Digging holes in Roman Binchester (County Durham) UK

bathhouseSo we’ve reached the end of our fifth week already. As today has been the 2014 Day of Archaeology, and I’ve been live tweeting the dig, I thought I’d provide a brief overview of the site today rather than just focusing on today’s work.

We are excavating two trenches at the site of the Roman fort of Binchester and its surrounding civilian settlement (vicus).

Our Trench 1 is in the north-east corner of the fort. In one corner we have one of the stone corner towers – the rubble cores of the walls of this survive quite well, although the facing stones have long since been removed. The north and east edge of our trench follows the line of the north and east rampart of the fort. On the north side, we have traces of the interior face of the fort wall, which is up to 6′ wide. A series of features are built into the rampart, including a small bread oven, and more substantially, a well-preserved latrine. This was a communal facility and we reckon up to four toilet holes must have stood side by side- it was a sociable process! The latrine would have been regularly cleared out by water channeled through it from the roadside gutter nearby- the sewage would have been taken through a neatly formed arched conduit in the fort wall into the neighboring fort ditch.

The main structure in this trench, however, is a large rectangular Roman cavalry barrack. This would have contained stables as well as rooms for the troops. This appears to have had two main phases of use. The earliest phase of the structure was a larger building, with two rows of rooms, one containing the rooms where the men slept, the other consisting of the stable areas for the horses. At some point, perhaps in the 4th century, the entire structure was reduced in size to a smaller building only one room thick. At one end this had a separate block that appears to have formed quarters for an officer. In this latest phase, the entire structure was surrounded by large dumps of butchered animal bone. We are still working on the precise chronology for this building, but the final phase probably survived into the early 5th century.

Our Trench 2 lies to the east of the fort on the north side of the main Roman road that ran through the site. In its western end were two Roman ‘strip buildings’. These are the Roman equivalent to light industrial units, and are often found in vici, towns and larger rural sites. One of ours was probably used for jet working (we’ve found lumps of raw jet, as well as partially completed items); the other had a large oven or hearth in it- possibly used for some kind of metalworking activity. To the east of these buildings is a well-built stone wall that seems to have marked off the neighboring compound. This contained a large mortared stone building which is almost certainly a bath-house. This has been incredibly well preserved, with walls nearly 2m high across a series of rooms. In its earliest phase, the  main room probably contained a cold water plunger bath. At some point though, this bath was knocked out and the room turned into a changing room. It contained two well carved stone altars, one dedicated to the goddess Fortuna by a retired military architect. At a later date, probably in the second half of the fourth century, the entire building was filled-in by a massive dump of late Roman rubbish, containing lots of pottery, bone and other domestic waste. The building itself has in places surviving wall-plaster, and the walls retain blocked up earlier features including windows and doors. We are still unpicking the plan and phasing of this building, but its extensive preservation make it one of the best surviving Roman buildings in Northern Britain.

In front of this bath-house lay two simpler structures. The earliest had walls defined by large flat slaps with narrow holes drilled into them, presumably to support slender timber poles. This was overlain by a larger building with the walls defined by large boulders, which were probably supporting pads for larger timber uprights. These are likely to be late 4th century or later in date.

Over our time here, we have recovered substantial quantities of butchered animal remains and big assemblages of late Roman pottery. We have also identified large amounts of Roman window and vessel glass, as well as an exceptional range of other objects, including jet jeweler, worked bone items, copper alloy objects including brooches, pins and mounts/fitting, not to mention loads of iron work and other Roman period artefacts. Overall, our excavations have served to put Binchester on the maps as one of the best excavated and understood Roman forts on the Northern Frontier.