c.1550 BC – c.1900 AD

Imagine you’re standing at the site of the Castleshaw Forts, and imagine it’s way before the Romans came to Britain, in fact in the Bronze Age (in Britain that’s c.2500 BC to c.700 BC) probably around c.1500 BC. You’re standing on the prominent hill part way down the valley, streams running down at the foot of the hill at either side of you.

You might be surprised to find yourself in the middle of a Beaker period settlement. And we can say this because in the 1964 excavations a pit was found underneath the fort. It measured 21″ in diameter, cut into the bedrock to 15″ depth, and containing 122 Beaker pottery sherds subsequently assessed as dating to c.1550BC. The sherds made 5 vessels in partial reconstruction, including one of giant proportions.

References appear at the end in case you want them, but here’s a picture of our replica Beaker pots – being investigated by Sonia, Jacqui and Paul.



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Another interesting piece of information from prehistory is hiding in the Roman name for Castleshaw – ‘Rigodonum‘. Celtic in origin it can be translated as ‘king’s fort’ or ‘royal fort’ although no one has discovered who knows the Celtic royal in question. All agree that it cannot apply to the Roman fort itself, but we do know that the Romans quite commonly took Iron Age settlements for their own requirements usually because they were so well-situated. Nothing has been found so far to being to answer that question.  


But in AD 79 Agricola is in charge in Britain under the rule of the Flavian Emperor Titus. The road going North East from Deva (Chester) to Eboracum (York) must go over the Pennines and therefore through the territory of the Brigantes. A fort is built on the road at the Castleshaw site and is named Rigodonum. According to Percival 1752 it is 9 – 10 miles from Manchester but a bit longer than that in today’s measuring probably nearer 13 miles in a straight line. As we know Roman Roads were built for straightness where possible and that means it was a shorter distance to travel then than it is now on 21st C roads. In any event that would represent an easy day’s march for troops coming from Mamucium/Mancunium (Castlefield) before they hit the wilder moorland. It is possible that the fort was built to mount offensives against a Brigantes stronghold nearby as some say, or perhaps more likely to guard the main highway and act as a stopping-off point.





The first fort was built of turf and timber and covered 1.2 hectares, but whatever its purpose it was short-lived and was abandoned c.95 AD. Then, ten years later in c.105 AD and under the rule of the Emperor Trajan, the site was reoccupied when a fortlet was built, one third of the size of the first fort.  Here’s a plan of the two forts together.



The new fort had one barrack room that could sleep only 50 men, but an unusually big granary. It made the purpose of this fort potentially different to the first fort and explained variously as: a nerve centre for troops out-stationed locally; a supply and control centre; a stop-off for messengers and officers; a store for food taxes gathered from the locals. By 120 AD a vicus was built around the south side of the fort and the road was diverted in some way around to the north. Although this begins to feel like the fort was a lively and bustling place, something like Saddleworth on Whit Friday, another few years saw it abandoned, c.125 AD.



The next thing we ‘know’ of at the Forts’ site is the Viking era, and we get this potential knowledge via the brilliant Thomas Percival, writing in 1752. He did a landscape-type survey of the area and here, in his own words, is the enigmatic story of Knott Hill.  

“I mention’d Knothill to be a Roman tumulus. The people about Castleshaw have yet a tradition, that some great man belonging to the castle was buried there, and have a confused notion of a march of an army of Danes.  Now as Canutus marched into Yorkshire out of Lancashire, it is highly probable, that he came over this road: and as Knott-hill gave him a full view of the Yorkshire moors, it was a proper place and opportunity to harangue his men: and that speech might alter the old name of the tumulus to Knot-hill, if it was not made for his use, which, I think, it was not. Several names of places on this road seem to carry his memory in their names.  Knothill here; Knotty-lane just below; Knotlanes between here and Manchester, very near the Roman highway; Knottmills near Manchester; and Knutsford in Cheshire, which way he probably came, in his march from Staffordshire.” (Percival 1752: 230)


King Cnut/Canute


So were King Cnut and the Vikings at Castleshaw? It’s certainly a question.

