A small Roman town and its suburbs, occupied between the C1 and early C5 AD, its preceding Iron Age settlement, and the medieval hamlet of Chester on the Water, abandoned by the early C18.
Reasons for Designation
The Roman small town at Irchester, including Iron Age settlement and the medieval hamlet of Chester on the Water, are scheduled for the following principal reasons:
* Survival: aerial photography and extensive geophysical survey record the good survival of archaeological features across the scheduled area, including those relating to Iron Age settlement, the Roman town and its suburbs, the quality of which has been confirmed by selective excavation. The survival of earthworks relating to the village of Chester on the Water has also been recorded by survey;
* Potential: the stratified archaeological deposits retain considerable potential to increase our understanding of the physical characteristics of the buildings and settlement within the walled town and its suburbs. The presence of Iron Age settlement also allows for the study of cultural evolution and change, while the discovery of a single early to middle Anglo-Saxon sunken floored building to the west of the scheduled area demonstrates occupation in this locality during that period, before the consolidation of settlement in the C9 and C10, and also suggests the potential for the survival of further evidence of early Anglo-Saxon settlement. Buried artefacts and ecological remains retain the potential to increase our knowledge and understanding of the social and economic functioning of settlements of all periods within the wider settled landscape;
* Documentation: the village of Chester on the Water is recorded in historical documents and maps, and the whole site is well documented archaeologically, particularly by survey undertaken in the late C20 and early C21;
* Diversity: the scheduled monument is known to contain different settlement forms and structures from the Iron Age to the late C17, with each period represented by a diversity of features that will provide evidence of the social, spiritual and economic lives of the people who lived here over a period of possibly 1000 years.
The main elements of the site are a small Roman town and its suburbs occupied between the C1 and C5 AD, preceded by Iron Age settlement, as well as the remains of the medieval hamlet of Chester on the Water, abandoned by the early C18.
The Scheduling Selection Guide on Settlement Sites to 1500 (English Heritage April 2013) states that a wide variety of urban settlements were established in the Roman period as centres of population and trade. Small towns were towards the lower end of a hierarchy of urban types, and are distinguished by the absence of administrative functions held by those major towns which had formal legal status: Coloniae, Municipia and Civitas Capitals. In general they lack the formal layout of these chartered towns, as well as their public buildings, although they do contain temples, most commonly of Romano-Celtic form, and some may have served as religious centres. Roman small towns began to emerge in the mid-first century AD. However, the majority of examples appeared in the later first and second centuries, while the third and fourth centuries saw the growth and development of established settlements, together with the emergence of a small number of new ones. Towns often developed at the junction of major routes, roads or river crossings, serving an agricultural hinterland with which they were inextricably linked; others also served as centres of industrial production. Most will have started as open sites and acquired earthwork and timber defences in the C2 AD or later, at least around the core of the settled area, leaving some of the built up area outside the walls, which were generally rebuilt in stone in the later Roman period.
Irchester's significant position in relation to communication networks seems the most likely reason for its development as an urban centre. The town is sited to the south of the confluence of the Rivers Nene and Ise, and at the crossing of two possible roads projected to run parallel with the rivers. A north-east to south-west route would have linked Irchester to a series of roughly equidistant local centres, spaced about 15 to 20kms apart, between Ashton and Duston. It also served a rural hinterland of smaller settlements and villa estates; five of these are known within 8kms, including the large villa complex at Stanwick.
The Roman town seems have evolved from a pre-Roman native British settlement in the C1 AD and was well established by the later C2 AD, when earthwork ramparts, superimposed on existing street patterns, were constructed around its core. The front of the ramparts was later cut back to allow the construction of a stone revetment. Accumulated evidence suggests that the occupation was continuous into the C4, and possibly the C5. The site of the town and the surrounding area were cultivated in the medieval period, although the ramparts are said to have survived undamaged into the C18. In the C19 and early C20 ironstone mining and an associated 1920s tramway destroyed part of the area to the east of Chester House.
