The best way to look at the story of Ad Pontem and what we know about its history is to look at how our knowledge of the site has changed over the years. Whilst a site called Ad Pontem has been known of for many centuries it is only in the last 70 years that it has positively been identified with the village of East Stoke.
The first reference we have to a town or fort known as Ad Pontem is from the Antonine Itineraries. These were a set of routes across the Roman Empire which listed principle towns and the distances between them. They are attributed to M. Aurelius Antoninus and were collated in about 210 AD. We know of these itineraries from medieval copies that are still in existence. In Itinerary #VI, which covers the route from St Albans to Lincoln, 4 towns are indicated as existing between Leicester (Ratae) and Lincoln (Lindum).
These four towns are:
Verometo - 13 Roman miles from Ratae
Margidunum -13 Roman miles further
Ad Pontem - 7 Roman miles further
Crocalana - 7 Roman miles further and 12 miles short of Lindum
Of these three were easily identified
Verometo - Willoughby
Margidunum - Castle Hill between Gunthorpe and Bingham close to East Bridgford
Crocalana - Brough
The location of the fourth settlement, that of Ad Pontem remained a mystery until well into the 20th Century. By the time Cornelius Brown was writing at the end of the 19th Century, physical remains had been found for all the sites except Ad Pontem. Using the distances from the Itinerary (whilst pointing out that they cannot always be relied upon) Brown suggests that the town must have lay somewhere between Farndon and East Stoke. He also notes that where the River Trent comes close to the Fosse Way near East Stoke, the road turns ? often a sign that a settlement has been present. Brown goes on to suggest that a bridge at this point might link the Fosse Way with the town of Southwell some 4 miles distant on the other side of the river. Roman remains were well known from this town.
Other historians of the time felt that more established towns might be the original location of Ad Pontem. Southwell itself was a strong contender although there was the obvious difficulty of it being on the wrong side of the Trent and not on the direct route of the Fosse Way. Some authors also suggested Newark particularly as the presence of the North-South pre-Roman trackway of Sewesterne Lane made the town a junction. However, Newark suffered from being a further 3 miles beyond East Stoke and therefore not matching the distances in the Antonine Itineraries.
The lack of a Southerly road leading away from East Stoke or Farndon was considered a serious hindrance to their being considered as a location for Ad Pontem. However we now know from aerial photographs that at least one or possibly two roads do terminate on the Trent very close to East Stoke possibly linking it with Ancaster to the east and the Salters Way to the South.
The first attempt to positively identify East Stoke as the site of Ad Pontem was made by Adrian Oswald in 1937-38. Prior to the introduction of aerial photography he had picked the site for his excavations based upon a heavy concentration of Roman pottery and coins coupled with a rich dark soil indicative of occupation covering extending to some 30 acres in size along the eastern side of the Fosse Way.
The excavations centered upon the fields of Little and Big Oddhouse Close. These fields have today been combined into one with the removal of the intervening hedge. At the same time Oswald identified another concentration of pottery and coins in Mill Field closer to East Stoke. The distribution of these finds seemed to indicate that the area around Mill Field had been occupied in the 1st and 2nd centuries whilst the material from Oddhouse Close dated from the 3rd and 4th centuries. As a result he concluded that the area of earliest occupation had been close to the modern village of East Stoke and that this was the most likely location for a fort whilst later occupation, perhaps in the form of a town was a little further along the Fosse Way to the north east.
This view was reinforced, at least in Oswald?s mind, by the presence of a large tumulus or mound in Mill Field, a similar but smaller mound on the other side of the Fosse in East Stoke Park and an embankment which lead away from the Mill Field mound towards the north east. Oswald believed that these mounds marked the sites of gates of the original Claudian Fort and that the embankment was the remains of the earliest course of the Fosse Way.
But Oswalds excavations did not centre on this are but rather were concentrated in the Oddhouse Closes where a number of trial pits and trenches were inserted. Unfortunately the plans produced are not detailed enough to identify accurately the exact location of these excavations. Oswald and his team were able to identify a series of ditches and wooden and stone buildings dating from the 1st to the 4th century (60 AD to 380 AD).
