Binchester Carved Head

Binchester in County Durham, which is on the north-eastern side of England, was the site of a large Roman fort. A little more than a mile from the present-day town of Bishop Auckland, it was known as Vinovia to the occupying Roman troops, who were very likely cavalry men, or possibly a part of the Sixth Legion; there were about 1000 men in the garrison. The fort was positioned on a hilltop, a short distance from the river Wear. A very large area was cleared of trees and brush and then levelled so that the fort could be constructed there.

It is thought by historians that the very large fort was established to guard the Dere Street crossing of the river Wear, as this road was an important link between the town of York and Hadrian’s Wall fortifications. The remains of a stone bridge, constructed by the Romans so that Dere Street could continue north, are still visible at low-water times. The present-day Binchester Hall Farm is built over what was the settlement for the civilian population, north and west of the fort itself; these local people would have made their living by supplying the great fort with its needs, particularly with food from their farms.

The original fort was a wooden construction but later, presumably when the Romans realised that they were going to be staying for some time, they set about constructing a more permanent stone fort for themselves; they needed a more effective barrier to the bitterly cold winds of the winters in that part of England. The soldiers housed in the fort would have come there from all corners of the great Roman Empire, many of them more used to a warmer climate than Vinovia offered. There was, of course, a luxurious house for the Fort Commander, the remains of which are still to be seen by visitors today, and there are also the remains of a bath house, much beloved by the Romans, with its still astonishing system of heating.

The Romans gradually withdrew around 410 AD and most of the soldiers went home; some would have stayed, perhaps married into the local community. Britain was largely left to manage itself and it regressed into a land of opportunistic war-lords; coins were no longer used for trading and economic progress was halted. The great fort would have been occupied by the local populace who would also have removed materials from it to do their own building.

Items buried or left at the fort have been found since the 1500s, when coins were unearthed nearby, in fields surrounding the site. Many years later, in the 1800s, various useful-seeming stone pieces such as altars, were removed and taken to the local coal pits, to be employed as props. The Anglican Church became owners of the fort in 1836 and it, and the surrounding land was thereby saved from further scavenging.

Proper archaeological investigation began in 1878 when the ancient bath house was discovered, though not thoroughly excavated as it was assumed that little of any importance remained. Later excavations revealed interesting evidence of post-Roman occupation of the site, which in 1965 passed into the guardianship of Durham County Council. Controlled excavation continued, revealing further ancient buildings such as the Commander’s house and the attached bath house.

Recently, in early July 2013, a new exciting find was made during a 5-year archaeological project at the Binchester site. An archaeological student, Alex Kirton, in his first year and only his second “dig”, was investigating and digging in what had been a bath house; when it was abandoned it became a dumping place and was now filled with earth in which Alex was digging. Imagine his excitement when, suddenly, he came upon a carved sandstone head, buried in the earth. The head, which it is believed dates from the 2nd or possibly the following century AD was found near to where a stone altar, dating from Roman times, was unearthed in 2011.

Exactly who the head represents is not yet known: is it a Roman god? A similar head, known to represent Antenociticus, a Celtic god, was found in 1862 at Benwell, a Roman site in north-east England. The newly discovered head at Binchester very much resembles the Benwell head both in the carved hair and the facial features.

Also provoking discussion among historical scholars is the fact that the head could represent an African; the hair, as for the Benwell head, appears to be typically African hair and the lips are very full in shape. African soldiers from the North African province of the Roman Empire could well have been a part of the garrison at Binchester. The possibility of this carved head being that of an African only adds to the interest in this recent find.

The newly discovered 1,800 year old carved sandstone head has been warmly welcomed to the existing collection of artifacts from Binchester. The site is open for the public to explore the exposed walls of the Roman remains, to watch re-enactments of skirmishes between Romans and Celts and to view for themselves the ancient head, so recently dug out of the earth where it had lain for so long.