24 January, 2012

Late- and post-Roman Binchester

I recently posted about the headquarters building in Late and/or post-Roman York, and by happy coincidence the current edition (February 2012) of Current Archaeology magazine has an interesting article on late and post-Roman Binchester. Post-Roman activity at Binchester was recognised in archaeological excavations in the 1970s and 1980s, and a new excavation programme has added new evidence.


The Roman fort of Vinovia, modern name Binchester, is located slightly north of Bishop Auckland, where the main Roman road to the north, Dere Street, crosses the River Wear.

Map link: Binchester

So Binchester is north of the legionary base at York, and south of the frontier forts along Hadrian’s Wall.

Brief description

The first fort on the Vinovia site was a large fort built in timber in around AD 70-80, which would coincide roughly with Agricola’s campaign in Caledonia (roughly, what is now Scotland north of the Firths of Forth and Clyde). It was replaced by a smaller fort built in stone in the second century, and it is the remains of this smaller and later fort that are visible today.

The stone fort has the characteristic ‘playing card’ shape of a rectangle with rounded corners. Dere Street ran through the middle of the fort, and the praetorium (commanding officer’s house) has been identified in archaeological excavations. A large vicus (civilian settlement) developed outside the fort and has been identified east of the fort and along the line of Dere Street to the north-west and south-east.

The commanding officer’s house and baths suite

The baths suite attached to the commanding officer’s house was one of the first structures on the site to be discovered, when part of the hypocaust collapsed under the weight of a farm cart in the early nineteenth century. The commanding officer’s house and baths suite were excavated in the 1970s and 1980s. This excavation found that the house had undergone a startling change of use in the early fifth century; it went from being a palatial residence complete with expensive decorated wall plaster to industrial use. Furnaces were built in the west wing, and evidently used for ironworking since they were surrounded by iron slag. In the south wing, a flat platform with a drain along one side was built using stone recycled from demolished structures, and a large associated dump contained large amounts of cattle bones showing butchery marks, including cattle skulls with poleaxe holes in the forehead. The south wing of the commander’s house was presumably now being used an abattoir. Radiocarbon dates place this phase in the early fifth century.

The industrial use of the commander’s house clearly continued for some time, as another stone platform was later built on top of this abattoir deposit. Parts of Roman walls were incorporated into the later platform, and post-holes may have supported a timber structure, consistent with the original building having become partly or entirely ruinous by this time and being replaced by a timber structure. This second platform was associated with more animal bone, and fragments of worked antler, bone, jet and shale, implying a sizeable craft industry.

The dating of this phase of industrial use is uncertain. However, a burial in the debris from the collapse of the roof of the associated baths suite was radiocarbon dated to about AD 550. The burial was of an adult woman, and she had been buried with grave goods including a string of beads, a pottery bowl and a copper-alloy brooch in the shape of a reversed ‘S’ with birds’ heads for the terminals, a type normally assigned to the early English (‘Anglo-Saxon’) period of the late fifth to early sixth century - so the stylistic date from the brooch is broadly consistent with the radiocarbon date. This indicates that the baths suite had gone out of use and collapsed at some time before the burial was made in approximately the middle of the sixth century. Radiocarbon dating of samples from other burials without grave goods on the fort site gave dates between AD 600 and AD 1000, suggesting an early medieval cemetery on the site.

Much of the stone used to build the early English church at nearby Escomb was re-used Roman stone. Escomb is only a mile or so south-west of Binchester (see map links), and Binchester Roman fort and/or its vicus may have been the source for much of the stone (Escomb Church official site). Escomb church was probably built in the late seventh century, suggesting that at least some of the buildings at Binchester were regarded by then as a convenient quarry.

It is interesting that burials were made at Binchester in the period after the church at Escomb was built. One might have expected that after the conversion to Christianity the people of the area would be buried in the churchyard at Escomb, which is not far away. Perhaps the Binchester fort site also had a church or chapel with an associated cemetery. Or perhaps the female burial in the remains of the bath suite was that of an important individual, whose grave then became the focus for a cemetery for a local or family group that continued in use as a traditional burial place in parallel with the church at Escomb.

Recent excavations

For information on the recent excavation programme, see the project website, and the excavation blog (updated regularly in season).

