Wednesday, December 28, 2011

A TOWERING fort looking out over the frontier of the Roman empire once dominated the River Derwent.

A TOWERING fort looking out over the frontier of the Roman empire once dominated the River Derwent skyline. | This is Derbyshire

A TOWERING fort looking out over the frontier of the Roman empire once dominated the River Derwent skyline.

Standing on a hill above a river with walls at least 100 metres long, it would have been home to a brutal army hell-bent on conquest.

And now, after excavations in a Derby garden, our picture of what the dramatic building would have looked like and who lived there is much clearer.

The dig has unearthed the first writing found in the Derby area – an inscription on a bowl thought to be a Roman legionary's name.

Other vital finds have included large pieces of Iron Age pottery suggesting an established earlier settlement nearby.

Lee Elliot, archaeologist in charge of the dig, said experts had long suspected that the remains of the fort were under gardens in Derby city centre – but the private land was inaccessible.

Like so many of today's archaeological discoveries, the dig began when a company – in this case Pride Building Services – began the process of applying to build a new house on the land.

Mr Elliott said the building firm was required by law to get his company, Trent & Peak Archaeology, to investigate the proposed site in a garden in Belper Road.

And the developer funded the archeological dig.

Mr Elliot said: "As a condition of their planning consent they were told they had to get archaeologists to check what was beneath the turf.

"Over the last 40 or so years, evidence had been growing that the fort was there – such as chance finds of brooches that would have belonged to the military and coins. It was usually only soldiers that the empire paid for their work in money in that early period."

He said test trenches were dug on the land in 2000 after its original owner had to get a survey done before he sold the land to Pride Building.

That revealed more evidence, such as roads which could have led to the fort and post holes which suggested the presence of wooden walls.

But archaeologists could not be certain what the fort looked like or what exactly was there without getting into the garden.

Mr Elliot said: "I imagine there are quite a few historians and archaeologists who would have wanted to be here when we could finally dig on the site.

"You don't know how extensive the remains are or how well preserved they are until you start.

"I've done a lot of Roman excavations but this was among the most exciting of my career."

Mr Elliot's team dug for five weeks in wet and freezing weather conditions, uncovering clear evidence of the fort and its history.

Coins from the eras of the emperors Claudius, who ruled from AD41 to 54, and Nero, from AD54 to 68, narrowed down the date of the building – confirming its position on the frontier of the Roman conquerors.

A heart-shaped horse pendant and spectacular "melon beads" that could have been used to decorate harnesses or for soldiers' personal use showed cavalry were present.

And brooches typical of those worn by legionaries were also found.

Further beam holes, that would have held the supporting struts of the building's wooden walls and foundation trenches, showed its barracks would have been at least 12 metres long.

A rectangular latrine pit and cobbles which may have formed the surface of linear streets were also found within the site boundaries, along with typical rubbish pits full of pottery.

Iron age pottery found on site could, Mr Elliot said, "represent links with local native settlements rather than locals working in the fort".

He said the piece of pottery, suspected to be a legionary's bowl, was roughly inscribed with the Latin word "viter".

Mr Elliot said: "It's part of a word that could be part of someone's name or a phrase.

"Often legionaries would scratch their names into bowls to stop someone stealing them."

The bowl, he said, is a piece of Samian tableware, the finest in Britain at the time – something well-paid Roman soldiers could all have afforded.

Mr Elliot said the fort could have been one of several built in the area under the governorship of Didius Gallus, from AD52 to 57.

But he added that this was an interpretation by some historians, based on the works of ancient historian Tacitus, whose reference to the forts is vague.

Mr Elliot said the fort was demolished around AD80 as, with the Roman army's defeats of an alliance of tribes, called the Brignates, the frontier moved north.

He said: "We found evidence of dismantling.

"This included characteristic ramp profiles on the earthworks where timber had been prised out of clay-packed post pits."

Mr Elliot, 44, of Beeston, said the building could have been constructed again elsewhere.

He said: "They recycled everything.

"The fort would have been taken apart piece by piece and moved north to the new frontier."

He said it was impossible to say where it may have been rebuilt.

But while the building was not permanent, its influence on the Derby area certainly was – giving rise to the small, much better-known Roman town of Derventio, now Little Chester.

Mr Elliot said: "Roads built to the fort would have connected up the area giving rise to a settlement by the River Derwent."

An analysis of the finds and full report on the dig is still being drawn up but, once complete, Mr Elliot said it would fascinate historians.

He said: "It's now unusual to find forts as well preserved as this. There's one in Broxtowe, for example, that has been badly damaged by a housing estate being built on top.

"But it's also a snapshot in time. There's no doubt about the date it was built and it was only there for a short time, so we know exactly what the site tells us about.

"Most sites we work give us a picture over a few hundred years."

Mr Elliot said that the finds were set to be displayed in Derby Museum within one or two years.

And he said the dig would not have been possible without the developer's assistance.

Pride Building Services is now close to completing the house on top of the site, which remains private and fenced off.

The archaeologist said: "The site has now been covered up and the finds taken away for analysis."

Asked if the fort could ever be made into a tourist attraction, Mr Elliot said it "wouldn't work".

He said: "The dig was a fact-finding mission.

"Essentially the site was a series of foundation and rubbish pits with some holes where the beams would have gone. In any case, it's on private land."

Mr Elliot said he hoped this was not the last time parts of the fort could be excavated.

He said: "There are still parts we haven't seen. It would be nice to be able to confirm its total size by finding its outer limits.

"We know it's at least 100 metres wide but it could be much larger – something beyond a small auxiliary fort.

"We would typically have to wait for another development to dig again."