As a result of these excavations Oswald produced a suggested chronology for the northern end of the site which he believed was most likely to have been a poor civilian settlement rather than a military fort. He considered it to be a humble site due to the general lack of finer pottery, luxury objects, wall plaster and substantial stonework. He still believed that the earthworks in Mill Field represented the fort itself.
Adrian Oswalds father Felix made the next contribution to the investigation of Ad Pontem in 1951. He published a short note in the Thoroton Society concerning the origin of the name Ad Pontem and the reason for the situating of the settlement in its now confirmed location.
The derivation of the name Ad Pontem is generally accepted to be from the Latin for ?to the bridge? or ?at the bridge?. Oswald confirmed that no trace of a bridge over the Trent had been found in the area of Ad Pontem despite considerable effort. Therefore he suggested that it was an error to look specifically for a bridge across the Trent at this point.
As an alternative he noted that a number of classical writers including Tacitus had used the term pontes longi (long bridges) when discussing log causeways or ?corduroy roads? used for crossing marshy land. He also noted that the area between East Stoke and Farndon was low lying and marshy and notorious for flooding even in the 20th century.
Oswald noted that the fort at Ad Pontem, lying as it did only 7 miles from Margidunum and a similar distance from Crocalana was unusual in being an ?extra? fort on the Fosse, the normal distance between forts being between 12 and 14 Roman miles. Oswald believed that the reason for this fort was twofold, firstly it was positioned on the higher ground at the southern end of the long log causeway along a strategically important road and secondly at this point the Trent comes closer to the road than at any other time. This provided a perfect harbour for commerce along the river (more important where possible than road commerce). Hence the development of the settlement here.
It is also worth noting that the fort and settlement also lie at the point where the upper and lower Fosse ways meet. This may be another reason for a strategically important defence.
A series of small-scale excavations continued under various directors throughout the late 1940s and early 1950s. In 1948 a trench was inserted across the line of the embankment in Deadman?s Grave. This finally disproved Oswald?s theory that it was the early line of the Fosse way. Instead it was found to be post-Roman in age.
Other excavations attempted to uncover the extent and nature of the defences. In 1950 two trenches in Deadman?s Grave failed to find any sign of the ditches or defences at the southern end of the site. Aerials at the time had failed to identify any sign of the defences along that side.
In 1951 an excavation to the north of the fort along the supposed line of the Fosse Way failed to find any sign of it and it is likely that this is due to the stone of the paved surface having been removed in medieval times for repair of the new alignment of the Fosse.
Two excavations were undertaken in 1952 by the Newark Archaeological Committee. In the early part of the year a trench was placed in Oddhouse Closes where farming activity had uncovered worked stone and pottery. The excavations revealed at least 3 stages of occupation with stone roof tiles and pottery dating from Flavian to 4th Century.
The second trench was inserted on the other side of the modern Fosse Way in Stoke Wharf Field, opposite Wharf Close. This work was carried out at weekends and evenings from May to December. The object of the exercise was to identify the nature of the boundary along the western side of the complex. At this point there is a steep embankment climbing up from the river flood plain and it appeared that this was formed by the western edge of the fort.
The excavations revealed a large wooden structure and also the presence of substantial stone walls which had been robbed out and were represented by foundation trenches. There were also a series of ramparts represented by black clay deposits. The timber structure intruded into the defences and was interpreted as either a tower or gateway. Evidence points to the latter being more likely with an apparent road alignment passing through the settlement and continuing out towards the river.
R.R. Inskeep who directed this excavation proposed 4 stages of occupation based on the evidence seen in this trench.
Stage 1 consisted of occupation prior to the construction of the main rectangular defences. This may have consisted of a wooden structure and pottery evidence suggests dates of late 1st to early 2nd century.
Stage 2 consisted of the construction of the rectangular enclosure represented by the black clay rampart and ditches. Thee can be clearly seen from the aerial photographs on the Northern and Eastern side whilst to the west the rampart appears to have run along the top of the terrace overlooking the flood plain and ditches may well have been absent. It is not clear where exactly the southern limit of the enclosure was nor its exact nature. It is possible that even at this stage there may have been a gateway leading down to the river on the western side. The construction of this enclosure is dated to the latter part of the 2nd century.
