Fort and Probable Settlement
The Metchley site is occupied by two first century campaign forts. The first was a large fort measuring about 656 x 656 ft (c.200 x 200 m), with an occupation area of almost 10 acres (4 ha), with annexes on all sides but the west, giving a total area of about 14½ acres. The fort was defended by a double ditch and bank and has been tentatively dated to the mid-1st century. There is evidence for double barrack-blocks in the northern part of the fort which were normally used to accommodated cavalry turmae (‘squadrons’). These fell out of general use during the Claudian period (41-54AD) so this may mean that the fort was built during the earliest Roman military campaigns in Britain, even perhaps before 50AD, possibly taking part in the initial north-western advance into Cheshire and Wales. This fort was very likely occupied by a cohors equitata milliaria, a mixed force of a nominal 1,000 men comprised mostly of heavily-armoured foot-soldiers backed by a lightly-armed cavalry contingent.
The original encampment underwent many changes with military annexes being built to the north, south and east, while a small civil settlement known as a vicus developed on the sloping ground immediately outside the fort’s western defences. The large fort was replaced by a smaller one measuring about 510 by 460 feet (c.155 x 140 m) internally, with an occupation area of about 5½ acres (c.2.2 ha), which was defended by a single bank and ditch and lies wholly within the earlier defences. Built c.80AD, it housed a force of perhaps 2 legionary cohorts with no cavalry arm. Outside the north-western side of this fort was a large spread of gravel, possibly metalling for a parade-ground or waggon-park. It is not known whether this area was enclosed by a bank and ditch, thus forming another annexe to the fort.
Lies on the Line of Ryknild Street
The line of Ryknild Street through Birmingham, which is clearly visible in Sutton Park to the north of the City, cannot be traced with any clarity either through the centre of town or to the south, and this is discussed in the V.C.H. (p.240) which concludes “… in general the Roman road has been stated to run by or near Trinity Church, Birchfield, Villa Cross, Hunter’s Lane, Icknield Street, Monument Lane, Chad Valley and Metchley”. Five miles north along Ryknild Street towards Letocetum were the Perry Barr potteries (SP0690). It is possible that Metchley also lay on the route of an ancient trackway known as the Hen Ffordd, which ran westwards to the Central Welsh Marches.
Archaeological Investigations at Metchley
E DGBASTON (near Birmingham.) – There are the remains of a large rectangular enclosure, in Metchley Park, at the south-west corner of this parish, and near Selly Oak ; it lies 400 yards west of Metchley Lane ; the Birmingham and Worcester Canal and the Birmingham and West Suburban Railway cross its south-east corner.
The earthworks now extant are oblong in form, lying north-west by south-east ; they are situated just north of the Bourne Brook, on fairly level ground, at an altitude of about 500 feet above the sea. they are much worn and mutilated. Even a century ago, Hutton, in giving an account of them, wrote that no part was actually obliterated, the fortification was nearly levelled by cultivation. He described the works as then covering about 30 acres, being nearly in the form of a square, each side of which was 400 yards long ; in the centre was a quadrangular platform of about 6 acres, surrounded by three ditches ‘at irregular distances from one another’ ; each of these ditches measured ‘about 8 yards over.’
Hutton records that ‘pieces of armour were frequently ploughed up’ here in his day, ‘particularly those of the sword and the battle axe.’ A recent cutting was made through the earthworks for the pipes of the Welsh Birmingham Water Supply, but Mr. Pearson informs me that, although careful watch was kept for antiquities, nothing of any interest was found. It may be mentioned that the camp would not be far away from the now lost track of the ancient Icknield Street through Birmingham.” (V.C.H. Warwickshire)
The original excavation report, including extracts from earlier antiquarians and a superb site-plan, were gathered together in a superb article in the B.A.S. Transactions of 1934. Additional work undertaken in 1954 was detailed in an article by Graham Webster published in the B.A.S. Trans.. of 1954. The military role of the Metchley fort is also mentioned several times in another article by Graham Webster in the first edition of the Britannia Periodical.
Excavations Since Decimalisation [and Reported in Britannia]
During excavations conducted in 1969, 1987, 1995, 1997 and 1998 it was confirmed that the Metchley fort had undergone three major phases of construction:
- The first fort was defended by double ditches and a turf rampart 25 feet (7.6m) wide, founded on timber piles. This enclosure was around 10½ acres (4.3ha). The foundation slots of several of the fort’s original timber buildings were also detected, including granaries, store-houses and barracks.
- An annexe of 4 acres (1.6ha) was added to the north side of the fort and the ditch-system rearranged so as to enclose the Fort and its Annexe in a single circuit. The annexe was defended by a rampart with timber towers. The internal buildings of this fort were destroyed by fire, and were replaced by less-regular timber constructions. These continued to be used for some time before the final phase was started.
- During the late-first century, perhaps during the rule of Domitian, a second fort with timber ramparts was erected within the defences of the original camp. This new fort enclosed an area of 6¼ acres (2.5ha) and apparently retained the Claudian defences and annexe to the north until well into the 2nd century. The Claudian defences on the west side were levelled.
Most dating evidence has been in the form of pottery shards, the scarcity of which suggest a period of tenure of between only a few weeks to perhaps a few seasons. Uniformity of pottery at both forts suggest that the later one was built within a few years of the earlier, at most 20.
References for Metchley
- V.C.H. Warwickshire (1904) vol.1, p.374 & plan on p.373;
- The Roman Camps at Metchley, Birmingham by K. St. Joseph, B.A. & F.W.
- Shotton in Birmingham Archaeol. Soc. Trans. & Procs. lviii (1934) pp.68-83 & plates.xx-xxvii;
- Further Excavations at the Roman Forts at Metchley,
- Birmingham, 1954 by Graham Webster in Birmingham Archaeol. Soc. Trans. & Procs. lxxii (1954) pp.1-4, plates 1-2 & figs.1-2;
- The Military Situations in Britain Between A.D. 43 and 71 by Graham Webster in Britannia i (1970) pp.179-197;
- Britannia ii (1971) p.263; Britannia xx (1988) p.288; Britannia xxvii (1996) p.416; Britannia xxix (1998) p.396;
- Britannia xxx (1999) p.345.V.C.H. Warwickshire (1904) vol.1, p.374 & plan on p.373;
Map References for Metchley
NGRef: SP04138376 OSMap: LR139
Roman Roads near Metchley
S (17) to Alcester Ryknild Street: SW (16) to Droitwich (Droitwich Spa, Hereford & Worcester) Possible tactical road: WNW (12) to Greensforge (South Staffordshire) Ryknild Street: N (16) to Letocetvm (Wall, Staffordshire) Probable tactical road: NW (22) to Pennocrvcivm (Water Eaton, South Staffordshire)