Friday, 29 August 2014

Help Save Roman Binchester!

From The Northern Echo 29/8/14

CONCERNS have been raised that the site of a Roman settlement dubbed the Pompeii of the North could be sold to developers.


Binchester, just outside Bishop Auckland, County Durham, has some of Britain's best-preserved Roman remains, including a bath house with seven-foot walls and painted plaster.
Last year a statue head, possibly of a Geordie Roman god, was found by an archaeology student helping with the major excavation works that are being carried out.
The land where the settlement has stood for around 1,800 years is owned by the Church Commissioners. They are selling ten plots around Bishop Auckland, including two adjoining ones which cover the Binchester site.
The Auckland Castle Trust, financed by city philanthropist Jonathan Ruffer and which is aiming to reinvigorate the local area with tourism by tapping into its heritage, has made a £2 million bid for the plots.
Although the Roman settlement itself could not be developed, an old hall on one of the plots could be, affecting access to the site. Selling the plots off separately could also hamper archaeologists' w
Mr Ruffer, chairman of the trust, said the £2 million bid was ten per cent higher than their own valuation of the site.
"We have done this because there is no one else in a position to do it and Binchester must be secured by someone who has a heart for Bishop Auckland and a deep understanding of the site's importance in a national and international context," he said.
The trust has called for the public to back its bid by writing to the Church Commissioners.
David Ronn, chief executive of the Auckland Castle Trust, said: "We need to save the best of Bishop Auckland's, County Durham's, the North-East's and indeed the UK's past to take into the future."
Dr David Petts, lecturer in archaeology at Durham University who has been project co-ordinator on the Binchester excavation, said: "Binchester is one of the best preserved Roman archaeological sites in Britain and deserves to be protected for future generations to visit."
Only a small percentage of the settlement, which surrounded a fort on the road north to Hadrian's Wall, has been revealed so far.

Thursday, 31 July 2014

Saturday, 26 July 2014

Binchester 2014: Day Thirty-five

Friday was the final day of our 2014 season of excavation at Binchester. We’ve been out excavating for seven weeks now, and although I know I always say this, it’s been our best season yet.  Blessed by splendid weather, we’ve been able to really get stuck in to the archaeology on site, and have revealed stunning structures, amazing finds, and complex stratigraphy.

This is a good point at which to look back on our progress over the last couple of months.

In Trench 1, we knew we had traces of a large cavalry barrack that was at some point (probably in the 4th century AD) reduced in size to the width of a single room. At the northern end of this layer phase was a discrete officer’s quarters containing accommodation and a stable area. However, beyond this we had little sense of the detailed arrangement and organisation of either period of the barrack block’s use. It is now clear that the earlier phase conforms to the standard layout of auxiliary cavalry barrack of Roman date. We have uncovered a series of drains for horse pee, of varying dimensions and depths, which are more or less evenly spaces along the length of the building. This matches up nicely with the surviving hearths and paved pathways which are related to the contubernia (the soldiers’ rooms). We’ve also started to unpick lots of detailed features within the main structure including lots of stone lined post-holes and post pads; we will need to look at these closely in plan to see if they relate to putative internal wall divisions. Other nice internal features include a splendid set of gullies and carved stone drains in the officer’s quarters. We also recovered another votive baby burial tucked up against a wall foundation. In general, we have a much better insight into the varying nature of the walls of the structure. It is clear that many of the walls were rebuilt on, and the fabric varies widely. In one area, we may even have a stretch which was only ever a timber wall line. This varying is not unsurprising on late Roman barracks. We’ve also  started to realise the complexity of the constructional sequence at the northern end of the barrack. In the latest phase, the gable end abutted a stone-lined drainage gully. It is now clear though, that at an earlier phase, the line of the gable wall was actually about 2m to the south, and an earlier, cruder, stone gully was in place. The movement north of the northern wall led to a substantial reconstruction of the gully and its integration with the new wall line.

There was other progress in this trench beyond the barrack itself. Notably we picked up the curtain wall in both ramparts, as well as revealing the corner tower to its fullest extent. Interestingly, there was a clear difference in the construction of the eastern rampart, which must have dated to the earliest phase of the fort and had cruder stone fabric and large internal turf bank. The northern rampart wall was of far finer quality and lay much closer to the internal fort road. These distinctions between the walls probably reflect a chronological distinction in their construction.

We did relatively little work on the latrine, beyond finishing off the excavation of the bottom of the trench which revealed a stone lined base slanted to allow the sewage to drain into the conduit. The final major new discovery came to the west of the northern section of the barrack, where a number of new walls, were found. These are still not easy to understand and appear to be quite early, but do not look like barrack walls so far.

