Apologies for the lack of an entry for yesterday- I was away from site all day discussing things medieval with English Heritage. Thankfully nothing wildly exciting occurred in my absence. Today, there has been a lot of plannning and levelling going on. We need to catch up with a lot of these jobs as the Stanford team finish tomorrow. Meanwhile, we've begun working on Steer's 1936 slot through the corner tower again, and continued cleaning up the south end of the barrack. The mysterious pit in the north-east corner continues to be confusing, we are now taking out the baulk to try and find out the extent of the clay-lining of the smaller recut of the larger pit. More recording and planning in Trench 2, with excavation continuing on the post-Roman linear feature. I've not mentioned one of the more interesting features of the eastern stone building in this trench. We have identified the base of at least three openings within the wall. These are unlikely to be doors; we know from elsewhere that they are not at ground level, and they are also splayed. One is also too narrow to be a convincing entrance feature. We are presuming that these are windows. In my limited spare time I've not had much luck in identifying other examples of surviving Romano-British windows in the published literature. Presumably because its relatively rare to get Roman walls surviving much above foundation level. I'd imagine there must be some from the Wall forts, I've just not had much of chance to work my way through all the site reports. Any observations or parallels appreciated. I've posted an image of one of these splayed windows above so you can see what I mean. The outside of the building is to the right, with windows splayed towards the interior on the left. There is another 'window' almost immediately adjacent (another reason why they are unlikely to be entrances). It looks like it was subsequently blocked.
Lots going on today. In Trench One we've begun to pick off some of rubble within the smaller rectangular structure. Hopefully this will enable us to work out its precise relationship with the surrounding cobbled features (and maybe even get some kind of date for it). The big pit in the north-east gets ever more confusing; more cattle bones and now its clear that it had a recut which was clay-lined. Purpose? No idea at this stage... We are also starting to explore one of the probable ovens built int the eastern rampart. In Trench Two the main focus of work is on the linear feature that cuts across the site. Although we've broadly defined it, we're trying to clarify its precise limits. Obviously this is easy where its cut straight through stone walls, but less clear elsewhere. In the small structure to the south-east of the second strip building (with some surviving wall plaster) we are starting to get to grips with what looked like a stone lining. It is now clear that there were at least two 'layers' of the pitched stone- so currently looking more like rubble collapse than a proper stone-lined feature.
Not much to report on site today, so a brief consideration of the weekends field trip. We headed up to Segedunum at Wallsend then up to Corbridge (another Dere Street site) and then along to Vindolanda finishing up with Milecastle 42. Some rather random observations...
Going up the viewing tower at Wallsend it was clear how much bigger Binchester is compared to Segedunum. Even though they are both cavalry forts Binchester is noticeably larger and more elaborate. For example, the praetoria at Segedunum lacks the elaborate bath-house found associated with the Commander's House at Binchester. The barracks are also aligned in a different direction. However, it was noticeable how much larger the barracks at Segedunum were. Our 'barrack' in Trench 1 at Binchester is appreciably shorter and narrower. Its important to remember though that we are looking at what is presumably the latest iteration of a sequence of barrack constructional phases, and the earlier versions may well have been much larger. Our Binchester barrack also lacks the traditional arrangement of cavalry barracks with the stables placed next to the soldier's quarters (with the stables all having drains). Again, the late date of what we can currently see at Binchester probably expains this.
It was great to visit Vindolanda; another major dig. A very different kind of site though, with multiple forts. At Binchester we just have the two forts, the earlier one visible on the geophysics and the main fort we are currently working on. COnsequently the area of the vicus they are exploring at the moment starts relatively late and finished relatively early (probably late 3rd century AD). At Binchester the vicus continues in use until at least the late 4th century and possible later.
