A treasure trove of previously hidden Roman history unearthed in north Carlisle has been described as “Premier League” archaeology.
Working in secret, archaeologists have been excavating a site at Carlisle Cricket Club’s Edenside ground where they have discovered a superbly-preserved Roman bath-house and dozens of artefacts, including coins, arrow heads and pottery.
The quality of the find is such that one senior politican in the city has suggested that it could do for Carlisle what Viking archaeology did for York.
For decades, historians had puzzled over the likely location of the military bath-house that would have been used by the Ala Petriana, the crack Roman cavalry regiment based at Stanwix. The elite 1,000-strong unit was the most feared fighting force on Hadrian’s Wall, the Roman Empire’s northern-most frontier.
Over the last two weeks, the archaeology team has uncovered major sections of the unit’s bath house building, along with dozens of coins, an iron arrow head, pottery, bone hair pins and painted tiles. Many artefacts are in a remarkable state of preservation.
“The archaeology they’ve found here is absolutely stunning,” said Carlisle City Council leader Colin Glover. “It’s a fantastic site. It’s been a dream for a long time to find Roman archaeology in Carlisle that is good enough to show to the public.
“We’ve already found lots of good Roman artefacts elsewhere in Carlisle and much of it is at Tullie House Museum where it helps tell the story of Roman Carlisle.
“But what they’ve found at the cricket club site is really stunning: there are whole rooms, surviving Roman floors, parts of cooking pots, including one with a lion’s head through which sauces would be poured out.
“This is something we can do something with long-term. We want to work closely with the cricket club to make the best of this exciting discovery. There are also discussions that we can have with the Heritage Lottery Fund.
“It’s really exciting to see a place and artefacts that Romans were using in this city almost 2,000 years ago.
“It would be wonderful if we could develop something long-term just a 10-minute walk from the city centre.”
The site, below Eden Bridge, has been excavated by archaeology contractor Wardell Armstrong, whose technical director Frank Giecco could barely contain his excitement.
Among the beautifully preserved coins, hairpins and tiles is pipework associated with a hypocaust – the Roman equivalent of underfloor-heating.
The team have also discovered a tribute to Julia Domna, mother of the Roman Emperor Caracalla.
He was Emperor from AD 198 to 217 and an inscription – carved into a sandstone block – describes Domna as mother of the Most Holy Emperor, the Roman Army, and the Senate – a key institution of the Roman state.
“This site is highly significant,” said Mr Giecco.
“We’re just beneath the site of the Roman fort at Stanwix and, until now, we never knew where the fort’s bath-house was. The obvious place was near the river.
“There are blackened areas, probably where they had the furnaces for burning wood to heat the water.
“There were 1,000 men based here, members of the prestigious Ala Petriana and they were paid more than the other soldiers stationed here.
“The bath-house was a very important part of life for these cavalrymen – a meeting place and there would have been a lot of gambling and coins lost.”
In charge of the dig was Kevin Mounsey.
He said: “There was little expectation when we started.
“We’d been told that all the spoil from the excavation of Hardwicke Circus was dumped down this bank. But what we’ve now found shows this really is a very significant site.
“Finds like this are rare – it’s Premier League archaeology.
“Nobody knew that there was anything like this down here. It really is exciting – the kind of find you come into this job for.”
The dig has been been particularly exciting for the firm’s newest recruit, 21-year-old Durham University archaeology graduate Rachel Frame. She found her first Roman coin – a silver denarius.
“It’s like it was minted yesterday,” said Rachel. “You can read every bit of the writing on it because it’s such a good state of preservation. It’s really exciting.”
Carlisle Cricket Club chairman Mike Rayson said: “This is an amazing find and we’ll work closely with the city council to do the right thing. It could be a big thing for this city and we wouldn’t do anything to disturb it.”
He added that he was confident that the new pavilion, vital to Carlisle Cricket Club’s future, would be built but in a way that does not conflict with the exciting opportunities created by the bath-house find.
An open day is planned at the site today between 11am and 4pm while archaeologists continue to work.
The trenches will be filled immediately after today’s exhibition and dig and all of the artefacts removed.