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The Roman Lions of Cataractonium

I know there has been a lot in the news recently about a number of lions ... and Italy ... but bear with me.

In 1839, two Roman stone lions were discovered near Catterick Bridge (on the route of Dere Street - a major Roman road). They date to the 2nd or 3rd century AD, are high quality and carved from local stone. If you look carefully at the photo below, you can just about make out the fact that they each hold the head of a creature (apparently a bull) in their front claws. Their exact use isn't known, but rather than adorning the driveway of some nouveau-riche Roman celebrity, its thought they could be funerary markers - often placed at the side of major roads.

The Catterick Roman Lions

These impressive exhibits have been held in the Richmondshire Museum (which re-opened again this week) on loan from the British Museum, since 2007. Here are links to the British Museum's detailed descriptions of each lion

These lions were closely associated with Cataractonium - an important Roman town on the banks of the Swale near the modern Catterick Bridge. Cataractonium had its origins in the AD 70s, developing as a "vicus" - a town that grew up around the Flavian-era Roman military fort built on a bluff to the south of the River Swale. At this time the town comprised timber buildings footed on beam slots, or small posts, and appeared to be extensive on the ridge adjacent to the fort. Subsequently there appears to have been gravel quarrying (possibly for the construction of Dere Street), which was followed by the raising of a large bank associated with a gate across Dere Street during the late 1st century, apparently to control access to the river crossing-point. From this point, the settlement flourished and expanded rapidly on the north bank of the Swale, extending for at least 200m northwards along Dere Street by the early 2nd century, effectively forming a suburb.

Since the Lions were discovered back in the 1839, there have of course been many excavations around Catterick Bridge.

The first modern excavations in the area were undertaken by E J W Hildyard in 1939. From these excavations the location of a Roman fort and the town of Cataractonium were located and precisely identified.

Aerial photograph (1949) showing Cataractonium in field markings. Dere Street the main Roman road, enters the town from the South (at the bottom of the photo - about 1 third in from the right). The generally rectangular form of the town can be seen as well as some outlines of buildings). (Cambridge University Collection DQ-80; (c) Crown Copyright/MOD).

Hildyard returned in 1952, prompted by the prospect of the building of the A1 and further excavations took place in 1958.

1958 Excavations (now obliterated by the A1) - photo Cambridge University Collection of Air Photographs - AAB-26 - copyright reserved)

There were further investigations during the 1970s and another dig in 1983 centred on the fields to the North of the Swale adjacent to the old iron railway bridge. This I clearly remember and I spent more than a few afternoons peering into the trenches and trying to ask the clearly very busy archaeologists what they had found today! They never seemed to give much away but rumours of swords and skeletons always seemed to be in the air. In fact these were not far from the mark.

Graves believed to be 3rd or 4th Century AD on the site of the 1983 excavations

Comprehensive material regarding the Catterick excavations in this period has been published in Peter Wilson’s two edited volumes: Cataractonium: Roman Catterick and its Hinterland. Excavations and Research 1958- 1997 (Wilson 2002a-b). If you really want some detail (and it goes way beyond Time Team detail) please feel free to download them here: Cataractonium: Roman Catterick & its Hinterland. Excavations and Research 1958- 1997

More recently, the widening of the AI(M) in 2018 also lead to a lot more artefacts being discovered.

These excavations uncovered more 3rd and 4th century Cataractonium and confirmed the continued occupation. During this time the vicus became recognisable as a town. The settlement on the south side of the River Swale was fortified by a substantial wall, and another new fort was constructed, which may be attributed to Emperor Septimus Severus’s advance north towards Caledonia in AD 209-210. Yes, a Roman Emperor may well have stayed at Cataractonium (although he seems to caught something nasty - he died in York in 211).

The massive Antonine-period ditch and rampart defences at Brompton East. The ditch was 7m wide and 3.5m deep, and was associated with a rampart to the south that was constructed using turves stacked on a 3m-wide cobble foundation. CREDIT: Northern Archaeological Associates.

Over 62,000 artefacts have been catalogued from these recent excavations - including a 1st Century pistachio nut - the earliest date for one found in Britain. However, the most infamous item found is perhaps the 11inch stone phallus carved on what is believed to be a bridge stone originally forming part of the river crossing. These were normally carved deliberately as symbols associated with protective powers (and not by idle Roman schoolboys).

These more recent excavations can be read about here in this article from Current Archaeology.

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