History In The Headlines

Roman Ruins in Britain Hailed as “Pompeii of the North”

By Evan Andrews
Archeologists digging at Binchester Roman Fort near Bishop Auckland in County Durham, England have unearthed a treasure trove of Roman artifacts and buildings dating back more than 1,800 years. Lauded as some of the best-preserved Roman ruins this side of Pompeii, the site has produced an ancient bathhouse, an altar to the goddess Fortuna and a piece of jewelry that offers early evidence of Christianity in Roman Britain.
Excavations at the Binchester site (Credit: University of Durham)

Excavations at the Binchester site (Credit: University of Durham)

Known as “Vinovia” to the Romans, the outpost once commanded the crossroads of the River Wear and Dere Street, an ancient road that linked the Roman headquarters at York with Hadrian’s Wall and the Antonine Wall near Edinburgh, Scotland. Researchers with the Binchester excavation project have been digging at the fort since 2009, and they now say the site includes some of the most exquisitely preserved ruins ever unearthed in Britain. “These findings are hugely significant as they are virtually intact and present a graphic illustration of life under the Roman Empire,” said Dr. David Mason, principal archeologist with the Durham County Council, in a press release. “They are so stunning and spectacular that we can claim we have our very own ‘Pompeii of the north’ right on our doorstep.”

Chief among the discoveries is an 1,800-year-old Roman bathhouse that would have served as the hub of the fort’s social and recreational life. The baths still feature original floors, windows and doorways, and plaster shards indicate that their seven-foot-high walls were once adorned with colorful designs and drawings. “The most unique feature of these remains is the sheer scale of their preservation,” said Dr. David Petts, archeologist at Durham University. “It is possible to walk through a series of Roman rooms with walls all above head height; this is pretty exceptional for Roman Britain.” Further digging in the bathhouse uncovered evidence of plumbing, including a drain and gaps in the walls that may have once held lead piping to channel water.

In an adjacent changing room, the archeologists excavated a carved stone altar to Fortune the Home-Bringer, one of several aspects of Fortuna, the Roman goddess of luck, chance and fate. The altar bears an inscription by a trooper garrisoned at the fort with a unit of Spanish cavalry. The etching identifies his rank as “architectus,” offering some of the first evidence that military architects may have operated on staff at provincial Roman outposts.

Excavations at the Binchester site have also yielded a silver ring with an engraving that features two fish dangling from an anchor, often considered an early symbol of Christianity. The design appears widely in Roman artifacts, but the researchers say the ring is only the second time it has cropped up in Britain. Dr. Petts dates the jewelry to the 3rd century A.D.—long before the Emperor Constantine legalized Christianity in 313. “This is a surprisingly early date for a Christian object in Britain,” he notes on the project’s blog. “Evidence for Roman Christianity is rare in Northern England, and evidence for Pre-Constantinian Christianity is even rarer.”

With its commanding views of the nearby road and river, the fort at Binchester was one of the most vital of the five Roman bastions that once operated in County Durham. The site was constructed from timber sometime around A.D. 80. on the orders of Gnaeus Julius Agricola, the Roman Governor of Britain. It was later fortified and rebuilt from stone during the Antonine period in the second century. The newer citadel included a hospital and several barracks, workshops and granaries, but it wasn’t merely a military outpost. From their guard towers, Roman legionaries would have been able to watch a “vicus,” or civilian settlement, emerge alongside their fort. Evidence shows this upstart village continued on long after the fall of the Roman Empire. A nearby 7th century church is even built from looted stone that once belonged to the Binchester fort.

References to the ruins date back to the 1500s, but the first organized study of the Binchester fort didn’t take place until the late 19th century, when John Proud and the Reverend R.E. Hoopell unearthed a 4th century praetorium, or officer’s headquarters, and an adjacent bathhouse. The current Binchester excavation is a joint endeavor between the Durham County Council, the University of Durham, the Architectural and Archaeological Society of Northumberland and Durham and several other institutions. Now in its sixth year, the project has focused on excavating a pair of trenches dug at the site. The better preserved of the two trenches houses the altar and the bathhouse, both of which appear to have been converted into a trash heap in the late-Roman period. The other site features a section of the tower wall, a cavalry barracks, horse stables, bread ovens and a latrine. Petts hopes these finds can serve as a window onto the world of both the fort and the village that once flourished beyond its walls. “Our excavations have uncovered parts of one of the best preserved Roman buildings in Britain,” he said in the press release. “The building itself and the wonderful array of artifacts we have recovered from Binchester give us an unparalleled opportunity to better understand life on the northern frontier in the Roman period.”

The recent discoveries are not the first significant artifacts associated with the Binchester project. In July 2013, an archeology student working at the site unearthed a 1,800-year-old carved stone head that may be one of the few depictions of the Romano-British god Antenociticus.

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Categories: Ancient Rome, Archaeology, British History