Evidence of settlement from the abandonment of the town until the establishment of the medieval hamlet of Chester on the Water is slight. The single sunken floored building found in the course of excavation in 2004-2005, to the west of the walled town may be part of a fluid settlement pattern, before the consolidation of nucleated villages in the C9 and C10. The earliest date of occupation at Chester on the Water (or Little Chester) is not known; the hamlet was not recorded at Domesday, nor in medieval tax returns. The first reference to the settlement is in 1236 when it is recorded as part of the Manor of Higham Ferrers and as a holding of William de Ferrers. 24 villeins, tenants and cottars are recorded there in 1309, but there is no certainty that all lived in the hamlet. Six messuages (tenements or holdings) were reportedly demolished in 1498, although five apparently remained occupied. Six houses are recorded at Chester in the early C17, and were still there in the late C17, but by the early C18 only one survived. In 1720 the topographer John Bridges described the settlement as 'a manor with one house'. The remaining houses are said to have been incorporated into farm buildings. A map of 1756 shows Chester House, approached by a wide drive, to the east of the present (2014) and later C19 drive, with walled gardens to the south, and with a farmyard to the south-east beside a road or track (Watry (sic) Lane), running north to south. The track is lined to the west by farm buildings, said to have incorporated medieval tenement structures; one surviving house is shown just to the south of the farmyard.
Nationally, some 2000 villages were abandoned in the medieval and post-medieval periods and others have shrunken. Research into Northamptonshire's medieval villages highlights two prevalent causes of settlement change, namely the shift from arable farming to sheep pasture in the C15 and C16 (requiring larger tracts of land to be made available for grazing) and the enclosure of open fields from the late C16 through to the mid C19 for emparkment or agricultural improvement. Either or both of these could have been contributory factors in the decline and eventual abandonment of Chester on the Water, which seems to have taken place at about the time of the creation of the small country estate focussed on Chester House. Elements of these survive as the earthwork remains of ‘ridge and furrow’, raised cultivation strips created by the action of the plough. These strips, or lands, were incorporated into similarly aligned blocks known as ‘furlongs’, which, in turn, were grouped into two, three or sometimes four large unenclosed ‘Great Fields’.
The first well observed description of the fortifications of the Roman town is that of the C18 topographer John Bridges, in The History and Antiquities of Northamptonshire of 1791. The earliest excavations were undertaken by the Revd R S Baker and reported in 1875, when he recorded the cemetery revealed by ironstone extraction to the east of the town. In 1882 he reported further discoveries he made in 1878, including the site of the possible temple or shrine, re-excavated in 2011 as part of a small number of targeted excavations, the purpose of which was to determine the impact of ploughing, the extent of damage from other causes and the nature of antiquarian excavations. Excavation undertaken to the south of the walled town in 1967 in advance of the road widening revealed the south ramparts and wall, as well as a number of Iron Age ditches and enclosures. Between 2004 and 2005 a detailed watching brief and excavation preceded the development of warehouses to the west of the walled town; this work, and the programme of geophysical survey undertaken across the site, completed in 2010, has increased understanding of the plan of the town and suburbs, previously informed by aerial photography.
The monument includes the earthwork and buried archaeological remains of a small walled Roman Town and its extensive extramural settlement and cemeteries. Also included is the evidence of preceding Iron Age settlement and the remains of the medieval hamlet of Chester on the Water. Cutting across and into the east side of the site is a C19 ironstone quarry and associated tramway.
The Roman town at Irchester is sited on a low promontory flanked by shallow valleys or slades to west and east, the latter the possible route of a road crossing the River Nene to the north. The remains of the earth and stone ramparts erected in the late C2 AD enclose an area of about 8ha, the walled town sloping gently towards the north ramparts, which stand about 6m high and fall away directly down to the flood plain of the River Nene. To the west the ramparts stand to about 3m high; geophysical survey clearly identifies the triple ditches of the town defences to both east and west. To the east, the defences slope down to the slade. The excavations undertaken in 2004-2005 revealed the remains of a corner turret to the south-west, as well as part of the town wall to the south and a section of ditch. The outer ditches were recorded in advance of road widening in 1967.