In Trench 2, the focus was not surprisingly on the bath-house. We fully cleared out the main room, which produced evidence that, in its earliest phase, the northern part of the room had contained a cold plunge pool. This had then been knocked out and the whole room lined with stone benches, marking a change of use from bath to changing room.  The altars found at the end of last season clearly belonged to this later phase, and were seemingly located in a small niche in the corner of the room.  There were a couple of other changes that can probably be connected to this change in function. The painted wall plaster of the bath phase was covered over with a thick white undecorated plaster. The circulation of space also changed significantly – several doors were blocked when the benches were put in, and more importantly in the north-east corner of the room, a new wall was put in place appears to have blocked off access to the area to the north. Towards the end of the dig, the area to the north of this wall was found to contain a lined bath or cistern with the remains of arch springers projecting over it. The northern half of the corridor had been cleared out last year, but this year we explored the southern half. The western annexe/alcove at the south end of this corridor was lined with opus signinum, but otherwise clear. However, the eastern annexe/alcove contained an wonderfully preserved small plunge bath, also lined with op sig. This suggests that something similar once stood in the opposite alcove. The eastern plunge bath had a “plug hole” at the bottom which appears to have debouched into a gulley that ran beneath the floor of the corridor. We still have to remove some of the late Roman refuse deposits filling part of the corridor including a roughly paved and kerbed stone path than clearly ran to the doorway in the central cross wall. To the east of the trench we also pulled our trench edges out a little to reveal that the main front wall of the bath-house continued easterly, with at least one more splayed window identifiable. We also have enough of the plan of the area to the east of the corridor to suggest that there may have been another large room, symmetrical  to the one we’ve cleared out. Initial work suggests that this contains well preserved plasterwork.

Although there has been clearly very important work in the bath-house, further excavation in the exterior of the building has helped us understand its preservation. This was most apparent in the discovery of the top of a very well built north-south wall between the bath and the strip buildings. When we excavated a pit that was dug up against it, we found that this wall was at least eight courses deep. This is the first indicator of the sheer extent of the rise of the street level during the Roman period. I’d always assumed the bath-house was so well preserved because it was partially terraced into the hillside. However, it is now clear that it was probably free standing in its earlier stage but got encased internally and externally by rising stratigraphy and big dumps of refuse, essentially protecting it from collapse.

Elsewhere  in the trench, we removed two buildings (the ones in front of the bath house) and found another one (a late strip building that partially overlay the new well-built north-south wall). It is clear that these must all be pretty late in date- probably later 4th century or even early 5th century AD, as they lie so high in the stratigraphy. There is also amazing variation in the construction techniques used in these buildings. One of the strip buildings we excavated in previous years had internal/external facing stones and was probably stone built. But the others were all various form of wooden structures with stone footings. These may either have acted as post-pads or supported beams. It is not clear whether this is a chronological issue.

Finally, it is worth saying something about the finds. We’ve continued to find massive quantities of later Roman pottery , although the increasing presence of terra sigillata is a good indication that we are hitting earlier layers. There is also massive amounts of animal bone- mostly cattle, but with pigs, chickens and sheep/goats present as well. Small finds are plentiful – increasing numbers of well preserved brooches and mounts, some with good quality enamel decoration. Inevitably, there are many, many pins- some copper alloy, but also fine examples of jet and worked bone ones. However, because the site is so well drained we have no waterlogged deposits, so we have virtually no surviving organic material such as wood or leather.
Finally, of course, the highlight in terms of finds is the silver ring with the carnelian intaglio, which bears an early Christian symbol from Trench 1. This is one of the earliest Christian objects from Britain- the other being a very similar ring from York. It is intriguing that the earliest evidence for the Church is from the north of England and from clearly military contexts!


As usual there are lots of people to thank- Matt Claydon and Jamie Armstrong, our trench supervisors, Becca, Natalie, Tricia, Beverley, Janet and Tudor, our assistant supervisors. Peter Carne from Archaeological Services Durham University, David Mason from Durham County Council, Chris and Chris, the visitor assistants, as well as, of course, all our excavators, including groups from Durham University, Texas Tech, the Archaeological and Architectural Society of Durham and Northumberland folk,  Vinovia and Fulbright summer school crew, a small group from University of Highlands and Island, and many many others. We’ll all be back on site next year for our FINAL year at Binchester…


Thursday, 24 July 2014

Binchester 2014: Day Thirty-Four

Nearly at the end of the season- but still a busy day. First of all , a visit by Iain Ferris, who excavated the commander's house and bath-house in the 1980s/90s. Lots of useful feedback and discussion- always useful to have him come and visit. We then spent much of the morning with a press call related to our press release earlier this week. I spent a lot of time gurning to camera and perfecting my catwalk poses.

