The Battle of Reeth
For over five hundred years, the miners and smelters of Reeth produced mountains of precious lead. Then, a significant event took place, their capital and settlement came under attack, possibly with Roman involvement, although its a little early in investigations to make such assumptions. This exciting research is attempting to unravel an iron age battle. The object of the seige - Maiden Castle is the most elusive to understand, it's unique entrance gives it a ceremonial character.
Click HERE for a multimap of the area (Once its loaded move the mouse over the picture).
The main focus of the entrenchments seems to be Maiden Castle, west of Grinton.
This unusual arrangement of dykes, protecting Maiden Castle and the settlement of Reeth is a fascinating insite into mid to late iron age warefare. The object of the confrontation seems to have been control of the rich lead mines of the area, and the important trade routes and zones of control.
Maiden Castle is an extremely unusual Iron Age hill fort. It is 'Banjo' shaped, together with the neck! In other words the fort itself was half pear shaped and its entrance was a very long stone wall corridor, about 3m wide. The fort itself seems to have been in occupation for quite some time. Lead became a valuable commodity in Europe in 700BC when it became the ingredient of choice for making Bronze, no doubt this community will have sprung up some time (perhaps 500BC) afterwards in order to exploit this new resource.
The peoples of this area will have lived a wealthy but often short lived lifestyle as miners and smelters of lead, ready for shipment to Britain and the rest of Europe via the ports of The Humber and The Tees. Maiden Castle, with its controling influence over the main route to The Tees at Piercebridge and to Scotland for lead mines in the region.
After some significant time Maiden Castle seems to have come under attack from the east, its defenders set up a complex of dykes (10m or higher walls with an outer 4m ditch). Presumably there were some initial scirmishes which ended up in a stand-off. The only evidence of the possible attackers is a possible Roman defensive enclosure at Grinton.
The Iron Age hill forts and entrenchments of Reeth, North Yorkshire are clearly entrancing and still clearly visible, a quick inspection of the map shows a complex of dykes defending the hill fort of Maiden Castle and the settlement site which seems to centre around Reeth, The Iron Age period here is assumed based on the relationship with other attributed Iron Age features such as Maiden Castle. Maiden Castle itself warrants particular mention, as it seems to be the only hill fort in Britain with with a processional highway attached.
However, an even more interesting picture emerges if the area is viewed as seen in the 1850's OS series of large scale maps. On these maps new sections of Dyke as well as a possible additional enclosure emerge. The relevant map sections are reprinted in the site guides, shown as click zones in the above map.
Since 700BC lead had been the preferred ingredient in the production of bronze. This enabled to local inhabitants of Reeth to create a thriving mining and smelting industry, from the late bronze age to the end of the Iron Age. From here a huge export market is likely to have built up, delivering lead to the eastern ports and the rest of Britain. In exchange all manner of goods will have been received, depending on the end delivery point and the number of exchanges between. It is possible that one such trade route travelled through the original Stanwick hill fort to Piercebridge, and from there down the Tees to the North Sea (water is the most economic mode of transport for heavy goods), or to other distribution points to the north and northwest.
Now that I've had a chance to look around the Maiden Castle area, I can say the whole area is truly fascinating, and represents on of the largest Iron Age settlement areas in Britain.
The area is very large, in order to understand it fully; at least three days are required.
The key to what Maiden Castle was, I feel lies to the south, here, a massive area is enclosed by a combination of Long Scar Dyke, the Northern escarpments to Harker Hill, and other features to the south and west of Harker Hill.
Like all places, the story of Maiden Castle will go back thousands of years, however, it seems it was the Iron Age that made it an area of significant wealth and population.
The area of Harker Hill is an extremely rich in lead, this metal; a key ingredient in bronze is also a valuable source of silver.