Excavation in the east corner of the fort identified a possible barrack or stable block, with patches of paved floor associated with pits lined with stones or clay. Some of the pits had associated gullies, and one was connected to a pit in the rampart of the fort that could have acted as a water storage reservoir. As with the commander’s house, the pits were associated with many fragments of animal bone.

Excavation in the vicus east of the fort identified a substantial building that may have been a bath-house. Like the barrack/stable block inside the fort, this building also contained large stone-lined pits (one was 6m, approximately 20 feet, across and occupied almost an entire room), together with fragments of animal bone, jet and shale.

The Binchester Blog says that a radiocarbon date from a pit in the fort had a 50% probability of being later than AD 400, whereas a sample from a pit in the vicus area had a 2% probability of being later than AD 400 (see Day 33, 2011).

Exactly what industrial activity the pits represent is not yet certain. However, the pits and the large volume of associated animal bone would be consistent with a substantial leather-producing industry. Tanning requires a lot of soaking of animal skins in water and various other chemicals to soften the hide, remove the hair and convert the skin into leather.

The pits in the vicus and barrack/stable block are currently interpreted as tanning or possibly flax-retting pits, suggesting a substantial industry busily processing large numbers of animals into leather goods and worked bone and/or antler objects. Industrial and craft activity on a substantial scale implies in turn either that there was a large population in the vicinity, or that the fort was supplying a wider area than its immediate region.


The radiocarbon date from the vicus sample, with only a 2% chance of being later than AD 400, fits easily with a substantial leather- and bone-processing industry serving a market well beyond its immediate area, for which the most obvious candidate is the Late Roman Army. It is easy to imagine that Binchester fort could have been converted to a production and supply base, taking in large numbers of animals on the hoof from a considerable area and processing them into dried meat, leather, glue, bone tools and so on to supply army units. If the building in the vicus was indeed a bath-house, it might be a convenient candidate for conversion to leather processing, since bath-houses by definition have water supplies and drains that can be adapted to industrial use for processes requiring large volumes of water.

If more radiocarbon dates confirm the initial result of a later date for the pits inside the fort, it may indicate that industrial activity continued after the end of formal Roman administration, but possibly moved to a location within the fort rather than in the vicus. If industrial activity did continue on a large scale into the post-Roman period, this is potentially interesting, as on first sight it may appear inconsistent with the mud-huts ‘Dark Age’ stereotype of post-Roman Britain. Perhaps it could indicate a powerful local ruler, controlling the livestock resources of a wide area and perhaps with a large (very large?) warband getting through a lot of beef and leather for their own use. Perhaps it could indicate that there was still a commercial economy of sorts, so that an industrial centre could obtain raw materials and sell finished products as part of a wider market. Perhaps it could indicate a regional or even province-wide government, able to operate on the same sort of scale as the previous Roman administration. The school of thought that sees Vortigern as a ruler over all or most of the former Roman province, able to oversee large-scale population movements from one end of the province to the other, would have no difficulty in accommodating centrally-organised large-scale supply chains. Depending on the exact dates, it might even fit with Ken Dark’s theory of a revival of the post of Dux Britanniarum in the late fifth / early sixth century, with authority spanning most or all of the ex-Roman military sites between York and Hadrian’s Wall (Dark 2002).

If Binchester fort was the seat of a local ruler, or the centre of a substantial industrial operation, one might perhaps have expected whoever was the boss there to move in to the commander’s luxury house as a symbol of status, rather than convert it to industrial use. Perhaps there was no boss as such, and the activity represents a sort of giant co-operative of semi-independent craftsmen and traders, or perhaps the local boss was a relatively low-status overseer for an external owner, not considered important enough to be assigned a luxury residence. Or perhaps a new residence for the boss was built elsewhere in the fort and has not yet been identified, like the ‘chieftain’s hall’ built on the site of the granary at Birdoswald.

