmets and body armour, and some units used their traditional 'tribal' weapons rather than the normal legionary types. The most obvious difference lay in the body armour : auxiliaries tended to wear either chain mail or 'lizard scale' shirts while the legionaries wore the 'lorica segmentata' - the articulated hoop armour.
Whichever unit provided the garrison would have had to carry out a variety of duties - escorting official 'convoys'; patrolling the district; working on road construction; helping to collect 'taxes' and providing the labour at harvest time to supplement the food supply with locally grown produce. Auxiliary soldiers served for 25 years and it is possible, in view of the date of the arrival of the Bracara in Britain, that some of the farmsteads close to the fort were 'allotments' given to veterans who had completed their years of service.
The H.Q. or PRINCIPIA seems to have been the only building made wholly of stone: it contained the Assembly Hall (which will hold a full century of men); the C.O's office; the shrine and the unit pay and records office. The small buildings which line the courtyard were probably for 'unit stores' of the more valuable sort.
The SHRINE, the centre room at the rear of the building, has a floor of crushed tile: the Imperial Altar was kept at the southern end of the room and smaller altars, one for each century, stood along the walls with the various standards of the unit. The top of the Imperial Altar has survived but the altars themselves, which were renewed annually, the previous one being securely hidden, have never been found: five of the small uninscribed altars are still in existence. At the rear of the building there is a small cobbled pavement which marks the spot from which the 'official witnesses' could watch ceremonies in the shrine through the grille above the Imperial Altar.
The room at the western end, the C.O' S office, has a door leading to the platform at the end of the Assembly Hall: the room at the other end, judging by the lines of nails found during excavation, once had a board floor and at some point in its life had a hearth in the centre of the room. Some indications have been found of an earlier timber building on a different alignment to the present H.Q.
Paradoxically, the gateways were the weak points of the defences for they were the only places at which a concerted rush could be made without the enemy having to clamber in and out of the ditches: to reduce the danger, the gateways were made into defensive strongpoints from which missiles of various sorts could be fired at the attackers in both flanking and enfilading fire.
The gates themselves were of extremely stout construction to withstand attacks with battering rams and the hinges were normally shielded by the edges of the gateway.
Although all the gateways at Melandra had two towers, the south gate had a different gate - a single 'door' of the 'spear' type in which one of the timbers of the door acted as a pivot: the iron ring on which the pivot turned has survived.
The ditches of a roman fort were intended to prevent attackers reaching the foot of the wall in large numbers : the ditches were deep and wide enough to bring the attackers virtually to a standstill within javelin range. At Melandra, the ditch system is relatively slight and some of the ditches were filled in and cobbled over during the fort's active life, suggesting that the garrison did not expect large scale attacks: the numerous small buildings close to the ditches on the north side of the fort also suggest relative freedom from fear of attack since they would have provided cover within the 'killing ground'.
The timber palisade was replaced by stone walls some twelve feet high, four feet thick and faced with roughly dressed stone cut from the quarry on Hargate Hill.
The rounded corners of the fort were built to a radius of 32 feet with 'corner towers' built on the inside. The base of the tower closest to the car park was found to contain quantities of charcoal: fragments and wasters of bronze workings were found close by so the charcoal may have been the fuel store for a workshop but it may have been the result of firing the internal timbering of the tower when the fort was abandoned.
The exposed base of the N.W. tower has masonry of better quality and the marks of the roman masons' chisels can be seen on some of the blocks. The badly eroded S.W. tower had a final period of military use in World War II as a Home Guard machine gun post. No evidence of roofing has survived but the exposed site and the severity of the weather make it likely that all the towers were roofed.
|It was thought for many years that either there had been no bath house at Melandra or that it had disappeared without trace but in 1971, M. H. Brown discovered the first wall of one of the hot rooms: subsequent excavations under the direction of Dr J.P.Wild have shown that the bath-house was much larger than was thought at first and that it had passed through several phases of alteration and reconstruction. These typical military baths consisted of a number of rooms, changing rooms, probably toilets and some that had under floor heating. Wood burning furnaces at one end of the block produced hot air which passed under the floors and up inside the walls heating the rooms. A sequence of rooms had increasingly high temperatures so that the bathers could sweat the dirt out of their pores which could then be washed and scraped off with oil and STRIGILS or scrapers. The Baths were often used by the troops as a social club in which to relax and play games of chance in off duty hours. Often fragments of home made gaming boards and counters or games pieces are found in bath houses and the one at Melandra was no exception. The baths were built over some of the earlier fort ditches when discovered still retained some of the largest sections of stonework and tile to be found on the site. Investigations are still continuing.
It is possible that the Rev. Watson, the first person to write about the fort, who witnessed the demolition of buildings still standing on the north side of the fort in 1777 and actually saw the bath house being destroyed.
Although Mr.P. Rowe has investigated the road from Melandra to Buxton, the rest of the road system has not been positively identified though one stretch of road is known to be under Melandra Castle Road and another can be seen as a crop mark angling across the slope below Carr House Farm. The roads in the fort have been resurfaced to protect them and there is a short stretch of road from the S. gate to Melandra Castle Road: several cremations have been found along the edge of this road.
Melandra was used for centuries as a convenient source of stone, rubble and gravel for local builders: re-used stone has been found at Woolley Bridge; Melandra Farm and in various walls throughout the district. It is believed that considerable quantities of the stone were used in the building of Mottram Church and that the large amounts of gravel taken from the sides of the site for road levelling the 18th - 19th century may explain some of the casual finds of roman material last century.
The acid soil of the fort attacks iron and even pottery, but some objects have survived to throw light onto the everyday life of the Garrison. A number of small bronze objects - dress fasteners; weights; the suspension hook for a ‘steelyard’ type balance; a harness ‘terret’ and fragments of waste bronze serve to show that there was probably a bronze caster working in the vicus.
Very few coins have been found. The pay of the auxiliary soldiers was low enough to make sure that they were careful with their money. Most of the coins found are in poor condition and of low ‘face value’. Those which can be dated indicate, as does the pottery, that the periodic of maximum activity in the fort was between 80 - 140 AD with the occupation ending between 140 - 150 AD.
Various objects and scraps of leather have been found: a section of a leather tent panel; a sling; ‘army boots’ and slippers have been found in the damper levels of the ditches.
Some timber has survived in the ditches in good enough condition for it to be treated and preserved for future exhibition. The most important wooden objects found are the tent pegs which are in extremely good condition and may well date from the construction phase of the fort or show that troops in transit were allowed to camp between the fort and the civil area.
This Guide would not have been possible without the efforts of the officers and men of the Ist Cohort of the Frisiavones: the III Cohort Bracara Augustani; and all those historians, archaeologists and excavators who have worked on the fort in the last nineteen centuries.
The compilers of this guide acknowledge with gratitude the work of Dr. Petch, Mr P. Webster, Mr Walter Waterworth, Dr. J.P. and Mrs. F Wild, Mr P. Wroe, Pat. Ellison and the Derbyshire Archaeological Society; and the hosts of volunteers, especially those of the Melandra Field Group, and the students of Manchester University Archaeology Departments.
WARNING - THE FORT IS A PROTECTED MONUMENT.
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Page last updated: 25 September 2017.
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