Carillion-Morgan Sindall Joint Venture on behalf of Highways England
Although the presence of Roman activity at Healam Bridge, North Yorkshire, was first noted in 1949, it was not until the 1990s that geophysical survey demonstrated the presence of a roadside settlement extending for nearly 1km along Dere Street Roman road. The site lies midway between the Roman towns of Isurium Brigantum (Aldborough) and Cataractonium (Catterick). Features identified by the survey at Healam cover an area of at least 18 hectares, mostly to the south of the Healam Beck but also continuing on the northern bank. It was also clear that the existing A1 dual-carriageway had damaged part of the settlement, including Dere Street and some of the Roman street-frontage.
During planning of the upgrade of the A1 to a motorway between Dishforth and Leeming, a major consideration was limiting further destruction of the Scheduled Monument at Healam Bridge, and the decision was made to realign the new road to the east of the existing dual-carriageway in order to avoid the core of the Roman settlement, while still crossing some peripheral areas. NAA, who had been appointed as the archaeological contractors for the motorway scheme, carried out extensive excavations at Healam Bridge in 2009–2010 in advance of the construction works, investigating c.15% of the known extent of the site.
The excavations showed that, although the Roman road was already in existence by the late 1st century AD, the settlement itself probably had a Hadrianic foundation. The absence of any significant assemblage of military equipment, linked to evidence for a highly Romanised diet and tableware assemblage, suggests that the site was initially occupied by people from elsewhere in Britain or from further afield, but not by the Roman army. After an apparent contraction during the 3rd century, the settlement saw renewed activity during the 4th century, including evidence for intensive crop processing. Evidence for occupation continued into the 5th century.
To the north of Healam Beck, the excavations examined several phases of Dere Street, together with a series of enclosures containing timber buildings with a probable industrial function. Adjacent to the beck, a well-preserved, deep sequence of partially waterlogged deposits was preserved. This included multiple phases of buildings, flood defences and land reclamation. A total of 25 Roman period inhumations and seven cremation deposits were found in various locations across the excavated areas. Of particular note were a group of perinates who had been buried adjacent to a structure interpreted as a possible mausoleum. Another burial was that of a juvenile who exhibited symptoms of possible Trisomy 21 (Down’s Syndrome). This is the earliest documented occurrence of this syndrome to date in Britain.
"The excavations at Healam Bridge and elsewhere along the A1 Dishforth to Leeming improvement scheme demonstrated NAA’s capability to carry out major multi-site excavations within the demanding environment of a major infrastructure project."
Much of the area examined to the south of Healam Beck comprised small fields and paddocks located behind the roadside settlement. The presence of considerable quantities of equids (horses, mules and possibly donkeys) remains suggests that these areas were used for grazing and corralling these animals. Mules formed an important part of the Roman transport economy, and it is believed that their breeding and supply was closely controlled by the government. Little previous evidence has been found for mules in Roman Britain, and their extensive presence at Healam Bridge, together with possible remains of the donkeys that would have been required to sire them, suggests that the settlement may have been deliberately established to supply transport animals for the army and other branches of the government.
The excavations at Healam Bridge and elsewhere along the A1 Dishforth to Leeming improvement scheme demonstrated NAA’s capability to carry out major multi-site excavations within the demanding environment of a major infrastructure project, cooperating with multiple partners in order to deliver the project within the parameters of a complex and demanding construction schedule. Our access to a wide range of specialist input has contributed to the production of a full publication of the results of the project, which has been made freely accessible via the Archaeology data service:
Ambrey, C., Fell, D., Fraser, R., Ross, S., Speed, G. and Wood, P. N. (2017) A Roman Roadside Settlement at Healam Bridge, The Iron Age to Early Medieval Evidence (Two Volumes). NAA Monograph Series 3. Barnard Castle: Northern Archaeological Associates. doi: https://doi.org/10.5284/1041575