Category Archives: Roman

Excavation Day 9

Penultimate day for the excavation.

Of the  4 + 1 trenches we initially opened, all but one have been subject to investigation.

Trench 1 is in the final stages of recording, We have the titula/titulus/titulum pick your poison,  sectioned, as well as the east  terminal of the main ditch at the north entrance to the marching camp. A conundrum that has been bothering us all since the early clean up phase of Trench 1 is a  linear feature some 1.5 m wide that runs across the full extent of the trench and is  parallel with the camp entrance, but between the entrance and the titula,  there is some evidence from the magnetometer survey of a linear feature that straddles the front of the camp entrance behind the titula. When  trying to  understand  the geology on the site  Brian Dale the landowner advises that generally across the farm there is  a 50mm lens of hard compacted sand and gravel below the top soil, above looser predominately sand and gravel subsoil, this was the evidence we were presented with on opening up the site across all of the trenches. The surface of the linear feature conformed to what we initially believed to be natural  geology.  The evidence is however starting to mount up that whilst this hard  lens may well be  of the same material and texture as that which generally overlies the sand and gravels where there is no archaeology , it  is is becoming apparent that it is also appears to be reforming over archaeological deposits over a given  timescale through settlement of material from the deep topsoil.

Trench 1 Linear feature running left right across trench in front of camp entrance bit behind titula.
Trench 1 Linear feature running left right across trench in front of camp entrance bit behind titula.

Trench 2 is also approaching completion, the section across the ditch that forms the subdivision of the marching camp has been fully sectioned and conforms to standard roman ‘V’ shape with ankle breaker, although to a lesser scale than the marching camp ditch.  Removal of some of the burnt sculptured sand has revealed what appears to be an extensive area of what appears to be carbon deposits, although including the ubiquitous rotting and delaminating black shale found extensively in every trench.

Trench 2 Gordon getting his ankle into the ankle breaker in the ditch of the marching camp subdivision.
Trench 2 Gordon getting his ankle into the ankle breaker in the ditch of the marching camp subdivision.

Trench 3

This trench although opened up and cleaned  has not been excavated, Due to an error on my part in transposing the trenches from an ungridded survey to a gridded survey to aid measuring the trenches in,  I accidentally located the trench a few metres to the west of the original plan.

Although the trench still captured the road ditch? that ran East/west across the site, it missed a circular feature we were interested in. However by accident we have potentially  located far more important evidence of later settlement activity on the site,  with two sides of a rectangular timber framed? building with an internal division. Of even more interest the building cuts through an earlier curved feature, and is itself cut through by the  road ditch that was the original purpose of opening up the trench.   Perhaps I should  claim divine intervention for my mistake. Anyway a prime candidate for work next year.

Trench 3 Road ditchcutting throughj rectangular building cutting through curved feature
Trench 3 Road ditch cutting through  rectangular building cutting through curved feature

Trench 4

Excavating still in full flow,  ditch we thought was some sort of foundation ditch for a rectangular building  from the mag  has turned out to be way too big for a foundation trench. At 20m long by 10m wide,  we must now expect to potentially have a structure inside it. Possible candidate for next year.

Trench 4 Big ditches, busy, busy bees.
Trench 4 Big ditches, busy, busy bees.

Trench 5

This was the trench excavated some 30m east of the main gate with the aim of identifying a clean section of the main marching camp ditch away from the main gate. unfortunately it was just as hard to locate and identify the feature here. Eventual technique required to identify the ditch was to remove 25m of the hard sand and gravel lens across the whole trench, and keep doing it until the feature appeared. It required the removal of 75mm of material before at last we could seperate the natural from the archaeology. The ditch was fully  excavated with no finds, it is 2.4m wide and 2.1m deep from the current ground surface to the bottom of the ankle breaker, and   1.4m from the bottom of the topsoil.  On the inside of the ditch there is a textual change suggestive of the remains of the bank  which unfortunately extends outside the limits of our trench. A further feature found on the final clean down before photography was a ditch running across the bank at an angle with a burnt edge on one side.

Trench 5 Ditch with burnt edge cutting across marching camp bank
Trench 5 Ditch with burnt edge cutting across marching camp bank

Last day tomorrow!!!


Excavation Day 8

Weather today cool, overcast, shame about the wind drying out the sand and gravels. Fortunately the rain we have had over the last few days has softened the ground once the surface crust has been scraped away.

Have to say a few words about the diggers, despite the bad weather at times, most have been here throughout the dig in fair weather and foul,  with a few dipping in and out. Top team at digging, good teamworking and cracking social company.

