Dig rewrites the history of county's Roman fort

Students at work at the Ribchester Revisited archaeological dig 2019
Students at work at the Ribchester Revisited archaeological dig 2019

For five years archaeologists from UCLan have been leading an annual dig on the site of Ribchester's former Roman fort. Fiona Finch finds out what they discovered and what happens next.

It felt like the end of an era.

Dr James Morris

Dr James Morris

After five years of summer visits to Ribchester by UCLan archaeology staff and students their excavation site has finally been put to bed.

Soon the grass will regrow and few would ever imagine how for successive summers. archaeologists, students and volunteers spent weeks digging deep. Their mission was to discover more about the past life of part of the Ribble Valley village’s Roman fort.

Their work has been ground-breaking in more ways than one, leading the dig’s directors to overturn the previous understanding about just how long a fort survived here.

It is predicted the results of the lengthy research project will now take as many years to be analysed and written up by project leaders UCLan academics Dr Duncan Sayer, Reader in Archaeology and senior lecturer Dr James (Jim) Morris.

Where it  all began - the first students to join the dig in 2015 are pictured with Dr Duncan Sayer (far right)

Where it all began - the first students to join the dig in 2015 are pictured with Dr Duncan Sayer (far right)

Duncan said: “We’ve discovered an enormous amount. It has been a fantastic five years and the village has been amazing. But it’s time to start moving to interpretation and analysis so we get a real understanding of what has been discovered. Really to do it justice we need to spend several years looking at it and digging at it. It’s actually the end of the excavation, it’s not the end of the Ribchester project by any means.

“In reality Jim and I will be spending a lot more time on the Ribchester project over the next few years than we have over the last few years.”

He added: “The bit I’m interested in is that transition from Roman to Dark Ages . One of our significant research questions in Ribchester was how long the occupation continues. To that extent it’s been revolutionary to have not only demonstrated that the fort continued beyond 370 (A.D.) when it was believed to be abandoned, but continued well into the 5th century.”

The Roman occupation of Ribchester is dated as starting in 76 AD with a Spanish cavalry unit which left at the beginning of the second century. Some time later, towards the end of the second century, the Sarmatians arrived and created a new fort on the same site.

Fragment of glass bracelet discovered during the dig

Fragment of glass bracelet discovered during the dig

Duncan said: “The original Spanish fort was decommissioned and pulled apart.The Sarmatian unit arrived and built from scratch in a completely different style. The history of a site like Ribchester is one of immigration. The Spanish, then Sarmatian cavalry, settled here in numbers in force.”

He mused: “What would be really good to find out would be to identify the Roman cemetery of Ribchester and be able to do DNA analysis and look at the connections. ”

As they have dug back through the centuries the finds have been illuminating.

James said: “We have fragments of preserved wood which have been the wooden lining of wells, glass fragments of bracelet and quern stones for grinding and processing grain inside the fort.

Enamelled button discovered during the dig

Enamelled button discovered during the dig

“ Everything is broken but some of the quern stones are made from a particular type of volcanic rock which comes from Germany/Rhineland - that’s nice to find in Ribchester.”
He notes the number of fragments unearthed must be “just short of 40,000 finds” but the final count was ongoing. Other artefacts unearthed included a gaming counter, 200 coins, rings, brooches, slivers of animal bone and even a sword pommel (counter weight) .

In research terms there have been major milestones along the way - discovering evidence of a pottery kiln from the second or third century AD, and evidence of glass smelting from the third and fourth century along with leather goods from that latter period too.

Duncan said: “Up in the north of the trench we were able to remove a large portion of the embankment, a second century defence and get underneath it, a fantastic thing to do. First century forts don’t get that much excavation. That’s where we found use of great beam slots for timbers and some really nice material culture (including) bits of horse harness.”

For the two academics it has been a teaching as much as a research project encouraging students, not just from UCLan but from Australian and American universities too, to learn how to accurately excavate a site, clean and care for artefacts and chart their discoveries.

It was also an outward-facing project - with those 250 students encouraged to share their learning with members of the public, taking it in turn to act as site guides and getting feedback on their site studies from Duncan and James.

A steady stream of visitors included school students and tourists as well as local residents keen to keep up to date with new discoveries.

Quern stones for grinding grain were discovered during the dig

Quern stones for grinding grain were discovered during the dig

Another feature of the project which Duncan describes as unique has been extensive soil sampling: “We’ve had the time to sample every single feature excavated. We took 40 litres of soil from every feature - every pit, floor surface, wall, well and gravel areas.”

Thousands of boxes of soil have now been washed and sieved as part of this environmental sampling, residues discovered included grass seeds and beads. Evidence of species of plants discovered in different parts of the site will add to their knowledge.

James said: “There are times when it’s one of the best jobs in the world because I get to recover and show people artefacts and archaeology that’s not been seen by people for about 2,000 years. Sometimes it’s great to see the excitement on the students’ faces, especially when they’re the first people to touch something a Roman soldier discarded - and to be able to share it with the village community is great. We’ve answered a lot of our questions. We now know what an important place Ribchester was for the northern part of Roman Britain as well.”

* Duncan and James plan to write a book about the dig .Its working title is ‘Edge of Frontier’. All finds will go to Ribchester Roman Museum once the research project is completed.

Guard Chamber of the Ribchester Roman fort

Guard Chamber of the Ribchester Roman fort

The preserved wood discovered inside a first century well

The preserved wood discovered inside a first century well

The End: It's the final day of the dig and Dr Duncan Sayer observes the research trench being refilled with  soil.

The End: It's the final day of the dig and Dr Duncan Sayer observes the research trench being refilled with soil.