This summer, in the far reaches of Northern England, an international excavation team gathered at the small town of Binchester, just south of Hadrian’s Wall. Shovels and pickaxes in hand, the group, consisting primarily of students from Stanford and Durham University UK, broke the surface soil on new trenches at one of the UK’s most significant archaeological sites.
The site, which has been the focus of archaeological interest for over a hundred years, posed fresh challenges for the team, whose objective was to explore the lifestyles and population of the Roman fort and town at Binchester. This summer’s dig focused on unearthing the Roman barracks at the corner of the fort.
Known to the Romans as Vinovium (“on the wine road”), the ancient settlement at Binchester commanded the main Roman road from the legionary headquarters in York to Hadrian’s Wall in the north. The original Roman fort housed a cavalry regiment as well as troops from across the Roman Empire, and was a key element in the complex frontier system that lay on both sides of the wall. At the fort’s gates, a vibrant civilian settlement developed, which, according to geophysical survey and the historical sources, thrived long after the fall of the Roman Empire.
For the students involved, the project was an opportunity to experience, first hand, history unfolding. As they scraped away layers of earth on previously untouched areas of the site, the students not only learned practical archaeological skills, but also contributed to piecing together a clearer picture of life in the settlement beneath.
Anna Mattazaro, a Stanford junior majoring in classics, was working on a section of wall belonging to the Roman barracks. “Toward the end of the third week, I stood back and looked at the wall I had uncovered,” she says. “It wasn’t just a random collection of rocks. It had a purpose, and it was our job to find out what that was. I thought to myself, ‘This is history’.”
Stanford’s involvement in the Binchester project began in 2007 when Michael Shanks, a Stanford professor of classics and classical archaeology who has been working in the region for some years, was approached by his colleague Richard Hingley at Durham University regarding a possible collaboration on a large excavation project at the site. Shanks agreed, and plans for a student-led research project began.
The project, which is run in collaboration with the Durham County Council, aims to investigate the local lifestyles and population of an area traditionally considered to be predominantly military in orientation. “In the past ten years, archaeological work in the region is starting to transform our understanding of life and society on the northern frontier of the Roman Empire,” explains Dr. David Petts, who co-ordinates the project at Durham University. “By exploring the fort and its surrounding civilian area, we hope to get a better understanding of how the Roman army interacted with local society.”
Excavation on the site at Binchester began as early as the late 19th century and has attracted significant attention over the past few decades. The UK’s best-preserved bathhouse was found here, as well as some of the most impressive Roman mausoleums discovered in 150 years.
Today, the site stands among ethereal reminders of its ancient past in one of the richest archaeological landscapes in the world.
“Across the river is Auckland Castle, seat of the Prince-Bishops of Durham,” says Shanks. “Nearby at Escomb is one of the oldest churches in Britain, built from stones of Binchester in the 7th century, still standing as a reminder of the kingdom of Anglo-Saxon Northumbria, the heartland of Celtic Christianity, the land of Arthurian romance. To the north in the uplands of the Scottish borders are dense concentrations of hillforts, farms and villages reaching deep into prehistory, and including some of the most evocative rock art sites from the European bronze age.”
The site also holds significance in modern British history. “The area was the crucible for the Industrial Revolution and home to the steam locomotive,” says Petts. “We have the oldest railway bridge in the world.”
For Eleri Cousins, a Stanford archaeology and classics major who graduated in June 2009, the opportunity to learn about the dig in the context of the surrounding region was extremely valuable. “Although I’d worked on digs in the area before, on this occasion I had the chance to learn more about the later history of the region and to visit many places I hadn’t seen before.”
Another bonus of the trip, for many of the Stanford students involved (several of whom had never previously visited the UK) was the opportunity to work outside their comfort zone and integrate with students from a different culture. “As with almost any dig, the highlight was the people, both the people from Stanford and from Durham,” says Cousins.
Christopher Lowman, a Stanford senior with a double major in history and archaeology, agrees. “You can be one person with notebooks and knit-sweaters in a classroom, and someone completely different in a grubby t-shirt, wielding a mattock [an archaeological pick-axe]. By working together, we learned from each other.”
While not all of the Stanford students who took part in the Binchester project will continue to practice archaeology, all agree that the experience was valuable.
Cousins, who plans to go on to study archaeology at graduate level next year, has seen a great improvement in her practical skills. “The supervisors on the Binchester project are professional archaeologists and my excavation skills definitely improved through working with them,” she says.
For Lowman, who had never worked on a Roman dig before, the experience heightened his appreciation of the significance of archaeology in understanding societies, past and present. “Piecing together material, whether it’s from 2000 or 20 years ago, makes you consider how things are made and how they change,” he says. Matazarro agrees. “I came to understand why archaeology is as meticulous as it is,” she says. “Every piece of rubble is a part of someone’s history. Even if it’s not what you’re looking for, you have to take the time to account for everything.”
Drawing on the success of this summer’s dig, plans are underway to expand the excavation site next year with an enhanced geophysical survey, a large trench in the town and explorations of the town’s cemeteries.
The project is also developing an interpretation and study center with stakeholder interests, including representatives of the local community. Outreach is a key component: English Heritage, the national government agency has funded the involvement of the local history society. Stanford Continuing Studies is coordinating Bay Area volunteers for the summer of 2010, and under Stanford Lecturer Gary Devore, a 3-D reconstruction of the Binchester site is being built in the online virtual world Second Life. In addition, Stanford archaeologist and research fellow Dr. Melissa Chatfield, working with colleagues at Durham University, is currently leading an initiative to explore ceramic craft through replication, with live firings presented at the Stanford Archaeology Center Pottery Workshop Series. This has grown out of the interest of several Stanford faculty in traditional craft technologies.
The Binchester Excavation Project is accepting student and volunteer applications for the summer 2010 excavation until February 15, 2010.
Learn more on the Binchester Project website.