DREAM to shine a light on one of the most important Roman buildings in Carlisle has taken a huge step forward.

Plans have been approved for the state-of-the-art archaeology centre and new pavilion at Carlisle Cricket Club, which will show off the Roman bathhouse discovered three years ago.

The project started with a small archaeological evaluation taking place at the Stanwix Bank site to determine whether it was suitable for a new pavilion.

“We were asked to do three small trenches because I thought there was potential at that site because of its location,” explained Frank Giecco, who led the archaeological dig for Wardell Armstrong.

“In years gone by I had done work on the Roman bridges across the Eden, so I was convinced the Roman bridge passes very close to the current bridge, which would mean it was very close to the site we were looking at.

“It had never really been built on so you hoped underneath the tennis courts, if there was archaeology, it would be quite well preserved.”

They put in the three trenches and were amazed by their findings.

“The first trench produced an inscription, a Roman inscription, which is an incredible finding in its own right. The second trench produced part of a Roman pipe course system, which is the underfloor heating, which again is an incredible finding in its own right.

“We extended the trench over the hypocaust to find we were in the middle of a bathhouse. That is where the first phase stopped.”

The first dig generated huge interest with various bodies and authorities, including Carlisle City Council, Fred Story, local councillors, Carlisle Cricket Club and members of the public.

An eight-week community excavation followed, with earlier theories about the building tossed aside.

“From being a small bath house, it was in fact much bigger and grander,” continued Frank. “Stanwix Fort is just up the hill, which is a thousand-strong cavalry, it’s the premier fort on Hadrian’s Wall, so they would have had a bathhouse, but the dates of this bathhouse and when Stanwix Fort was built don’t tally.

“It is not like a military bathhouse, it is bigger than any military bathhouse on the wall.”

After this discovery the team behind the excavation began to wonder about what the bathhouse was used for and what purpose it served in the Roman Empire.

“During that excavation we got another inscription to the Roman Empress Julia Domna and also Imperial stamp tiles.

“These were floor tiles, roof tiles that were stamped with the imperial monogram, so it’s not legionary like you sometimes get in Carlisle.”

Frank and his team discovered that the bathhouse was built by the workshop of the Roman imperial court. This again got everyone wondering the same thing again: what was this building?

“It was built in the early 200s, 208 or 209, that sort of period. We’ve got the Empress Julia Domna, you then look in the history books for what is going on,” explained Frank. “That is when Emperor Septimius Severus and the whole imperial court moved to Britain.

“They were based in York and that is where he died. He brought his family with him, so his wife and children were up here.”

The Emperor led a military campaign against the tribes north of Hadrian’s Wall which began in 208, and this involved a Roman fighting force estimated to have been 50,000 strong.

“Then you start to think that around that period Carlisle has a massive rebuilding programme, something important is going on in Carlisle.

“It is not a crazy assumption to think the two things are linked and the imperial court was in Carlisle.

“So there is a chance Carlisle became the forward base, where they’ve moved up from York when they were campaigning in Scotland, and the imperial court moved up to Carlisle so they were a lot closer.

“If the imperial court comes to Carlisle, that becomes the centre of the Roman Empire while they are here.”

Frank says the closest thing in history that mirrors such an event would be when Edward I was based in Carlisle and the English Parliament was held here.

It was hoped that the next part of the project would kickstart this year, but the coronavirus pandemic has pushed this back until 2021.

“I have worked in Carlisle for 25 years and this is the highlight of my professional career,” continued Frank.