Wednesday 15 June 2011

BIN11: Day Eight

A slightly abbreviated overview of site today as I spent most of the morning at the top end of Weardale (of which more below) and most of the afternoon trying to get my car nailed back together again, so I wasn't on site much. In brief, however, Trench 1 saw more work on the new walls between the two buildings, more work on the big pit and the identification of yet more stone-lined working hollows. In Trench 2, the large pits in the eastern building saw more work (we're still going down) and the final definition of some stretches of wall.

The main aim of my trip to the top end of Weardale (Westgate to be precise) was to visit another excavation. Archaeological Services Durham University is working with the North Pennines AONB on a community archaeology project (Altogether Archaeology)on the 13th century castle that stood at the 'west gate' the Bishop of Durham's great deer park of Stanhope, and acted as the headquarters for the Bishop's extensive estate in upper Weardale. This work has revealed some substantial traces of the original building including thick walls, splayed windows, and most impressively, part of a spiral staircase (see picture below).

Heading up Weardale is also a useful reminder of the importance of the location of Binchester. We tend to focus on its position on a key north-south route, linking York with the Wall and Stanegate. However, it is also situated to control lateral movement along the dale, which opens out from being a relatively narrow valley close to Binchester. Although seemingly bleak and under-populated, Weardale and Teesdale have long been home to an important lead mining industry. This was almost certainly active in the Roman period - the remote Roman fort of Whitley Castle, near Alston was probably built to control the lead mines. It is also likely that, as in the medieval period, the moors were also used for grazing cattle, possibly using a system of transhumance. As such, the Dales, which lead right into the heart of the Pennine uplands would have acted as important coridors allowing access to the moorlands. Excavations by colleagues at Newcastle university at Bollihope Common , which lies on a tributary of the Wear, has produced evidence for Iron Age and Roman period native settlement. It is also salutory to remember that the upper dales could also have been a landscape of leisure. In the same way that the medieval Bishops of Durham had a hunting park in the area, we know that Roman army officers were also hunting in the area a thousand years earlier. Two Roman altars dedicated to Silvanus, a god often associated with hunting, have been found in Weardale , both indicating they were related to hunting trips from the fort at Lanchester.

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