With the coming of metals, early Bronze Age man found that Harker Hill was a valuable source of lead and began to exploit it, naturally this enabled long distance trade, which not only enabled the people of Harker to quickly become wealthy, but also it allowed them access to a much broader spectrum of contacts and influences. Instead of the regular monthly or yearly visit from traders they knew little about, they had traders from as far as perhaps inland Europe to virtually living with them at times. These benefits made the enclave of Harker Hill, and probably many others in these rich ore-hills a new political power on the ancient landscape.
It is possible that at the beginning of the age of metals, emissaries came, prospectors from mainland Europe, looking to find new sources of metal to exploit, these 'planted' key skills in prospecting, extracting and processing ores such as lead in order reap the benefits of this new source of metal. If they existed, the skills that they spread at some stage, perhaps as early as 2500 BC, arrived at Harker Hill and changed their lives.
The new wealth from time to time brought with it danger of attack, the original inhabitants built the Hill fort of Maiden Castle, a pure guess would date this as late Bronze Age, but this has not been excavated and is unknown. That was when the community was still quite young and small of numbers.
Later, it would appear that the numbers of people inhabiting the area have swollen considerably, since they then proceeded on a plan to fortify the entire area of Harker Hill and beyond. To do this they built a great stone revetted and ditch fronted wall - Long Scar Dyke.
The large plateau hilltop of Harker hill begins about a kilometre south of Maiden Castle, where it's northern face looms large with a steep natural escarpment is almost sheer for a significant part of it's northern edge. On the eastern face of Harker Hill, the huge man-made defensive wall of Long Scar Dyke runs for about 2km southwards to prevent attack from the east. The dyke was built using the natural slope, enhanced with a 3-4m deep ditch and a rampart standing perhaps 25m from the bottom of the ditch. Long Scar Dyke was originally stone revetted, apparently with a dry stonewall, which has long since collapsed.
Long scar dyke is very impressive and has some mysteries. Firstly it has a possible complex entrance about 300m south of the modern track, which cuts through the dyke.
The second astonishing feature is the "long straight bit". In the central section of the dyke, towards the end of Harker Hill a dyke of fundamentally different architecture emerges. Whereas up until now the dyke, although massive has been pretty roughly cut. Suddenly it takes on a pristine air, firstly it is amazingly straight for about 400m down a slope, also it's profile is incredibly regular - and different, it's almost as if this section of the dyke served a dual purpose, one is obvious - defence, but the other - perhaps a hauling ramp? This stretch of the dyke runs down to a stream, which has had a massive amount of human intervention, most of it, presumably the later results of mining activity, but oddly, many of the ditches seem to work on a defensive arrangement in line with the dyke.
I have a feeling that this stream represents the original boundary for the Harker hill enclosure, and that the area of dyke further south from here is a later extension, since it is rougher and less monumental in proportion.
If I'm right the any remaining southern and western enclosure boundaries may have been removed by later mine workings. Either way, this stone-revetted dyke was enormous and expensive to build, it lays a claim to one of the richest lead mining areas in the country and its sheer size indicates wealth and a significant population.
Long Scar Dyke carries on for another few hundred metres or so beyond the stream. Unfortunately I was not able to follow due to heather burning.
Rich lead ores to exploit had a grave downside for the peoples of Harker Hill, the smelting process for lead gives off deadly fumes, and the lifespan of one who worked in the smelting area must have been considerably shortened.
To the east of Harker Hill is another dyke - Harker Mires Dyke, this defence seems to be built as an extension to the Long Scar Dyke enclosure, but was perhaps built by a different people or at a much later and less wealthy time, since this dyke does not appear to have been stone revetted and may have therefore been of a shorter term nature.
At the eastern foot of Harker Hill close to the modern track, a naturally boggy area may have been used to prevent access to a settlement area immediately to the north. At the point further east towards Grinton, where the bog begins to dry out, Harker Mires Dyke begins, this has a large earthen bank about 10-15m high fronted by a 5 m ditch, It runs eastwards, protecting from southerly attack for about 4-500m until what appears to be an original but still used entrance, then a further 30m to the steep 50-70m gully formed by the beck, which then runs into Grinton, forming a strongly defensive eastern boundary, possibly as far as Grinton where the river Swale would form a Northern boundary.