Stage 3 consisted of the strengthening of these defences with the construction of a stone wall and large timber gateway. This is dated to early 3rd century.
Finally there was a refurbishment of the ramparts in the late 3rd or early 4th century.
Inskeep is quick to point out that these conclusions were based on only a single trench with a maximum section of 2 feet in depth. Therefore he suggests extreme caution be applied to his findings.
The excavation also revealed a burial on the flood plain just below the defences. This was of an elderly woman and was dated to the 4th century.
One other important piece of evidence to emerge from this excavation was the presence of Roman lead and copper slag in the trench. This was taken as a clear indication of lead working on the site.
Further small excavations took place in 1955 and 1960 but the next important excavations on the site took place in 1963 and 1965. Unfortunately the report on these excavations is not currently available and it is only from secondary sources that we can deduce what was uncovered.
It was these excavations which first identified the pre Roman occupation levels of the site. These were in Wharf Close and consisted of a circular house, later replaced by a rectangular building and both overlain by the rampart of the small Roman fort which was built in late Claudian or early Neronian times. At the same time a field system which might be related to these buildings has been identified in the adjacent Oddhouse Close underlying the large polygonal annexe which is contemporary with the fort.
As already mentioned the earliest Roman occupation consists of the fort and annexe dating to the Claudian or Neronian period. It appears that there was no vicus or civilian settlement associated with this early fort and pottery seems to indicate that the fort and annexe were both abandoned in the early Flavian period, probably falling out of use by 80AD.
In the early 2nd century a series of timber buildings began to appear along the line of the Fosse Way and later in the century the first of the enclosing ditches which would form the rectangular defended town was constructed. This corresponds with stage 2 of Inskeep?s occupation timeline. The buildings wooden were gradually replaced with stone throughout the second and third centuries. Unlike Inskeep?s early 3rd century date, the 1965 investigations date the renewal of the defences and the building of the stone wall to the late 3rd century following a long period of decline as the ditches gradually filled with rubbish. The foundations of this wall were 8 ft thick making it a substantial structure. With the structure seen in the 1952 trench being identified as a gateway, there appear to be no signs of towers which often accompanied this late 3rd century renewal of town defences. Outside the wall were two defensive ditches. These were later re-cut as a single ditch.
Little internal structure can be identified in the town with only one building being clearly seen on aerial photographs. This lay close to the northern gate and overlay the first phase of town defences so giving it a probable 3rd or 4th century date. Features included painted wall plaster indicating a high status to the building.
It is also worth noting that other high status finds have been identified from the site and surrounding fields. These include bronze heads of a 3 horned bull and a mule. The 3 horned bull is known from across Europe from places as far afield as Gaul, Germany and Yugoslavia. It has been identified as a representation of a Celtic deity known as Tarvos Trigaranus and was apparently associated with springs, streams, pools and land fertility. Its function is unknown but may have been part of a bowl or vase or associated with an alter.
In 1954 part of an engraved lead casket dating from the 4th century was recovered from Wharf Close. This casket bore a Christian monogram enclosed in a laurel wreath and also the inscription VTERE FELIX. It is the earliest evidence of Christianity recovered in Nottinghamshire.
A carved stone relief was also found in East Stoke and this has been identified as probable representations of the Celtic gods Sucellus and Nantosuelta. This has been taken to indicate the presence of a shrine or temple in the area.
A completed chronology can now be identified as follows.
In Wharf Close we have indications of pre-Roman habitation possibly associated with a field system seen in Oddhouse Close.
The earliest Roman occupation consists of a small Claudian/Neronian fort and large associated polygonal annexe. These had been abandoned by Flavian times (late 1st century).
By the early 2nd century civilian settlement had been established along the line of the Fosse Way and this was fortified in the later 2nd century with a wooden palisade and ditch. This occupation centres on Wharf Close.
In the late 3rd or early 4th century the defences were revamped and the site enclosed in a large stone wall and recut ditches. The status of the site seems to have improved with possibly administrative buildings being identified.