The secrets of a Roman dig in Carlisle


An illustration of a first century AD horse harness found during the dig, shown with the genuine article

A 936-page report into the Millennium dig in the grounds of Carlisle castle in 1999 has now been published, detailing the 80,000 artefacts discovered and what they reveal about Roman life in the city.

Archaeologists dug five trenches on the Castle Green and Eastern Way and, over the following three years, unearthed a huge quantity of pottery, armour, weapons, and, unusually, wooden remains. They normally rot away but, because of the waterlogged soil, 2,000 large pieces of timber were discovered.

The dig, part of the Millennium project which led to the Irish Gate Bridge construction, also saw 2662 fragments of pottery – including 442 bowls from Gaul – 536 Roman coins, 30,250 bits of animal bone, 11 spearheads and 32 arrowheads recovered. Twenty one brooches, nine pieces of bracelet, 10 hairpins and 41 glass beads were also found.

But it is the extensive wooden and leather remains – which include posts, shoes and tents – that surprised the archaeologists, leading to a “wealth of evidence” about the structure of Roman buildings which does not normally survive.

“The survival of wooden structures is still uncommon in Britain and beyond,” the report by the archaeology team says.

“The data from this site has added significantly to the knowledge concerning the construction and appearance of Roman military buildings in the first and second centuries.

“The huge range of the finds demonstrates, on occasions quite startlingly, the very special nature of the archaeological deposits in Carlisle. The extensive waterlogging has preserved a wealth of organic objects that do not normally survive.”

Articulated armour never before found in the UK was also discovered, an event of “international importance,” according to John Zant, one of the team.

Mr Zant, of Oxford Archaeology North, spent years cataloguing, conserving and assessing the finds, and said they always knew they would find “extremely important material”.

He was also involved in the dig at the fort – believed to have been built in 72 or 73AD for around 500 soldiers – and described it as “one of the most significant excavations in north England with elements of national, even international, significance.”

The finds enabled archaeologists to work out, for the first time, how small pieces of wood were used in building construction and that the internal walls of the fort could be easily changed.

A picture of the everyday life of the soldiers also emerges, with finds showing how they hunted deer on a regular basis (270 bones were found), ate mutton rather than lamb (the sheep bones were too old to be young animals) and played a Roman version of draughts – ludus latrunculorum – as 12 black and white glass counters were found.

A wooden-soled bath shoe was found, suggesting there may have been a bath house nearby, possibly close to the River Caldew, but it has never been found.

Razor blades, combs and fragments of mirrors showed that the soldiers made an effort with their appearance. One of the combs even had a whole louse still stuck in one of the teeth.

Tim Padley, keeper of archaeology at Tullie House, said it built up a fascinating picture of an army “arriving in the back of beyond.”

“You have got to sleep somewhere, get things to eat out of, all that really brings it to life. All that may not necessarily be significant, but it’s really exciting. You’re dealing with the practicalities of arriving in a strange place.”

He described Carlisle as a “significant base” for the Romans. “The dig is important because we know what’s going on there,” he said.

“Carlisle as a whole is an important Roman town. North of Chester, it’s the only Roman town with official status – cibitas – a town which had a council. It was the only one in the north west.

“One of the most significant [things we have learned] is the position of the fort itself,” he added. “Thirty years ago there was a possibility it was under the cathedral.”

Tullie House is to open a new Roman gallery next July which will feature some of the finds but take a bigger, overall look at the Roman empire.

The archaeological report claims that Carlisle’s ‘value’ “can be listed alongside York, Chester and Newcastle as one of the dominant centres in the north in Roman periods.”



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