Roman Durham

Roman Durham

The date of the Roman invasion of England in A.D. 43 is well known, but it was a further three decades before their influence spread to the north-east and Durham became the northern border zone of the Empire. Lying to the south of the best known Roman monument in Britain, Hadrian’s Wall (built A.D. 122-128), the county itself was lightly Romanised judged in terms of known monuments and artefacts. The major features are roads and associated forts.

Roman County Durham
Roman County Durham

Dere Street, constructed during the military governorship of Agricola (A.D. 78-84), is the earlier and more important of two north-south arteries. Entering the county at Piercebridge, it makes for Corbridge, over two days’ march away in the vicinity of the Wall. Forts guarded the important artery at local river crossings – Piercebridge (Magis) being on the Tees, Binchester (Vinovia) by the Wear and Ebchester (Vindomora) by the Derwent (see Map 3) . Forts and highway together are seen essentially as a joint instrument of consolidation. There is no evidence of hostile native populations, anyway, and only one tentatively identified site of campaigning – a possible marching camp near Lanches­ter. The evacuation of both Binchester and Ebchester for two decades in the middle of the second century, to be replaced by a single more centrally-positioned new fort at Lanchester (Longovicium), can be taken as further evidence of the area’s stability. The re-occupation of the two vacated forts, together with the building of a new one at Chester-le­Street (Concangium) in the 160s, may be interpreted as part of  broader strategy whereby forts in the county provided auxiliary centres for troop concentration for expeditions north of the Wall.

The military settlement at South Shields (Arbeia) performed a distinc­tive role in the Romanising of the area, guarding the eastern flank of the Wall and serving as a port and supply base to the county and beyond. Pottery finds suggest an early wooden fort on the site as a base for Agricola’s fleet, a role emphasised again when it was temporarily converted into a supply base for the campaigns of Emperor Septimus Severus into Scotland in the early third century. Its significance as a store base can be gauged from the size of its two dozen granaries which, it is estimated, would have been capable of serving an army of 10,000 men for almost a year. (The total estimated garrison strength along the Wall was just under 10,000.) The fort itself, which had been recon­structed in stone by the middle of the second century and extended at the beginning of the third, was again rebuilt at the end of the same century, thereby emphasising its continuing garrison function. A recent imaginative on-site reconstruction of one of its gates provides a ready visual clue to the importance of this easternmost unit of the Wall system. It is logic rather than imagination, however, which links military inscriptions along with coins and pottery finds at Jarrow to suggest it was the site of another fort (or signal station) , thus filling the gap between South Shields and Wallsend. Along the coast, discovery of middens or pottery similarly underlies the suggestion of a chain of signal stations at Monkwearmouth, Seaham and near Seaton Carew.

The two largest forts, Binchester and Piercebridge, have both pre­sented problems for the archaeologist. The former, enclosing nine acres, has borne the intriguing attribution of Ptolemy as a city of the Brigantes. Since there is no evidence of pre-Roman settlement on the site, and since this is the sole reference to Brigantes in the county, the accuracy of the statement may be queried. Meanwhile, excavation of the deserted hill­top site has exposed the most perfectly preserved hypocaust in the North.

At Piercebridge excavations have revealed the ground plan of an 11-acre fort dating from the fourth century on the north bank of the Tees, adjacent to a civilian settlement, but, strangely, no evidence of an earlier military installation which is considered to have existed from the very beginning of Agricola’s northern campaign. It is reasoned that it would have been foolhardy of an invading force, after plundering the important hillfort of Stanwick only three miles to the south-west in A.D. 71, not to have left a military presence at this strategic river crossing. An area immediately south of the river has yet to be confirmed as the site. Even evidence of the bridging of the Tees has come to light only fairly recently.

In the 1930s oak piling was discovered in the river bed; in the 1970s stone piers were excavated 200 yards downstream. The former, predict­able from the north-south alignment of Dere Street, is the presumed original bridge dating from the A.D. 90s. The latter, dated to the second century by finds on both shores, is located where the much lower banks would have allowed the river to spread laterally during its episodes of severe flooding, thereby reducing the build-up of potentially destructive water pressure; the constriction of flood water is presumed to have destroyed the higher crossing. The safer crossing point necessitated a diversion of Dere Street to the east.

While pottery finds show that the county’s forts were occupied until at least the last quarter of the fourth century, all had attendant civilian settlements (vid) which, having been emergent market centres during the occupation, doubtless lingered when the Romans withdrew. There is, however, no evidence of  classical grid-pattern in their layout. Even Piercebridge, the largest, appears to have grown organically. Neither is there evidence that the classical urban lifestyle of the southern part of the country was replicated in the county. The virtual absence of villas reinforces this last point. Just to the south of Piercebridge, at Holme House, remains of a bath-house, mosaic pavements and a round house point to the existence of a true villa. Within the county there is just Old Durham, where a fourth-century bath-house is assumed to have been once associated with a main building subsequently lost in gravel quarry­ing, and the suggestion of a possible second site at Finchale. The latter two can be seen to be located in relation to Cade Road, which, being the later of the two north-south arteries, was constructed for administrat­ive and commercial, rather than military purposes. The sole fort on the road from Middleton St George on the Tees to the bridge on the Tyne at Newcastle (Pons Aelius) was the later garrison of Chester-le-Street.

Beyond the features outlined, there is little to denote any further distinct material imprint by the colonising Romans. Iron Age culture persisted, forest clearance intensified and cereal cultivation rapidly became widespread over the central and eastern parts of the county in a climate comparable to the present day. The area surrounding Bishop Middleham was noted for its hemp cultivation. Parts of the west of the county were used for the hunting of deer and boar, not least by Roman officers seeking a sporting diversion, judging by inscriptions on elaborate altars found at Eastgate and Stanhope. Lack of other obvious evidence, not least of a road in Weardale, may puzzle historians, but then, it is not unusual for the quest for historical tidiness to be thwarted, albeit temporarily.