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Spring 2012

Texas Tech Archaeologist, Students, Uncover Relics from Life at One of Britain’s Roman Frontier Forts

by John Davis

Texas Tech Archaeologist, Students Uncover Relics from Life at One of Britain’s Roman Frontier Forts

Binchester Project

TTU students have an opportunity to experience open-plan excavation technique, a method common in the U.K. in which a 22-by-47-yard trench is opened. Archaeological excavation in the U.S. differs in that many individual diggers work small areas about a square yard. Click image to enlarge.

Not so much as an old coin or shard of pottery.

Ashley Maloney, a master’s student of classical languages from Washington, D.C., pored through the rubble of what once was either an old storefront or a dwelling that stood outside the Roman fort of Vinovium.

She was one of four graduate and 11 undergraduate students participating last summer in Texas Tech University’s Binchester Archaeological Field School–part of an international excavation of the nearly 2,000-year-old settlement 25 miles southwest of Newcastle-upon-Tyne in the United Kingdom.

This was the second year for Texas Tech to join the teams from Stanford and the U.K.’s Durham University, and Texas Tech students participated for two or four weeks on the project.

Maloney said she’s interested in studying Roman religion in Britannia. As a grad student with previous excavation experience, her instructor, Christopher Witmore, asked her to stand in as a teaching assistant for the summer to assist undergraduates also enrolled in the field program.

“This was the first time I’d done anything in England,” she said. “I’d only done some excavations around the Mediterranean and Greece.”

Below her, a 22-by-47-yard (20-by-43-meter) trench lay opened in the dark soil, and top researchers worked together alongside students and local volunteers interested in the site. Unlike the style of archaeological excavation in the U.S. where many individual diggers work small areas about a square yard (approximately a square meter), Britons prefer this larger, open plan of digging.

Five days had passed to the end of a Friday and nothing interesting had turned up yet for Maloney. She’d flown 4,700 miles to experience the hands-on archeological dig. She joked about it, but she wondered just a little if the trip might be a bust.

Ashley Mahoney, seen above, never expected to find an engraved altar during the excavation last summer. She said altars are fairly common finds at other Roman outposts. Ashley Mahoney, seen above, never expected to find an engraved altar during the excavation last summer. She said altars are fairly common finds at other Roman outposts. Ashley Mahoney, seen above, never expected to find an engraved altar during the excavation last summer. She said altars are fairly common finds at other Roman outposts.

Ashley Maloney, seen above, never expected to find an engraved altar during the excavation last summer. She said altars are fairly common finds at other Roman outposts. Click images to enlarge.

“Not to worry,” one of the archaeology directors from Durham University said to Maloney. “Next week, you’ll find something.”

After the weekend and a morning’s worth of work on Monday, Maloney was moved 15 feet (4.5 meters) away to another location. As she began to excavate, one piece in particular caught her eye. The engravings were intricate. This was no cobblestone, or at least wasn’t intended to be when it first was created.

“I was in a corner working all by myself,” Maloney said. “And that afternoon, we got back from lunch, and I thought, ‘This is a strange little piece. It has detail on the corner.’ I slowly kept working down and working down. Eventually, I recognized what it was, but I didn’t want to get my hopes up too much. So, I asked one of the directors. I said, ‘Could you take a look at this corner and tell me what you think?’ She said, ‘Well, I think you’ve found an altar, Ashley.’ So, we worked down for the rest of the afternoon until we figured out there was an inscription on it, and we knew what it was.”

So far, this was the first altar found during the new international project, though others have turned up during previous excavations. They are fairly common at other Roman outposts, Maloney said. More could be found as work continues. Researchers also have uncovered one of the best-preserved Roman bath houses in the U.K. and some of the most impressive mausolea seen on a Roman site for 150 years.

While the fort itself is intriguing, archaeologists also are interested in the large town surrounding the fort that continued to thrive long after the empire fell.

Witmore is an associate professor of classical archaeology in the Department of Classical & Modern Languages & Literatures and a principal investigator on the site. During the 2010 season, the first Texas Tech students began digging at the fort, now called Binchester, as part of a larger itinerant field school called City, Country, Borders.

Witmore ran this study-abroad program with Texas Tech associate professor Donald Lavigne. Students incorporated Witmore’s work in Rome, Greece and England and learned three archaeological methodologies–standing building, landscape archaeology and excavation practices.

