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Binchester archaeological excavation

Summary by Michael Shanks, Fall 2009

This past summer began a major archaeological project focused on the northern edges of the Roman empire in Britain. An international team drawn principally from Stanford and Durham University UK started excavating the Roman fort and town at Binchester and exploring its place in one of the richest archaeological landscapes in the world.

Stanford graduates and undergraduates are making key contributions to the project, pursuing personal research interests as well as working throughout the survey, excavation and lab teams.

Known to the Romans as Vinovium (“On the Wine Road”), Binchester was sited above the river Wear to protect Dere Street, the main road that ran from the legionary headquarters at York northwards to Hadrian’s Wall and beyond to the land of the Picts. It was a key element of the complex frontier system that lay both sides of the Wall, forming the edge of empire for nearly four hundred years. Excavation has so far turned up the best preserved Roman bath house in the UK and some of the most impressive mausolea seen on a Roman site for 150 years; geophysical survey has revealed a large town that stayed thriving long after the empire fell; across the river is Auckland castle, seat of the Prince-Bishops of Durham, and nearby at Escomb is one of the oldest churches in Britain, built from the stones of Binchester in the 7th century, still standing as a reminder of the kingdom of Anglo-Saxon Northumbria, the heartland of Celtic Christianity, land of Arthurian romance.

We started excavating a corner of the fort and came straight down onto medieval houses built over the Roman barrack blocks. Over the next few years we will take in the cemeteries and parts of the town. Combined with broader site and regional survey, our project aims to investigate the diversity of local lifestyles and population, to explore connections between fort and town, questioning notions of civilian and military, and to look at the way the border was conceived and worked from prehistory through Roman to medieval times. We are also keenly interested in the ways that archaeology may contribute to senses of identity and belonging in a region such as the English/Scottish borders; development of an interpretation center with the local County Council is part of the project. The new initiative at the Stanford Archaeology Center to explore ceramic craft through replication and experiment is represented at Binchester by Melissa Chatfield. We even have a 3D reconstruction of the site underway in the online world Second Life, managed by Gary Devore of Stanford’s Introduction to the Humanities Program (IHUM) and the Archaeology Center’s Metamedia Lab.

Durham University’s professional excavation unit is a key partner, managing the day-to-day running of the excavation. Students on the field school are gaining first hand apprenticeship in UK professional archaeological practice, widely acknowledged as a world leader. The project master class involves on-site seminars and workshops with expert visitors, exploring matters of cutting edge concern in archaeology and cultural heritage. This year’s highlights included Richard Hingley on the antiquarian roots to our conceptions of Roman borders, David Mason on the broader context of the Roman frontier, David Petts on early medieval Christianity and changing views of late antiquity, and Chris Scarre on the archaeology of liminal regions such as border zones.

With the potential of the site confirmed, plans are already well advanced for expanding the project next year with a large trench in the town and enhanced geophysical survey.

Contact Michael Shanks for further details.