One thing that strikes me about the post-Roman activity at Binchester, Wroxeter, Birdoswald and in the principia at York is the apparent ease with which formerly impressive high-status buildings were converted to humdrum industrial uses or demolished. The baths basilica at Wroxeter became a builders’ yard and bakery, the principia at York acquired non-ferrous metalworking hearths and a lot of animal bone in the cross-hall, a barrack-building at Birdoswald had re-used an inscribed stone from the commander’s house, and at Binchester the commander’s house was turned into an iron-working site and an abattoir. Looking at Roman remains from a twenty-first-century viewpoint, it seems slightly surprising that such impressive structures were apparently not preserved as symbols of past glory. Perhaps this reflects a straightforward pragmatism on the part of late- and post-Roman decision-makers, who looked at the structures they inherited with an unsentimental eye and put them to whatever use seemed most practical and/or profitable in current circumstances. I wonder if it could also reflect a conscious rejection of aspects of Roman Imperial identity and hierarchy, perhaps as a symbol of a break with the past and the establishment of a new social order. It reminds me a little of the Dissolution of the Monasteries, an episode when a change in political power structures resulted in many formerly important high-status buildings (abbeys, priories, associated churches) being demolished and the materials sold off, leaving evocative ruins for later ages to marvel at and mourn.

Binchester Blog
Binchester excavation project site
Dark K. Britain and the end of the Roman empire. Tempus, 2002. ISBN 0-7524-2532-3.
Escomb Church official site

Map links
Escomb Scroll north-east from Escomb using the arrows on the map to see Escomb church and Vinovia/Binchester Roman Fort on the same screen.


Rick said...

Presumably the use of the commander's quarters as a butcher shop had been long forgotten by the time a fairly well-off Englishwoman was laid to rest amid the ruins of the adjacent baths!

But this whole thing about high-status Roman structures being converted to utilitarian uses is getting interesting. It is especially striking (to me) at Wroxeter, where I seem to recall an observation that it had 'the last classical-style building in England until Inigo Jones,' or words to that effect.

I would note that a stylistic revolution need not mean a great change in political ideology. Justinian certainly regarded himself as a Roman Emperor, yet his greatest physical monument, Aghia Sophia, throws classical conventions into the dumpster.

On the other hand, I seem to recall that some early Welsh triads are not friendly toward Arthur. Perhaps his reputation only revived when someone (Nennius?) noticed that he killed lots of Saxons, and historical revisionism turned him from a 'Roman' into a patriotic proto-Welshman.

(Assuming he'd ever been 'Roman' to begin with!)

The 'stupendous fabric' of Edward Gibbon is hard to surmount when contemplating post-Roman Britain!

Carla said...

One would imagine so, though you never know :-)

Yes, I think it is interesting too, hence wondering if it is purely pragmatic or if there is something else going on, like a deliberate statement of changed identity. Is it known why Justinian chose to design Hagia Sophia as he did? I imagine that a gigantic dome built with exotic materials was quite some statement of power and wealth; was there a tradition of domes that he was drawing on?

Off the top of my head, my impression is that the Triads are fairly respectful of Arthur; they show him as a warrior lord with terrible destructive potential is crossed, but also say things like '..and Arthur was more geenrous than the three...'. Some of the Saints' Lives are not so flattering though, where Arthur sometimes appears as a tyrant trying to steal lands or wealth from the Church (always seen off by the eponymous Saint, naturally). Hence the theory that the historical Arthur may have been a pagan, if the early church disliked him. (I'm not sure that follows, myself; it seems to me perfectly possible for a Christian king to get into a fatal quarrel with the Church, especially if money and power are involved. Ask Henry II).

Rick said...

I may have been thinking of the Saints' Lives - all I really remembered is that some of the early references were not full of praise.

And I agree fully that a king could get on the bad side of churchmen without being a pagan - in fact, even while being a Champion of Christendom [tm]. Some churchmen got very worked up about Charles Martel in spite of all that Battle of Tours stuff.

Carla said...

'Early' is a bit tricky in this context; something written down in a medieval manuscript may be much older than the date of the manuscript if it's a copy of a copy, or it may not. Historia Brittonum (Nennius) is probably the earliest source to mention Arthur, if it was written in the ninth century as stated in its prologue. HB is fairly neutral about Arthur; it describes him as a military commander with a long string of victories, calls him 'magnanimous', but also says that 'many were more noble than he' and recounts a story that he killed his son. It's neither condemnatory as it is about Vortigern, nor full of praise like the popular modern image of Arthur. (Which is one reason why I'm inclined to take it seriously; winning lots of battles, being generous with the spoils, and even a fatal conflict within the family, are all things that sound entirely plausible in the career of a successful warlord). It's also noticeable that it doesn't make any reference at all to Arthur being 'Roman' or otherwise. Arthur as a post-Imperial ruler trying to preserve something of Roman administration/ civilisation/ rule comes later. As with so much else, it may start with Geoffrey of Monmouth, who has Arthur's father Uther as the brother of Aurelianus Ambrosius. Gildas is quite clear that Ambrosius was 'Roman' (although one can discuss what exactly was meant by that), therefore the logic goes that Ambrosius' nephew Arthur must also have been 'Roman'. Whether the historical Arthur (if there was one) was ever very 'Roman' to begin with is, as you note in your first comment, a moot point.