A road entering the walled town towards the centre of the south side travels north, branching to either side to form a dendritic street pattern. Towards the south is an open space at the point where four roads meet. Immediately to the north of this space, set between the main street and one branching to the east, is a square structure associated with smaller square and circular structures, identified as a temple complex and partly excavated by R S Baker in 1878-9. Finds from the vicinity of the temple included a carved capital and part of a limestone statue of a nude male. Targeted excavations undertaken in 2011 included a trench intended to partially expose the shrine, revealing the stone walls of the cella (the central shrine) and surrounding ambulatory, part of the metalled surface of a courtyard, and two phases of the precinct or temenos wall. Part of the square building about 1m to the west was also explored. A similar structure further to the north, and west of the main road, may represent a second temple.
To the west of the first temple, on the north side of a branch road and respected by the west ramparts, is the most prominent feature recorded by the geophysical survey, a square, possibly Iron Age, ditched enclosure measuring about 40m across, within which are possible hut circles and pits. The commonest structural form, seen throughout the town, is the strip-house, rectangular buildings of differing length; a row of these line the west side of the main street where their long elevation is at right-angles to the street. There are also a small number of circular buildings.
Geophysical survey and excavation to the west of the town examined the pattern of Roman suburban settlement within the scheduled area. Immediately to the west of the town wall are well defined plots lining the east side of a road that travels north-west and then west. Occupation appears to be absent to the south-west and south of the road and also where it crosses the slade. Where the road forks, to the west of the slade, regular boundary divisions reappear; these were confirmed by partial excavation in 2004-2005, and at least five stone buildings with associated pits and postholes were identified. The road surface was metalled. Rectangular structures identified from aerial photographs to the north of the town, on the floodplain, may represent further extramural settlement. To the east of the walled town medieval ridge and furrow overlies earlier features, including a series of small enclosures, seen either side of the drive to Chester House. The ironstone quarry tramway cuts across the site running east from the south-east corner of Chester House. To the south of the tramway is further ridge and furrow, and to the east of that, a trapezoidal enclosure that may represent an Iron Age farmstead. To the north of this is an area of disturbance beyond which are further rectilinear closes. The furthest north-east extent of the scheduled area contains the remains of an extramural cemetery, partly destroyed by C19 ironstone quarrying.
The medieval settlement is represented by slight ridge and furrow, visible on the ground and on aerial photographs. The road to the village is visible as a parch mark and was identified to the east of the farm buildings in the course of excavations undertaken in 2013. The Royal Commission survey published in 1975 found the survival of earthworks to be slight and 'much mutilated' by later disturbance. Two parallel scarps are identified as possible croft boundaries, and are associated with slight depressions that may represent buildings.
EXTENT OF SCHEDULING
The scheduled area includes the earthwork and buried remains of the Roman town and its ditched and walled defences, extramural settlement and cemeteries, as well as Iron Age settlement, including a possible farmstead to the east of the town, and the remains of part of the medieval hamlet of Chester on the Water. Part of a C19 and early C20 ironstone quarry and an associated 1920s tramway also fall within the scheduled area.
The scheduled area extends from north of the warehouses to the west at NGR SP9101556812, its north boundary defined by drains there and where it turns directly north to the River Nene. The south bank of the river then defines the north boundary of the scheduling up to NGR SP9207767241, where the scheduled area takes in the remains of the cemetery. The boundary turns west and then south to the road embankment, which forms its south boundary, before it curves round to follow the east side of the access road to the warehouses. The scheduling map shows that Chester House, its associated buildings and other structures, and also its gardens and access road, are not part of the scheduled area, and neither are the properties to the south-west of Chester House, Chester House and Chester Lymes, or their access road.
All fence and gate posts and other modern intrusions are excluded from the scheduling, but the ground beneath them is included.