It's a tantalising possibility...

The Roman Empire may have abandoned Britain in the fourth century but only now is Carlisle giving up some of the occupation's oldest secrets - including the possibility that the city was visited by an emperor.

The evidence is emerging thanks to an archaeological dig in north Carlisle: an excavation that uncovered a superbly preserved third century bathhouse.

Today, the Carlisle Cricket Club site of the dig is nothing to look at: just a large weed-choked patch of open ground, adjacent to Eden Bridge. There is no trace of the tennis courts that once occupied the site.

Nor is the site's archaeology visible.

But buried beneath this land was a treasure trove of Roman history.

Archaeologists spent months examining the finds from the excavation and those artefacts have been given them a truly fascinating glimpse of Carlisle's Roman past, when the city was home to the most feared fighting force on Hadrian's Wall.

There was huge excitement as The Cumberland News revealed the discovery of the bathhouse.

It was almost certainly the main meeting place for the elite Ala Petriana cavalry soldiers whose fort was at Stanwix.

Skilled, ruthless, and universally feared, this 1,000-strong fighting force - the largest of its kind in Roman Britain - was Rome's primary defence force in northern Britain, whose job was to guard the Empire's northernmost frontier.

A short walk from the Stanwix cavalry fort, the bathhouse would have been where the Ala Petriana relaxed, bathing, talking, and gambling - one of the most likely explanations for the many Roman coins found.

The Cricket Club dig yielded hundreds of artefacts, as well exposing walls and rooms which experts now believe were part of a much larger administrative complex. Only now have archaeologists given their verdict on what it may mean.

Staff from Wardell Armstrong, the contractor responsible for the dig, have painstakingly catalogued the many finds.

They are described in fascinating detail within a 112 page report, shared with the News & Star in advance of its publication. There were so many artefacts recovered that they were enough to fill 70 boxes.

There were 87 copper alloy Roman coins, many in a remarkable state of preservation; as well as 19 silver coins, five dating from the late third and early second century.

Also found were 236 pieces of pottery (including fragments of jars and dishes), arrow heads, and a Roman soldier's tombstone - the first Carlisle find to mention the Ala-Petriana.

Among the many surprises in the report is confirmation that human remains were found at the site - bones from four individuals, including a skull fragment, bearing an injury suggesting the person was "scalped", though the remains post-date the Roman era.

The Cricket Club dig also revealed medieval artefacts - musket balls and a single canon ball, possibly left at the site following 1745 Jocobite siege of Carlisle.

Though the site could yet yield many more secrets, the work already done has uncovered eight bathhouse rooms, five equipped with the Roman equivalent of under-floor heating.

"The building was constructed on a truly monumental scale," says the report.

Commenting on the large number of imperial artefacts found, the report says: "The size of the building surpasses any other bathhouse in the northern frontier zone as does the scale and quality of interior painted walls.

"The building dedication the the Empress Julia Domna is very significant...During this period, the imperial court was based in York and it is not beyond the realms of possibility that the the imperial court may have passed through or indeed stayed in Carlisle.

"As such it is possible that the building was originally constructed for such a visit, and therefore linked with the granting of civitas status." The visit is likely to have been made by Emperor Lucius Septimius Severus, and his wife Julia Domna.

Of the skeletal remains, the report confirms that two boxes of human skeletal remains were recovered - bones from both adolescent and adult individuals, including finger and leg bones, and skull fragments.

Frank Giecco, the archaeologist who led the excavation, said: "I've been in archaeology since 1992, and for me personally it's the finest archaeology I have worked on. It would be fantastic if something could be done with it.

"There's a lot more going on there than just the building.

"The Emperor was based in York for a couple of years and he won't have just stayed there. He went campaigning north of the border."

Oxford University academic Dr Roger Tomlin, an expert in late Roman history, said he thought it was highly likely that the Roman Emperor visited Carlisle, given that Stanwix was home to the biggest cavalry base in Roman Britain.

"Septimus campaigned north of Hadrian's Wall," he said, explaining that the city was one of only three places where people could pass through the frontier.

Carlisle City Council Leader Colin Glover said: "The quality of the finds at Carlisle Cricket Club have been absolutely stunning. Now we find that the site is more significant that we first thought."

Stanwix city councillor Fiona Robson said the possibility that Carlisle hosted an imperial Roman visit supported her contention that the city should be regarded as the capital of the borderlands region.

She said: "Historically, Carlisle has always punched below its weight. It's time that we started to think of ourselves as an imperial city. We need to celebrate our history."

She supported efforts to create a permanent exhibition based on the Cricket Club finds.

Last month, the News & Star's sister paper The Cumberland News reported how fears that the cricket club site may flood had dealt a major blow to hopes of creating a permanent exhibition venue for the Cricket Club finds because of the potential damage to exhibits.

But Mike Rayson, chairman of Carlisle Cricket Club, echoed the comments of local councillors who say that a way has to be found to use the bathhouse discovery as a means of telling Carlisle's Roman era story.

"The imperial finds at the site show that Carlisle was more than just a watering hole on Hadrian's Wall," said Mike.

"It was an important Roman city. What they've found at the Cricket Club site is magnificent: just look at the size of it. We need to make the best of it for the people of Carlisle."

Lucius Septimus Severus was Emperor from AD 198 to 211.

His wife Julia Domna was a Syrian born aristocrat, who became his wife almost by accident - after a fortune teller told her she would one day marry a king.

Made aware of this, the then widowed but superstitious Septimus Severus sought her out.

She was just 16 when they married but in Rome she was a firm favourite - exhibiting looks, charm, wit and intelligence.

Dr Tomlin points out that the inscription stone found at the Cricket Club may also be a tribute to another Empress, Julia Maiser, the elder sister of Julia Domna, who committed suicide after the murder of her son Caracalla.

In 208, Septimius Severus travelled to Britain to oversee the strengthening Hadrian's Wall.

He also invaded Caledonia (modern Scotland), but his military ambitions were cut short when he fell fatally ill in late 210. The died the following year at Eboracum (York), and was succeeded by his sons.