The Romans in Durham

Anyone interested in the Romans in Britain will know that Hadrian’s Wall is one of the most remarkable products of that most fascinating of civilisations, but it’s by no means the only place of interest in the region for fans of the Romans.

There are plenty of sites in Tyne & Wear, Northumberland and Durham that date from various stages of the Roman occupation of these islands, and unsurprisingly they’re all military. There was a particularly heavy Roman presence in the north-east because of the close proximity of barbarian tribes just to the north that simply refused to see sense and bow to the yoke of an obviously superior people.

Many of these sites survive as mere ruins, especially in the central stretch of the wall, and a great deal of imaginative reconstruction is needed to put us back in touch with those times when we look at them. Fortunately, there are several good museums associated with Roman history in County Durham, in which imagination and skill have been used quite successfully to bring the past to life again. In the last hundred years or so the archaeologists have been especially busy at digging, dusting and reconstructing, and thanks to them the northernmost military frontier of the mightiest empire on earth at the time has been brought much closer for our understanding and appreciation.

The biggest Roman fort in Durham was at Binchester. Only a small area of it has been so far excavated and is open to the public. The surrounding fields still conceal the remains of most of the structure as well as the local settlement that sprang up beside it to serve the troops.

On the banks of the River Tees can be seen Piercebridge Roman Fort. This was a small fort by Roman standards and seems to have been built to protect the ancient bridge that spanned the river here, though this has long since disappeared. Parts of the defensive walls and the East Gate can still be seen, however, and there’s also a section of internal road preserved as well as the foundations of several courtyard buildings.

There’s an interesting and informative tour you can take here called the Dere Street Trail. This was a major thoroughfare in Roman times and one of the highlights is a toilet that seated 28 soldiers at a time. The Romans were pioneers in plumbing, and their mass flush toilets were as indispensable to the frontier garrisons as their under floor heating and hot baths, which clearly separated them from the filthy barbarians just to the north. There are also deep pits with vicious-looking sharp wooden stakes driven into their bases that look like something out of the battle scene from ‘Gladiator’. The Trail advertises itself as ‘Archaeology without Digging’, which is pretty much what it is.

Bowes Museum also contains many Roman artefacts found along the Wall and in the local area, such as graffiti from the Roman fort at Binchester, cups and weapons, clothing and much else besides.

 

David Elliott is a freelance writer who loves to travel, especially in Europe and Turkey. He’s spent most of his adult life in a state of restless excitement but recently decided to settle in North London. He gets away whenever he can to immerse himself in foreign cultures and lap up the history of great cities.

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