The Mystery of Morbio - Scaftworth

The Notitia Dignitatum lists the praefectus equitum catafractariorum as being based at a place called Morbio. The exact location of this fort has been the subject of much speculation amongst archaeologists, historians and those interested in the period. My earlier blog The Northern Frontier considered the deployment of the forces assigned to the Dux Britanniarum and described a three layered system of defence where Morbio was linked with Ilkley. This attribution was was based upon conjecture and other sites such as Piercebridge, Scaftworth or Morsby in Cumbria could just as easily have been chosen. This blog will consider the merits of Scaftworth as the location of the elusive Morbio.


Scaftworth lies upon the River Idle at the southern edge of the Humberhead Levels. The Bassetlaw District Council's landscape character assessment describes the region of the Idle lowlands in the Roman period (P45). It envisages a mixed terrain of fields and pasture, with an occasional area of woodland. The lowlands appear to have been prosperous and supported a number of settlements, although there were also large areas of bog and marsh. It seems that towards the end of the Roman period the land became more prone to flooding and the area of cultivation receded.


The aerial photograph below was taken by the Roman Road Research Association over fifty years ago. According to Historic England the fort at Scaftworth enclosed an area of 0.4 hectares and was built on a sandy outcrop surrounded by wetland. A Roman road ran parallel to the north-east boundary of the fort. Was this the base for a regiment of cataphractarii?

Eadie considers the type of weapons and armour which may have been used to equip the Roman heavy cavalry during the late empire (P170). He describes the difference between the cataphractarii and the clibanarii, arguing that the cataphractarii sacrificed some protection to gain greater mobility. In Eadie's view a cataphractarius wore a thigh length coat of mail and carried a shield and a heavy lance. In contrast a clibanarius and his mount were almost totally encased in armour, the weight of which restricted their use in battle to an all out charge. The image below shows what a cataphractarius may have looked like.



The question is why did the Roman military leaders assign a regiment of cataphractarii to the command of the Dux Britanniarum? Pictish stones and poems such as the Y Goddodin may provide a clue. Based upon her assessment of the horses displayed on the standing stones, Hughson concluded that the beasts were well bred and about fourteen hands high. As such they were perfectly capable of supporting an armed warrior. If the Y Goddodin provides an accurate history, then three hundred nobles, drawn from kingdoms across northern Britain, gathered at Eidden in the early seventh century. The poem states that they were armed with javelins, lances and swords, and wore a protective coat of mail. Each warrior was also mounted on a powerful steed. Perhaps, the gathering of such a host was the threat which the Roman commanders were trying to counter?


So, was the fort at Scaftworth their base? In favour of such a claim there is evidence that the fort was occupied in late antiquity. A counterfeit coin bearing the image of Julian and pottery of the period have been found at the site (Wright P209). Rather appropriately, it has also been suggested that the name Morbio may mean marsh dwelling, and there is no doubt that the landscape to the north of the fort was dominated by wetland. However, the geographical location of the fort probably provides the most pressing reason to believe that Scaftworth is Morbio. The fort is aligned next to the road to Danum and commands the crossing over the River Idle. From Scaftworth a force of cavalry could arrive at almost any place within the diocese within a matter of days. In this context, Scaftworth is situated upon the northern edge of what was the most populous and prosperous part of Roman Britain. Perhaps one final piece of evidence is the armoured ground which lies between the fort and the road. Dearne identifies this as hardstanding. Was this where the cataphractarii assembled?


The most significant objection to seeing Scaftworth as the base for a regiment of cataphractarii is its size. Chesters fort on Hadrian's Wall, which is known to have been garrisoned by an ala of cavalry, occupied an area of 2.32 hectacres. Here, the soldiers were housed in twelve (possibly fourteen) barrack blocks, suggesting an effective unit size of about 400 men. Based upon area alone it is unlikely that the fort at Scaftworth could have accomodated more than 60-70 cavalrymen. This seems far short of the number required to challenge a significant invasion. Furthermore, there is no evidence of buildings inside the fort or of a civil settlement alongside. This tends to suggest that the Roman presence was less than significant. It is also hard to believe that the edge of a marsh was the best place to deploy a unit of heavy cavalry.


To conclude, I feel it is unlikely that the fort at Scaftworth is the Morbio mentioned in the Notitia Dignatatum. This is mainly because of its size. Perhaps the later history of nearby Bawtry provides a clue to its purpose, for during the Middle Ages and beyond the latter was a port, responsible in part for the transhipment of Pennine lead. Maybe a small fort was needed in the Roman era to guard such trade? Could it be that the hardstanding outside the fort was for mules rather than cavalry?


Sources:

Bassetlaw District Council: https://www.bassetlaw.gov.uk/planning-and-building/planning-services/planning-policy/core-strategy-and-development-policies/background-studies/landscape-character-assessment-lca/

Nigel Buckner (photographer): https://www.flickr.com/photos/snaphed/6208815459/

Martin Dearne: Excavation of the Timber Causewayed Roman Road at Scaftworth 1991, Interim Report; https://archaeologydataservice.ac.uk/archiveDS/archiveDownload?t=arch-1352-1/dissemination/pdf/Nottinghamshire/GL26018.pdf

John Eadie: The Development of Roman Mailed Cavalry; The Journal of Roman Studies, Vol. 57, No. 1/2 (1967), pp. 161-17

English Heritage: https://www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/chesters-roman-fort-and-museum-hadrians-wall/history/description/

Historic England: https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1018529

Irene Hughson: Pictish Horse Carvings; Glasgow Archaeological Journal, 1991-1992, Vol. 17

River Idle: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/River_Idle

Roman Roads Research Association: http://roadsofromanbritain.org/gazetteer/yorkshire/rr28a.html

Alex Smith: The Rural Settlement of Roman England; http://www.reading.ac.uk/web/files/archaeology/Reading_April_14_talk_AS.pdf

Roman names: http://www.romaneranames.uk/m/morbio.htm

R. P. Wright: Roman Britain in 1956: I. Sites Explored: II. Inscriptions; The Journal of Roman Studies, Vol. 47, No. 1/2 (1957)

Y Goddodin: https://www.gutenberg.org/files/9842/9842-h/9842-h.htm