“With Binchester, we have a rare opportunity,” he said. “A professional unit of contract excavators teaches archaeological methods that include the open-area mode of excavation. The methodology is very distinct. In the U.S., one rarely encounters students trained in open-area excavation. But it’s becoming a more predominant form of excavation in other European countries. At Binchester, students learn archeological practices from the trench to the laboratory, which is great. We’re really trying to teach them every aspect of the archaeological process.”

The Fort on the Edge

Hadrian's Wall

The Binchester Roman Fort is located 30 miles from Hadrian’s Wall which Romans began constructing in 122 A.D. Click image to enlarge.

Vinovium Fort in Secondlife

This recreation of Vinovium, mocked up in Second Life, shows the common layout and what the fort would have looked like at the end of its use by the Roman soldiers around 410 A.D. Click image to enlarge.

Britannia first was invaded by the Romans in 43 A.D. After Gnaeus Julius Agricola was named governor of the island frontier in 77 A.D., he led a massive push for control in northern Wales and up into Scotland from 79 to 80 A.D. While there, he consolidated Roman military authority and built a line of forts and roads from west to east.

Vinovium most likely was one of these fortresses, Witmore said. Originally built of timber and turf, it stood as one of the empire’s larger northern forts, covering about 17.5 acres in the northeastern border region of Britannia. Originally a fort for auxiliary troops, it sat on a hill near the River Wear and guarded the Dere Street Bridge.

The fort sat 30 miles from Hadrian’s Wall, which Romans began constructing in 122 A.D. The wall served as the physical northern border of the empire’s reach, and was thought to have controlled border crossing as well as helped to contain the barbarians living behind it.

“One of the interesting things we’re looking at is what was there before Romans,” said Gary Devore, an instructor of Roman archaeology and one of Stanford University’s three main directors at the site. “No one has found any indication of Celtic or Iron Age people living there. That’s very surprising if that’s the case, because the fort is on a very nice hill overlooking a very important river crossing. You expect native Britons would have used that high ground for their own.”

Once construction of the Antonine Wall ended in 154 A.D.–a wall 100 miles north of Hadrian’s Wall designed for the same purposes–Vinovium was pared down to a cavalry fort, a 218-by-218 yard (200-by-200 meter) camp very similar to the general rectangular layout of forts throughout the empire. Romans abandoned the Antonine Wall after only 20 years and retreated back to Hadrian’s Wall. Vinovium remained the smaller cavalry fort built of stone and that guarded Dere Street, the main road between the major Roman outposts at York and Corbridge.

As time went on, locals built stores and homes around the sides of the fort. This suburb, called a vicus, attracted people who were all too willing to relieve Romans of their coins. Taverns, brothels and stores sprung up around Vinovium. Devore said researchers record the evidence they find in this area, as well.

“When archaeologists have looked at Roman forts in the past, there was a tendency to focus on the military stuff inside the fort because that was sexy,” he said. “About a decade ago, people got interested in the civilians outside the fort. We’ve been making a conscious effort to excavate inside the fort in the Roman settlement and outside the fort in the civilian settlement. We’re one of the few who are doing this.”

“The interesting thing about an archaeological excavation is that it’s kind of a moving project. You come across something, and you’re not quite sure what it is. You have to follow it, trace it and see what emerges through the excavation process.” — Christopher Witmore

Richard Hingley, professor of Roman archaeology at Durham University, said historical texts and discoveries in the ground have given researchers an idea of how people lived on the Roman Frontier.

The substantial Roman military force in Britannia was recruited across the Roman Empire, and soldiers and the people who followed the soldiers came from places such as Germany, North Africa, Spain and some areas of the Near East. They left behind information in the remains of their settlements, such as the things they ate, their burial monuments and the roads they traveled.

At the Roman fort Vindolanda, which is near the modern village of Bardon Mill and about 30 years ahead of Vinovium with excavation, archaeologists discovered a cache of documents that were written by soldiers and their wives. These gave researchers a detailed record of life in Roman-ruled Britannia, Hingley said. While some believed Roman rule became more difficult the farther north they went, archaeological evidence suggested life wasn’t as chaotic or dangerous as one might think.

This frontier certainly didn’t resemble the American West, he said.

“How unstable that society was we don’t really know,” Hingley said. “We do know from historical records there were problems from time to time with security in the region. Basically, a lot of the archaeological evidence we find indicates a really quite settled life with quite a level of culture. People had access to good pottery. They had a Roman bath on site. They had amphorae with wine and olive oil imported from the Mediterranean that was used to supply the soldiers. So people had quite a decent standard of living. But the reason the forts and Hadrian’s Wall are there is that there was an element of insecurity in that region.”

