Category Archives: ENGLAND

Rare Roman Cavalry Swords And Toys Unearthed Along Hadrian’s Wall

Rare Roman Cavalry Swords And Toys Unearthed Along Hadrian’s Wall

Swords, arrowheads and ballista bolts amongst a cache of artifacts discovered during cavalry barrack excavations at Roman Vindolanda. Archaeologists at the Roman fort of Vindolanda have made one remarkable discovery after another in what has been an exceptional year for the research excavations.

Aerial view of remains of 4th century stone fort at Vindolanda

Test pit excavations, below the stone foundations of the last stone fortress, revealed a layer of black, sweet-smelling and perfectly preserved anaerobic, oxygen-free, soils in an area where they were completely unexpected.

Hidden in this soil were the timber walls and floors, fences, pottery and animal bones, from the abandonment of a Roman cavalry barrack. The excavated rooms included stables for horses, living accommodation, ovens and fireplaces.

While excavating the material from the corner of one of the living rooms a volunteer excavator made an outstanding discovery.

The earth surrounding the object was slowly pulled back under careful supervision to reveal the tip of a thin and sharp iron blade, resting in its wooden scabbard.

As the archaeologists excavated further the shape of a hilt and handle slowly emerged from the black soil and it became immediately clear that the Romans had left behind a complete sword with a bent tip. It was the ancient equivalent of a modern soldier abandoning a malfunctioning rifle.

Dr Andrew Birley recalled the moment as “quite emotional” and went on to say, “you can work as an archaeologist your entire life on Roman military sites and, even at Vindolanda, we never expect or imagine to see such a rare and special object as this.

It felt like the team had won a form of an archaeological lottery.” Rupert Bainbridge, the volunteer who made the initial discovery described the moment as overwhelming, commenting, “I was so excited to excavate such an extraordinary artefact, especially something that resonated so much with the fort setting that we were digging in.”

A few weeks later, Vindolanda archaeologists accompanied by a new team of volunteers were finishing working on a room adjacent to the one in which the sword was discovered.

Here they remarkably discovered a second sword, this time without a wooden handle, pommel or scabbard, but with the blade and tang still complete and sitting on the floor exactly where it had been left thousands of years before.

Cavalry sword unearthed at Vindolanda

Dr. Birley commented, “You don’t expect to have this kind of experience twice in one month so this was both a delightful moment and a historical puzzle. You can imagine the circumstances where you could conceive leaving one sword behind rare as it is…. but two?” Both blades came from separate rooms, and are likely to have belonged to different people. One theory is that the garrison was forced to leave in a hurry, and in their haste, they left not only the swords but also a great number of other perfectly serviceable items that would have had great value in their time.

The swords are truly remarkable, but they form only part of an outstanding collection of artefacts left behind in those cavalry barrack buildings. In another room were two small wooden toy swords, almost exactly the same as those that can be purchased by tourists visiting the Roman Wall today.

Roman ink writing tablets on wood, bath clogs, leather shoes (from men, women, and children), stylus pens, knives, combs, hairpins, brooches and a wide assortment of other weapons including cavalry lances, arrowheads, and ballista bolts were all abandoned on the barrack room floors.

Copper alloy cavalry strap junction

Quite spectacular are the copper-alloy cavalry and horse fitments for saddles, junction straps and harnesses which were also left behind. These remain in such fine condition that they still shine like gold and are almost completely free from corrosion.

The swords and other objects form a remarkable discovery of one of the most comprehensive and important collections of this type of material from a Hadrian’s Wall site.

Visitors to Vindolanda will be able to see this cache of cavalry finds displayed in the site museum this autumn, just as a major Hadrian’s Cavalry exhibition along the line of Hadrian’s Wall comes to a close another has arrived!

Dr Andrew Birley with sword

Historical facts

The Garrison at Vindolanda at this time (cAD120) was made up of a combination of peoples including the 1st Cohort of Tungrians who heralded from modern day Belgium.

They were joined by a detachment of Vardulli Cavalrymen from northern Spain. It is likely that the base held more than 1000 soldiers and probably many thousands more dependants including slaves and freedmen, representing one of the most multicultural and dynamic communities on the Frontier of the Roman Empire at the time.

The new finds give an intimate insight into the lives of people living on the edge of the Roman Empire at a time of rebellion and war before the construction of Hadrian’s Wall in AD122.

Lost Medieval Chapel Unearthed 370 Years After Destruction

Lost Medieval Chapel Unearthed 370 Years After Destruction

The ruins of an old medieval chapel, comparable to some of the greatest in Europe, have been uncovered at Auckland Castle in County Durham, North East England.

Historical documents show that a two-storey chapel, described as ‘sumptuously constructed’ and ‘exceedingly good,’ was built at Auckland Castle, Bishop Auckland in the early 1300s.

It was created for Bishop Antony Bek, (Prince Bishop of Durham 1284-1310), a great warrior and one of the most powerful and influential men in Europe at the time.

Despite it being larger than the king’s own chapel at Westminster, and with pieces of carved stone weighing the same as a small car, the exact location of the 14th-century chapel has remained a mystery since its destruction in the 1650s, following the English Civil War.

Now, following years of archaeological excavations, Bek’s Chapel has finally been discovered and the full extent of its spectacular scale will be revealed to the public in a special exhibition at Auckland Castle.

A new reconstruction image of the medieval building will be on display in the exhibition, alongside finds uncovered by archaeologists from Durham University and The Auckland Project, the charity that owns and manages Auckland Castle.

