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Melvin Dawes (United Utilities) with Roman Re-enactor Paul RobertsMelvin Dawes (United Utilities) with Roman Re-enactor Paul Roberts

Roman settlement reconstruction provides a picture of the past

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The artist’s impression below shows how a settlement first unearthed over two years ago, near Brougham, north-west England might have looked in its heyday around AD220. The illustration is based on the remains of buildings found during an excavation carried out by Oxford Archaeology North.

Illustrator Adam Parsons impression of how part of the Brougham vicus might have looked. (Oxford Archaeology North)

Illustrator Adam Parsons impression of how part of the Brougham vicus might have looked. (Oxford Archaeology North)

The civilian settlement was found close to the Roman fort of Brocavum, situated within modern fields where archaeology had not previously been detected.

The find in November 2008 sparked a lot of public interest with more than 500 people attending an exhibition of the artefacts which included gaming counters, jewellery, coins and drinking vessels.

Alison Plummer, of Oxford Archaeology North, whose 20-strong team spent three months painstakingly digging the proposed route of a new £6.7m pipeline, said the settlement probably grew outside the fort’s south gate to provide services for the soldiers and their families.

Aerial view of one of the structures at Brougham vicus. (Oxford Archaeology North)

Aerial view of one of the structures at Brougham vicus that aided the reconstruction image. (Oxford Archaeology North)

John Zant, Oxford Archaeology North’s Roman specialist, said: “The settlement was only occupied for 100 years or so, around AD 200-300. Why it was abandoned, at least a century before the end of Roman rule in Britain, is not known, but the fort itself seems to have remained in use. It is possible that the inhabitants moved into the fort for security during the unsettled times of the later Roman period, but this is not certain.”

The remains of two timber buildings, cobbled lanes, three stone buildings and a rare grubenhauser – a sunken feature building from the early medieval period – were uncovered during the investigation.

According to Alison Plummer, the excavation director from Oxford Archaeology, the fort would have attracted entrepreneurs seeking to relieve off-duty soldiers of their silver.

Finds included copper-alloy buckles, brooches, jet and pewter buttons providing clues about how people wore and fastened their clothes.

Roman deer brooch from the site. (Oxford Archaeology North)

Roman deer brooch from the site. (Oxford Archaeology North)

Jewellery fragments such as jade beads and a Whitby jet pendant and ring have also been found as well as a brooch in the shape of a deer.

Counters made from reused pottery sherds and drinking vessels show how inhabitants of the vicus would have passed their leisure time.

“The discovery offers some enticing clues as to how our ancestors spent the cold Cumbrian evenings,” said Mrs Plummer.

Buildings were constructed of timber frames in-filled with wattles and clay but in order to inhibit decay, the walls were raised above the ground on low sandstone foundations

“Buildings were constructed of timber frames in-filled with wattles and clay but in order to inhibit decay, the walls were raised above the ground on low sandstone foundations. Inside one of the buildings was a stone foundation, possibly for a wooden staircase or ladder giving access to an upper storey”, Mr Zant said.

Archaeologists at work on the site. (Oxford Archaeology North)

Archaeologists at work on the site. (Oxford Archaeology North)

Over the next few months, specialists will report their detailed analysis of many of the artefacts discovered at Brougham which may give Alison’s team even more clues about civilian life at Brocavum. A detailed report will eventually be produced and published.

The archaeologists are hoping a local museum will give the finds a permanent home, thanks to the kind agreement of the local landowner, who is their legal owner.

United Utilities (pipeline company) project manager Connell O’Donnell said engineers worked hand in hand with archaeologists. “Being quite close to the fort we asked archaeologists to dig evaluation trenches before we started work. I don’t think anyone expected to find quite so much archaeology. It was absolutely fascinating and we still managed to get the pipeline finished on time.”

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