Friday, November 11, 2011

What lies beneath centuries of mud? , Wear Valley Mercury

What lies beneath centuries of mud? , Wear Valley Mercury,1910.html

Friday, November 11, 2011

What lies beneath centuries of mud?

­MY impression of archaeology has always been fuelled by my childhood obsession with Indiana Jones so I was a bit disappointed to find Dr David Mason looking quite regular, no hat, no whip and no irritating sidekick or ditzy blonde squawking his name at the smallest sign of trouble by Duncan Leatherdale.

Dr Mason is an archaeologist for Durham County Council and this summer will oversee a new excavation at Binchester Roman Fort which is buried beneath a field atop a peninsular overlooking Bishop Auckland.
There would have been a time when Binchester was a hive of activity, home to a garrison and a bustling market town frequented by Romans, native Britons and travellers along Dere Street, the main road linking York to Scotland.

In the past few weeks, there has once again been activity on Durham County Council owned site including a travelling theatre group, Theatre Set-up who performed Shakespeare's Cymbeline among the unearthed ruins. While we're talking about it, the play was superb, my enjoyment of it not at all diminished by the sunburn I got in the first half and the soaking I got in the second.

The joys of outside performances in England, one minute you can be squinting against blinding sun, the next cowering under an inadequate rain jacket from a torrential downpour.
However, the main activity on site is the excavation which is believed to be in an area which housed the army's barracks.

Dr Mason, a specialist in Roman military history, said: "You can see why his was such a good point to build a fort. It is on a peninsular of land which offers views all the way around. On the south and west side the River Wear is a natural barrier as is the very steep climb to where the fort is. On the north  and north east side the ground is marshy which would slow down any approaching armies making them easy targets for the fort's defenders.

"The first fort was built about 75AD and, at nearly 18 acres, was the largest in northern Britain. It would have been able to house between 1,500 and 2,000 soldiers. About 75 years later it was re-built at around 11 acres but continued to be a fort until Britain left the Roman Empire in 410AD.

"We can tell from surveys and excavations where the fort was and where a town would have grown outside the main walls. It was common that where soldiers were a community would spring up with people basically wanting to get their money.

"You'd have all sorts of merchants and traders competing for the soldier's wages.
"The fort was the used by the Anglo-Saxons and we have found burials spanning from the 6th Century to the 11th. By the late middle ages there was a small village and manor house here which eventually fell into the hands of the Wren family, a member of which was Christopher Wren the architect of St Paul's Cathedral."

The fort named Vinovia by the Romans has long been known to have been a Roman settlement but it was only in 1815, when an unfortunate horse and cart fell into a hole, that people started showing an interest in it.
The hole turned out to be the remains of an under-floor heating system used in the baths belonging to the commander of the garrison. Dr Mason said the hypocaust bath discovered by the equine's fall is one of the finest and best preserved in the country.

He said: "It's a remarkable find and the landowner built a trapdoor so he could show it to his friends. Even as late as the 1960s the only way people could access the remains was to go through the trapdoor, down some steps into the vault he had made for his friends. The bath is incredible and was a big part of Roman life. To have such a well reserved example is fantastic.

"Despite its large size, it would only have been used by the commander, his family and invited guests. There would have been another bathing hall for the soldiers who would go there to unwind, clean and meet friends."

The first proper excavations were between 1878 and 1880 by a local reverend who described it as a buried Roman city.
Since then, the site has been sporadically excavated but Dr Mason says what is on display is less than a fifth of the entire site, the rest of which is hidden beneath fields and the neighbouring Binchester Hall and farm.

Dr Mason said: "We had Time Team come here in 2007 and their survey revealed this complex map of how the town looked and changed during its time. There is so much underneath our feet but it's just getting the money to find it all that's the problem. This new excavation will be a long term project and it's good to have so many partners working with us."

Dr David Petts is a lecturer at Durham University who are helping with the excavation. Also on site hauling barrows of soil beneath the sweltering sun are students from Stanford University in America who will spend some of their summer investigating the remains of the Roman town.

Dr Petts said: "It's not often you get to dig on a site like this and we know there will be some exciting finds. It can be very painstaking but when you find something it is very exciting. So far we have uncovered what we believe to be the outline of some walls and also lots of medieval pottery.

"I'm a medieval specialist so that's quite exciting for me but I think everyone else is a bit disappointed with it because they are hoping for Roman finds. The area we're looking at we believe used to be a barracks so hopefully there should be some finds here.
"Of course over the years there will have been so much dropped here that you never quite know what will be discovered."

The excavation will go on for five weeks and is open to the public 11am to 4pm on weekdays until Friday, August 7.
On Saturday and Sunday, July 25 and 26, the fort will host a festival of archaeology featuring battle reenactments and Roman themed events.

General admission is £2.25 for adults and £1 for concessions and children aged five to 16. There are also reduced rates for repeat visits during the season.