I visited a Roman fort the other day – or rather, WE visited a Roman fort, though my husband is no enthusiast for Roman remains. He has no historical imagination and they just look like meaningless heaps of stones to him.
But not the newly excavated Roman remains at Binchester Roman fort near Bishop Auckland in County Durham – Vinovia, in Roman times.
They’re calling the latest finds ‘the Pompeii of the North’, which is perhaps rather overstating the case.
But they have found plastered walls two metres or so high, doorways and steps, all part of a Roman bath house, and even paintings on some of the walls. For the time being the paintings are covered up, as are most of the excavations, but you can walk round the perimeter fencing and see the walls, created from neatly squared-off stone, still smoothly plastered, and a doorway you could walk through and feel as if you were inside a building, not just stepping between two little heaps of stones. In the case of Binchester, it wasn’t volcanic lava that preserved these remains, but the fact that those who came after used it as a rubbish dump, infilling the abandoned building, hiding it from the view of locals who would otherwise have robbed it for constructing their own buildings. The Saxon gem of Escomb church, not far away, is full of Roman stones, which may well once have been part of the fort at Vinovia.
The archaeologists have barely started uncovering what is clearly a huge site, with who knows what treasures still waiting to be uncovered. A joint project between Durham University, Stanford University in the USA and local archaeology groups has taken them five years to get this far, and there are clearly years of work still waiting to be done.
And that’s the problem. Work of such intricacy needs funding, lavish funding. But it’s not a good time to be seeking funding for archaeological excavations, still less for displaying and interpreting them for the public to enjoy. The site’s largely maintained by the County Council – and what County Council (especially in north east England) has cash to spare for anything like that? I have a suspicion that if Binchester was in the south of England – maybe in a conservative constituency – then the funds would be found quite easily. But it isn’t, it’s in Tory-free north east England, an area with the highest unemployment rate in the UK and huge social problems.
But I do so want to see what lies under that quiet field; I do so want it to be available for everyone to enjoy and understand. After all, even my husband was excited by the little glimpse we had of what has been found so far.
I found inspiration there once before, which triggered my children’s book ‘Forbidden Footprints‘ (on sale at Binchester, if you’re interested!). I’d like other people to find inspiration there too. If you want to look at what they’ve found so far, the fort is open to the public until the end of September.