AN ancient cliffside cemetery is being excavated by archaeologists – before it slips into a river valley.
The dig by Newcastle University and English Heritage is the first systematic excavation of a cemetery on Hadrian’s Wall.
The operation, at Birdoswald Roman fort near Gilsland on the Notthumberland-Cumbria border, will continue until October 16.
The fort and its civilian settlement are perched above the River Irthing with sweeping views down to its valley.
Forming part of the Wall world heritage site, the Roman cemetery is situated on the cliff edge.
It is under serious threat from erosion, which has accelerated over the last few years.
Investigative work has revealed that erosion is being caused by a combination of the river at the base of the cliff and water and frost action on the boulder clay at the top. Excavation is therefore the only way to avoid the loss of the delicate archaeology of the extensive cemetery. It is hoped the dig will reveal information about the make-up and lives of the fort garrison and the civilians who clustered around its walls.
A trench 150 metres long has been opened up.
Tony Wilmot, English Heritage archaeologist and project manager for the excavation said: “Although the loss of archaeology through erosion is regrettable it has given us a unique opportunity to examine a large area of a Roman military cemetery, a type of site which is very little explored and poorly understood.
“The civilian settlement was enormous and there was a garrison of around 1,000 men at the fort for over 250 years. That’s a lot of people.” Professor Ian Haynes, Chair of Archaeology at Newcastle University who is also at the dig, said: “We know from earlier discoveries in and around the fort site that Birdoswald had a very cosmopolitan population during the Roman period.
“A fragmentary tombstone records a soldier from Africa, while the regiment in garrison was originally raised in or around Transylvania in Romania.
“We hope to learn more about this exotic mix of soldiers, their families and followers through the excavations.”
University dig supervisor Doru Bogdan is from Romania – and will be investigating his long-ago ancestors. A small-scale Channel 4 Time Team evaluation in small trenches at Birdoswald in 1999 discovered two complete cremation urns, evidence that although the site was partially damaged by ploughing in the medieval period, there is still important archaeology hidden beneath the soil.
Mr Wilmot said that of two identifiable cremations , both were female. The findings of this excavation will be valuable in discovering more about Roman cremation cemeteries, practices and rituals.
The dig is being carried out under the rules of the Burial Act. After studying the findings, they will be deposited in Tullie House Museum in Carlisle and any human remains that are uncovered will be reburied.
The project will provide training opportunities in field archaeology for undergraduates from the university as part of an undergraduate training programme. Visitors to the site will be able to see work in progress on the dig. Birdoswald Roman Fort is open every day from 10am-5.30pm (last admission 5pm).
Admission adults: £4.50, concessions: £3.80, children: £2.30. For more information on the fort visit www.english-heritage.org.uk/birdoswald
BUILT into a wall on a farm at Birdoswald is part of an altar dedicated to the troops who manned the fort in the Third and Fourth Centuries.
They represent the region’s unlikely link with Romania.
In the First and early Second Centuries, the Dacians, from what is now Romania, were the tough enemies of Rome under their king Decebalus.
Eventually, the Emperor Trajan triumphed over the Dacians whose fighting qualities impressed the Romans so much that they were recruited as auxiliary soldiers.
A cohort of Dacians worked on the building of Hadrian’s Wall and Birdoswald became the home of what was known as the First Cohort of Dacians, Hadrian’s Own, consisting of 1,000 infantry.
Although they were at Birdoswald for 200 years, they never forgot their roots, with the Dacian curved sword being carved on building inscriptions.
A gravestone from Birdoswald is to a child called Decebalus, after the Dacian king.
Another gravestone is that of Aurelius Concordius, the infant son of the commander of the Dacian garrison, Aurelius Julianus.