Trench 1 and Trench 2 are now in the recording and photographing phase. Being ahead of the game we have decided to section the ditch feature in Trench 4.

Trench 4 was targeted at a 20m x 10 rectangular feature and one that showed up clearly on crop marks and the magnetometer survey, postulating  that this feature may well provide  evidence for Roman or early medieval  civilian settlement on the site.  The trench takes in half of the long side of the north ditch and part of the short east end including the corner. Finds in the two sections opened today include decorated Samian, Black Burnished ware and greyware, indicative of a possible  1st to 4th century range., additionally a copper pin head was also taken from the ditch.


The Trench 5 excavation  some 30m east of the gate was also completed today. This unplanned trench  was opened to offer an second  main ditch section to the confusing archaeology in Trench 1. The ditch is 2.4m wide and 2.1m from the current ground surface to the bottom of the ankle breaker, and 1.4m from the top of the sub soil to the bottom of the ankle breaker.  Behind the ditch there is also some evidence from a textual change of the remains of the bank. On cleaning up the trench after completing the ditch, another ditch was evident running at an angle across Trench 5, interestingly with a black apparently burnt edge on one side, but not the other.


Working on to complete the cleaning of Trench 5 after the others had left for the day, in the silence I heard a strange sound, climbing out of my 7ft hole I eventually found a bird had flown into my adjacent car and was banging its head against the windscreen trying to get out.  anybody know what type of bird it is.

Bird in the Hand!!
Bird in the Hand!!



Excavation Day 6

A key element of this excavation is our intention to maximise the use of modern camera technology to record as much as possible of the process.  Of course imagery has long been a staple element of archaeological investigations, but more often than not they are staged images at a particular point in the excavation for the report and the archive.

Until recently because of the expense the only alternative to still images was relatively low quality video recording, however recording  10  days of excavation, some 70 hours of video in total, especially with the excavating process making a can of  Dulux Brilliant White drying on the wall exciting, would drive the average teetotaller to reach for the sauce.

We decided to utilise three elements,  1080p High Definition wide angle lens sports cameras, 1080p High definition digital single lens reflex cameras(DSLR), and fixed lens devices such as phones and tablets.

In order to record the excavation using a method that made it watchable and usable, instead of recording standard video at 30 frames a second , which would use horrendous amounts of storage and be totally impractical, we decided to use  time lapse extensively at the rate of 1 frame every 5 second. Time lapse unlike video is actually a series on individual high definition images, each of these images in their own right can be accessed in exactly the same way as a standard DLSR camera image. This method gives us 25000 HD images per day some 250000 over the course of our 10 day excavation.

The final element is the use of a 7m mast to hang the camera on, this gives us the benefit of effectively  low level aerial photography.


During the course of the excavation we have positioned the 7m mast to record the whole excavation of Trench 1 in time lapse, and are currently recording the excavation of Trench 4 in time lapse.

The results so far have been very encouraging features that were not seen on the ground after cleaning down the trench are clear in our overhead.


The following image shows the ditch we found on opening up  Trench 3, but more importantly is shows two sides of a rectangular feature with an internal division, and also shows a curved feature. The most interesting element is that 3 phases of activity in the trench are clearly visible as the rectangular feature cuts through the curved feature and the dark ditch cuts through the rectangular feature.

Trench 2
Trench 2

Excavation Day 4

August Bank holiday Monday dawns damp and wet, perhaps the gods of archaeology are looking down sympathetically on the bunch of sand and gravel shovellers in Newsham.  Optimistic the rain will bring resolution of some present but hiding features.

First stop Trench 4 where we have placed our trench to section a long side of a rectangular feature. In the dampened trench our previously absent feature is now sticking out like a sore thumb, we can even see a return. It is noteworthy however that the fills of ditches on this site even when wet are barely a couple of shades different from the natural.

Here are a few plans of the site and the general project.

New Speculative Roman Road SystemNew Crop Marks and Earthworks(Oblique)

Fordal Points

A decision was made  at the digger stage when it became clear that the geology would be causing us problems  to open up an extra  trench across the camp north ditch away from the entrance to provide for a second opportunity if one was required to  record a clean section. Again the ditch did not present well in this trench either, and it was necessary to hand trowel away  a 5 metre strip of the ditch   25mm at a time ,  requiring the removal of 75mm before the ditch edges popped out.  The ditch is 2.40 metres wide, and first impressions suggest the edge is a narrow band of fine sand probably from erosion of the ditch from the very beginning, sandwiched between the natural sand and gravels and the more denser fill.

