Archaeologists at a North East Roman Fort have dubbed one of the country’s most exciting historical finds the “Pompeii of the north.”
Rubbish chucked away by the Romans 2,000 years ago has had the same effect as the ash of Vesuvius, preserving the world’s most intact bath house outside of Italy.
Excavations at Binchester, near Bishop Auckland, have unearthed artefacts dating back some 1,800 years and include one of the earliest pieces of evidence for Christianity in Roman Britain in the shape of a silver ring.
An inscribed altar dedicated to the Roman Goddess Fortune the Home-bringer, has also been discovered.
Due to the artefacts’ miraculous condition the haul has been nicknamed the region’s very own Pompeii by delighted archaeologists.
In the same way that ash from the mighty volcano preserved an entire city after it erupted in AD 79, a similar feat has been accomplished in County Durham, only this time by means of a Roman rubbish dump.
Dr David Mason, principal archaeologist for Durham County Council, said: “The bath house was terraced into the hillside and all the rooms we’ve looked at have been filled with massive deposits consisting mainly of butchery waste and rough stone surfaces. These dumps are around six feet in depth.
“We have seven feet of masonry surviving above floor level which is virtually unheard of here in Britain.
“These findings are hugely significant as they are virtually intact and present a graphic illustration of life under the Roman Empire.
“They are so stunning and spectacular that we can claim we have our very own Pompeii of the north right on our doorstep.”
A joint project to explore the site between the county council, Durham University, local enthusiasts and Amercian university students, is now in its sixth year.
Last year Alex Kirton, 20, from Hertfordshire, discovered a carved sandstone head at Binchester, which was believed to be a Geordie Roman god that probably was worshipped locally.
Project coordinator, Dr David Petts, lecturer in archaeology at Durham University, said: “Our excavations have uncovered parts of one of the best preserved Roman buildings in Britain.
“The building itself and the wonderful array of artefacts we have recovered from Binchester give us an unparalleled opportunity to better understand life on the northern frontier in the Roman period.
“For example, the altar is a reminder that bath houses were about more than keeping clean and exercising and were actually social centres, a bit like our modern day leisure centres.
“The most unique feature of these remains is the sheer scale of their preservation. It is possible to walk through a series of Roman rooms with walls all above head height; this is pretty exceptional for Roman Britain.”
The altar has been inscribed by a retired trooper who served with a unit of the Spanish cavalry based at Binchester.
The trooper described his rank as “architectus” and this is the only example from the whole of the Roman Empire, outside of Rome itself, which shows that architects were on the staff of auxiliary cavalry units and not just the legions of the Emperor’s personal protection unit, the Praetorian Guard.
The findings coincide with the Binchester Roman Festival this weekend featuring guided tours of the recent excavations.
Binchester, which stands near the River Wear, was known to the Romans as Vinovia and commanded the main road that ran from the legionary headquarters at York north to Hadrian’s Wall.
It formed a key element of the complex frontier system that lay both sides of the Wall which marked the northern-most edge of the Roman Empire for nearly 400 years.
More recent archaeological finds in the North East: