Thursday, 21 May 2015

Exciting new dating evidence from Binchester

Today we got the results from a series of samples submitted to SUERC for C14 dating. These have provided us with some exciting new information and provided some food for thought.
Before I talk a little about the results, it is perhaps worth exploring why we decided to get some radiocarbon dates. Traditionally, Roman archaeological sites are dated using a combination of ceramic chronologies and numismatics. Combined, these can indeed provide relatively tight dating for most periods of Roman occupation in Britain. However, one of the key features about Binchester is that there is clear potential for sub-/post-Roman occupation. Activity from the 5th century is extremely difficult to date- coins are absent after the early 5th century, and whilst in some parts of the country the use of ceramics does continue to a greater or lesser extent into the 400s, there is very little evidence for significant use of pottery in the North beyond the end of Roman control and there is certainly no clearly defined chronology for it. There is also a general decrease in the quantity of other dateable material culture (personal objects; tools etc) compared with the say the 3rd or 4th centuries AD. As a consequence, unlike Roman period archaeology, early post-Roman layers are very hard to recognise on the basis of artefactual data. To make matters even more complicated in many cases, these early post-Roman layers incorporate lots of earlier, Roman material within them. In practice, this means that they often contain plenty of Roman objects, but no post-Roman objects. Not surprisingly, this means that identifying these post-Roman layers can be tricky in the extreme. One could liken it to trying to look at a lighted match held up in front of the sun – the faint traces of the flame from the former to all intents and purposes masked by the sheer power of the sunlight.

This is why we have chosen to carry out a selective programme of C14 dating on features that had the potential to begin or at least continue into the 5th century. In Trench 1, we took samples from the large waterhole (aka Hilly’s Pit) and from a stone lined pit / working hollow within the barrack block. I won’t give all the dates right now- but the waterhole produced two second /third century AD dates- we’ve already had a similar date from the same feature along with a slightly later date belonging to the 4th century.  At this stage, it looks like this was a long-lived feature (given its size, this is not surprising). It probably originated in the 2nd or 3rd century AD but carried on being used into the 4th century AD. Combined with the artefactual evidence this is useful, as not only does it help refine the dating for the waterhole itself, but also to the nearby barrack. This is because the earliest phase of the stone- built barrack was partly cut by later phases of the waterhole. A better sense of the chronology of the waterhole will give us a clearer sense of when this first phase ended and the building contracted in size.

The dates from the stone-lined feature within the barrack are very exciting. There are both of mid/late 5th-6th century AD date. These are clearly and unequivocally of post-Roman date. We need to go back and look at some of the associated sequences. I do remember though that seemingly associated with this feature was a ridge of crude cobbled pavement running across the interior of the building from a wall in the north gable end. If these features are all contemporary it suggests that this northern part of the barrack at least was still standing. One job for us now is to go back and look at the associated artefactual assemblage from the pit fill. Is there anything that might be post-Roman or is it all residual? I do remember that amongst this material was a fragment of sawn antler tine. Antler working was also a feature of the ultimate/sub  Roman layers identified during the excavations within the praetorium, although our C14 dates are noticeably later than these features. They could plausibly even be contemporary with the early Anglo-Saxon burials that formed the last phase of early activity in the praetorium complex.  A compelling question for us now, is whether any of the animal bone dumps and spreads that lapped up around the edge of the barrack block is of the same date. Certainly, superficially, the bone-rich fill of the pit looks very similar. If the other bone is of a similarly late date, then we have a major assemblage of early medieval cattle bone with a huge research potential.
In Trench 2 our samples were all drawn from the massive dump deposits that filled in the interior of the bath-house. Here our major question is whether all this material was thrown into the building over a very short period or whether it was the result of a protracted period of dumping (over years? decades?).  The dates we have back so far are all 3rd-4th century AD – this is not unexpected, but perhaps a little earlier than I was expecting. We know that amongst the ceramic assemblage from these dump layers are fragments of the distinctive Crambeck Parchment Ware (CPW). This is a very late Roman pottery type, seemingly only produced from the AD370s. One job we need to do is to go back and look at the ceramic s assemblage and work out whether the CPW is found in all the layers, including those which provided dating samples. There is still clearly more work to be done to understand this sequence and unpick the slight disparity between the C14 dates and the ceramic dates.

These are just my first thoughts about the new dates- we will try and do some more analysis in the coming weeks, and we hope to try and Bayesian modelling of the dates to refine our understanding of this new data. I’ll share our thoughts on this on the blog as usual.

Thursday, 14 May 2015

Looking forward to Season Seven...

It is just over two weeks until we start on our seventh, and final, season of excavation at Roman Binchester. We'll be working, Monday to Friday, from June 1st until July 17th. The excavation team will include Durham University students, members of the local community and many others. Among our priorities will improving our understanding of the bath-house, as well as tying up the loose ends in the barracks trench. Every year though we have new discoveries and surprises, so its impossible to predict what the big story will be. Keep track of the proejct on our blog or by following us on twitter  @RomanBinchester

Daily blog updates begin June 1st.

Tuesday, 17 February 2015

Binchester - Digging for Britain

Welcome to anyone who has found their way to our blog after seeing the site on Digging for Britain. As you will have seen from the television, we had a spectacular year at Binchester and have uncovered fantastic remains from the Roman fort and civilian settlement.

As with many large-scale research excavations we are not in the field over the winter. However, we are already making plans for our final season's work at the site this summer. We'll be back out on site at the beginning of June, when we'll be updating our blog everyday, and continuing our first baby steps with video diaries.

Wednesday, 17 December 2014

Happy Christmas from Binchester

Happy Christmas from all of us at the Binchester project. We have had a fantastic year in 2014. In the field our highlights have included revealing more of the incredibly well-preserved Roman bath-house and its associated remains. We now have on of the best surviving Roman buildings from the Northern frontier. We also had wonderful finds, including an extremely exciting early Christian ring, which is  rare example of evidence of early Christianity from Northern England. Plans are well underway for our final season of excavation in the summer of 2015.
I'd also like to extend a special thanks to all those who signed our petition earlier this year to help secure the future of the site. We were overwhelmed with the support we received from across the world. Your enthusiasm did the job, and the site was sold to the Auckland Castle Trust. This will help ensure the site has a long-term future, and we look forward to working with the Trust on their future plans for Vinovia.


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…