Grisly discovery as archaeological dig sheds new light on Cumbria’s Roman past
Finds hint at specialist Roman tile-factory while full ‘mystery’ of 800-year-old skeleton may never be completely solved. Major pipeline route was moved to preserve the find.
Archaeologists investigating medieval ruins near Cockermouth stumbled on something even more interesting - an ancient skeleton and tantalising new clues to the area’s Roman past.
The discoveries, in a field south of Bridekirk, were unearthed by experts investigating and recording archaeological remains along the route of a new 100km water pipeline for United Utilities.
The two finds in the summer of 2017 came out of the blue for archaeologists who were only expecting to find the remains of a medieval grange, or farm, discovered in earlier works on the site.
But while painstakingly digging out the foundations they found a perfectly-preserved skeleton laid carefully among rubble in the floor as well as the footprint of another entirely unknown structure.
They also found coins, pottery sherds, evidence of an oven or kiln and pieces of highly-specialised Roman heating tiles, which were used building the construction of under-floor heating systems in prestige Roman buildings, known as hypocausts.
United Utilities, which funded the work as part of a huge project to boost the reliability of water supplies to tens of thousands of people in West Cumbria, is now awaiting the final report from CFA Archaeology.
CFA archaeologist Phil Mann said: “Literally as we took the grass off we exposed the foundations of the medieval building, but what we didn’t expect to find underneath were the foundations for a very unusual large Roman structure containing the remains of a kiln or oven with evidence of burning still present.
“Buried under some backfill at the corner of the medieval building we found the remains of a skeleton laid out. Usually a grave cut can be seen during excavation, but here there was no evidence of one suggesting the body may have been put into the rubble of the Roman building during the medieval period.”
After months of detailed analysis, one possible explanation of the find is that the large 2nd or 3rd century Roman structure may have been mass-producing tiles for prestige buildings for the nearby Roman settlement and fort at Papcastle, before falling into disuse and its stones re-used in new buildings.
The medieval building was much more recent, at somewhere between 600 and 800-years old, but there is little indication of what it was used for. Phil believes it was most likely an outbuilding of a larger farmstead, possibly linked to a monastery in Yorkshire.
And initial worries that the skeleton was victim of ancient foul play have also been allayed. After being sensitively exhumed from its resting place, the skeleton was sent for specialist osteoarchaeological analysis. This revealed no signs of violent death. It was more likely to have been death by natural causes, with the analysis indicating a man aged 35-40 suffering from serious degenerative joint disease, which may have contributed to his death.
“We don’t know what happened to the man or why he was buried there as he was. Perhaps he was a member of grange staff who had an association with this building. It could have been old age that killed him. In those days people did not live as long as they do now,” said Phil.
“But the Roman building is a very exciting and unusual find. You don’t usually find such large Roman buildings outside the site of a Roman town or a military complex. It’s one of the only ones known in this area of Cumbria. It’s possibly because Papcastle was built close to the River Derwent, which is on gravels, that they had to come up here to find the clay deposits they needed for tiles.”
It’s not the first time that archaeology unearthed on the route of a United Utilities pipeline has re-written Cumbria’s history books.
In 2008, engineers building a wastewater pipe near Brougham, Penrith, found the remains of a previously unknown 1st century Roman settlement.
Project Director on the West Cumbria Supplies Scheme John Hilton said engineers had worked closely with county archaeology staff to try to avoid potential finds along the route altogether and as a result of what was found in Bridekirk had moved the planned route of the pipeline to protect it.
“We’re doing everything we can to prevent damage to our buried history, including completing one of the longest tunnels in Europe at the moment under Castlerigg stone circle near Keswick to avoid disturbing any Neolithic remains.
“It’s great that this site at Bridekirk has come to light and that experts have had the chance to study it as a result of our work. The new light that it’s shedding on Cumbria’s Roman and medieval past is one of the many positive legacies we can leave behind us. When we’ve finished the landscape over this site and the entire pipeline will be re-instated so that, once again, there’ll be no evidence of it on the surface and Cumbria’s unique environment will return to its previous condition.”
Added Phil: “If it hadn’t been for United Utilities’ project we might never have known about the Roman activity at this site. It’s really rare we get the chance to excavate sites like these unless there is a large infrastructure project which gives us the opportunity.
“To find the remains of a Roman building of this size, with what we found there and potential evidence of industry, it’s unlike anything I’ve done in my 20 year career. We already know a lot about Papcastle and the Roman settlement there but this opens up some more potentially very interesting research questions.”
Once published, the report and any artefacts will be lodged with Cumbria’s County Archaeology Service in Carlisle along with other recommendations for future research.
As for the skeleton, once current research is complete, it will be given a new burial place, probably in a local graveyard, where it can continue to rest in peace.