Forming part of the World Heritage Site at Birdoswald Fort, Cumbria, this important Roman cremation cemetery is situated on a cliff edge. It is under serious threat from erosion, which has accelerated over the last few years.
Newcastle University is now working with English Heritage to preserve this valuable archaeology for the nation.
English Heritage voiced concerns about erosion after it acquired the site in 2001 and began investigative work to establish whether it could be prevented.
Findings revealed that the cliff on which the fort and settlement of Birdoswald stand is under constant threat of erosion, caused by a combination of the river at the base of the cliff and water and frost action on the boulder clay at the top. Excavation is therefore the only way to avoid the loss of this delicate archaeology.
The excavation began last week and will continue until 16 October 2009. It will be funded and carried out by English Heritage who will be joined by Ian Haynes, Professor of Archaeology at Newcastle University. The project will provide training opportunities in field archaeology for undergraduates from the University as part of an undergraduate training programme.
Professor Haynes, Chair of Archaeology for Newcastle University said: “We know from earlier discoveries in and around the fort site that Birdoswald had a very cosmopolitan population during the Roman period.
“A fragmentary tombstone records a soldier from Africa, while the regiment in garrison was originally raised in or around Transylvania in Romania. We hope to learn more about this exotic mix of soldiers, their families and followers through the excavations.”
A small-scale Channel 4 Time Team evaluation in small trenches at Birdoswald in 1999 discovered two complete cremation urns, evidence that although the site was partially damaged by ploughing in the medieval period, there is still important archaeology hidden beneath the soil.
The findings of this excavation will be valuable in discovering more about Roman cremation cemeteries, practices and rituals and will provide a valuable insight into the lives of the Roman soldiers who once occupied the frontier. The archaeological dig is being carried out under the rules of the Burial Act. After studying the findings, they will be deposited in Tullie House Museum, Carlisle and any human remains that are uncovered will be reburied.
Tony Wilmot, English Heritage archaeologist and project manager for the Birdoswald excavation said: “Although the loss of archaeology through erosion is regrettable it has given us a unique opportunity to examine a large area of a Roman military cemetery, a type of site which is very little explored and poorly understood.”
Source: Newcastle University
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