Revealing Roman Ribchester

Ribchester Dig  2015
Ribchester Dig 2015

By Fiona Finch

A new occupying army has just left Ribchester. Its members have taken down their tents and moved out - pledging to return at the same time next year.

Ribchester’s 2015 archaeoogical dig is done - but what a month it has been. Camping virtually on site Dr Duncan Sayer and Dr Jim Morris from UCLan (University of CentraL Lancashire) and their team of some 35 undergraduates, postgraduates and volunteers have braved the wet summer to give what Duncan says is the start of “the archaeological examination Ribchester deserves.”

They have left with the feeling of a job well done and, despite the setback of the weather, much to investigate. Discoveries include

numerous bits of pot, the odd bit of melted down glass, coins, metal - and even a surprise find by me. These may not to the casual observer seem much at all ...but they speak volumes for life in Ribchester’s Roman fort centuries ago and all help in piecing together the jigsaw of how the settlement developed.

Senior Lecturer Duncan explained: “It’s the first year of a five year programme. We’re in a Roman fort just inside the north gate - one of the most important entrance ways into the fort.”

Their finds will, he said, help them understand the changes in the use of the site over time. He believes there is already evidence that boundaries between military and civilian settlements were being broken down with clear signs of commerce. The group has found coins and three or four lead weights which he believes shows market activity taking place within the fort itself, signalling ”that boundary breaking down - Ribchester was quite a big viccus (town).”

The fort was thought to be occupied for some 300 years up to 370 A.D. with an auxiliary cavalry legion of some 600 soldiers.

Some late 4th century coins have given food for thought. He said: “I think we’ve got evidence it continued a little bit longer.”

Evidence of a hearth and pits - possibly for leather tanning or cess pits, have also been discovered.

It has been a huge learning exercise for the students, not least because parts of the site have been excavated before so they had to learn about peeling away the Edwardian infill in one area and how to read the different soil layers. Hundreds of years of Roman occupation, followed by mediaeval occupation and continued local residence means, said Duncan : “It’s one of the most complicated and exciting sites you can expect to have. One of the great things for the students about being in Ribchester is it’s really incredibly complicated archaeology.”

For example floor surfaces and walls are inter-cut by ditches and pits and roads - the evidence of 300 years of “intense occupation” , often built on top of each other.

What makes a good archaeologist? Duncan advises : “Everyone always thinks it’s something that involves patience. I’m not sure patience is really a virtue. It’s that attention to detail and that grasp of the processof being able to see the different colours in the soil and being able to apply a whole series of diifferent skills to complex situations.”

For mature student Mike Woods from Darwen the month’s work had truly been inspiring. He found a coin, his second, whilst I was there and we all shared his excitement: “It’s a buzz - it’s a big buzz. I enjoy it.”

He admits he did not even recognise his first coin as such: “It was very small - I thought it was a pinhead at first. It was third or fourth century - apparently coins got smaller...I also found some Roman glass which was another first for me.”

All the finds, after being duly cleaned, studied, conserved as appropriate and in the case of the pottery counted, weighed and categorised and sent off to London an expert opinion - will, in time, be sent back to Ribchester’s Roman Museum. The results of soil analysis will also be scrutinised - with samples taken from key areas and levels.

The work and analysis has only just begun, but it is already firing imaginations. Duncan said: ”One of the best finds for me were the lumps of glass which had been melted ready for reuse and turning into something else. Archaeologys is not just all about finds. it’s more about context.”

The tools for the task are not fancy - a type of trowel, mattocks and shovels. As for me, I had asked if I could have a go with a trowel and began the process of gently scraping layers of soil away a short distance from where part of aRoman road had been uncovered. Within minutes I had landed a “catch” ... signified by the authoritative shout of the student who was supervising me yelling out the alert: “Small Find!”.

Although some of the students had laboured for weeks without unearthing anything of such significance it seems beginner’s luck was with me. And yes, it was small indeed, a somewhat weighty piece shaped a little like a key. Duncan postulated it could be part of a pair of scissors or a door hinge. It’s an unerstatement to say I was delighted. The dig has now been put to bed for this year.

* Prior to this year’s residency the archaeology department had overthe previous two years dug two test pits to assess the site.They have found no gate entrance as yet. Duncan said: “We understand the challenges ahead.”