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Frontier lines of Britons and Romans

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Who were the men who buried their dead under the barrows on the Sheffield moors and made the stone circles? Were they the people who have been called "Ancient Britons" in the histories? We cannot answer these questions without leaving some doubts unsettled, but it is clear that there was a succession of tribes, the latest comers being less uncivilised than those who held the land before them. First, probably, were the people called Picts, and later came waves of Celts - first Gaels, and then Brythons or Britons. The pottery in the long barrows of the men using stone tools is very simply ornamented with dots and straight lines, whereas the later Britons, using bronze tools, were more artistic, and designed curves in the markings on the outside of their urns.

From very early times the hills on the north and west of Sheffield were a contested borderland. Indeed, the River Sheaf, now the boundary between Yorkshire and Derbyshire in part of its course, is probably one of the oldest frontier lines in England. Far beyond the time of recorded history, a belt of fortifications - earthworks and hill forts - stretched across the country from the valley of the Don below Sheffield to beyond the valley of the Derwent - from Mexborough to Combs Moss - and when the Romans conquered the country they made a new line of fortified camps and posts roughly parallel with these ancient earthworks.

The forts of the Britons, or the people before the Britons, were not thrown up by men in an early stage of savagery. Some of them evidently were constructed by large numbers working in combination, and were designed to be defended by a considerable army. Thus, there was a strong camp - still clearly visible - on Wincobank Hill, a conspicuous height that looks far out over the lower country. On the other side of the Don, beyond Bradfield, an entrenchment 1,500 feet in length, still clearly marked, and known as the Bar Dike, guarded the passage out of Bradfield Dale. According to tradition a great battle was fought here, and one of the leading chieftains was killed and buried on the spot, but there is no historical record of the event.

Further to the southward, overlooking the Derwent Valley, a frowning hill fort, known as Carl's Wark, flanked the rocky Burbage Valley. On three sides the approach to the "wark" is so steep that attack in the days of hand to hand fighting would be very difficult, while the side approached by a descent from Higgar Tor was so strongly fortified that even yet Time has not removed all traces of the defensive breastwork.

Lastly, at the head of the Hope Valley the lofty summit of Mam Tor was crowned by a great camp 16 acres in area, and the rampart lines can still be seen scoring the huge hillside, except where they have been swept away, on the one hand into Hope Vale, and on the other hand into Edalc, by the crumbling of the "Shivering Mountain" under the frosts of 2,000 years.

When the Romans came, saw, and conquered, they ran their lines of defence more or less parallel with the old earthwork forts, but placed their camps in the valleys instead of perching them on the hills. Thus they had a strong camp at Temple-borough in the valley of the Don, just below Sheffield; another smaller work - perhaps a connecting link - in the Roc Wood at Pitsmoor; and from thence a road passed, probably down to a ford across the Don at Bridgehouses. Most likely, the road westward was continued up what we now call Broad Lane and Western Bank to Broomhill, and certainly along the ridge between the valleys of the Rivelin and the Porter, by the line of the Redmires road to Stanage Edge, whence it descended to another Roman camp at Brough in Hope Valley, on the banks of the River Noe. To the westward, beyond Brough, roads diverged, the one to Buxton, the other to the Melandra camp near Glossop.

The Romans were the great road-makers of the ancient world. The paved centre of their roads, for wheeled vehicles and horses, was at most only 14 feet wide, but it was made to last for ever, for they regarded the road as a means of civilisation. The surface was of slabs of stone; and even to this day the paving of the Roman road from Sheffield towards the camp at Brough can be seen, here and there, as the track rises over the heather-clad shoulders of the Stanage Moor before Stanage Pole is reached. Up this road, doubtless, marched the Roman legionaries many a time and oft, singing their song to the soldiers' god Mithras.

Mithras, God of the Noontide, the heather swims in the heat;
Our helmets scorch our foreheads, our sandals burn our feet.
Now in the ungirt hour - now ere we blink and drowse,
Mithras, also a soldier, keep us true to our vows.

As we come to the time of the Roman occupation we begin to glean positive facts. We know, for instance, to some extent, who were the Roman regulars who garrisoned these camps of the Hallam-shire district. Between a.d. 70 and a.d. 75 the Romans were conquering the British tribes of Yorkshire, and it is probable that the Temple-borough camp was constructed about that period, for, while excavating the camp a few years ago to trace its history, the workers found a tile bearing the name of the Fourth Cohort of Gaul, and Roman records show that regiment was in Britain in the year a.d. 79. Coins of the same date have also been found. Again, we know that in the year 105 the First Frisian Cohort (recruited from what is now the north of Holland) was in Britain; and a tablet has been found at the Melandra camp near Glossop showing that the cohort was stationed there.

The next discovery brings us nearer to Sheffield, and is of great interest. In the year 1761, when land on the Stannington side of the Rivelin valley was being ploughed, two thin copper plates, bearing Roman inscriptions, were unearthed. They were certificates of honourable dismissal of a number of soldiers of this same Frisian Cohort, who had served through twenty-five campaigns, and, from being originally foreigners and slaves, were now granted Roman citizenship, a privilege passing to their children, by the order of the Emperor Hadrian. The plates, which are in the British Museum, are dated a.d. 124. Lastly, an inscription found at Brough is dated a.d. 158.

Here, then, we see that between the years 79 and 158 the line of camps through Hallamshire between Mexborough and Glossop, by way of Stanage and Brough, was held in force by the Romans, and after being used first as advanced posts for the conquest of the Yorkshire Britons, became, probably, a base from which the armies were supported that repelled attacks from the north of Britain and eventually conquered the country. Hadrian was in Britain in 122 and built his wall across from Solway to the Tyne, thereby rendering the Midlands so secure that the old soldiers of the Frisian Cohort could be disbanded, and some of them would naturally settle for the remainder of their lives in the district which more than elsewhere must have felt like home.

Of the later periods of Roman government, before the legions were withdrawn and Britain was left to herself in a.d. 410, we know little. Roman coins have been found at Temple-borough of as late a date as a.d. 270. An examination of the Templeborough and Brough camps shows that they were both burned - not necessarily through warfare - and afterwards reconstructed, and the Templeborough site apparently was occupied by earthwork fortifications, probably when the British had to attempt their own defence against the marauders from the north and from across the North Sea, who ravaged the country when the Roman armies had recrossed the Channel.

When next we know anything definite about this Yorkshire borderland, we find that all trace of British influence, except in the naming of the hills and streams, has disappeared and the whole countryside is in the hands of our Anglo-Saxon-Danish forefathers of the Teutonic race, who have swarmed in and brought a new language, a new-religion, and new ideas of government. Britain is no more, as far as this district is concerned, and England has begun.

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