Bridge Over Troubled Water: Roman Finds From Rivers At Piercebridge And Beyond

A talk by Professor Hella Eckardt, University of Reading, on Saturday 18th November 2023.

Approaches to river deposits

In the past it was accepted, archaeologically, that the above along with deposits in wells, springs and fords were placed there ritually.  But in continental Europe the view has been different, for example the sinking of the Germanic raiders’ boat at Xanten on the Rhine.  There may also have been accidental losses.  On Trajan’s column in Rome there is a depiction of a soldier carrying his kit on his head across a bridge.  River deposits may also be the result of a change in the river course e.g., the Thames at London, where the mudlarks are now finding settlement deposits.  Rivers may also be convenient dumping grounds such as in Roman Lincoln and indeed the Tiber in Rome itself as shown in an 18th-century Piranesi print.

In the past rivers were powerful entities.  The Danube, for example, was fearsome.  So, people felt they had to appease the river god before crossing and thank them afterwards.  Our understanding of prehistoric bridges is that they were wooden structures which often didn’t survive despite all the apotropaic markings and paraphernalia on them.  Roman bridges, ultimately built in stone, were much stronger, and much less likely to be washed away.  Nonetheless, they had apotropaic markings on them too.

The Piercebridge Case Study

With Phillippa Walton, the local Finds Liaison Officer, Hella has made a case study of river deposits at Piercebridge on the Tees.  Three bridges were built there.  The first, a wooden structure in the very late Iron Age, related to Stanwick, Queen Cardimandua’s stronghold.  The second which was also wooden was probably based on the road layout and settlement in Toft’s field, built around AD 90, and the third, a stone bridge, much later when Dere Street was re-aligned in the late second/early third century.  

Th current stone bridge (photo Peter Giroux)

In the mid 1980s local divers and metal detectorists looked for finds in the Tees at Piercebridge, which are now in Durham museum.  This was the period before GPS, and in a challenging environment the divers didn’t record items in context.  However, diagrams were made and there is a diary but despite these it is very difficult to be sure of the exact find site of items.

There was a need to look at the whole assemblage of the finds.  So, all items were cleaned, and their details uploaded to the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS) database and then sorted by period.  There were 2,200 objects, 1,444 coins, 40 kg of pottery, and 15 kg of animal bone.  Most of these items related to the Roman period.  In those days the Tees was a fast-flowing river, and it is highly likely that the bridges would have needed repairs.  A supposition that the bridges existed contemporaneously was attested by the dating of the finds from the different river locations. 

There were far more silver coins in the river than at the settlement, whereas animal bones and pottery were both found in similar quantities in both locations.

The types of Roman material were ordered into categories with personal adornment being the largest group, gold being easy for the divers to spot in the murky waters.  There were also masses of military material, especially cavalry wherein there was a large assemblage of horse harness fittings, but no swords.  These finds indicate Roman troops and merchants were moving up and down this road, and their styles indicate links to the Greek East and the Danubian limes. 

Understanding river deposits in Roman Britain

Historic England has a standard database and aims to record objects and research deposit patterns.  It has a grant to do this which will also allow for mapping.  Furthermore, it will look at a comparative site, Trier on the Mosel in Germany where a whole array of stunning objects has been found including 32,000 coins, and around 1,000 lead seals.  But here collectors still have finds in their homes and, besides the question of where and when this material was found, there is a fear of it being lost.  Then there is the social history of these people and their relationship to local professionals to explore.

The approaches to Roman river finds are changing.  There is now comprehensive analysis of material culture allowing exploration of local identities and practices.

For members interested in this topic Hella Eckardt and Phillippa Walton’s book, “Bridge Over Troubled Water: the Roman finds from the River Tees at Piercebridge in context’ is available to download from the Britannia Monograph Series on the Archaeological Data Service (ADS) website at: https://doi.org/10.5284/1085344 free of charge.  There are also more general books by Richard Bradley, ‘The Passage of Arms’ and the more recent, ‘A Geography of Offerings’.

report by Julie Worsfold

Top image from the above book

Exploring the archaeology, history and heritage of Berkshire