Roman Piercebridge

H E M Cool, 2008

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Background to the 2006-7 project

The earliest excavations were those of Professor Harding at the villa (1969-70). These were carried out because the site was threatened by aggregate extraction, and it was eventually destroyed by quarrying in 1980. The work was funded by the Ministry of Public Buildings and Works with additional support from the University of Durham.

Mr Scott's excavations from 1971 were also initiated as rescue work because of aggregate extraction south of the river. From 1973 onwards he worked mainly north of the river. These excavations were a mixture of research excavations, watching briefs caused by engineering works and work in advance of redevelopment at the eastern edge of the village (the Housing Scheme excavations). The work was funded from a variety of sources including Mr Scott himself. Grants came from the University of Durham and the Department of the Environment, and during the 1979 to 1981 period from the Manpower Services Commission of the Department of Employment.

The various sites excavated are shown in red on the map below. Early discoveries are shown in green.

Site location maps

The intention was to publish all the work together. When excavation stopped in 1981 Peter Scott and Stephanie Large, who had been the field director of the Housing Scheme, started work on the analysis of the data and a number of specialist reports were commissioned. This work was funded in part by the Department of the Environment through the Historic Buildings and Monuments Commission for England (the forerunner of English Heritage).

By the mid 1980s stratigraphic narratives and reports on many of the different categories of finds had been completed and a draft report was submitted to English Heritage in 1987. It was decided that the report would benefit from re-organisation and an assistant (Dr. A.P. Fitzpatrick) was appointed to help in this work. Some new specialist work was also commissioned, namely the reports on the animal bone from the villa, on the native and Anglian pottery and on metallurgical debris.

Peter Scott died later in the same year before this work could be completed. Dr Fitzpatrick continued to do some editorial work on the report between 1987 and 1989, but the monograph remained unfinished. The archive was deposited with the Bowes Museum in 1988 and active work on bring the excavations to publication ceased, though Dr Fitzpatrick made several attempts to gain funding to complete the work and did publish an article summarising the evidence for the bridges at Piercebridge (Fitzpatrick, A.P. and Scott, P.R., 1999. 'The Roman bridge at Piercebridge, North Yorkshire-County Durham', Britannia 30, 111-32).

The 2006-2007 project

The appointment of Dr David Mason as county archaeologist for Durham in December of 2004 provided fresh impetus. Reviewing the site, he realised that because parts of it had been destroyed by aggregate extraction it was eligible for funding under the terms of the Aggregates Levy Sustainability Fund. Following a meeting in December 2005, English Heritage commissioned a project design and Barbican Research Associates were invited to be part of the project. The project design was submitted in January 2006 (Cool and Mason 2006) and the full project was commissioned the next month.

The conditions of the Aggregates Levy Sustainability Fund in place at that time meant that all the work had to be completed in the financial year 2006/7 as there was no guarantee that the initiative would be extended after that date. This has very much structured our approach to this publication. Our aim has been to place the data in the public domain and to address various questions about the nature of the Roman and sub-Roman occupation at Piercebridge. These may be summarised as follows.

  • When and where did occupation start at Piercebridge.
  • What was the nature of the military presence at Piercebridge and when did it start.
  • What was the nature of the civilian settlement at Piercebridge and could it be considered to have the characteristics of an urban community.
  • What do the stratified sequences preserved in the ditches tell us about the transition between the 'Roman' world of the fourth century and the 'sub-Roman' world of the fifth century and beyond.

There was not time for a thorough re-examination and re-analysis of the original archive from the excavations. Outstanding reports such as that on the mortaria were completed, and an amphorae report was written as none existed previously. For the old reports the specialists still active in the field revised them to the standard they felt appropriate given the time available. Given the importance of the coin evidence for exploring questions of chronology and the military presence, a new report was been commissioned so that the advances in understanding the nature of the coin supply in the north could be fully exploited. As the person responsible for the original coarse pottery report no longer works in archaeology, new work was commissioned on it including the full quantification of selected stratified groups. Only in the case of the coarse pottery and the mortaria has it been possible to re-examine the actual objects. In all the other cases the authors have revised their reports based on their paper records.

Summaries of the various areas explored are given below to aid the understanding of the digital files. The reader is referred to the letterpress volume for full details.

The fort interior

The excavations were concentrated in the east of the fort. They often consisted of very small excavations in front and back gardens. The main areas explored were part of the bath-house, a wing of a large courtyard building and part of a building north of the east gate.

The bath-house was excavated over a number of years. The site names and codes were Glen View (GV76-77), Tees View (TV77-79), Bridge End (BE79-80). The evidence suggests that the bath-house was built towards the end of the second century, i.e before the fort defences. There were several structural alterations during its life. It would appear to have continued to function to the end of the fourth century, if not beyond, as the drains were adapted as part of the re-organisation of the water supply at the end of the fourth century.

