St Luke's Archaeology (SLA, a local archaeology group) has spent seven years of intensive research investigating all that has been written about Duston, including the Romano-British (RB) remains. The group has talked to eyewitnesses about water, finds, and walls uncovered to be hurriedly buried again. It has also walked the area at different times of the day and during different seasons. Due to the imminent development of the Sixfields site, further Northampton expansion, and the possibility of a road through what is believed to be the southern boundary of the Roman town, SLA have been forced to publicise their findings prematurely - three years ahead of schedule.
Above the flood plain of the Western arm of the River Nene, a Belgic tribe, the Catuvellauni, expanded into this area around AD25 and established a sprawling settlement along its south-facing slope, above the river. About 44AD, following the Roman invasion, SLA believes that a 25-acre legionary (vexillation) fortress may have been established.
A north-south road crosses the site (about 13° east of north), while another east-west one crosses above (about 10° south of east) to form a crossroads. Since these do not recognise the possible fortress, it is assumed that this only lasted briefly and little trace can remain. Earth embankments suggest that the town may have gravitated northwards to develop around the crossroads, then spread westwards towards the main villa sites in that direction. To the north, there is an RB cemetery, with a variety of burials including ritual pit shafts, cremations, inhumations. To the West, there is an Anglo Saxon cemetery surrounding an RB mausoleum where a lead coffin was found (1908/1903 discoveries).
Water is believed to have come into the town from the northwest, from the spring line at Duston (where 27 wells served the village in 1906, prior to mains supply). Open leats were observed by eyewitnesses, which ran continually. Furthermore, in 2003, surveyors advised SLA that the natural flow is west to east, probably to a point known as St James Spring. Later (around the 13th to 14th century) it is believed the Augustinian Monks of St James Abbey culvetted the water to their monastery, which they had done for both St James Spring and a well head source towards the adjacent parish of Dallington. St. James Abbey lies next to the RB town to the east and probably used the Roman town as a quarry for the foundations of their abbey, judging from the mix of stone seen in the excavations there recently.
The RB town, including the two cemeteries, has a possible area of 42 acres (17 hectares). Since the cemeteries were about 7-8 acres (RB) and perhaps 4-5 acres (Anglo-Saxon), that allows a township of about 30 acres (divide by 2.471 for hectares). The town appears to have lead an uneventful life from 44AD to conjecturally c540 AD (given the dating of objects found), perhaps acting as a local focus or small roman town (civitas) serving the numerous surrounding villa estates.
It is possible that the River Nene carried enough water to be navigable for shallow draught boats up to this point - even if this was subject to seasonal restrictions. The stone coffin of Barnack stone in the RB mausoleum may have been brought up river. There is a ford below the town, and the river valley would have been full of millions of tonnes of gravel in the Roman period. Intriguingly, the nearby village name of Kislingbury can be interpreted as ‘the fort of the gravel dwellers’, so the town may have been named after this geographical feature, although we have no record of an official name.
The site was, presumably abandoned c540 AD in the recorded plague period, with the possible development of Anglo-Saxon settlements in the areas of clean water, around nearby villa sites. Early churches may have been built on such sites. St Luke's Church, Duston is certainly a candidate, with the proximity of the east-west Roman road.
However, with all of the Roman routes out of the town for several hundred years, the nearby villages of Upton, Harpole, Duston and Dallington must also be possible candidates for Anglo-Saxon sites, (see ‘The Roman Villa’ by John Percival 1976, B.T. Batsford Ltd., 4 Fitzharding Street, London, W1H OAH). Given the loss of continuity of Romano-British names, something quite dramatic must have occurred at this final stage in the sixth centrury.
If the Sixfields site is developed without further research, important evidence and remains may be lost, and the full history of the area may never be known. St Luke's Archaeology (SLA) are asking local people to contact the council planners to support their appeal for an archaeological dig on the site. Write to The Town Planners at Northampton Borough Council, Cliftonville House, Bedford Road, Northampton, NN4 7NR.
This article was kindly contributed by St Luke's Archaeology (SLA).
See AlsoDuston in Roman Times
Roman Road in Duston
Map of Romano-British Town
Roman Finds in Duston