‘Finds of a Lifetime’ | Discovery of Roman Sculpted Stone Heads
Our archaeologists have once again made national and international news with discoveries from our community excavations at Carlisle Cricket Ground in Cumbria being described as ‘finds of a lifetime’. Previous excavations revealed the remains of a bath house that existed on the site during the Roman period. However, on the second day on site this year, two large and very unusual sculpted heads were found. It is thought that the two heads are local versions of Roman theatre masks.
Their purpose would have been apotropaic, to ward off evil influences and bad luck in an environment where users of the baths would have felt naked and vulnerable. Both heads are triangular in cross section, suggesting that they once adorned the corners of a structure that was intended to be viewed from at least three sides. Precisely what this structure may have been remains unknown, perhaps a fountain. The two heads were found together sealed by dark earth and lying on a metalled surface belonging to a street, which ran to the south of the bath house. It may be that they had been collected with other decorated architectural elements and statuary during the late Roman rebuilding, or robbing, of the bath house.
Before Wardell Armstrong’s team began work here, initially in 2017, the Roman bath house was entirely unknown. The remains uncovered include in situ elements of heated floors, walls and even the collapsed ceramic tubing that once belonged to the vaulted ceilings. The building was in use during the 2nd, 3rd and 4th c. AD and was redesigned a number of times, before becoming abandoned and eventually being robbed for stone when the medieval city walls were constructed.
The discoveries add considerably to what we know of Roman Carlisle. The bath house was located at the crossing of the River Eden just outside the largest fort on Hadrian’s Wall. In the Roman period Carlisle was home to two huge Roman forts. First came a fort on the other side of the river, known from the millennium excavations beneath Carlisle Castle and from little nibbles into it below the footprint of various premises within the northern limits of the town centre. Several cemeteries are known along the road out to the south. In 2015 Wardell-Armstrong’s excavations beneath what is now Cumbria House sampled one of these cemeteries. Two cremation burials, richly furnished with ceramic vessels, are very similar in their grave goods to other excavated burials in the region of the French/Belgian border.
Finds from our excavations at the bath house site also made the news in 2021 and 2022, thanks to discoveries of gemstones from fingers rings, coins, stone inscriptions and lead seals. Some of these finds, which bear Latin writing confirm that another cavalry unit called the ala Petriana was stationed at the even larger fort on Hadrian’s Wall, just to the east of the current excavations.
The community dig this year, which has had several years of funding confirmed from the Heritage Lottery Fund, is running again for four weeks in May and June. These community excavations have made it possible for locals with an interest in archaeology to get in touch with their Romano-British heritage.
We are also delighted to be able to welcome over 500 local school children to our community excavations. Watch below Kingmoor Junior School seeing first-hand some of the smaller artefacts that have been found on the site.
Photos by Stuart Walker.