Rick said...

Yes, the things Nennius says about Arthur are indeed plausible for a successful warlord.

What does he have to say about Ambrosius? I lean a bit toward the speculation that they are the same guy, mainly because Gildas' Ambrosius stands out among (near-) contemporary war leaders, as 'Arthur' presumably should - and just as significantly, no one else does.

Gildas might refuse to name someone he disliked, but wouldn't he mention some bigger, badder tyrant than the general riffraff?

Carla said...

HB tells a lengthy story about Ambrosius as a semi-supernatural figure, a 'boy without a father' who claims 'a Roman consul was my father' (it doesn't seem worried by the apparent contradiction) and has the gift of prophecy - it's the famous story about the dragons fighting under the foundations of Vortigern's tower. In a later section it mentions Ambrosius briefly as 'the great king among the kings of Britain'. It doesn't specifically talk about Ambrosius as a war leader.

A striking thing about Gildas is that he mentions almost no-one by name in the second section of De Excidio, 'The History', just Magnus Maximus, Ambrosius Aurelianus and possibly Vortigern. The assorted kings he denounces at length are in the third section of De Excidio 'The Epistle'. If the historical Arthur (if there was one) belonged to the period of the Epistle, one might expect to find him named along with the others, but if he belonged to the period of the History, there are so few names there that I would be cautious about reading anything into the absence. Gildas puts Badon in the History, 44 years before his own time, so if the historical Arthur was contemporary with Badon (as HB has it), he would belong to the History. Incidentally, Gildas says Ambrosius Aurelianus was the last of the Romans, and that would be consistent with HB's story that has Ambrosius saying 'a Roman consul was my father'.
For what it's worth, I'm inclined to take Ambrosius and Arthur as different individuals, since they seem quite different in HB, which names both. HB says Ambrosius was the son of a Roman consul (or of magical birth; Mary Stewart resolves the apparent contradiction neatly in The Crystal Cave) and attributes to him prophecy and some sort of high kingship, but does not mention military command. In contrast it says Arthur was not of noble birth, was an oustanding military leader and does not mention anything supernatural or magical. They look like different figures to me. Though with such patchy source material anything is possible.
It seems entirely plausible for a Roman aristocrat holding high political office (Ambrosius) to appoint a capable non-aristocrat as a general to do the actual fighting (Arthur); that would be in keeping with late Roman emperors appointing a magister militum. (Also plausible that a sufficiently successful general could end up with the high political office as well, either by virtue of being the best man for the job/last man standing after a crisis, or through military coup).

Rick said...

Playing catch-up ...

The 'boy without a father' whose father might have been a consul is formally inconsistent, but it has a certain legend logic. Taken either way there is nothing ordinary about his paternity.

Compare to Jesus, said to have no earthly father, yet still kinda sorta descended from the house of David.

I suppose I should actually read Gildas and the HB - necessarily in translation, but at least giving me some idea of what they say and how they arrange it. (I gather that Gildas is heavy going even for expert Latinists.)

In any case, I hadn't realized that the HB gives them distinctly different job descriptions. Which does argue against a single person being retrospectively 'split.'

Carla said...

It's always worth reading the primary sources if possible, then you can see for yourself what they say and assess the possible interpretations. There are translations of both Gildas' De Excidio and HB available free online from academic sites like the Internet Medieval Sourcebook (see various posts where I have referenced either or both, and follow the links). Likely to be a reasonable starting point, even though translations vary and there are arguments over exact meanings (especially with Gildas, whose Latin is hard going).

Rick said...

Thanks for the (should have been no-brainer) reminder that you've linked handy online translations of these primary sources.

Everyone seems to agree that Gildas is heavy going!

Carla said...

I usually give the links, so that anyone can go and read the source for themselves and decide if they agree with me :-)

I have to take the experts' word for it for the difficulty of Gildas' Latin, but there does seem to be a consensus on it.