I have to confess, I don’t always find Roman archaeology very exciting. Maybe it’s because the Romans have had a poor press. They’re normally portrayed as the people who ‘gave’ Britain good modern roads, writing, mass-produced pottery and towns. And I have to confess, none of these are things that set my soul alight – with the possible exception of the roads; I do like them. But again, it’s worth recalling that there were very few actual bona fide Romans in Britain: most of the legionaries, for example, were recruited from far-flung regions of the Empire, and rarely from Rome itself. Certainly there were Roman administrators and political leaders and these people were very important, but the fact remains that the vast majority of the population were Brits, which is why archaeologists like to use the rather cumbersome term ‘Romano-British’ to describe life in these islands from AD 43 to AD 410.
There’s a point to this preamble: even in a site as seemingly full-on Roman there is a huge amount of non-Roman input. Most of the people who built, used and occupied the fort would have been British and all the folk who subsequently robbed-out the dressed masonry from the stone walls would have been locals. So it’s often very difficult to pin down something as specific as a period or people. It was a problem we encountered in the previous episode, where the Tudor element of the mines proved almost impossible to isolate. The reason for this was that the mines continued to be a source of income for local people over the next three centuries. The same goes for our fort, only this time the ‘resource’ sought by local people wasn’t copper ore, but building stone, in an area where good quality stone is very hard to find. Put another way, the Romans had created a resource that continued to be exploited over more than a millennium and a half.
Now the site we’ve just started to investigate is a fort and that ought to imply a large garrison of soldiers. But this is actually quite a late fort (late 3rd and 4th century) and the geofizz survey has yet to reveal huge barrack blocks – which is what you’d expect of a Conquest period fort of, say, the later first and second centuries. So we’ve decided to go in at the deep end and have put trenches into two buildings within the fort, that showed-up clearly on geofizz and air photos. The first is the Principia. In modern military language this would have been the HQ Building. It was stone-built and clearly very important.
And this is where parallels with the copper mines leapt into my head. There, it took almost two days for the penny to drop that most of the dressing-floor waste was Victorian. And today Phil worked out that all of the finds-rich stone rubble in his trench was post-medieval. Frankly, that was a huge revelation and it’ll help me manage tomorrow’s excavation.
The second large building was located a short distance north-east of the Principia, but interestingly, it isn’t aligned on it. It’s actually angled very slightly away from it – by, I’d guess, ten degrees. And this alignment precisely mirrors the layout of the small town outside the walls, known as a vicus (the Latin word for a village). This secondary building might well be earlier than the fort, and, of course, the Principia. So far our trench has revealed more of Phil’s post-medieval rubble, but there are also hints that the building here might actually have been built earlier than the main fort. But it’s still only a hint. Fingers crossed for tomorrow.