The courtyard building was uncovered in number of similar small scale excavations and as part of the larger Housing Scheme excavations. The site codes used were PB73-74, HS 73-74, BG 76, HS76-7 rooms, TT77 and BB77-79. The building had been elaborately decorated with wall and ceiling plaster and included heated rooms. It appears to have been built in the early third century at the latest and again pre-dates the fort defences.

The building to the north of the East gate was excavated in the north-west corner of the Housing Scheme excavations (site code HS 76-81). It was constructed in the second half of the third century i.e. contemporary with or just after the building of the fort defences. It had been altered twice before the end of the fourth century. The presence of ovens and quernstones in its final phase suggest that it may have been functioning as a bakery by then.

The fort defences

These were mainly excavated as part of the Housing Scheme excavations (HS 76-81). Other site codes used were PB73-74 and HS73-74.The small amount of dating evidence recovered suggests that the wall was constructed in the middle part of the third century at the earliest.

Outside of the wall parts of several ditches were recovered. Those to the north of the road leading into the East gate were only briefly inspected at the very end of the excavations. Those to the south were more fully examined. They consisted of an inner and outer ditch both parallel to the fort wall. The outer ditch did not continue to the southern boundary of the excavation, and became progressively shallower towards its terminal. The fill was accumulating in the later third century and early fourth century. Though eventually interpreted as part of a military ditch system by the excavators, the evidence would equally fit with this being an elongated quarry pit.

The inner ditch has more similarities with a military ditch but cannot be shown to be contemporary with the fort wall. The basal fill belongs to the end of the fourth century at the earliest and the possibility exists that this feature was contemporary with other major changes in the fort which saw the construction of a new water supply system and the narrowing of the east gate. These changes also took place at the very end of the fourth century or in the early fifth century at the earliest.

Though the inner ditch accumulated a considerable amount of rubbish in the fifth and sixth centuries, an attempt was made to retain the line of the ditch with a major re-cut being visible. There are ground for believing that this took place in the sixth century.

The berm area between the inner ditch and the wall had two rows of pits dug into it, which the excavator interpreted as being of fourth century date. It now seems more likely that they were dug later than that and form part of the sub-Roman re-organisations.

The northern vicus

The area to the east of the fort has always been referred to as a vicus. The analysis of the results has shown that the settlement pre-dated any military involvement so technically this name is incorrect but it has been maintained here because of the long usage. The sites are described below in the order of excavation.

Tofts Field 1973 (TF73). This site was selected as it bordered a road visible from aerial photography that pre-dated the fort. The earliest phase consisted of a road and ovens. A masonry building was built facing the road in the early second century. This was replaced c. AD 200 by a larger masonry building whose frontage came right up to the road. This building was modified during its life by the insertion of a hypocaust. The building went out of use in the earlier part of the fourth century.

Carlbury Vale West (CVW73). This was a small trench to section a road that could be seen on aerial photographs leading from the original line of Dere Street to its second line. It appeared to have been constructed in the late second century. The material in the roadside ditches suggested it had gone out of use by the fourth century.

Tofts Field 1974 (TF74). This area was selected for excavation as it included both part of the original Dere Street and buildings to the east. The first metalling of Dere Street belonged to the first quarter of the second century, and there were three subsequent episodes of re-metalling. The final one was probably contemporary with a new east/west road and probably dates to the end of the second century/beginning of the third. Parts of three buildings fronting on to Dere Street and belonging to the earlier part of the occupation were recovered but not fully excavated. These were demolished, possibly not all at the same time, and the area was occupied by installations described as kilns and ovens. Metal-working debris was also found. The industrial phase can be dated from the late second century to the mid third century. Occupation was on a much reduced scale thereafter.

Kilngarth Field 1974 (KF74). This was a small excavation in advance of road improvements that involved altering the course of the Piercebridge Beck and building a new bridge. The main features uncovered were a flood bank and an artificial platform or terrace bounded on the south by a stone retaining wall. The stone walls of four building buildings were found on the terrace. A north-east/south-west road running through the western end of the site. This area was developed in the late second century and occupation continued in the third century. Very little fourth century material was recovered.

Tofts Field 1975 (TF75). This small excavation resulted from a building being discovered during work to insert a new sewerage system in the village. The eastern part was excavated with this site code and the western side during the excavations of the Housing Scheme the next year. The masonry building had a sunken room which had niches around the side. Dating evidence is sparse because it was not fully excavated. It was no longer in use by the fourth century as it was cut by a ditch whose fill was dated to that period. The samian pottery suggests it was in use in the third century. It has been suggested that the building may have been a temple. This supposition was linked to an inscription to Jupiter Dolichenus belonging to the earlier third century, found 30m to the north in 1966. The excavations produced no evidence that would support this one way or the other.

Northern Nurseries 1975-9 (NNA, NNB, NNC). These were a number of small trenches dug in a garden as opportunity arose. The excavations recovered parts of Dere Street and evidence for masonry buildings and drains, all much disturbed. The main focus of occupation was in the later second and third centuries.