When it came to expanding the edges of their empire, the Romans were adept at securing loyalty and cooperation from the local indigenous people, Witmore said. Bloody battles raged as the empire swallowed more and more of Europe, but the Romans were savvy about the political choices they made (and forced), as well.

Witmore and student Ashley Maloney discuss the excavation at Vinovium, an ancient Roman fort in the Northeast of England.

“What seems to have happened is they enrolled local power brokers,” Witmore said. “For some, the Roman ways of life are seen as ways to distinguish oneself as elite. It gave the locals who support the Romans certain materials, knowledge and cache. Quite a few people in Britannia thought it was a good thing to live and relate to the Romans, and they became part of that Roman expansion because they got something out of the arrangement. Basically, they either increased their quality of life or preserved it.”

Major changes occurred across Britannia at the end of the fourth century. Soldiers weren’t receiving payments from Rome, buildings became repurposed and the creation of new public buildings ceased.

People began using the basilica at Silchester for industrial uses at this time, and that likely wouldn’t have been condoned officially. Archaeologists rarely have found copper coins dated past 402, although hoarded gold and silver coins of the same age prove Romans still lived in the area.

Throughout Britannia, Romans started to leave. People abandoned the empire’s currency. In the wake of this power vacuum, warlords began attacking settlements in rural areas.

Vinovium, too, experienced changes that appear to start around 400 A.D. For the next 100 years, people still lived in and around the fort, but evidence suggests that life changed drastically.

“In one case, we had a barracks block that was housing soldiers,” Devore said. “But in this transitional period, it turned into a butcher’s workshop and a tannery. Hides were brought in from surrounding countryside, put into pits and tanned. We see that as interesting archaeologically. We don’t have much of a clue at other sites what the end of a fort entails. Here, this site seems to be useful enough, or attractive enough, to still be occupied once Romans are no longer there calling the shots. It’s repurposed both inside and outside the fort.

“There was a very nice commander’s house. Afterward, parts of it were turned into a blacksmith’s shop in the early sixth century. Once the early Middle Ages begin in earnest, parts of the fort were not repurposed for industry and were turned into cemeteries. Early medieval people started burying their dead in parts of the fort, which is an interesting reconsideration of space.”

But how and if the Romans at this particular fort left remains a mystery. What life was like at the fort when they were there also remains unanswered. The only way to find these answers is to continue digging, researchers said.

Gone but Not Forgotten

Kingdoms rose and fell. The Saxons invaded. Then the Normans. Ralph Neville, Earl of Westmoreland, owned the land in the 15th century, then sold it to a family related to Christopher Wren, architect of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London.

Though vague ruins of the fort remained and locals always recognized the area as the site of a Roman fort, no one paid much attention. Gardeners incorporated these ruins into the estate’s landscape design. Walking across the estate’s fields, local tenant farmers and others regularly found Roman coins and called them Binchester pennies.

In 1815, the bath house was discovered after the wheels of a horse-drawn trap fell through the collapsed hypocaust floor. One of the landowners enjoyed what little excavation he did, while the one that followed cared nothing for antiquity and used parts of the floor columns of the bath to hold up coal mines somewhere in the district.

Meet the Researchers

Christopher Witmore

Christopher Witmore is an associate professor of classical archaeology in the Department of Classical and Modern Languages and Literatures (CMLL) at Texas Tech University. Witmore received his doctorate from Stanford University and joined Texas Tech in 2009.

Entire 2012 Binchester Team


The CMLL department represents the diversity of human cultural achievements and experiences through the development of international language skills.

The department offers undergraduate studies in classics, French, Russian, German and Spanish; graduate opportunities in applied linguistics, classics, French, German, and Spanish; and is home to several magnificent study-abroad programs. All of the programs offer academic credit in the concerned language, and each has unique benefits and requirements.

You can find more information on these programs and other foreign study options to earn language credit at www.studyabroad.ttu.edu.

The project originally started with Durham County Council, Durham University and Stanford University. Because of Witmore’s collaborations with Michael Shanks, a Stanford professor and co-director at Binchester, Witmore knew about Binchester and expressed interest in bringing Texas Tech students to participate. After the 2010 season, Witmore accepted a role as a co-principal investigator.

“When I arrived at Texas Tech three years ago, I came into a classics and modern languages department that never had an archaeologist on faculty before,” he said. “We had to build an archaeology program from the ground up. We began to make links with anthropology and the museum, which are two important areas of archaeology here at Texas Tech and have been for some time. We also needed to have an outlet for our students to go and actually learn excavation practices. We went for a small, week-and-a-half season in 2010 with about 20 Texas Tech students. I instantly saw all kinds of opportunity. Binchester is the kind of site with the kind of collaboration that spawns all sorts of very interesting possibilities.”

Today, workers are digging in the period between Roman-occupied Britannia and the start of the medieval period. Not much is known about this transitional time, but organizers at the site said they’ve made a concerted effort to document evidence of how life and the fort’s use changed in the years following the empire’s departure from Britannia about 410 A.D. They expect to continue clearing away this period, then venture into the late Roman period this year.

As they go, researchers hope to find out what happened to the Roman soldiers who originally occupied the site. Historical texts indicate many Romans returned to their homelands following nonpayment from the Caesar at the beginning of the fifth century. But questions remain if some stayed behind and decided to join the local society they once ruled.

Archaeologists have unearthed a series of interesting pits recently, which may be associated with tanning operations.

“Materials found in some of the circular pits suggest that they may have had linings,” Witmore said. “Some were cut into the soil. Others had several layers of stone facing and some had skulls and bones in them. We found tons of nails. These nails, we believe, are related to some sort of wooden structure for holding liquid. The tanning process requires large amounts of water. We also have a potential well that was cut straight through the ramparts. This has yet to be excavated fully. Next to that well, there was a linear ditch that ran across the trench connecting to some of these tanning pits.

Since then, several excavations have occurred at the site, including a few as early as the ’80s and ’90s. But the current project is the most extensive ever done.

“The interesting thing about an archaeological excavation is that it’s kind of a moving project,” said Witmore. “You come across something, and you’re not quite sure what it is. You have to follow it, trace it and see what emerges through the excavation process. Interpreting these pits as components of a tannery is part of that process. One must remain open to other possibilities. You have to be cautious with these types of interpretations.”

Such thorough detail and attention to accuracy is important for understanding the subsequent transformation of a Roman site, Witmore said. Past excavators at other sites tended to plow through the post-Roman periods just to get to the features associated with the fort or villa, so current understanding of post-Roman times is limited.

Occasionally, archeologists find something of great significance, such as an inscription from a building found last year.

Roman inscriptions turn up in very small numbers in Britain, Hingley said. Only one or two are found a year. However, they help researchers understand about life on the frontier and date some of the buildings in the forts and vici. Perhaps another one or two are due for discovery at Binchester this year, he said.

“I’ve found one or two quite impressive things myself in my life, but I’ve never found a Roman inscription,” he said. “From time to time, someone makes a really important discovery that really has important connotations within Britain. That inscription will end up being written up probably for Britannia, which is a journal that deals with the archaeology of Roman Britain, in due course.”

Hingley said the spectacular finds aren’t really what’s most important most of the time. The regular finds of pottery and coins and animal bones help to tell us a lot about the economy and life of people on the site. Anybody involved in the excavation of the site will most likely find those things.

The experience of finding part of a religious altar is one Maloney said she won’t soon forget. She will be one of 20 students to attend this year’s itinerant field school, City & Province: Rome & Britain, overseen by Witmore and Corby Kelly, a visiting assistant professor of classics at Texas Tech. Students will spend two weeks in Rome followed by four weeks at the Binchester site.

Maloney said she’s eager to see what turns up this year.

“It is thrilling to hold something in your hands that’s nearly 2,000 years old,” Maloney said. “It is so exciting to find something like the altar, and to recognize the value of it and know what it is, especially if you’ve been studying Roman religion a little bit more in context. It was probably one of the most exciting days on site, at least for me. As someone who has excavated in three other excavations in the Mediterranean, and to never have found something that compares, this was a real surprise to me. I can’t wait to go back.”

Texas Tech Archaeologist, Students Uncover Relics from Life at One of Britain’s Roman Frontier Forts Texas Tech Archaeologist, Students Uncover Relics from Life at One of Britain’s Roman Frontier Forts Texas Tech Archaeologist, Students Uncover Relics from Life at One of Britain’s Roman Frontier Forts Texas Tech Archaeologist, Students Uncover Relics from Life at One of Britain’s Roman Frontier Forts Texas Tech Archaeologist, Students Uncover Relics from Life at One of Britain’s Roman Frontier Forts Texas Tech Archaeologist, Students Uncover Relics from Life at One of Britain’s Roman Frontier Forts

Click images above to enlarge. View more images from the Binchester Archaeological Field School on Flickr.

John Davis is a Senior Writer in the Office of Communications & Marketing at Texas Tech University. Video produced by Scott Irlbeck, Senior Editor of Research & Academic Communications for the Office of the Vice President for Research at Texas Tech University.

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