Archaeologists find baths of "sociable" Romans and early evidence of Christianity

By Ben Miller | 22 July 2014

Archaeologists are calling Binchester Roman Fort "the Pompeii of the north" after finding a "spectacular" bath house with seven foot-high walls

A photo of a large ring with a red bet in the middle against a very dark background
The silver ring found in Roman Durham© Courtesy Durham University
Excavating two large trenches near Bishop Auckland, experts say a silver ring from the site evidences Christianity in Roman Britain.

The walls of the bath, where features such as a bread oven nod to an important social as well as recreational space, would once have been covered with brightly-coloured paint designs, with the original floor, doorways, window openings and an inscribed altar dedicated to the Roman Goddess, Fortune the Home-bringer, also surfacing.

A photo of a large muddy stone
The altar found at Binchester© Courtesy Durham University
“The form of the ring and the shape of the stone seem to indicate a 3rd century date,” says Dr David Petts, who is co-ordinating a project which has entered a fifth week in its sixth year of investigations.

“This is a surprisingly early date for a Christian object in Britain, as it predates the accession of Constantine in York in AD306.

“The intaglio shows two fish hanging from an anchor. This has clear Christian connotations.

“It is found widely elsewhere in the Roman Empire, but this is only the second example from Britain; the other example coming from the colonia at York.

“It was under him that Christianity finally became a licit religion. Evidence for Roman Christianity is rare in Northern England, and evidence for pre-Constaninian Christianity is even rarer.

“This is a rather splendid find.”

A photo of an archaeological team in hats digging within walls on an excavation site
Two trenches are being examined© Courtesy Durham University
An “exceptionally well-preserved” small plunge bath has been found in the second of the trenches, where eight courses of stonework and foundation stones represent a daunting depth of archaeology for a team only planning one more season of digging.

“There is also some really interesting evidence for the plumbing, including a drain in the base which seems to line up with some of the culverts we’ve picked out in the nearby floor, as well as some gaps within the wall which may well have originally contained lead piping or some other mechanism for channelling the water,” says Petts, calling it “a wonderful little feature”.

Although the second trench is better preserved, the first, more complex trench is of greater archaeological intrigue, containing a large rectangular Roman cavalry barrack for stables and troops.

“The earliest phase of the structure was a larger building, with two rows of rooms: one containing the rooms where the men slept, the other consisting of the stable areas for the horses,” says Petts.

A photo of an outstretched hand carrying a brown brick shape
This late Roman pot spooked project leader David Petts©, courtesy Durham University
“At some point, perhaps in the 4th century, the entire structure was reduced in size to a smaller building only one room thick.

“At one end this had a separate block that appears to have formed quarters for an officer.

“In this latest phase, the entire structure was surrounded by large dumps of butchered animal bone. We are still working on the precise chronology for this building, but the final phase probably survived into the early 5th century.

“A series of features are built into the rampart, including a small bread oven and, more substantially, a well-preserved latrine.

“This was a communal facility and we reckon up to four toilet holes must have stood side by side – it was a sociable process.

“The latrine would have been regularly cleared out by water channelled through it from the roadside gutter nearby.

“The sewage would have been taken through a neatly formed arched conduit in the fort wall into the neighboring fort ditch.”

A photo of a large stone Roman archaeological complex
An inscribed altar from the site is dedicated to the Roman Goddess, Fortune the Home-bringer©, courtesy Durham University
Painted plaster has been found during the past two days.

Petts’ favourite find is a “haunting” ceramic face from a late Roman head pot.

“The altar is a reminder that bath houses were about more than keeping clean and exercising and were actually social centres – a bit like our modern day leisure centres,” he points out, observing an inscription by a retired trooper who served with a unit of the Spanish cavalry and described his rank as “architectus”.

“The most unique feature of these remains is the sheer scale of their preservation.

"It is possible to walk through a series of Roman rooms with walls all above head height; this is pretty exceptional for Roman Britain.

“Our excavations have uncovered parts of one of the best preserved Roman buildings in Britain.

“The building itself and the wonderful array of artefacts we have recovered from Binchester give us an unparalleled opportunity to better understand life on the northern frontier in the Roman period.”

Durham County Council, the Architectural and Archaeological Society of Durham and Northumberland and several American universities have helped research the site, where a first year student found a 1,800-year-old carved stone head of a Roman god last year.

A photo of a series of stone walls with archaeological measuring sticks in the corners
The Roman fort lies above the River Wear, just outside the town of Bishop Auckland©, courtesy Durham University
Guided tours will take place during the weekend as part of a Roman festival at Binchester.

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There is something strangely soothing to me about archeology.

We are fortunate to have at our disposal so many find archeologist that have the skill to takes us on a trip back in time revealing the humanity and similarities to our ancient predecessors.

Thank you for your work and for beautiful artistic presentation that effortlessly links us to our past.
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