Raksha’s Site Diary: Digging Up Roman Lancaster

Teabreak Happy Raksha

When you think of Lancaster, you probably think of its medieval castle, Georgian townhouses and (of course!) the burning of the Pendle witches. But as we found out this week, there’s waaaay more to Lancaster than first meets the eye!

Nige Steel and I only had 7 days to help the Lancaster and District Heritage Group (LDHG) discover Lancaster’s early origins…. err no pressure then!

I haven’t visited Lancaster since I was 14, so all recollections had faded into the murky memories. I know it has a medieval castle, a Roman bathhouse and lovely Georgian architecture, so when the DV bat-phone summoned me and Nige to help LDHG dig in a previously unexcavated meadow, I wondered what on earth we were actually going to find?!

Lancaster and Heritage District Group have only been running for about a year, but their enthusiasm for their local heritage is HUGE! So much so, they decided to set up their own excavation in Quay Meadow, a recreational field right next to Lancaster Castle.

Last year, the group commissioned a geophysics survey with a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund. As well as being close to the castle, Quay Meadow is also next to a swathe of scheduled land that contains the remains of a Roman fort, a mansio (a big posh Roman house) and a Roman bath house. Slap bang in the middle of this lot looms Lancaster Castle, which dates back to the Norman Conquest.

Meanwhile to the north of Quay Meadow runs the River Lune, but the only inkling of an established waterfront is St George’s Quay, which was only built in the 1800s. The River Lune acts as a gateway to the Western seaboard of Britain and it is inconceivable to think people didn’t use this to their benefit over millennia. Surely earlier residents of Lancaster must have used the river for trade and to send supplies to those poor old folk back on the Roman frontier?

It’s true to say that Lancaster has been a busy place, but for some reason all archaeological knowledge stops at the old railway-line which runs between the two halves of the field. Everything outside the scheduled area has remained an archaeological unknown, until now…

When the geophys results came in, they revealed some intriguing anomalies. Dark strong linear magnetic and resistivity responses littered the printout with hints of structures, ditches and pits. Some of these were so impressive that LDHG decided to ‘ground-truth’ these results by excavation in order to characterise whether these were actual archaeological features.

Lancaster Castle Geophys Results (mag & res)

Geophysics results from Quay Meadow, carried out last year on behalf of LDHG by Oxford Archaeology.

And that’s where me and Nige come in. Three trenches were opened over the three major anomalies we could see in the geophys results. Two looked like linear features (maybe a ditch or something similar), and another was placed over a building or structure which we thought might relate to the later quayside.

True to form, it took four days before we finally got through the post-medieval levels and made our first breakthrough in Trench 2. The anomaly did turn out to be a building, but its date took us all totally by surprise!

Jason Wood (the consulting archaeologist) and I agreed that the structure looked distinctly Roman, not to mention that all the pottery excavated from these layers were Roman too!

Lancaster 2015 Trench 2 Alex and Gary find the first Roman wall

Trench 2. Alex and Gary find the first Roman wall. It’s not just a jumble of stones, honest gov!

And yet Trench 2 was the one placed up by where the River Lune would have run – so did this building relate to the Roman waterfront? Roman ports often have numerous warehouses associated with landing areas and jetties, and the mysterious structure in Trench 2 could well have served that function.

Trench 3 was the next to reveal its archaeological secrets. Nige and his team uncovered a substantial Roman road. By the using the Geophysics plot we were able to follow the road’s projection, which looks likely to run towards the east gate of the Roman fort. No road side ditches were found which suggests that this is an ancillary road used by the military to fetch goods from the portside to the fort complex.

Trench 3 Nige spruces up the Roman road

Trench 3. Nige spruces up the Roman road heading toward the fort.

And last by no means least… at the eleventh hour, Trench 1 delivered a glimpse into the potential of how impressive this site could be!

On the last day, my team uncovered what looked like another Roman road. To try and find the full width of the road, we had to extend the sondage not just once, but twice. It wasn’t until I stepped back and finally realised what was there… it was a massive structure with double walls! One of the walls had a huge posthole cut into the middle of it, and it was large enough to hold a substantial timber!

Trench 1 Lee and Allan Walls and Postholes

Trench 1. Lee and Allan find a wall and postholes.

As with all evaluations the results reveal a tiny glimpse into an ancient landscape. It’s a bit like keyhole surgery, making the smallest mark to glean as much information as possible.

Lancaster 2015 Trench 3 Nige celebrates finding a Roman Road

Trench 3. Nige celebrates the discovery of the Roman road by donning one of his fave t-shirst!

People always ask if I feel upset having to rebury the archaeology, but the answer is always a resounding no. I am totally excited that LDHG were able to prove their initial thoughts about Roman Lancaster. The added bonus is that we know we have a substantial extension of the Roman fort and have found evidence of its waterfront and the people who once lived and worked there. LDHG are already thinking about future plans and larger excavations, so watch this space!

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Raksha Dave

Written by Raksha Dave

A long-time member of Channel 4's Time Team, Raksha Dave is one of the country's best loved archaeologists. Unequivocally, she has never, and will never, be married to Matt Williams.

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