The motley crew, a fine bunch of amateur archaeologists.
The motley crew, a fine bunch of amateur archaeologists.

Excavation Day 3

Weather more of the same dry and windy,conditions making excavation and recording  difficult, but we are slowly getting a handle on the geology.

The second  trench we have been excavating is Trench 2.

The marching camp appears to have been reduced in size on at least two occasions.  This trench cuts across the North/South ditch line of the smaller of the two  internal divisions of  the marching camp, and also includes  a roundish feature,  the aim being to date the subdivision.


Trench 1 also still fighting us all of the way. Titula ditch to the front of the entrance now clearly defined and producing pottery. Main ditch terminal still proving elusive.


Pottery collection from a 10 min field walk in the ploughed field adjacent to main site. Concentration of Tees Valley Ware(11-13th C) from an area which indicated a possible structure in the magnetometer survey.


Excavation Day 2

Day 2 dawns dry and windy, never again will I complain about excavating in heavy boulder clays, when the alternative in sand and gravels is infinitely worse for  defining archaeology.

As well as the research element of this excavation, there is no doubt searching questions will  be raised as to the  current procedures utilised by the archaeology community during developer funded watching briefs on this type of geology.   Instant judgements  are often required under pressure from developers after the removal of top soil,  as to whether archaeology is present or not,

We removed 50cm of topsoil and know that the archaeology is 15-20cm below the deepest ploughing for crops such as potatoes, and is therefore undisturbed from modern agriculture.   We have numerous crop mark evidence, and we also  carried out a large scale magnetometry survey with stunning results,  revealing a multi-period archaeological landscape. With our  precisely  located trenches we knew the archaeology was there,   yet with the one exception of a ditch across Trench 3 that conformed to  having a brown loamy fill against yellow sand and gravels, all of our trenches in developer funded investigations would have been abandoned, as containing no archaeology.

At the horizon between topsoil and subsoil  and as we became more familiar with the geology,  the features which we are confident are prehistoric and Roman  can only be teased out by a slight textual change between a slightly looser natural  sand and gravel, and a harder lens of sand and gravel that has accumulated on the top of the feature, there is no clear edge to this change, no colour difference, and location has been a matter of accurate measuring in from known points to  identify  a general area of investigation.  Once the feature is tentively located and the crust is broken through, a slightly more conventional ditch fill becomes apparent.



To put the excavation in context, here is a potted version of the trench layout and the reasoning behind it. Trench 1 will be today other trenches to follow.

Trench 1 is considered the main trench and straddles the  northern gate of the marching camp, one of two gates we have identified, as we also have the southern gate located. The northern  gate faces  the direction of travel,  and most danger for the campaigning  army, and  would be considered the main gate, the Porta Praetoria, with the Via Praetoria being the road that led  from the gate to the camp centre. Trench 1  straddles some 4.5m of  the ditch circuit including the eastern terminal of the gate, together with 5.5m of the 10m wide entrance.  The ditch also extends to the north to  include 5.5m of the tituli, which is a section of bank and ditch some 8 to 10m in front of the gate opening, and 10m wide,  designed to create a barrier the same width directly in front of  the gate opening. The purpose of the tituli is to stop any attacking force from carrying out a frontal attack, forcing them to the sides, slowing their momentum  and splitting the attack force.

Today we also aimed to begin our investigation of the river bed  with Rolfe Mitchinson and Bob Middlemas. Both are  amateur archaeologists who for  over 40 years have been central to advancing our  understanding of river crossings  of the Roman period in the North East. Their collection of material from the bed of the river at Piercebridge is unsurpassed in its breadth, and with the British Museum currently analysing and archiving the material, this is an outstanding contribution to research archaeology.

Today unfortunately the river level had risen overnight some 60cm and was heavily coloured and flowing fast. After a brief splodge Rolfe and Bob decided it was too dangerous.

Watch this space!


Roman Research in North Yorkshire

On the 13th December 2014, I gave a talk at Thornton le Street as part of a series of talks promoting current and proposed research into  the Roman Roads of North Yorkshire.

My talk was the last in the first series of four which had all been well attended. My talk to my surprise got over 70 people paying to attend, suggesting the potential for amateur archaeological endeavour in North Yorkshire is  waiting to be tapped.

The talks were organised by John Sheehan, well known to the archaeological community in the region, and who has been leading a proposal to carry out investigations into potential Roman archaeology  along the alignment of Cades Road ( Margary 80a), on its route through the Thirsk/ Northallerton area.

Fieldwork and geophysical survey are on the cards in the next few months,  as are a further series of talks, anybody who might be interested in attending or  taking part, can  contact John at: