Though Doncaster town did not exist before the Romans arrived, the word its name is based on probably did. When the Roman authorities built a fort on the banks of the River Don they called it Danum, meaning the place or river called Danu. This was the name that the local Iron Age inhabitants gave to the river.
Danu may have been named after an Iron Age goddess, as there is a Danu in Irish myths and a Don in Welsh legends.
The Romans commonly used local names to name their forts. It was one way of demonstrating power, linking their new authority with existing traditions.
The town originated as an informal village that grew up outside the fort, known as a vicus.
The vicus comprised army followers and opportunists who supplied the army with a range of services and goods not provided within the military system. Shops, workshops and even brothels would have huddled beside the fort.
Danum’s first fort was built from timber in about 70 AD, to house approximately 500 soldiers. It was demolished in the 2nd century AD and replaced with a smaller fort protected by clay, gravel and limestone walls.
Danum was not the first Roman fort in the Doncaster region. This was built at Rossington Bridge sometime in the 50s AD, at the same time as forts were built at Templebrough (Rotherham) and Chesterfield.
Rossington fort was much larger than Danum, housing up to half a legion of 2,500 men. This may have been a task force sent north to gain control of what was then the northern limit of the new province. Archaeological evidence shows it was only occupied for a short time, perhaps just a few years.
Another small fort has been found as a cropmark at Burghwallis, to the north of Doncaster. The fort probably dates from between the late 1st and early 2nd century and may have housed a unit of auxiliaries. It may have been built as part of the general garrisoning of the region.
The Romans built well-engineered surfaced roads to speed up movement of soldiers, civilian administrators, goods and messages. Roads led from Danum to Lincoln and to Castleford and York. The stone used to make the roads would have come from nearby quarries. This may have been the earliest use of aggregates in Doncaster.
Who were Roman soldiers?
There were probably very few ‘real’ Romans living in Doncaster. Part of the garrison at Rossington Bridge would have been legionaries who were Roman citizens, though not necessarily from Rome itself. The rest of the garrison would have been auxiliaries drawn from the provinces, who could have come from Gaul (modern France), Germany or Italy. We know that the Danum garrison during the 4th century AD came from Hungary originally, though by then it probably recruited from Britain.
An inscription on a stone altar from Danum shows the provincial origins of at least one member of the garrison there in the late 2nd century or early 3rd century AD. The inscription is made to the trinity of mother Goddesses and is dedicated to Marcus Nantonius Oriotalus. While his first name is Roman, the second two are Latinised versions of provincial names.
The Danum Shield
Fragments of a shield were found under the rampart of Danum fort during excavations in 1971. It was made of one-centimetre-thick three-ply wood, with outer layers of alder encasing an oak inner core. The shield was flat and rectangular with rounded ends. A round domed iron boss was fixed to the centre of the outer side. Chemical analysis indicated traces of a leather covering, while tiny fragments of curved bronze sheet suggested Celtic-style decoration. The shield dated to the late 1st century AD and was probably used by a British auxiliary soldier. So far, it is a unique find from Roman Britain. The remains of the shield, alongside a reconstruction, are on display in Doncaster Museum.
For further information, please contact us:
- tel: 0114 273 6354
- address: South Yorkshire Archaeology Service, Howden House, 1 Union Street, Sheffield, S1 2SH