The secrets of a Roman dig in Carlisle, hailed as one of the most significant in the UK with ‘world-first’ finds, are about to be fully revealed for the first time in nine years.
Tim Padley shows off a late first-century hair pin, crowned with a decorative head
The city’s Tullie House Museum has finally been reunited with the 80,000 artefacts uncovered during the Millennium project, and the archaeologists behind it are on the brink of publishing their 500-page report.
John Zant, of Oxford Archaeology North, is one of the team who spent years painstakingly cataloguing, conserving and assessing the finds, compared at the time to those of the Vikings in York. He was involved in the dig on the Castle Green in 2000 and said those involved always knew they were going to find “extremely important material”.
The first report detailing the sequence of the Roman occupation on the fort underneath the Castle has already been published, and the second is ‘within weeks’ of revealing details of the artefacts found and what they show about Roman life in Carlisle.
“ The Millennium dig was such an important investigation,” Mr Zant said. “It was one of the most significant excavations in north England with many different elements of national, even international, significance.”
He said the report was not just about the artefacts themselves but how they built up a broader picture of the conditions and life at the fort.
“It’s not just the coins and armour, the seeds and insect remains can tell us a lot about the environment,” he said.
“They can give us an idea of what conditions were like. Was it wet? Boggy? Insects live in particular types of environments so the ones we find on site can tell us a bit about the climate and conditions.
“The plant remains give us an insight into what was being grown and eaten.”
The ‘world-first finds’ included articulated armour which had only been seen on statues before, and some arm guards.
“Very few had ever been found in the ground,” Mr Zant said. “They are of international importance.”
Because of the amount of archaeology uncovered it has taken years to conserve and analyse the finds – a complex process completed by experts at Oxford Archaeology North, which is based in Lancaster.
“The amount of the material and the sensitivity of it means some needs specialist conservation,” Mr Zant said.
“It’s not unusual for things to take as long [as this].
“It’s not a case of cleaning it up and shoving it in a museum.
“Things have to be dealt with properly and stabilised.”
He said they had been returning the artefacts to Tullie House over the past two years and, with the exception of a handful, all were now in storage there.
It could, however, be a couple of years before they go on display properly as the museum is in the process of creating a £570,000 Roman Gateway gallery to house the artefacts.
That is scheduled to open in April 2011 and Tullie House is currently awaiting confirmation of funding.
Tim Padley, keeper of archaeology at Tullie House, said the archaeologists’ reports showed, for the first time, the chronology of the Roman fort in Carlisle.
“It will show what was happening at what time which is phenomenally useful,” he said.
He said they wouldn’t be showing everything in the gallery but ‘taking choice picks’.
“The castle is Royal property and we need to reach an agreement to allow us to curate the objects,” he added. “After that, we will look at our programme of displays to see what we want to use and when we can use it. It won’t be a sudden large exhibition.
“There isn’t the space to do what was done in South Shields and to build full-scale replicas.”
He said the museum had already shown the best pieces such as the armour and weaponry in displays at Tullie House and at the castle.
Councillor Gareth Ellis, portfolio holder for culture with the city council, said the Roman Gallery would focus on the western end of Hadrian’s Wall but also illustrate life in Roman Carlisle from 78AD when the first wooden fort was built on the castle site. “It is intended that a wide range of finds including leather tent panels and a plasterer’s wooden float will be on show,” he added.
“This is to enable the viewer to get a clear picture of life of the legionaries and citizens of Carlisle during the 400 years of Roman occupation, telling an important part of the 2,000-year-old city’s history.”