The Auckland Project
Binchester is the site of a Roman Fort just to the north of Bishop Auckland, County Durham. Known as Vinovium during the Roman period, the fort guarded the crossing over the River Wear on the key Roman route we know today as Dere Street. NAA was commissioned by The Auckland Project to manage a community-led excavation to help further our knowledge of this key site.
Our first season of excavation took place in the summer of 2018 and attracted over 50 volunteers from all walks of life. Many were from the local area and have enjoyed prior seasons of excavations at Binchester, their experience and enthusiasm showed throughout the dig and proved invaluable.
The trench was located in order to better understand the chronology and development of the site, specifically an earlier phase of the fort that pre-dates the standing earthworks that are obvious to visitors. The existence of an earlier fort was unknown until a geophysical survey carried out in the 2000s revealed the outline of a large ditch and rampart defensive circuit associated with an early timber fort. Therefore, the trench was positioned to encompass the entrance to the early fort and the defensive ditches visible on the geophysical survey.
After the removal of topsoil by a mechanical excavator, the volunteers set to work revealing the Roman remains. The defences of the early fort were visible in the archaeological horizons as depressions in the ground caused by the breakdown of organic matter in the ditch fills (Fig. 1). These depressions, or areas of ‘slumping’, evidently caused problems for the Romans themselves, as there were repeated attempts during the Roman period to consolidate the ground using large layers of stone. One of these layers even contained a discarded statue, possibly of a Romanised local deity of the ‘mother goddess’ type (Fig. 2).
In addition, it was apparent that the occupation of this area continued after the abandonment of the early fort. A thick “dark earth” deposit, commonly found on Roman sites, sealed a substantial 6m wide road. Flanking this were the remains of several small timber structures and a side road. Based on the 4th-century artefacts recovered from associated contexts, these remains are associated with the later fort to the south (Fig. 3).
“Good experience, learned a lot, very friendly group and staff”
Binchester volunteer (2018 Season)
NAA is committed to the training and development of anyone involved in its projects and the volunteers were no exception. All stages of the excavation process, from digging to finds recording to planning, were undertaken by the volunteers themselves under the guidance of NAA staff. Those onsite even had the chance to learn about drone surveying techniques, when our qualified drone pilot provided a talk and demonstration. We also organised a series of weekly seminars where we invited other members of the NAA team to share their expertise on a diverse range of topics. These included Bayesian modelling for radiocarbon dating, a presentation about our recent excavations on the A1 and a guide to post-medieval pottery.
A great deal of artefactual evidence was recovered and the processing of the finds, i.e. the washing, cataloguing and marking, were undertaken as much as possible on site. This was made possible by our flexible and dedicated post-excavation team, who became an intrinsic part of the running of the site, often helping to identify and interpret the finds as they were being excavated.
One of our core values at NAA is the belief that archaeology should be for the benefit of everyone. As such, we try to share the excavations with a wide an audience as possible. For those that can’t be there, social media is a key tool in sharing the exciting discoveries. We also held daily tours for the public who were visiting the fort and participated in the exciting Binchester Roman Festival by displaying finds from the dig and other related excavations (Fig. 4). All of this was made possible by our full-time Community and Outreach Officer.
To be part of the continuing excavations here, and to add another piece to the puzzle that so many individuals have dedicated time and effort to, is a rare privilege. Using the skills and experience that NAA possess we aim to make sure that Binchester remains not only a centre of research, but a way of taking archaeology outside of the trench and into people’s lives.