IT’S impossible to hear Frank Giecco talk of the Roman archaeology found at the Carlisle Cricket Club site and not sense his excitement.

Straight-talking, practical, and unfussy in character, Frank has been an archaeologist for 27 years, working at the commercial sharp end of his discipline rather than in academia.

His firm Wardell Armstrong routinely does surveys for developers before building work gets underway.

Yet the unexpected discoveries at the site around Carlisle Cricket Club, a short distance from Eden Bridge, are telling a story of Roman Carlisle which has inspired and fascinated people across the country.

There are tantalising glimpses of a lost Roman world.

In the early third century AD, Carlisle - then known as Luguvalio - was on the northern edge of the Roman Empire, its influence reaching a little way beyond Hadrian’s Wall.

In power was Rome’s first African Emperor, Lucius Septimius Severus, supported by his wife, Empress Julia Domna.

The finds discovered at the Carlisle site include an inscription dedicated to her.

The impressive Roman buildings at the Cricket Club site were a meeting place for elite Ala Petriana cavalry soldiers, whose fort was at Stanwix.

Skilled and ruthless fighters, they were universally feared.

This 1,000-strong fighting force was the largest of its kind in Roman Britain - and primary defenders of Rome's northern frontier.

Almost certainly, the Carlisle bathhouses was where they relaxed - bathing, talking, and gambling.

News and Star: Discovery: Volunteers found around 20 tiles stamped with the imperial emblem. Photo: Stuart Walker Photography.Discovery: Volunteers found around 20 tiles stamped with the imperial emblem. Photo: Stuart Walker Photography.

Archaeology is a fusion of mystery, detective work and story-telling - and the Carlisle site has added a fascinating new chapter to the story of Roman Carlisle. The finds include hundreds of Roman coins, jewellery, spear-heads, and a fragment of a cavalry soldier’s tombstone.

As well as artefacts, the dig has also raised questions – including the tantalising possibility that Severus himself visited the city.

Frank says: “We’ve got some incredible finds. We now know there were three bath-houses on the site and we’ve found a road which headed off towards one of the Hadrian’s Wall mile-castles.

"But for me, what stands out are the imperial stamped tiles – an incredible group of objects, manufactured for the Emperor himself.

“We’ve got more of than anywhere else in Europe – more than 20 of them. We found more in Carlisle than have been found in the rest of the UK put together. They’re not valuable and they’re not pretty. But they’re a direct connection to the Emperor.”

Asked about the tiles' significance, Frank says: “It’s always been thought something important happened in Carlisle in the early 200s.

“It was a garrison town. But it was then given civitas status, which means it had its own magistrates, its own forum. It became self-governing.

“Other large buildings were erected. It hints of lots of money being spent in Carlisle in that particular period.

"The bath-house might be the building that ties these things together, suggesting it was happening because the Emperor was in town. Nobody can say one way or the other.

“But it seems likely that if the Emperor himself wasn’t here, his family possibly were here. We have an inscription to Julia Doma from the site. She was famous in her own right.”

News and Star: LEFT: Roman iron ring with intaglio found in Carlisle. RIGHT: Roman silver ring - Anna GieccoLEFT: Roman iron ring with intaglio found in Carlisle. RIGHT: Roman silver ring - Anna Giecco

Swirling around this period is a story of vicious family rivalry, which erupted into murderous violence after Severus died in 211. His dying wish was for his sons Geta and Caracella to rule jointly.

But Caracalla – intent on seizing power for himself – had Geta murdered.

Frank says: “Severus's sons were tearaways, so perhaps he brought them to Carlisle and sent them further afield to make men of them.

"There’s a hell of a story to be told.

“The fact remains that we have a monumental building in Carlisle, which ties in with when the Emperor was actually in Britain. The timings all work. We have the imperial tiles, a building dedicated to his wife.

“There’s a body of evidence. In his power-grab, Caracella killed his younger brother and his supporters - tens of thousands of them across the empire, they say.”

The story remains one of fragments.

There are certainly more clues to be unearthed: after two major digs, says Frank, only 20 per cent of the Carlisle site has been excavated.

He adds: “We’ve found around 900 artefacts. I can’t praise the volunteer helpers enough: we’ve had nearly 400 people get involved, including schoolchildren.

"It’s captured people’s imagination.

"Some people have changed careers because of this. I know of three people who got involved and who now want to train for archaeology.”

News and Star: Imperial: A volunteer displays one of the 'Imperial stamped' Roman tiles from the site. Photo: Stuart Walker Photography.Imperial: A volunteer displays one of the 'Imperial stamped' Roman tiles from the site. Photo: Stuart Walker Photography.

Do the site’s imperial finds suggest an imperial visit?

Dr Roger Tomlin, a fellow of Wolfson College, Oxford, and author of the book The Roman Inscriptions of Britain, says: “It’s quite likely he was there.

“Other campaigns in the north used Carlisle, which was a major city on the route of the wall. It had the most senior officer on the wall, a prefect and the only man who commanded a double-strength cavalry regiment in the whole of Britain. Stanwix was perhaps the most important for on the wall.”

The 'Uncovering Roman Carlisle' project - an 18-month programme of community archaeology investigation which will see a Tullie House exhibition next year - received a £99,000 National Lottery Heritage Fund grant. Around 5,000 people visited the excavation site.

News and Star: Assessment: Frank Giecco says it will take months to sort through the 900 finds from the Cricket Club site.Assessment: Frank Giecco says it will take months to sort through the 900 finds from the Cricket Club site.

Carlisle city councillor Stephen Higgs, responsible for culture, heritage and leisure, says the project shone a light on Carlisle’s once invisible Roman heritage.

“The excavation brought us into direct contact with our Roman past and led to Carlisle being talked about the world over,” he says.

Some of the artefacts will feature in a Touring Exhibition which will visit community venues next year, coinciding with the 1900th Anniversary of Hadrian’s Wall.

Tullie House’s Head of Collections and Engagement, Anna Smalley, adds: “We were delighted at how much the excavation had captured the imagination of our local residents.

"It’s been a privilege to work alongside the Wardell Armstrong team and their amazing crew of dedicated volunteers.

"It feels like every day we were adding to our knowledge and understanding of this incredible period of local history and look forward to telling these stories in the exhibition at Tullie House in spring 2022.”