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…
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.
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!!)
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.
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
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
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.
the barrack block, between 15 and 20 post holes have been discovered. The holes
are rock lined and some have produced impressive finds, such as Alex's bone
ring. The holes, all of which are within the larger barrack block structure,
may be contemporary to the earlier phase of this structure. They are indicative
of a timber structure within the stone walls of the barrack block.
us continued to work in the area where Gaby and Tony had found a large carved
drain. Taking away a level of reddish soil, we were able to follow the paving
of flat stone to the course of the exterior wall. It appears as though this
flat stone paving continues on the other side of the wall. As more of the stone
was revealed, the structure of a drain became more clear. This flat paving
stone drain runs just underneath the carved stone drain. The angle and level of
the flat stone, quite severe, may be related to the slumping of the wall which
it probably passes under. Approximately 10 more inches of the carved drain are
visible with the work completed this afternoon. It is difficult to say whether
the drain is at the same level as the floor surface in this section.
Boyd writes from Trench 2:
Vicus today, Morris continued to remove the stones from the pit adjacent to the
fine Roman wall recently revealed. The wall now has 7 courses with no bottom in
bath house, Large Room #1 continues to have all of its walls planned and drawn.
Along the edge of the trench on the outside of Large Room #1, the adjacent room
has revealed a large stone lintel with the curving plaster structure seen on
its adjacent walls. In the corridor outside Large Room #1, the floor has
been completely cleaned and a small section of the flooring has been removed to
investigate what, if anything, might be beneath it.
section of the trench that was recently opened, the boundaries of an additional
large room (Large Room #2) have been defined with most of the room remaining
outside the existing trench. In the alcove adjacent to Large Room #2, three
large stone lintels were found indicating a possible entrance level to the
in the bath house, two stunning examples of painted plaster were discovered;
one immediately on the other side of the alcove and one on the floor of the
recently re-cleaned corridor. The surface of one shows three distinct colors
(yellow, green and red); the other find has what may be an example of detailed
Another warm day on site- with lots of visitors coming through.
In Trench 1, the focus has been on unpicking the surfaces within the barrack block. These large drain slots are very odd, quite heterogenous in shape/size and many much larger than typical horse pee slots. The central wall is also still very curious- dug trench, crude rubble dumps in the trench, topped with clay, cobbles dumped on the clay and then the wall constructed. It would be interesting to see if any post-holes come up in the base of the original trench. Overall the confused patterns are made even more puzzling by the increasing evidence for more subsidence on the eastern side of the building too. The surface within the later building although broadly consistent, comprising metalled gravel floors, also contain what seem to be multiple stone lined post-holes (in no discernible pattern) as well as possible random post-pads.
In Trench 2, the rectangular building that overlaps the boundary wall was photographed today, and we are back in it picking away at its surfaces. Morris's big pit was also photographed. I'm starting to worry about the implications of the fact that this wall is at least five courses deep with no signs of a foundation. Does this mean the entire area between the wall and the bath-house is as deep. Is the entire area as deeply preserved as the bath-house. Will we have 2m high free standing walls? Beggars belief !!
In the bath-house main room, the elevation drawing has begun. Although around it excavation continued; both within the room to the north, and in the corridor, where we have started cleaning up the floor again. The annex north of the corridor has given us one answer, the feature I discussed yesterday is a blocked window- with intact upper lintel! We are now at the stage where we can look to dismantling the internal drystone wall and start taking out the final layers of deposit in the southern corridor area.
Earlier this season I reported on the discovery of a silver ring set with an intaglio. At the time I confess I didn’t look closely at the image carved on the stone itself. However, thanks to Ian Marshman and Martin Henig, it is now clear that the symbol shown is of some significance.
The intaglio shows two fish hanging from an anchor. This has clear Christian connotations. It is found widely elsewhere in the Roman Empire, but this is only the second example from Britain; the other example coming from the colonia at York.
The form of the ring and the shape of the stone seem to indicate a 3rd century date for this object. This is a surprisingly early date for a Christian object in Britain, as it predates the accession of Constantine in York in AD306. It was under him that Christianity finally became a licit religion. Evidence for Roman Christianity is rare in Northern England, and evidence for pre-Constaninian Christianity is even rarer. This is a rather splendid find!
Lots going on today- in the barrack we've been expanding the excavation of the possible drainage slots in the eastern half of the building. Some of these are getting rather big and look far more substantial than slots of horse pee. In the trench we extended eastwards to catch the fort wall we have been quarrying downwards and have revealed a nice rough boulder foundation, but haven't bottomed it because we can't safely go any deeper. Within the barrack rooms, the metalled floor surfaces continued to perplex with their inconsistency. The large pit abutting the south wall of the northern block just gets bigger and bigger. Is it real or a result of slumping/subsidence- the jury is currently out.
In Trench 2, the interior of the main room was fully cleaned up for photographs. It looks splendid! In the annex to the corridor, Evan and Brandon have continued to clear out the interior. They have confirmed that the main wall of the bath-house continues and that the apparent end of the wall was, as we suspected, a window splay. There also continues to be much debate as to whether the feature in the south wall of the annex is a window or a niche of some kind. There is a clear gap between the end of the annex wall where it meets the main building wall- clearly not bonded on- but the gap is so big it looks deliberate! Finally, in this intriguing area, there is now clearly a dry-stone wall shutting up the eastern annex- why?
For more on an interesting find from earlier this season, check out the next blog post
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, Vinovia.org, Texas Tech 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