Quiet day today- everything humming along nicely. Quite a lot of planning going on at the moment; although work on the big pit in the north-east corner of Trench 1 continues apace as it gets bigger and more confusing. Photos have been taken of the stone lined area in the main building and the cow skull has been removed. We hope to start excavating the other half of the feature early next week once recording has been completed. We're also increasing the level of work in the eastern area of the trench which has seen little action so far this season. Members of the Arch and Arch are working to define the stone banks and related features and clarify the sequences here. In Trench 2 lots more work on the large ditch that seems to cut through all the strip buildings to the north of Dere Street. Clearly later than Roman activity, but otherwise lacking a date; my hunch is that its related to the medieval or post-medieval use of Dere Street. Elsewhere, we've begun investigating the area of stone slabs within the little extension to the building at the eastern end of the trench. Current interpretations include stone cist, slab-lined working area and building collapse!
A busy day on site as the Stanford Continuing Education students return for their second day with us. We are really making great progress at the moment. A series of features, probably shallow stone-lined scoops or working hollows are becoming increasingly clear along the western side of the barrack block; they contain substantial quantities of cattle bone, particularly skull and foot bones. More generally in Trench 1, work continues in the large pit in the north-east corner; this is almost certainly not later medieval in date, and is probably late Roman or early medieval. Its function is unclear, possibly a water hole or even top of a well? Elsewhere, we are really untangling the features in the southern end of the building, including getting to grips with the recently uncovered southern gable wall. Work in this area has uncovered a small hoard of mid-4th century coins, which is pleasing.
Meanwhile in Trench 2, all the buildings are looking really nice. The work around the end of the larger strip building where there appears to be a midden dump has uncovered a large fragment of a rather nice dressed millstone, seemingly made of Rhineland lava. We have also confirmed that a possible linear feature that ran parallel to the road and seemed to cut through some of the stone buildings really is a significant feature. It clearly cuts straight through the stone walls of some of the structures: its date, however, is entirely uncertain. Finally, in this area, during work on some of the structures at the eastern end of the trench, we've uncovered a rather nice fragment of worked architectural stone (see picture above).
I was unable to get to site today, as I was visiting another excavation. Melissa Chatfield from Stanford and myself were in York visiting the site of the University of York's excavations at Heslington. Their dig is on the site of an area of Iron Age and Roman activity on top of the glacial morrain to the south of the city. It's an area I know well having done a little community archaeology in the village about five years ago. In recent year, due to the expansion of the University campus, there has been extensive development in the area revealing a wide range of archaeology, including a small Roman villa and the recovery of an Iron Age skull still containing a brain! We visited the site as the York project excavated a small Roman pottery kiln this year, and worked with Graham Taylor of Potted History and a local school to reconstruct it. Next year at Binchester we are hoping to do reconstruct something similar. This is of particular interest to Melissa who is a specialist in prehistoric pottery technology and is hoping to find out more about the relationship between Iron Age and Roman pottery techniques. We were shown round the site by Cath Neal, the director of the project, who gave us a real sense of the range of features found this year. This is clearly an important site, particularly as it lies in the immediate hinterland of the major Roman city and legionary fort in York. Many thanks to Cath for giving us a chance to visit.
We welcome 28 students from the Stanford Continuing Education programme onto site today. Following a site tour, they've been set to work in Trench 1 to define the intravallum road and some of the related rubble dumps close to the rampart. The weather deteriorated distinctly in the afternoon, although we were able to work most of the day. The most interesting feature being worked on today is the building at the eastern end of Trench 2 in the vicus. We have evidence for a stone strip building with a possible extension to the south, potentially overlying part of the road. One of the interior walls of the extension still retains some of its original wall plaster (undecorated as far as we can see). Within this structure area a series of pitched stones; these may either be an intentionally lined stone 'cist' quite similar to the features within the barrack block in Trench 1, or they may simply be traces of collapse within the building. More generally the interior and walls of the this building are becoming better defined, includng a number of possible entrances, at least one which has been subsequently blocked.
