Alnham : Romano-British Period and After (AD 70 - 410)
Towards the end of the first millennium BC, pollen evidence suggests that all remaining upland forest had been cleared, and small enclosed settlements or “homesteads” were established in increasing numbers on slopes and high moorland.
Some of these new settlements seem to have been established within the ramparts of earlier hillforts, or overlying the defences, which in some cases were seen to have been abandoned for some time (Welfare 2002, 75). The stone built huts at Castle Hill may date to this period.
The partially scooped enclosure containing house platforms at NT 961152 may also be Romano-British, though there is no evidence for dating. Settlements of this type are very common in this region, their distinctive appearance being the result of digging out or “scooping” house platforms and stockyards directly into the hill slopes. Though they are usually considered Romano-British, it is possible that they may have originated in the late Pre-Roman Iron Age and are likely to have been in use for a considerable period. Precise distinctions between the Late Iron Age and Roman period are in any case of questionable value in the eastern Cheviots, where the influence of Roman culture is likely to have been limited and intermittent (Higham 1986, 224-6).
In total, nine enclosed settlements, considered on morphological grounds to be broadly contemporary with the Roman occupation of northern Britain, have been identified in area surrounding Alnham. Of these, the closest to the present village is that located on Castle Hill , where one stone-built settlement overlies the earlier defences of the Iron Age hillfort on the north-east side and the remains of other, similar sites can be seen in the immediate vicinity (cf. Jobey 1974, 39, no. 32).
More speculatively, earlier scholars even argued that the churchyard was the site of a Roman fortlet (Archaeologia Aeliana 1st series, I, (1822) 240; Dixon 1895, 32; NCH XIV (1935), 562), on the basis of the remains of a ditch on the east side of the enclosure and the terraced form of the churchyard. However a Roman military origin for these earthworks is now considered very unlikely.
The closest firm evidence of official Roman military activity is represented by the link road between Dere Street and the Devil’s Causeway which passed over three miles miles (5.2km) to the south of Alnham. The nearest fort was situated at Low Learchild (Alauna), at the junction of the Link Road with the Devil’s Causeway and at the point where the latter crosses the Aln. The existence of a Roman temporary camp on the summit of Blackchester Hill (NU 003102) has also been postulated.
Armstrong marks a site there, using the square symbol he normally reserves for Roman military fortifications - forts or temporary camps. This is intriguing, particularly when found in conjunction with a chesters place name, as in this case, and suggests that the remains some kind of ancient rectangular or rectilinear enclosure were formerly visible on the hill. The situation is certainly a commanding one, with a nearby source of water. No trace of such a camp can be identified today, but the hilltop has been extensively quarried, which may have destroyed all traces of earthworks.
Dixon (1895, 32) and other sources (Bulmer’s Directory 1886, 671; Kelly’s Directory 1910, 44) also report that the paved stones of an ancient roadway, six feet wide, were observed ‘under a peat bog 9 inches deep’ (‘nearly two feet’ or ‘several feet below the surface’ according to the trade directories) by the local vicar, the Rev. G. S. Thomson, when some workmen were cutting a drain in the glebe field during 1850. Although Dixon declares the road was ‘similar to the causeways made by the Romans,’ it is more likely that it was associated with the medieval village since it lay within the latter’s limits.
Nevertheless people will have needed to cross the high Cheviot moorlands throughout the prehistoric period and Romano-British periods and it has been suggested that some of the cross-border track ways and drove routes which figure so prominently in the historical sources from the medieval period onwards, such as the Salters’ Road through Alnham township, may have originated as prehistoric ridgeways. Such route ways would have constituted a powerful element of continuity in the use of the landscape.
This part of Northumberland lay beyond the Roman frontier for much of the period of occupation, and the influence of Roman culture is consequently likely to have been slight and very indirect (Higham 1986, 224-6), below the level of the tribal or chiefdom elites at any rate. Small enclosed homesteads such as these are likely to have continued to be used for several centuries, and were perhaps only eventually abandoned in favour of lower lying hamlets and villages, many of which are in existence today, in the Early Medieval Period.