THE lid has been lifted on Roman life and death in the centre of Newcastle. A dig on a development site at the corner of Forth Street and Hanover Square has revealed lavish burials at the side of a road that led into the Roman fort of Pons Aelius, which now lies under the Castle Keep.
Two 1,800-year-old sandstone raised coffins, or sarcophagi, each weighing a tonne, have been found in what is likely to have been the burial plot of a wealthy and elite family.
Several cremation pots have also been uncovered, confirming the presence of a Roman cemetery on the approach to the fort.
A Durham University team is conducting the dig for a development company which is building offices around a listed 19th Century Presbyterian church on the site.
One of the sarcophagi has been opened and was found to contain the remains of a child of around six and possibly also the bones of an adult.
It appears that the head of the child had been removed and placed elsewhere in the coffin.
Richard Annis, project manager with Archaeological Services at Durham University, said: “This practice is rare, but it is known to occur in Roman burials and nobody knows why.”
Today, the second coffin will be opened after sawing through iron pegs, which were sealed with molten lead to secure the lid.
“These sarcophagi would have been a prominent feature of the landscape, and are the expensive burials of grand persons of wealth and significance who could afford such things – possibly the fort commander or high ranking officers,” said Richard.
“It is an absolutely fantastic site and the finds confirm the long-held belief that there was a cemetery at the west side of the fort.”
In 1903, two sarcophagi were found at the nearby former Turnbull building, now converted into luxury flats.
Remains have also been uncovered of the homes or shops of the vicus, or civilian settlement outside the fort, although it is probable that it later went out of use and the land was then used for the cemetery.
The road to the west gate of the fort, beside which the cemetery stood, has also been revealed.
One theory is that it could be the main South-North road which crossed the Tyne over the Roman bridge near where the Swing Bridge now stands.
If this is the case, it shows that the Romans did not always build straight roads and that this route avoided what would have been a very steep climb from the bridge to the fort by taking a zig zag route up the valley side. “That would have made life a lot easier for fort traffic, and would have made sense,” said Richard.
Further evidence of civilian settlement on the site has come from the discovery of two wood-lined Roman wells, one of which was rebuilt in medieval times.
Roman coins, pottery and leather have also been unearthed.
The site was later used by a 13th Century Carmelite friary which mostly sits under Forth Street and the dig has exposed part of the south wall of its church.
The remains of an 18th Century Unitarian chapel were also recorded before demolition, but a stone cellar, later inserted into the chapel to accommodate an engine, remains a mystery.
The site also gave up flints from a Stone Age hunter-gatherer group who made a temporary stop at the location overlooking the river.
The most recent uses of the site have been as a tobacco factory and warehouses and offices of the British Electrical and Manufacturing Company .
The dig will continue for several weeks, after which the finds, including the sarcophagi, will go to the new Great North Museum in Newcastle, which opens next year.
Timeline of the Forth Street site
6,000 years ago: Nomadic hunter gatherers of the Mesolithic (Middle Stone Age) pass through, leaving remains of flint tools.
1,880 years ago: Hadrian’s Wall is built north of the site
1,840 years ago: the Roman fort of Pons Aelius is built just east of the excavation site, which becomes a settlement, and later is used as a cemetery
1,600 years ago: Romans leave the area with the collapse of their empire.
900 years ago: Medieval settlements on the site. A Carmelite Friary is built on what is now Forth Street.
500 years ago: A house is built from the wreckage of the Friary, following Henry VIII’s Reformation.
300 years ago: Unitarians build a large chapel on the site
180 years ago: Presbyterians build a chapel adjacent to the Unitarian chapel
90 years ago: British Electrical and Manufacturing Company occupy warehouses and office space on the site until the early 21st Century.
Present day: The Presbyterian chapel will be incorporated into a new office. The other remains will be researched and archived.