Archaeologists excavating the Bek’s Chapel site at Auckland Castle.

The foundations of Bek’s Chapel were found during digs over a five-month period, which revealed that the walls of the medieval chapel were 1.5m thick, 12m wide and 40m long internally.

Archaeologists also found huge bases for internal columns, the buttresses along the chapel’s sides and even part of the floor. And over 300 pieces of elaborately carved stone were excavated, from fragments the size of a fist up to those the weight of a small car.

Stained glass from the long-lost Bek’s Chapel. This fragment shows a pelican pecking her own breast – a traditional Christian symbol representing Christ’s self-sacrifice.

The uncovered evidence suggests that the original chapel was a vast structure, reaching towards the size of continental chapels such as Sainte-Chapelle in Paris and featuring a timber ceiling and huge pillars with decorated stonework.

Archaeologists believe the chapel’s size, scale and decoration would have been a statement of the status of Bishop Bek, who as Prince Bishop of Durham held remarkable powers to mint coinage, raise armies and even rule on behalf of the king.

In the months following the discovery of the chapel, archaeologists from The Auckland Project and Durham University have been working with a panel of archaeological experts, including Architectural Historians Tim Tatton-Brown, Tim Ayers and John Crook, to create a reconstruction of Bek’s Chapel, as it would have looked in the 14th century.

The team mapped details from elements of comparable buildings, including kings’ chapels, cathedrals, and minsters, to suggest the kind of glasswork, carved stone and roof construction that would have featured in Bishop Bek’s original chapel.

Stuart Harrison, Archaeologist at York Minster, recorded the geometry of the discovered foundations and stonework to reconstruct the framework of the original building.

And illustrator, Andy Gammon combined the information with his own research to bring the Chapel to life through a colored reconstruction, with a cut-away opening up the chapel’s interior as well as an aerial view from the South West.

Reconstruction of Bek’s Chapel in Auckland Castle

The team of archaeologists from The Auckland Project and Durham University will return to Auckland Castle this summer to continue their excavation of Bishop Bek’s Chapel where they are hoping to uncover more of the south side of the building.

And, some of the uncovered carved stonework will be on display for visitors to examine in an upcoming exhibition Inside Story: Conserving Auckland Castle at the Bishop Trevor Gallery at Auckland Castle.

Oldest Preserved Spider Web dates back to Dinosaurs

Oldest Preserved Spider Web dates back to Dinosaurs

The oldest known spider web in the world has been discovered on a beach in the English city of Sussex, caught inside an ancient amber chunk

 Baltic amber.

In December scientists found the rare amber fossil and have now confirmed that it contains remains of spider silk woven by an ancestor of modern spider weaving spiders some 140 million years ago.

The researchers discovered that ancient silk threads share many common features in modern spider webs, including droplets of sticky glue that are used for holding the web together and catching the prey after cutting the amber into thin sections and examining every piece under the powered microscope.

According to paleobiologist Martin Brasier of Oxford University, the gooey droplets suggest that spiders were starting to spin webs that were better adapted for catching flying insects.

“Interestingly, huge radiation took place in flying insects and bark beetles about 140-130 million years ago,” Brasier wrote in an email to “So we may be seeing a co-evolution of spiders and insects here.”

The new discovery is the first example of an amber fossil from the early Cretaceous period when dinosaurs like spinosaurus and psittocosaurs roamed the Earth.

“Silk is a relatively delicate material and it is rarely preserved in the fossil record, except when entombed in amber,” Brasier and colleagues wrote about the discovery in the upcoming December issue of the Journal of the Geological Society. 

The researchers think pieces of organic material, including the spider silk, became embalmed during a severe wildfire when amber resins seeped out from the charred bark of coniferous trees and were eventually swept away by flooding.

In addition to ancient spider silk, the amber chunk contains well-preserved soil microbes, including the oldest known examples of actinobacteria, a common type of bacteria that plays a major role in soil formation.

19th-century beer bottles found under the staircase in England

19th-century beer bottles found under the staircase in England

WYAS Archeological Services made the finding back in February and subsequently sent out the bottles for analysis.

The team discovered a set of cellar stairs in the ruins of what was the Scarborough Castle Inn after investigating an area within the site of the former Tetley’s Brewery.

Neatly piled on the stairs was a collection of over 600 bottles, initially thought to contain ginger beer.

But it was discovered that the bottles were filled with alcohol and, even more, high concentrations of lead after the samples were sent for review by West Yorkshire Joint Services.

In a social media post, archaeological services WYAS said that the bottles contained 5.07 pH beer with 3% ABV alcohol. However, the liquid contained 0.13mg/l of lead, far above the WHO-recommended safe level in water of around 0.01mg/l.

Researchers analyzed hundreds of old beer bottles discovered in the United Kingdom.

The team said they suspect the high metal content would have come from lead pipes, and that the beer “would have been detrimental to health”.

The bottles themselves hail from a number of different breweries, with the most from ‘J. E. Richardson of Leeds’. The archaeologists hope to complete their work in the area in the next two weeks, after which they will compile a report of their findings.

Speaking to the drinks business, senior project manager at Archaeological Services WYAS, David Williams, said that the team thought the bottles dated to the later 19th century, “perhaps the 1880s”.

He added that the developer, Vastint, intends to keep the bottles and make a feature of them within the new development of the former Tetley’s Brewery.

“This excavation is giving us a great opportunity to uncover a part of Georgian and Victorian Leeds. The results so far are giving a real insight into the daily lives of the former residents of Leeds during this period,” he said.