Housing Scheme 1976-81 (HS76-81). The earliest features uncovered were a number of gullies with late first to second century material in their fills. They made no coherent patterns. The other early features in this part of the vicus were a pottery kiln close to where the east gate of the fort was to be built, and a cremation burial close to the later Vicus building 2. The pottery kiln included mortaria amongst its products, and was in use during the first quarter of the second century. The cremation burial was in a jar dated to c. AD 130-40. The remains of a timber building of broadly contemporary date were found on the site of the later Vicus building 1. A kiln and a burial are the sorts of features that could be expected on the periphery of a settlement suggesting that at this point, the main focus of settlement was further east. Vicus building 1 was a stone structure built in the second half of the second century at the earliest. Various alterations were made to it during its life and it continued in use into the fourth century. Vicus building 2 was another masonry building which was constructed partially over the silted up outer ditch in the second quarter of the fourth century. This area had been used for metal-working prior to the erection of vicus building 2 and the activity continued afterward. The upper layers were greatly disturbed by medieval and later intrusions, and it is not possible to say how late occupation continued in it.

Field Walking Project 2003. Dr Richard Hingley and a group of students from the Department of Archaeology in the University of Durham conducted a field walking project in the south-eastern part of Tofts Field in April and May of 2003.

The southern vicus

Holme House 1971-2 (HH71-2 / HHI71-2). This was a rescue excavation in advance of gravel extraction. Before it started the topsoil had been stripped and a small quarry to provide hardcore for a processing plant had been dug. The heavy lorries passing across the site from this had destroyed the stratigraphy. The aim of the archaeological work was to expose and plan the features. In doing this a considerable quantity of finds were recovered. These cannot be linked with features and buildings in any meaningful way, but can be used to establish the chronology of the occupation here.

The recording established the line of the southern bank of the Tees in the Roman period and uncovered the line of the second Dere Street leading to the bridge abutment. This work has already been published (Fitzpatrick, A.P. and Scott, P.R., 1999. 'The Roman bridge at Piercebridge, North Yorkshire-County Durham', Britannia 30, 111-32.). The remains of masonry buildings were uncovered alongside the road, as well as a rubbish dump by the Roman river bank. Occupation commenced in the later second century at the same time that an expansion of the area occupied north of the river. As with the northern vicus, occupation continued in the third century but was declining by the end of it. Relatively little fourth century material was recovered.

Holme House 1975 (HH75). This was a small trench to the west of the area explored in 1971-2. It uncovered a small east/west road leading towards the settlement alongside Dere Street. The material recovered dated to the late second and third centuries.

The Holme House villa

The villa (HH69-70) was the earliest of the sites reported here to be excavated both in terms of when it was dug (1969-70) and when it was occupied. The excavations were directed by Dr (later Professor) Dennis Harding with a team of students from the Department of Archaeology at Durham University.

The first occupation on the site was a large timber roundhouse sitting in the centre of an enclosure. The native coarse pottery cannot be used to give close dates, but the occupants started to use some Roman artefacts from the 60s onwards, i.e. before this part of Britain was part of the Roman province, and earlier than the occupation north of the river.

A small rectangular masonry and timber building was built in the northern part of the enclosure, and this was subsequently enlarged so that by the mid second century it was a villa with an apsidal wing and a bath-suite wing. The roundhouse meanwhile was rebuilt in stone. The apsidal wing had painted walls, but most of the decoration was lavished on the bath-suite where the walls were decorated with figured scenes and some of the floors had coloured mosaics. Occupation of the villa and roundhouse ceased in the later second century and the site was then abandoned for a century or more.

There is some evidence that the enclosure was re-occupied in the later fourth century but the area where this was observed could not be fully excavated.

The area occupied by the enclosure was destroyed by quarrying in the early 1980s, but before that happened the well at the villa was excavated (HH80).

This villa is one of the most northerly known in Britain, and the remains are most intriguing. It would be possible to interpret this as 'Roman' expropriation of an estate with the original owners continuing to live in the roundhouse as the native servants of a new lord. Against this though, is the fact that the roundhouse remains in the prime position in the enclosure with the villa tucked away to one side. There are certainly differences between the artefacts found in the roundhouse and villa, but they do not split neatly between Roman and native.

Equally the bath-suite seems to be the focus of unusual activities. Bath-houses have very distinctive assemblages of finds related to bathing activities. These are missing here. Instead the animal bone, the pottery and the glass speak of major feasts. Though the debris from fast food snacks is often recovered from bath-houses, assemblages pointing to dining on this scale are rare. So though the wing has all the structural features of a bath-house, its owners weren't using it as such. The evidence suggests that far from the development of the villa being the result of some Roman incomer, it was the response of a native aristocratic family to the changing times.

In An Imperial Possession David Mattingly draws attention to a passage in Nelson Mandela's memoirs where he describes his guardian's home as consisting of both western and African building forms. The western one was preferred for certain prestige activities such as entertaining, while 'normal' life centred on the African buildings. This seems a very good model for what was going on at Holme House.

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