Archaeologists unearth ‘missed jumble of stone’ that transforms post-Roman UK history

Hadrian’s Wall: Many sites ‘were taken away’ reveals expert

Nearly 2,000 years ago, the Roman conquest of Britain, under Emperor Claudius, was underway. It was a gradual process, something which spanned centuries as the Roman army – largely recruited from Italy, Spain, and France – pushed its way up through Britain from the south. Historians debate whether the Romans ever reached Scotland.

What is known for certain is that by 122 AD, the imperial power had reached modern-day Carlisle, where Emperor Hadrian ordered the construction of a new and mighty Hadrian’s Wall.

The 73-mile structure – stretching from the banks of the River Tyne near the North Sea to the Solway Firth on the Irish Sea – was the furthest frontier of the Roman Empire.

A flurry of other posts and walls erected by the Romans existed, many of them described as more significant than the Empire’s hallmark Hadrian’s Wall.

Vindolanda, located in Northumberland, was once an auxiliary fort just south of Hadrian’s Wall.

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It predated Emperor Hadrian’s structure, thought to have been assembled by the first Cohort of Tungrians in around 85 AD.

While Vindolanda has been largely overlooked, Dr Andrew Birley, the Director of Excavations at Vindolanda, and his team have made a range of fascinating discoveries, including an ancient and never before seen Christian church.

During History Hit’s ‘Vindolanda: Jewel of the North’, Dr Birley explained how the building had been constantly missed, and how similar trends might be commonplace across Europe.

The church sat on one of the outermost corners of Vindolanda, and was balanced on some fourth century storehouses and living quarters, in what was a “tell-tale dark earth” patch of land.

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Researchers initially believed that the darkness of the soil meant an inactive part of the site, but this widely held belief has since been disregarded.

Dr Birley said: “We now understand that that dark earth represents lots of organic matter that’s rotted.”

The dark earth proved to be rotten timber, which once made up the structure of the hidden fifth or sixth century church, surrounded by piles of large stone.

Dr Birley continued: “It’s very badly built, it’s a stone foundation for a timber superstructure.

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“These people, their medium is in stone, but they built in timber, that’s what they prefer to use.

“So they’ve literally tried to raise the timbers out of the ground.”

Because of the building’s poor structure it eventually collapsed in on itself.

It meant that an “incredible jumble” of stone and organic matter, all mismatched, created difficulties for researchers.

Dr Birley explained: “Unfortunately for structures like this, in the past, when antiquarians excavated places like Vindolanda and other sites on Hadrian’s Wall, sometimes they just miss this stuff altogether because all they would see is a jumble of stone.

“And they wouldn’t realise, because it’s so visually poor, that they’re actually dealing with a post-Roman building or a wall or a structure.

“They thought, ‘Well that’s fallen rubble, let’s take it out’.”

The church offered up more astounding discoveries.

Dr Birley and his team recovered a broken chalice, split into 14 fragments, covered in what was described as the first example of “Christian graffiti”.

They are thought to be the only of their kind in the whole of Europe.

He told The Observer last year: “You’ve got crosses, a whale, fish, ships with lovely rigging and little flags, little angels, a priestly figure seemingly holding a crook with a big smiley face, ears of wheat.

“It’s just remarkable. Nothing in north-western Europe comes close from the period.”

It is unclear how many other ancient structures have been swept away from sites in Britain and Europe by researchers who believed the rubble to be nothing more than debris.

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