Archaeology breakthrough as ‘dark earth’ at Vindolanda site discovers rich ‘secrets’

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The Roman Empire’s conquest of Britain got underway nearly 2,000 years ago. Emperor Claudius led the charge, a move that would alter the path of this island’s history forever. Invasion began slowly at first, with the number of Romans entering gradually increasing over the centuries.

Soldiers from present-day Italy, Spain and France were recruited as the imperial power tore its way through Europe.

Those men would go on to build structures across the continent, with many, especially in Britain, still intact today.

Perhaps the most famous example is Hadrian’s Wall in modern-day Carlisle, in the north of England.

The 73-mile construction stretched from the banks of the River Tyne near the North Sea to the Solway Firth on the Irish Sea, and was the furthest frontier of the Roman Empire.

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Other posts and structures sprouted up in the north, including the often overlooked Vindolanda.

Located in Northumberland, Vindolanda was once an auxiliary fort just south of Hadrian’s Wall, thought to have been built by the first Cohort of Tungrians in around 85 AD.

During History Hit’s documentary, ‘Vindolanda: Jewel of the North’, Dr Andrew Birley, the Director of Excavations at Vindolanda, talked of a glaringly obvious yet missed sign of a rich, secret and untold history on the site that post-dated Roman occupation.

Pointing to what was once a building that housed visitors, Dr Birley explained: “Above this, with all the demolition of Roman Britain we get this tell tale dark earth, which is so traditional across many sites in Britain, from the end of the Roman period.

JUST INArchaeology mystery as lost temple at UK Roman fort holds secrets

“We used to think that meant there was very little going on, but that’s not true.

“We now understand that dark earth represents a lot of organic matter that’s rotted in situ.

“And we’ve had a timber building cutting across our Roman remains, where the dark earth is, and that dark earth is the timber rotting in situ.

“And above that the stone foundation curving around here, this curved wall, of a fifth or sixth century church.”


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The church was badly built: A stone foundation had been laid for what was a “timber superstructure”.

This had led the building to eventually collapse in on itself, meaning that the “incredible jumble” of stone and organic matter made for a near impossible search by 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.

Last year, he told The Observer: “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 unknown whether any further structure such as that found at Vindolanda exist in Britain or the continent.

Many have likely been swept away by researchers believing the rubble amounts to no more than debris.

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