Under the surface of County Durham's 'Pompeii of the North'

The Journal was given a guided tour of the ancient Roman site, unearthed by archaeologists near Bishop Auckland

It's been dubbed the ‘Pompeii of the North’ - and the ancient Roman findings unearthed in County Durham certainly don’t disappoint.

The Journal was given a guided tour of one of the most exciting historical finds in living memory, dug up by archaeologists and volunteers at Binchester Roman Fort near Bishop Auckland.

Experts hope the discovery of artifacts dating back 1,800 years will boost the visitor attraction’s tourism appeal and help locals learn what life in the area used to be like.

“Its name was given not because we have a volcano in Bishop Auckland, but to indicate the marvellous state of preservation of some of the remains,” says Dr David Mason, principal archaeologist for Durham County Council.

“Promoting the site has been difficult in the past but now we can accommodate people and we have got something exciting to show them.”

Among the discoveries include a huge bath house, an inscribed altar dedicated to the Roman Goddess Fortune the Home-bringer and one of the earliest pieces of evidence for Christianity in Roman Britain - a silver ring.

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.

It is the second large trench dug at the fort since the launch of an archaeological project in 2009 and took four years.

Volunteers, archaeologists and students from the North East and as far as America have been working on the project for around eight weeks each summer since 2010.

Dr Mason said: “During excavations, we were beginning to get a hint of how well preserved the site would be but when it was emptied out it was staggering.

“If we had the whole site excavated you would be able to walk around a fully-preserved building. It would be like walking around a building in Pompeii.

“There is a good chance that buildings nearby are equally well preserved. We predict the bath house as we see it is only roughly a third of its actual size, but to dig up the whole site would take centuries.”

Archaeologists believe the findings make up part of a small town, once a hive of activity, and project coordinator Dr David Petts, lecturer in archaeology at Durham University, says the potential is huge.

“This is certainly one of the largest Roman settlements in County Durham and is likely to be the best preserved site in Britain,” he said.

“It has the potential to be one of the best Roman forts in the North. In terms of excavators, we have had a really loyal group of people who come out every year, rain or shine.”

But the site may not be around for long. Funding problems may mean that the trenches may be covered over at the end of project, due to finish next year.

Funding currently comes from Durham University, the county council, fundraising and grants from English Heritage, while the land is owned by the Church Commissioners.

Dr Mason said: “Whatever you spend on excavating you will need spend again on post-excavations, which are costly.

“In 12 months’ time we have got to seriously start thinking whether it is possible to carry on. There is an outside chance but it is not likely and it would be a great shame.

“In that case it would probably be open until next summer when it is likely to get covered up.”

Julian Kotze, who lives in a cottage by the fort’s visitor centre, said: “It is a very exciting time for me personally, as in theory I am the last ‘alive’ one living here and the whole idea of living on top of history is quite special.

“If the work cannot carry on beyond next year I believe it should be recognised as local history.”

Members of the public are invited to look around the site this tomorrow and Sunday, with tours and a re-enactments running at 11am and 2pm. Entry is £5 for adults, £4 concessions and £3 for children (under-4s go free).

More recent archaeological finds in the North East:

Pompeii of the North is found at County Durham excavation site

Roman baths discovered beneath former Wallsend pub

Three year dig uncovers medieval hospital

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