Percival says “At Castleshaw I was well pleased to find a double Roman camp” and so, for me, should anyone be who goes there.

Nothing more can be said from sources until we reach the late 19th century and step into 115 years or so of the age of archaeology at Castleshaw.


Percival, T. 1752. Observations on the Roman colonies and stations in Cheshire and Lancashire. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, 47: 216-230.          

Redhead, N. 2012. Renewed Interest in the Castleshaw Roman Forts. Saddleworth Historical Society Bulletin 42/3

Stonehouse, W.P.B. 2001. The Prehistory of Saddleworth & Adjacent Areas.

D. Chadderton (Ed). Saddleworth Archaeological Trust.





The next involvement comes from another antiquarian, this time one of poetic renown, the world famous Ammon Wrigley. All finds shown in this section are from the Wrigley collection, photos taken by Phil Barrett, but if you want to reproduce one or more of them for any purpose whatsoever permission must be obtained in writing from Sean Baggaley at Gallery Oldham.

Here's a picture of the redoubtable Mr Wrigley, who, in 1897, was reading the work of Percival from 1752 that I include above.


All diary extracts are from Wrigley (1912).

15.8.1897  Mr Wrigley says he was lazing about in one of the high fields above Broadhead and looking down across the valley, and suddenly saw the outlines of the 'Roman Station'. It seems that local historians knew of the camp, but none had been sufficiently interested to explore further, as he could find no record of any kind. He measured it up and he says 'to my great satisfaction' it aligned with Percival's (1752) plan, relevant segment shown here.

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(Percival 1752)

That afternoon he went with two chums and they confirmed it by re-measuring the area with a chain. Then Ammon Wrigley went about gaining permission to dig from the owners, the Messrs Schofield, and he was allowed to dig on condition that the ground was 'made good for the spring of 1898.'   He notes that in early October - 'We sank trial holes in various parts of the camp area, and were rewarded by finding fragments of Roman tile and pottery. ..... It was decided that the work should be continued every Saturday afternoon if the weather permitted.'


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9.10.1897   'Begin explorations under the distinguished patronage of several immortal "roughyeds" from Oldham.' They send an 'envoy' to the "Horse and Jockey" and he returns 'with a large brown bottle on his shoulder...' 'I appoint myself Chief Controller of all liquids (water excepted) hereafter to be consumed on the Roman Station.'

'Mallalieu finds a piece of red tile near the inner rampart, and creates a profound sensation; Oldhamer wants to fight him for it, - heated discussions and hostile demonstrations.'

Not sure if it was one of these tiles in the Wrigley collection, but it just may be possible.

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'I find a piece of tile and am forcibly deprived of it by Winterbottom.'

'Winterbottom finds a piece of grey pottery,'..................................

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 ....'and goes about with the dignity of a Co-op committee man who has just finished testing a new consignment of cheese. Another squabble, I am charged with attempting to "pinch" Winterbottom's pottery and am warned off the field.'

It seems that they easily get back into high spirits with the aid of the 'brown bottle' and repair to an ale-house called the "Mop" (?) where plans are made for the next day.

10.10.1897  'Winterbottom and self arrive on the ground at 9.30 a.m. Find Schofield and Mallalieu performing hurricane work in the greater fort.  They ignore us, - look as if they owned the "blanking" Roman station.'

After trouble with Winterbottom - 'The law of self-preservation demands that I should open a trench in another part of the field.  We work in silence...'  'I hear "cusswords" coming from a distant trench, Mallalieu and Schofield are holding an excited discussion over the possession of an old button - believed to be Roman; hope they are going to fight. Winterbottom finds a piece of grey-ware bearing incised ornamentation, and we retire to the "Horse and Jockey" for lunch.’

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Lunch was cheese and dry bread with raw onion, clay pipes and twist for dessert, and fourpenny liquor to close.

Later that day - Under observation by a group of 'Owdhamers' bearing 'ponderous volumes' on Roman antiquities - 'We dig for the next ten minutes in the most approved scientific manner; we are rewarded by finding a beautiful frog and several fine, healthy-looking worms,...'  'Work is continued, and we suddenly lay a piece of pavement bare, - trumpets, balloons, fireworks, and circus elephants!'  Mayhem does ensue and after clay being thrown about, Wrigley 'roars his appreciation' when Winterbottom falls over in the attempt to throw clay over Heights Chapel.... 'am promptly stoned from the field;'  ..... 'I am forgiven on condition that I carry all the spades, picks, etc., down to Castlehill.  We knock off for the day, the finds include the pavement and fragments of tile, pottery, and corroded iron.'


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16.10.1897   'Stormy meeting of directors.... breaks up in disorder.  We dig anywhere.  "Owdham Roughyeds" arrive.  Schofield behaves in an extraordinary manner; I gather he has discovered a large piece of amphora, probably part of a wine vessel; he believes that the wine cellar is not more than a yard away to the left.' ....... 'He claims an exclusive right to the trench.'


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'Oldhamers are permitted to watch the excavations on condition that they keep their hands off the finds. Winterbottom is going savagely round the field armed with a long, sharp-pointed iron probe; I keep out of his way, and wonder if he is fit to be at large.'

17.10.1897  'Tempestuous work in the inner fort by Schofield,...'  'Party of ladies arrive.'  'I hold a grand reception on the northern rampart....I explain its constructive values...and so forth. I make a great show of Latin terms used in connection with Roman stations: ... all of which I had seen in books. I have not the faintest idea what the terms mean, but notice that my hearers are greatly impressed.'

21.10.1897  'I discover that the Roman relics which I had placed carefully away in a cupboard, at home, are missing.'  Wrigley asks his mother where they are and she says she's thrown them on the midden. ‘"But they are Roman relics," I say. "They look like Irish!" she answers. 'Did you throw the Samian ware on the midden?" I ask.  "All the dirty lot!" she answers.'   'I spend a miserable half hour on the midden with the lantern. At last I discover the best fragments almost buried under objectionable malodorous refuse. I resort to strategy, and finally hide them upstairs.'

Here's some of his very fine Samian.

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25.10.1897   Mr G F Buckley leases the field for a year, thus allowing Wrigley to continue with the dig.

Summer 1898  A number of diagonal trenches were opened near the inner fort, resulting in a visit by the Lancashire and Cheshire Antiquarian Society.

May 1899   Wrigley contributes an article on Castleshaw to the Yorkshire Weekly Post, this subsequently appears in the 'Antiquary'. Wrigley says 'it was written with the object of calling attention to the Yorkshire Archaeological Society to the station in the hope that the Society would undertake further explorations...'   Here's an extract from it -

"Many patches of well-worn cobble pavement may be seen running in various directions, and in some parts well crowned.  The pottery fragments include the red Samian ware, decorated with figures, etc., the border decoration being that generally called "cup and spear"; also pieces of amphora, with varieties of the black and grey wares.  A few of the latter fragments bear the well-known incised decoration of interlacing lines, while other pieces show a curious zigzag work in relief.  Four or five varieties of tile have been turned up - from a bright red to a white, some examples bearing a kind of geometrical design." (Re-printed in Wrigley's book referenced below, the reference of the article itself is not available at this point.)

From 1898 to 1907 Wrigley and co did 'occasional digging on the site'. At that point Samuel Andrew and Major Lees bought the land and quickly began comprehensive excavations, with Francis A Bruton. Of this Wrigley says 'By doing this they earned, I hope, the thanks of every Saddleworthian who has any respect for the historical values of his homeland.'  Of his own work he says 'A beginning is a beginning, if it is nothing else.'

I'll leave you with a few more images of finds from the Wrigley collection.  And grateful thanks to Sean Baggaley, Director, Gallery Oldham, for allowing us to photograph the collection and to post a selection of images here.

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Percival, T. 1752. Observations on the Roman colonies and stations in Cheshire and Lancashire. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, 47: 216-230.

Wrigley, A. 1912. The First Excavations of the Roman Camp at Castleshaw. In Ammon Wrigley, Songs of a Moorland Parish, 298 - 314. Saddleworth: Wrigley.




The Friends of Castleshaw Roman Forts , 2019