Nonetheless, the work still continues and amid the planning and drawing new discoveries are being made. Most of the interesting developments today were in Trench 1. Here, we've been looking at the northern gable end of the narrow barrack block, where it meets the gully. It has been becoming increasingly clear that the very northern end of this building was extended by a couple of feet at some point. By dismantling the latest gulley which seemed to incorporate the gable wall, it is now clear that there was an earlier gully that we rebuilt when the building was extended northwards.

Elsewhere, yet more post-holes and post-pads continue to appear. We have also found traces of a nice metalled floor surface that seems to extend across nearly the entire width of the building. Nicest find to day was a splendid stone lamp found by Tracey. This has gone back to the labs to be emptied because it appears to have some original contents within it.

Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Binchester 2014: Day Thirty-Three


Warm day- main focus of activity was our annual visit by our good friend Adam Stanford from Aerial-Cam, who provides our wonderful vertical and aerial shots. This year, he delivered the usual cracking range of shots and also carried out some serious photographic recording on the bath-house. All very pleasing and we'll share the results when we have them.

In the meantime, the images today are from our volunteer Tony Metcalfe (thanks Tony!!)



Tuesday, 22 July 2014

Binchester 2014: Day Thirty-Two

A hectic day as our press release went out. We were greeted at 8.30 when we arrived on site by local radio waiting to interview us - and had lots of visits over the day. The combination of a big article in a national newspaper and good weather meant that there were plenty of visitors coming round the site all day.

No major progress to report- we are very much winding down now and focusing on recording and drawing as much of the site as possible, so that we have no backlog. The barrack in Trench 1 is looking very forlorn now so much of the wall has been removed, but the officer's block at the north end still looks rather splendid.

Today's photograph is of our important early Christian ring and was taken by Jeff Veitch our Departmental photographer.

Monday, 21 July 2014

Binchester 2014: Days Twenty-Nine- Thirty-One


Sorry we’re running slightly late with our blog- hectic day or two, but as we move into our last week on site, I’ll try and catch up with myself.

Friday was a busy day with lots of visitors, including from our advisory group. They helped us interpret the remains we have on site, think about how to move the project on, and, with only one season remaining, ponder the future for Binchester.

Taking them around Trench 1 really brought home to me how much we’ve pushed out understanding of the barrack building forward this year. Whilst Trench 2 may have better preservation, the sequence of structures in Trench 1 offers us far more complex and intriguing facing. Our sequence of large drains are still most likely to be stable drains, although it is apparent that some seem to drain through the external wall, others do not. Most importantly, over the last couple of days we’ve really started to identify a whole series of stone lined post holes within the main barrack structure. These still need fuller excavation and planning, but they make best sense as a series of internal divisions and walls within the earlier structure. It is not clear whether some of them mark the internal dividing line between the stables and the rooms in our early phase barrack, or whether the later eastern wall had this function. It is clear that the build of this latter wall really varied in constructional technique along its length- in one place, it is possible that there was simply a rough trench possible supporting timber uprights or acting as a crude beam slot supporting a wooden wall. It appears, once again, the phasing is even more complicated that initially thought, and that the simple two-phase story of “wide barrack” followed by “narrow barrack” will not suffice.

In Trench 2 , there is lots of planning, but there have been two major developments, one inside the bath-house and one outside. The internal development has been the completion of excavating the eastern arm of the annexe to the corridor. Surprisingly, the removal of the final section of fill has revealed an exceptionally well preserved small plunge bath, with its internal lining of opus signinum remaining more or less intact. There is also some really interesting evidence for the plumbing- including a drain in the base which seems to line up with some of the culverts we’ve picked out in the nearby floor, as well as some gaps within the wall, which may well have originally contained lead piping or some other mechanism for the chanelling the water into this wonderful little feature. Outside the building, Morris has finished excavation of the pit up against the boundary wall. This has revealed around eight courses of stonework as well as foundation stones. The base of the wall is only 20cm higher than the floor of the bath-house. This has some quite profound implications for the rest of the site. I’d always assumed our bath structure survived so well because it was partially terraced into the hillside. It is now becoming clear that the walls were originally standing and that the surrounding street surface and associated yards must have risen five or six foot over time to embed the building in stratigraphy.  This is both exciting and challenging. How do we deal with this depth of archaeology with only one season left!


Various nice finds have popped up over the last couple of days – including some splendid painted plaster found by Michael who is excavating part of the new room to the east of the corridor, where there is also excellent preservation of in situ painted wall plaster, although there is still much to be exposed. My favourite find though is part of a haunting ceramic face from a late Roman head pot.