After the excitement of the weekend its back to the grindstone on site today. Things are moving really well at the moment, with plenty of features appearing across the site. One of the most interesting areas today is the large feature in the north-east corner of Trench 1 which has been producing some medieval pottery. Initially it appeared to be simply essentially a thin layer of material overlying earlier features. However, it is increasingly clear that it is actually a substantial pit. It appears to be stone lined. Its fill is mixed and contains a number of pitched stones which seem to be suggesting tip-lines. In the south-east quadrant we've uncovered a cow skull covered by a large stone, we may also have at least one more skull in the pit. In the north-east quadrant we have a big piece of shaped stone that may be part of a window - we'll know more once its been removed. It is not entirely clear whether the pit itself is medieval date; it has proved difficult to define its edges in places, and it is possible that the medieval material comes from a layer overlying the pit itself. It could conceivably be as early as late-/sub-Roman.
On Saturday we went on a fieldtrip to Bamburgh Castle and Holy Island. This gave the students to get a better understanding of Northumbria in the early medieval period. The castle at Bamburgh is very impressive despite extensive 18th and 19th century remodelling. However, the most exciting thing is the on-going archaeological excavation. Following on from earlier work by Brian Hope-Taylor in the 1960s, recent investigations by the Bamburgh Research Project have been uncovering traces of Anglo-Saxon activity on the site (with more stratigraphy still to get through). Graeme Young, the project director,kindly gave us a site tour. It was a salutory reminder of how different in character the more ephemeral archaeology of the early medieval period can be when compared with the Roman period. We then headed out to Holy Island to visit the site of the monastery founded on the island by Aidan and King Oswald in the 7th century. No standing traces of this foundation now survive, although the ruins of the 12th century priory refounded on the site still stand. Some of us made it as far as Lindisfarne Castle; again, the current remains are relatively late (16th century). However, the site is precisely the kind of topographical location used for secular power centres in early medieval period (such as Dumbarton and Dunadd); a little archaeological investigation of this site would certainly pay dividends.
Another busy day on site- largely avoiding the rain that menaced for most of the day. Rather low on numbers for various reasons, but we still got plenty of work done. Lots of planning in Trench B- nearly have all the road planned now. Also the buildings and the areas between them becoming better defined; there clearly appear to be substantial areas of rubbish dumping, including lots of bone and pottery. In Trench A, work finding the edges of the new large medieval feature continues apace. Alongside the barrack it appears that there may also be some possible pits- date unknown. Taking the students from Stanford up to Bamburgh and Lindisfarne tomorrow for a little early medieval archaeology as an antidote to all the Roman sites they’ve seen so far!
Finally, I’ve found a moment to update the blog. Apologies for the delay in catching up with this- I’ve been away on paternity leave and only just got back. Pleasingly a lot has been going on in my absence. The arrival of the teams from Stanford and Texas, as well as the presence of around 20 members of the local community means that we’ve been able to really keep up the progress we were making earlier in the season with the Durham students.
In Trench 1, we have extended the trench to the south to allow us to locate the southern end of the barrack block. In turned out that this gable end to the structure was literally just sitting in the edge of the baulk. By making the trench a little larger we’ve been able to ascertain that like the northern end wall it is of relatively light build – very different to the more substantial side walls. We’ve also got what looks like a doorway. Like the northern entrance this is not situated in the centre of the end wall, but is offset to one side. Cleaning of this area has shown that we’ve got a probable small porch structure associated with the entrance and, rather pleasingly, a stone with a probable socket hole for the door. We’ve also got a nice fragment of painted Crambeck ware from this area (see picture below- thanks to Chris Breedon for the image).
