Whitby (Dictium) Signal Station

North Sea Signal Stations

It is thought that a Signal Station sat upon Whitby’s East Cliff. There are a number of Roman signal stations strung out along the North Yorkshire coast at Filey (TA1281), Scarborough (TA0589) and Ravenscar (NZ9801) to the south of Whitby, also at Goldsborough (NZ8315) and further north along the coast at Huntcliff (NZ6821) in Cleveland. These stations form part of a northern coastal defensive system possibly established by the the last-known governor of Roman Britain, the Vandal chieftain Stilicho in the late-fourth century, very likely as a northern extension of the Forts of the Saxon Shore in south-east England. In this scenario it is possible that the suspected fort at Whitby was the centre of operations for this system of signal stations on the north-east coast of England.

This  network of Signal Stations demands an effective method of intercommunication by means of signals sent by smoke or flame (Richmond 1935). The indivisibility of the stations within such a network is therefore imperative. It is thought that the signal station sat on Whitby’s East Cliff but it has subsequently been lost due to geologically determined erosion rates, and now lies under the sea.

The fort at Lease Rigg lies 7 miles along the suspected road to the south-west, at which point the road abruptly changes direction due south and continues a further 9 miles to the fort at Cawthorn.

Evidence from the Classical Geographies

The Notitia Dignitatum of the late-4th/early-5th centuries possibly contains the earliest reference to the Whitby Roman station. The place-name Dictim appears as the location of a garrison fort in the list of forces under the Dux Britanniarum the ‘Duke of the Britains’. The Dictium entry occurs between those for Arbeia (South Shields, Tyne & Wear) and Concangios (Chester-le-Street, Durham). The full Dictium entry is given below.

The name occurs again in the seventh century Ravenna Cosmology, this time as Dixio Lugunduno (R&C#140), between the entries for Delgovicia (nr. Millington, Humberside?) and Concangis (Chester-le-Street, Durham). The double-barrelled name may in fact be two separate entries, if this is the case then another station named Lugundunum remains to be discovered somewhere in north-east England.

The Meaning of the Roman Name

A tentative translation of the Roman name may be obtained from the Latin dictio ‘saying, delivery; speech; oracular utterance’, perhaps with the meaning ‘the place of oracles’ or ‘the place of the speeches’.

There is, however, a piece of literary evidence which may lend credence to the supposition that there was a Roman station here at Whitby, provided in the works of the Venerable Bede who lived for much of his life at the Jarrow monastery close by the old Roman fort at Newcastle-upon-Tyne. In Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People, written in AD 731, there is a passage which hints at a Roman presence in the form of a coastal signal station:

… it was decided to hold a council to settle the dispute [regarding the observance of Easter] at a monastery called Streanæshealh (Whitby), a name which means the bay of the lighthouse; …” (Bede, book 3, chapter 25)

The modern name is entirely Scandinavian in origin, dating from the Viking occupation of the area and first appearing in the Domesday Book of AD 1086 as Witeby. Although the -by ending is certain, meaning ‘village’ or ‘farmstead’, the first part of the place-name is unclear, and may stem either from hvitr or ‘white’, or from the personal name Hviti (Mills).

Somewhere in North-East England

There is more than one contender for the Dictium station:

  • The possible Roman Settlement at Whitby on the North Yorkshire coast.
  • The fort and settlement at Piercebridge in County Durham.
  • The fort and camps at Cawthorn in North Yorkshire.

Unfortunately, there are no entries in the R.I.B. for either Whitby, Piercebridge or Cawthorn.

The Garrison Unit(s) of Dictium

The Dictium Entry in the Notitia Dignitatum

Praefectus numeri Nerviorum Dictensium, Dicti

“The prefect of the Company of Dictian Nervii at Dictis

(Notitia Dignitatum xl.23; 4th/5th C.)

Listed among the regiments “at the disposal of the Right Honourable Duke of the Britains”, the Numerus Nerviorum Dictensium were an irregular company of soldiers (a numerus), very likely comprised entirely of cavalry troopers or at least part-mounted, originally recruited from among the Nervii tribe of Belgic Gaul, this much is obvious from their name, which also implies that they had been stationed at the Dictium station for a considerable period, at least sufficient for the unit to become synonymous with their garrison station.

Although it is more likely that the Dictian Numerus were actually recruited from the tribelands of the Nervii and then transported across the Oceanus Germanicus to Britain as a newly-fledged regiment, it is certainly possible that the unit may have been formed from the remnants of one (or more) of the Nervian regiments known to have been stationed in Britain. These are;

Unfortunately, there is no solid evidence to link the late-fourth century Numerus with any of these earlier formations.

Other Roman Sites in the Neighbourhood Accepting the Dictium = Whitby Equation

The Sea-Jet Industry of Roman Whitby

Jet is a hard black variety of lignite (a.k.a. brown coal) capable of taking a brilliant polish, and is therefore a material used since prehistoric times in the manufacture of jewellery. It occurs in underwater outcrops off the north-east coast at Whitby, where it is thought that jet was not mined, but that nodules of the material were simply collected along the beach at low tide. The Romans thought that Jet was possessed of magical powers, for like Amber, also highly prized, Jet becomes charged with static electricity when rubbed. The Latin writer Solinus, who flourished in the third-century, praises the high-quality of British sea-jet.

Jet artifacts take many forms, mainly decorative, such as hairpins, finger-rings, solid bangles and multi-formed pendants, also strings of jet beads were made into bracelets or necklaces. There are a great many small animal and bird carvings made from this material which may have been votive offerings, personal talismans, or possibly child’s toys.

A number of carved items made from sea-jet have been recovered from the Whitby environs, and these have also been found at other Roman settlements throughout Britain. It is possible that there was a small industry at Whitby, perhaps exporting finished carvings, certainly throughout the north of England, possibly also at many places on the continent, particularly along the Rhine in Germany. Sea-Jet carvings possibly originating from Whitby have been found in Britain at:

  • Derventio (Malton, North Yorkshire; bear),
  • Eburacum (York, North Yorkshire; bear, pins, pendants, rings; also blocks of uncut Whitby sea-jet, probably indicating another jet workshop in the colonia itself),
  • Londinium (London; bear),

References for Dictium (Whitby) Signal Station

  • Historical Map and Guide – Roman Britain by the Ordnance Survey (3rd, 4th & 5th eds., 1956, 1994 & 2001);
  • Roman Britain by Peter Salway (Oxford 1981); Britain in the Roman Empire by Joan Liversidge (London 1968);
  • The Ecclesiastical History of the English People by Bede, edited by Judith McClure & Roger Collins (OUP, 1969) p.154;
  • Dictionary of English Place Names by A.D. Mills (OUP, 1998).
  • https://proceedings.caaconference.org/files/1997/CD02_Bell_CAA_1997.pdf

Map References for Dictivm

NGRef: NZ9011 OSMap: LR94

Roman Roads near Dictivm

Probable road: SW (17) to Cawthorn SW (7) to Lease Rigg Possible Military Road: SE (9) to Ravenscar (North Yorkshire)

Sites near Whitby (Dictium) Signal Station
  • Lease Rigg Roman Fort
    Flavian Auxiliary Fort (AD 69–96)
  • Cawthorn A Roman Fort
    Flavian Auxiliary Fort (AD 69–96)
  • Malton (Derventio) Vicus