The Journal Of Antiquities

Ancient Sites In Great Britain & Southern Ireland

Cawthorn Roman Camps, North Yorkshire


English: Cawthorn Roman Camps. Cawthorn Roman ...

Cawthorn Roman Camps (Photo credit: Martin Norman – Geograph)

OS grid reference SE 7842 9011. On the North Yorkshire Moors at the edge of the Tabular Hills, above Rosedale Abbey and Goathland, stand the well-defined and grass-covered earthworks, ramparts and ditches of what are called Cawthorn Roman Camps; actually one Roman practice camp and two small Roman forts, side by side, just north of the road called High Lane between Newton on Rawcliffe and Cropton, some 4 miles to the north of Pickering. They are surrounded by woodland. A fairly well-preserved stretch of Roman road (Wade’s Causeway) runs due north over Wheeldale Moor from Cawthorn to Lease Rigg where there was another small Roman fort; originally it may? have connected up with the Roman camp, fort and settlement at Malton (Derventio or Delgovia?) further to the south and was perhaps 20-25 miles in length. But did the Roman road turn east at Lease Rigg and head to the coast at Ravenscar? Cawthorn camp and it’s adjoining forts were built in the late 1st to early 2nd centuries AD. At the southern-side of the earthworks are two prehistoric burial sites (tumuli) and there’s another tumulus at the north-west-side, all of which pre-date the Roman earthworks. The Whitby road (White Way Heads) is 5 miles to the east.

The two small forts, annexe and camp are identified as ABCD. In the centre between the two forts is the temporary marching (practise) camp, which has been referred to as a ‘siege camp’ by some Roman historians. Cawthorne camp C is unusually-shaped like a coffin (elongated) and measures roughly 300 feet by 850 feet about 4-5 acres – and is located between forts D and A. There are three gateways, at the eastern-side only, and these are protected on the outsides by claviculae (cuspate gates) in the ramparts. What maybe gaps at the north-west and south-western corners could have also been ‘initially‘ gateways but these were probably closed up. But the camp has no real ‘robust‘ defensive ramparts, or very little, apart from what appear to be back-filled ditches, unlike those of fort D. The defensive ramparts surrounding the adjourning rectangular-shaped fort D are well-preserved and are 4-5 metres high, while the outer ditches or ‘workings’ are called ‘Stracathro-type’ and are some 3 metres wide and 0.7 metres in height; this fort slightly overlaps the camp at the south-eastern side and is of a later date of construction. It seems likely the camp and forts were built by the legions from York (Eboracum). Fort A with it’s annexe B (extension) at the eastern-side of the site is less well-defined; it has 4 gateways opening into the annexe section, now a low earthwork of 3 metres high. The adjoining annexe has two gateways north and south sides. These two cover an area of around 6 acres. Apparently the forts and camp here at Cawthorn were occupied in more recent times – at periods during the Dark Ages and the Viking Age, the 6th-10th centuries AD.

But why did the Romans build these forts and camp together high up on the Yorkshire Moors. Was it a show of military strength to the northern, British tribes, or was it to protect the Roman road, or even the high ground and the defense of their forts to the north-west and south. More likely they were built simply to house Roman garrisons who were on military manoeuvres and, others who were here to build the Roman road that is so well-preserved, even today. Almost certainly the soldiers could see the east coast from here and the many signal stations (warning beacons) that were situated along that coast. The site was excavated between 1924 and 1929 and the conclusion being that the camp and forts had been occupied twice for short periods only, maybe some 6 to 10 years apart, and that construction took place somewhere between 80-120 AD. Some pottery and glass beads were found during these archaeological digs.

The short stretch of Roman road, known in Yorkshire as Wade’s Causeway, runs for 12 miles between Cawthorn Roman camps and Lease Rigg Roman fort, but originally it may have started at the Roman settlement of Malton and, from Lease Rigg ran east to the coast at either Ravenscar or Whitby, a distance of 25 miles, though there is much uncertainty about this. Today, it is quite well-preserved though the top section has long since eroded away leaving it’s bare foundation stones underneath, but it’s water gulleys or ditches can still be seen at either side, allowing rain water to run off. According to legend, the road was built by an 11th century giant called Wade (Wadda) of Viking birth, who lived with his wife Bell, also a giant, at Mulgrave Castle near Whitby. Bell or Bella apparently carried large stones in her apron to help her husband build both the castle and road, according to the Legend. Their son was the famous Wayland the Smith of Viking legend!

At the southern edge of the site, in woodland, there are two prehistoric burial sites (tumuli) that pre-date the Roman earthworks by 1,500 years, dating from the Bronze-Age. These are located at SE 7845 8987 (south-side) and SE 7790 8980 (south-west side). A third tumulus, of Iron-Age date, can be found at the north-west side of fort D at SE 7780 9010. Well worth checking out.


Boyes, Malcolm & Chester, Discovering The North York Moors, Smith Settle Ltd., Otley, West Yorkshire, 1996.

Jones, Rebecca H., Roman Camps In Britain, Amberley Publishing, Stroud, Gloucestershire, 2012. 


Roman Britain.Org:

Author: sunbright57

I am interested in holy wells, standing stones and ancient crosses; also anything old, prehistoric, or unusual.

2 thoughts on “Cawthorn Roman Camps, North Yorkshire

  1. Hi

    This is clearly a very complex site and you have done well to try and explain the complexity. In her book ‘The Roman Invasion of Britain’ which compares the historical record of Roman Britain with the archaeological record Birgitta Hoffman writes “early studies of camps assumed that a Roman Army on campaign is likely to produce camps of uniform size but more recent studies have pointed out that there are likely to be substantial fluctuations as the army progresses through its campaign season. Army sizes are based as a compromise between four main factors how many troops are available, how may enemies are likely to be encountered, how many men need to be kept supplied and how many men can be effectively be deployed”. This might explain some of the anomalies here.

    I was also interested in your point about the legends that had arisen about the site. It is interesting how over time the legends supersede the actual truth of the matter so that as here many years later people began to think giants must have built the road, because the history of the site had been lost and people no longer had any comprehension of how it could have been built other than by giants.



    • Thank you BarryS for the interesting comment regarding Cawthorn Roman Camps. You are correct in what you say.