Barbican Research Associates

                    providing an integrated post-excavation service for the archaeological community



Projects - Piercebridge


Piercebridge lies on the north bank of the Tees at the point where Dere Street crosses the river, which here forms the county boundary between County Durham to the north and North Yorkshire to the south.  It had seen a long campaign of excavation between 1969 and 1981 directed first by Dennis Harding and then by Peter Scott. North of the river the excavations explored the eastern defences of the known Roman fort within which the village is located, and the civil settlement that lay to the east (referred to as the northern vicus).  South of the river the roadside settlement (referred to as the southern vicus) was recorded in advance of gravel extraction, and the Holme House villa further to the east was excavated.   Post-excavation work had been underway during the 1980s and a draft report had been submitted to English Heritage in 1987. Unfortunately it had not been possible to make much progress towards completing the report following Peter Scott's death that year.


It had long been hoped that the report could be completed but lack of resources had seemed to have made this impossible. The Aggregates Sustainability Levy managed by English Heritage offered an opportunity to complete the work provided that could be achieved in the financial year 2006/7. Barbican worked in partnership with Durham County Council to achieve this. The final publication consisted of a book with the stratigraphy and syntheses of the considerable amount of finds that had been recovered.  The extensive specialist reports were placed on the Archaeological Data Service here.


The book (Cool, H.E.M. and Mason, D.J.P. (eds.)  2008. Roman Piercebridge. Excavations by D.W. Harding and Peter Scott 1969-1981, Architectural and Archaeological Society of Durham and Northumberland Research Report 7) is now out of print but the ADS files have an introduction that gives summary details of the sites excavated.  The section below provides a brief outline of the results. You can also read the Current Archaeology we published in 2008 here.


Earliest occupation

This was at the villa site.  This started life as an Iron Age timber round-house set within an enclosure. The earliest Roman material dates to the AD 60s.  A small rectangular building was built within the enclosure to the north of the round-house probably around the end of the first century.  By the mid second century this had been enlarged to form a masonry villa with an apsidal wing and bath-suite, with the round-house being rebuilt as a masonry building.  The bath-suite was the focus of elite dining episodes, and it is argued that the development at Holme House was the response of a native family responding to new influences as a result of the north of England being absorbed into the Roman province.  The site was abandoned in the late second century, though there is some evidence of re-occupation at the end of the fourth century.


The settlement north of the river had started to develop by the end of the first century.  The earliest activity included a kiln producing mortaria and other forms of pottery in use in the first quarter of the second century.  There is no evidence of any military involvement prior to the mid second century, and it is suggested that the impetus to the development may have been partly a result of the river crossing becoming a focus of religious activity as evidenced by the finds that have been recovered from the river bed.


Military Activity in the late second century

A major change in the nature of the occupation can be seen in the AD 180s when the site became a focus of major military activity.  This change in use is seen in all classes of material culture.  Occupation expanded into the area of the known fort, to the north of the previous settlement and south of the river by the roadside.  Within the area of the later fort, large buildings in high quality masonry were built, but these do not conform to the lay-out of a conventional fort and no defences belonging to this period were recovered. Epigraphic evidence attests to legionary activity in the early third century, including the presence of vexillations from German legions.  The finds belonging to the period are of very high quality and include an important assemblage of late samian pottery, uncommon items of glassware and a large collection of military equipment.


The extant fort defences were finally built in the mid third century but the extent of military activity declines from this point.  By the fourth century the area occupied has contracted to the fort and the area immediately to the east with the outlying areas north of the river and the settlement to the south abandoned.


Late activity

At the very end of the fourth century at the earliest, there were major re-organisations of the water-supply system within the fort and to the eastern entrance.  Occupation clearly continued into the sixth century at least as there is evidence of the import of African olive oil in the late fifth century and Anglian pottery of the sixth century is also present. It is argued that the evidence argues for continuity of occupation by the same community, rather than the Anglian material representing re-occupation by a different one. The fifth and sixth century rubbish deposits have produced an important assemblage of small finds that will be a valuable resource for establishing occupation of this date elsewhere in the north-east.


The final decline of Piercebridge should probably be put in the seventh or eighth centuries, and was probably associated with the rise of Gainford, 4km to the west, as this was a major late Saxon centre by the ninth century.



Painted wall plaster from the villa bath-house showing elements of a half life-size figure. Painted by Ann S. Biggs (= fig. D7.5 of the final publication).

Aerial view of the fort area. The latrine and curved rampart in the bottom centre were dug in 1934. The area of the Housing Scheme excavations dug by Scott are at the top of the image and show one of the large masonry buildings (= Fig. 2.5 of the final publication)

Piercebridge head pot

The Bowes Museum, where all the finds are stored, very kindly took us pictures of the head pot from different angles and we used these on both the front and back covers

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