Close to Vicarage bridge, on the way to Grinton, and the area immediately to the north of Hawker Mires dyke, are two areas of possible IA settlement activity, in the case of the former, later activity seems to have re-used the existing living space.
There are five further dykes around Grinton - Grinton Dyke, Bleak House Dyke, Reeth Dyke, Fremington Dyke and Hags Gill Dyke, these (although I have yet to visit Reeth Dyke) I feel are all part of the same series, they are later, possibly much later, and serve to protect the entire Reeth Valley, which one presumes the earlier population moved and expanded into as the situation in the lowlands improved and there was no longer any need to build such massive defences. These are all earthen ramparts earthworks, in places, as impressive as Long Scar. But all with a more youthful feel.
I came to Grinton (amongst many other places) looking for a battle, one specific battle, that battle in the very late Iron Age when Venutius first scored a major triumph over Cartimandua (mid 50's AD?). My theory is, that Venutius realised that hill forts were no defence against the Romans, and learnt that dykes were more effective, since they served to put attacking forces into bottlenecks without cutting of the defenders retreat. Grinton is currently the strongest contender for the site of this battle. Recently, a set of Roman cavalry pieces found at Fremington Hagg have been suggested to date from prior to the Roman invasion of Brigantia. These may have been from the cohort who had a difficult time defending Cartimandua - the first of three battles recorded as requiring Roman intervention.
The Defensive Works
The defensive system shown in the 1850's map is quite complex and indicates a much larger field of action than can be currently seen. This section will walk through the various earthworks which seem to correlate to each other in the Reeth area.
Firstly there is Maiden Castle. This is located less than a mile from the enclosures which make up the Long Scar Dyke, Maiden Dyke and Reeth Dyke alignment, it is hoped that some field research will be able to prove these were originally linked to form a solid wall. At the present moment the exact position of the ditches has not been verified, but for the moment it is safe to asume that the ditch will be to the east of these dykes.
The dyke to the north eat of Reeth is often missed on maps and possibly carried on to connect with the dyke closest to Maiden castle (the dyke on the left of the picture below).
The Dykes closest to Grinton, the left dyke protected Maiden Castle, and possibly extended north past Reeth, and southto the Long Scar dyke. The dyke on the right protected the camp(s) at grinton and it too extended north and south, the southern extension seeming to have a strange dog-leg. The northern extension of the Grinton dyke seems to travel close to an unmarked enclosure at Fremington which may also be linked.
THe Long Scar dyke, which preotected the southern flank of Maiden Castle.
Most southern tip of the Long Scar dyke.
To the south of the Grinton Dyke a gap appears, then a strange 'dog-leg' appears, running east-west.
Some historical facts for the area:
Iron Age (-700 B.C. - 1st Century A.D.)
Remains of ;
a. Major earthwork at Malden Castle near Healaugh, Swaledale.
b. Stanwick earthworks near Aldborough St. John, near Richmond, excavated in 1951-1952 by Sir Mortimer Wheeler. These fortifications were constructed by the Brigantes, The largest tribe in the North of England, in the Iron Age. Their Queen was Cartismadua, who is thought to have made a treaty with the Romans. Roman pottery and artifacts were excavated.
Roman Period (-43 A.D. - 400 A.D.)
1937 Robert Pedley of Grinton, Swaledale
found roman pottery. Amongst this was Samian Ware, a reddish - coloured, high
quality pottery of Roman/Gaul origin.
Caractonium - A roman site, possibly present Catterick. Wood writing slabs found at Hadrian's Wall show details of supply requirements sent to Caractonium.
Fremlington, Swaledale, finds of roman metal work - now in the British Museum.
Roman lead mining at Hurst, Swaledale, recorded.
1724 Major Roman hoard found in Richmond Castle bank, 620 silver Roman coins and spoons.
1956 More Roman coins found in the above area.
© Brigantes Nation 2002