Saturday, September 18, 2010

Times & Star | Cumbria's Roman history washed to the surface by floods

Last updated at 13:44, Wednesday, 25 August 2010

The deluge that struck the county last November washed away so many precious things – the rebuilding of lives still goes on in its wake.

Papcastle dig photo
Archaeologist Mark Graham at work

But as the torrents receded, the most important archeological find the county has seen in years was revealed near Cockermouth.

In the middle of a scrubby field edging the River Derwent at Papcastle, a team of local volunteers are dotted around several trenches. Wearing waterproofs and clutching trowels, they are on their hands and knees, scraping and brushing at the earth as two nonplussed horses look on.

Known as Broomlands, one edge of the field is bordered by the back of the Lakes Homecentre. On the other side is the village of Papcastle, rising into the trees.

Through the site a wide strip of boulders and gravel sweeps. It’s the calling card of the torrential floodwater that thundered so powerfully through the field that it also reportedly deposited a transit van that had been left in a car park some distance away.

Although the field had peacefully been used for crops and grazing for perhaps many centuries, the floods are certainly not the first piece of action Broomlands has ever seen.

At the centre of the dig is a compelling, historically significant find in the shape of a section of sandstone wall.

Sitting three feet underground and neighbouring a waterlogged trench, to the untrained eye it’s just...well, muddy stone. But this slab of wall forms part of a Roman mill dating back about 2,000 years.

It is a major coup for the county. There is only one other in the whole of the north of England – a mill unearthed at Halwhistle Burn in 1908.

It also has the potential to bring about major changes in the way we think about Romano-British settlements.

The mill is a discovery that has the team, headed up by Mark Graham of Grampus Heritage and Training, extremely excited.

“We had no idea any of this was here,” Mark says.

“This is exciting stuff.”

The mill is just one of the findings since explorations began. A geophysical survey in May saw droves of volunteers pacing the field in grids armed with magnetometers – instruments that can detect buried walls.

In the picture that the readings created an amphitheatre, iron smelting works and domestic buildings were seen just several feet below the surface.

These structures now form part of the excavation. Along the way, Roman coins have been found, some with emperor’s heads still visible, and a pendant of red enamel along with shards and shards of Samian ware pottery.

Cockermouth man Ray Buckingham is one of the volunteers painstakingly working to uncover the historical treasure.

Squatting in a baseball cap and fleece, Ray is busy digging soil from the outline of a Roman building.

An old hand at this excavation lark, he triggered the quest last year after walking out on the fields when the flood waters had drained away.

“I found structures were visible,” says Ray. “And bits of pottery. Other people were finding them too when out walking. So I called the county archeologist.”

Soon afterwards, Heritage Lottery Fund stumped up the cash so Bassenthwaite Reflections could investigate.

The Bassenthwaite conservation charity was working at Castlerigg, near Keswick, as part of the Unlocking Hidden Heritage project but soon took up the call and paid attention to Broomfields.

Incidentally Ray, who works in construction, has history in uncovering artifacts around Papcastle. The Roman fort at Papcastle has been open for several years, but Ray kick-started national interest in the village again after contacting Channel 4’s Time Team in 1998.

“It was at my old house in Papcastle and I was building an extension. I started finding Roman material.

“Time Team decided to come along and they excavated in my garden.”

Papcastle became a film set for that weekend. The team numbered 45, including caterers, the St John Ambulance volunteers, three film crews and a staff of archaeologists and presenters.

The Time Team discoveries led archaeologists to believe that Papcastle was far larger and more important than previously thought.

They found a gridded street pattern, which suggests a well thought-out and planned town.

The resulting programme was aired in 1999.

But although the Time Team took geophysical readings from a field close by, on the other side of the river, the exploration ended there. Indeed, monuments in Papcastle are mentioned in documents dating back to the 1550s. Yet no one has ever thought to dig in the Broomlands field until now.

Mark explains: “The reason people didn’t look this side is because it’s a flood plain. The rest is on a hill.

“But this could have been the engine for industry in the settlement.”

Some 100ft from the river course as it is now, the mill could potentially once have been used to power bellows for metal smelting.

“The river course has changed since then,” says Mark. “We think this was to harness the power of the river. And it shows people felt safe living here a long way from the fort.

“We think it’s part of the settlement that grew after the initial fortification.

“Maybe now in other areas where Roman settlements have been found, using modern technologies we can discover places where before we would not have thought people would occupy.

“It changes our perceptions of the importance of rivers to Romano-British settlements.”

The dig also has the potential to change our perception of Romans in the county according to Mark.

“When people think of Romans in Cumbria they think of forts and how we are in a zone of military occupation.

“This helps tell part of the untold story in Cumbria of how we had thriving a civilian culture.”

The dig is scheduled to finish a week on Saturday. After then, it is up to the landowners and various bodies such as Natural England what happens next.

Mark says: “We will have a lot of questions. The more you find, the more intrigued you are.”

And indeed the Romans are intriguing. More than 15 volunteers from the community have turned out for every day of the dig so far.

Roger Asquith, a retired engineer at Sellafield, lives just minutes from the dig site and has been keenly involved in helping unearth the field’s secrets.

“It’s about discovery,” he says. “And Roman mills are as rare as rocking horse droppings.”

“I think the Romans are very tangible,” adds Mark. “We can see the material they’ve left behind. The Roman age is the birth of the historic age in Britain, before that it’s pre-historic.

“The Romans have had a massive impact on the country and we are part of a much larger Roman Empire that stretched down as far as Africa.

“You could say that here we are at the edge of the Roman Empire, we’re part of something amazing.”

Perhaps the Broomlands remains will be covered over after this dig and sleep undisturbed again for many years. Perhaps there will be more excavations hot on the heels of the Bassenthwaite project.

It’s not yet clear. But the rest, as they say, is definitely history.

If you are interested in helping out at the dig call 017687 74785.

First published at 11:25, Wednesday, 25 August 2010
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Amazing what you can find in a field in Cockermouth.

Now how do I get a grant to keep this open to the general public, or do I have to fill it all in next week?

Criminal... 50 odd people have worked on this dig, similar to Time Team and now we have to fill it in again.

Posted via email from Eldred's posterous

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