Elsewhere in the building we’ve continued to be defining and excavating the two cut features; these are increasingly complex- we have been making sure we’ve been taking plenty of soil samples. This will hopefully allow us to identify any potential plant macrofossils and industrial residues, which may help us clarify the purpose of these features. The northern feature in particular appears to have been a substantial stone lined scoop or hollow, with the stone lining contiguous with the flagstone floor of the central compartment. To the north of this feature there appears to be an area of wear on the barrack floor leading to the door in the northern gable wall. The real challenge with this entire sequence is trying to date it- it all seems post-Roman, and at least some of the features parallel the sub-Roman activity from the commander’s house; however, much of the other activity is still lacking any absolute dating. We’ll really need to ensure we develop a good programme of scientific dating to make up for the lack of diagnostic material culture, potentially including C14, archaeomagnetic and thermo-luminescence dating.
Elsewhere in this trench, the main development has been the identification of large pit or dump of medieval material in the north-east corner of the trench, just to the south of the corner tower. This amorphous feature is well-defined in some places, but we’ve yet to identify with certainty all the edges. It includes certain medieval pottery, but we also retrieved a very nice decorated jet ring and a blue glass bead of probable Roman date from it.
In Trench 2 we’ve also extended the trench slightly to better understand the northern end of the stone strip-building. This has revealed a probable midden area abutting the structure; it seems to contain substantial quantities of cattle bones, mainly jaws and other skull fragments; seemingly indicative of butchery here. Further east, the new workforce has cleaned and clarified the structural remains, including evidence for a number of other stone buildings (again seemingly associated with animal remains including jaw bones and antler fragments. One of these structures also appears to still retain wall plaster, although it is not clear whether this was on an interior or exterior face. Perhaps the biggest development in the trench, however, has been a much better understanding of the road. The roadside gully that I’d previously mentioned now appears to have a metalled base. It is not clear whether this metalling is limited to this exposed area or whether it runs under the main ‘road’. It is possible that this gully is a narrow road or path in its own right with the main rubble ‘road’ actually being a dump of stone to form a work or activity surface. Personally I think we will find that the metalling in the gully runs under the main rubble area and its part of an earlier, larger, road surface. Intriguingly, the gully also makes a distinctive curve to the south as it runs westwards across the site.
In addition to the excavation we’ve had plenty of other activity on site. We’ve had a visit from our academic advisory group who seemed excited about progress, particularly emphasising the importance of the post-Roman activity within the fort. They were more sanguine about the 4th century date of the activity in the vicus, pointing out that Binchester could probably better be grouped with the forts and towns of Yorkshire where this might be expected, rather than being placed alongside the Wall forts, where vicus activity does decline earlier. We’ve also had plenty of other visitors, including school groups. We were particularly pleased to welcome a group from Tudhoe Grange School. I’d been into visit them previously to help them learn about archaeology and the Romans in County Durham. When they came out I gave them a tour of the fort and our excavation, and they helped us with the pot washing. Finally, yesterday, we were visited by Radio 3, with the popular history broadcaster, Bettany Hughes, who came along to find out about Binchester in the Roman period and the transition to the early medieval period in northern England for a forthcoming series.
The metalled gully; note the distinct bend!
Fragment of painted Crambeck ware (4th century AD) (Photo by Chris Breedon)
After a fallow week, during which site was quiet (apart from a passing visit by Mick Aston) activity recommenced with a vengeance today. We had a large number of people out today - 45 from the Dept. of Classics at Stanford, around 20 from Texas Tech and 20 members of the local community. This number of people can be a blessing, allowing us to crack on with a number of tasks. These include expanding both trenches. As noted earlier, Trench A is being expanded slightly to the south to allow us to include the southern end of the barrack building, whilst in Trench B we are expanding the trench slightly to the north to allow us a better understanding of the northern end of the strip building. The large workforce has also allowed us to make a real start on some of the basic post-excavation work, including the all important finds washing and processing. More to report soon
This blog will share information about the major new field project at the Roman fort of Binchester (Co. Durham), run jointly by Durham County Council, the Dept. of Archaeology, Durham University and Dept. of Classics, Stanford University and the Architectural and Archaeological Society of Durham and Northumberland. It will communicate news, events, and once the field season starts a daily update of the discoveries on site. To find out more visit our website