Bridge over troubled water

5 mins read

Roman finds from the Tees at Piercebridge and beyond

The sun sets over the River Tees at Piercebridge, near Darlington. Thousands of Roman artefacts have been recovered from these waters in the last four decades. CREDIT: Aaron Watson

Ritual or rubbish – how should we interpret objects that ended their days in rivers during the Roman period? Hella Eckardt and Philippa Walton consider this question by exploring the more than 3,600 artefacts that have been recovered from the waters of the Tees at Piercebridge.

Roman bridges are wonders of engineering, and played a vital role in the Empire’s transport network. They were also hugely symbolic structures, embodying the might of imperial power and conquest. Famous examples include Caesar’s bridge across the Rhine, Caligula’s bridge across the Bay of Baiae, and Trajan’s stone bridge across the Danube. When carefully excavated, we can learn much about the ways in which they were constructed, and dendrochronological dating can even provide insights into the frequency of repairs: for example, the late Roman bridge at Cuijk in the Netherlands had three phases of construction, each approximately 20 years apart.

Piercebridge in context: this map shows north-east England in the Roman period. The area around Piercebridge is thought to have been part of the territory of the Brigantes, which was conquered by Rome in the AD 70s. CREDIT: Mark Hoyle

In antiquity, rivers were dangerous, and crossing them required rites in the form of both prayers and sacrifices to appease the river god. Occasionally a historical source records such rituals, as for Crassus at the Euphrates or Caesar at the Rubicon. We hear, too, about the special status of particular bridges. For example, the Pons Sublicius – the first bridge across the Tiber – was surrounded by strong taboos forbidding the use of metal in its construction and maintenance. During religious festivals, effigies made of bundles of straw were thrown into the river from the bridge. We know much less about the day-to-day offerings people made from bridges, though, as any altars do not normally survive, and finds from riverine contexts are usually very poorly published. Frequently only the coins or unusual objects are catalogued, and even those are usually completely divorced from their fluvial and archaeological context.

This will change, however, with the publication of the entire assemblage of Roman finds from the River Tees at Piercebridge, near Darlington, following a two-year project funded by the Leverhulme Trust. Between the mid- 1980s and 2018, more than 3,600 objects were retrieved from the riverbed there by two divers, Bob Middlemass and Rolfe Mitchinson – and, as well as providing a spotlight on riverine deposition at the edge of the Roman Empire, studying this assemblage has offered an opportunity to think about river finds more widely throughout the Roman world. In the past, even large hoards – such as those recovered from the Rhine at Neupotz – were explained as accidental losses or shipwrecks, while more humble finds were often seen simply as rubbish. While these interpretations are of value, they stand in stark contrast to arguments made by archaeologists working on prehistoric sites, who tend to see the plethora of axes, weapons, and other objects from rivers primarily as ritual offerings.

An extensive programme of excavation and survey was carried out at Piercebridge throughout the 20th century. This means that it is possible to locate the finds from the River Tees within both a landscape and archaeological context, as shown on this plan. CREDIT: Mark Hoyle


Piercebridge is located in a part of northern Britain that is thought to have been occupied by the Brigantes, but which was conquered by the Roman army in the AD 70s. It sits at the point where Dere Street, the main Roman road north, crosses the River Tees. As a result, it must have seen a great deal of military traffic passing backwards and forwards from the legionary fortress at York to the northern frontier. It is also just 6km north of Stanwick, a major oppidum long associated with Cartimandua and now known to have been occupied between c.80/70 BC and AD 65/75 (see CA 325). Another important site nearby is Scotch Corner, a location where prehistoric (and then Roman) routes running east–west over the Pennines and north–south converged. As reported in CA 365, this was an important Late Iron Age settlement, which received very high-status imports and was involved in the manufacture of coin pellets, before possibly evolving into a Roman trading or supply centre.

Today, the Roman fort at Piercebridge is largely obscured by the modern village, while the vicus is preserved underneath Tofts Field to the north of the River Tees; there are also a villa and small roadside settlement located south of the river. All were examined in a series of excavations throughout the 20th century. It has long been thought that a fort was built at Piercebridge in the Flavian period, but while this would make sense strategically, as yet excavated evidence is lacking. Instead, it is clear that an extensive settlement, perhaps even a small town, developed north of the river by the end of the 1st century AD and that there was a Roman military presence at the site from about AD 170/180. The surviving fort defences were constructed at some time in the 3rd century AD, and stone inscriptions record the presence of soldiers from three legions (Legio II Augusta, Legio VI Victrix, and Legio XXII Primigenia). Beyond the 4th century, though, only small-scale settlement continued.

Divers Rolfe Mitchinson and Bob Middlemass have dedicated the past 30 years to finding out more about the Roman bridges at Piercebridge. Here they are holding Bob’s reconstruction of the wooden structures they have recorded on the bed of the River Tees. CREDIT: Aaron Watson

There were three ancient bridges across the Tees, all situated to the east of the early 16th-century bridge which still stands today. The oldest of these bridges was investigated by Channel 4’s Time Team in 2009, and is described as two parallel rows of timbers, one of which yielded a calibrated radiocarbon date of 40 BC-AD 85 (94.3% probability). This bridge may even pre-date the conquest, as it aligns with a footpath leading from Stanwick to the Tees, which is thought to echo a Late Iron Age route.

A substantial bridge was then constructed in c.AD 90 on the line of Dere Street, initially in timber, but in its second phase quite possibly with stone piers and abutments. Oak piles and timbers possibly associated with the bridge’s northern abutment were explored by the divers and also radiocarbon-dated by Time Team. The bulk of the Roman finds were found just downstream from this bridge. Finally, in the late 2nd or early 3rd century AD, a stone bridge was constructed c.200m downstream, for which Dere Street had to be realigned.

The Tees is a fast-flowing river, with dangerous floods moving substantial amounts of gravel and sediment, but it appears that the Roman objects were recovered close to their original point of deposition in an area of relatively still water, possibly protected from being washed away by the bridge foundation timbers as well as by a later weir.  

Both copper-alloy and pipe-clay figurines were recovered from the river. Here are some of the more complete examples, which include Mercury and his attributes the ram and the tortoise, as well as two Cupids, the companions of Venus. CREDIT: Aaron Watson

This is an extract of an article that appeared in CA 378. Read on in the magazine (click here to subscribe) or on our new website, The Past, which details of all the content of the magazine. At The Past you will be able to read each article in full as well as the content of our other magazines, Current World ArchaeologyMinerva, and Military History Matters.

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