Letocetum: The Roman Fort and Settlement at Wall

Our AGM, which opened the February meeting, was followed with a talk by Dr Mike Hodder exploring our nearby Roman settlement of Wall. Perhaps many of us said, yes, we know where it is and its background. Mike's forensic talk proved us all wrong in our assumption that we already knew much about the site. Mike's long term involvement there revealed that new finds were always occurring and new theories emerging about the history of the site and the lifestyle of its inhabitants. Archaelogists have been studying the site since at least the seventeenth century. Excavations, especially in the nineteenth century, established that this was not only the site of a fort, but a sophisticated settlement with domestic dwellings, baths, farmsteads, two cemeteries and a "burgos".

The earliest evidence of a settlement dates from the second century BC. It was probably located at the junction of two ancient routes which, in the Roman period, were reconstructed as the Roman roads of Watling Street and Ryknield Street. But why was the intersection there? Was it the site of some form of shrine? Was it a meeting place? Was it the boundary between two local tribes? For whatever reason, the Romans certainly recognised the geographical significance of the location and adapted it for their own use as a fort and pausing place for the movement of troops and messengers further to the north or south.

Similar forts can be found elsewhere on the Roman road network in the Midlands, for example at Mancetter. Letocetum was probably at its peak from about AD 48 to AD 120, for we know that the garrison had left by AD 250. During this time, the fort possessed substantial baths and a large inn or burgos, both being surrounded by a number of domestic buildings. The burgos gave shelter to travellers and their horses, pausing overnight on longer distance journeys. These were official messengers, travelling between key administrative towns in Roman Britain. The fort was busy; we know that the bath house had to be increased in size to cope with the demand. Such was the fort's importance, that farmsteads were clustered around, doubtless partly for safety, but also to supply the needs of the local population.

Excavations prior to the construction of the nearby M6 Toll road also revealed the second of two cemeteries. Roman burials were traditionally undertaken outside the walls of any settlement and some years earlier a cemetary had been discovered to the west of the settlement; a second has now been located to the south east. The majority of finds here consist of burial urns from cremations. The practice of interment was adopted by Romans later.

After AD 350, the local military presence had disappeared with the Roman withdrawal of the legions from Britain and, consequently, the principal Roman buildings such as the bath house fell into disuse. The settlement at Wall slowly declined, to settle down to a life as a small-scale agricultural village. Indeed, what appears to have occurred is a slow transfer of local dominance to Lichfield, which emerges as a significant religious centre with the arrival of St Chad in the seventh century. Thereafter, life continued for Wall as a medieval village. Even today, however, the astute observer will detect evidence of its distant history, in the disposition of the village lanes, boundaries and topography. What might lie beneath, still awaiting discovery?

Roger Hockney
February, 2019