President: His Grace the Duke of Westminster KG CB CVO OBE TD CD DL
Registered Charity No 1068062
excavation and research project
The third season of the Society's major fieldwork project at Heronbridge came to an end in late August 2004. The Society is grateful to all its sponsors for their generous support.
The Roman and later site at Heronbridge stands on the west bank of the River Dee two kilometres south of Chester city centre. Rich in archaeological remians of many periods, the site potentially has much to contribute to our understanding of the early phases of Chester's historical development and also has an importance of regional, national and even international dimensions.
The site was discovered by a member of the Chester Archaeological Society in 1929 and excavations carried out by the Society over the following two years revealed the existence of a previously unknown Roman settlement, straddling the road which ran south from the legionary fortress at Chester towards Whitchurch.
Excavations in 1930 and 1931 uncovered
Further work in later years demonstrated that the settlement was very extensive, containing numerous stone buildings, including some with hypocausts, as well as at least one shrine or temple. Recent geophysical surveying has shown it to be nearly a kilometre in length.
Altar of red sandstone dedicated to the
Founded in the late first century, the site was continuously occupied until at least AD 350. The pattern of two major civil settlements beside a legionary fortress (the other being the one immediately outside the defences at Chester) is one that is repeated in many other provinces, although the precise reasons for this are a matter for speculation. Unlike other settlements of this type, Heronbridge is free of modern settlement and has the potential, through further investigation, to make a substantial contribution towards our understanding of this phenomenon. Only a small percentage of the settlement has been explored and there is still much to learn.
Heronbridge may also be important for the early post-Roman period. The most obvious feature of the site today is a grass-grown mound which encloses a crescent-shaped area of some fourteen acres between the Roman road and the river. Excavation has shown this to be defensive earthwork, possibly retained by a drystone revetment at the front, accompanied by a deep ditch. Apart from the fact that it overlies ruined buildings of the Roman settlement, its date is uncertain. However, the discovery beneath the earthwork of some twenty or more human burials - all apparently battle casulaties - has given rise to the suggestion that it was an encampment constructed by King Aethelfrith of Northumbria following his victory over the forces of Gwynedd and Powys at the Battle of Chester c AD 613. The eccles element in the name of the neighbouring village of Eccleston is considered to denote the presence of an early (sub-Roman) Christian community while the circular shape of the churchyard here is also thought to indicate an early foundation.
Human remains were found over an
An alternative explanation for the earthwork enclosure is that it was constructed by a band of Norse-Irish settlers led by a certain Ingimund, who established themselves near Chester c AD 905 and who later tried to capture the city. D-shaped defensive compounds sited beside rivers are a recognised phenomenon of the Viking era. Then again, it could have a much later origin, perhaps being one of the defensive positions erected during the siege of Chester by Parliamenatry forces in 1644.
Determining the date and function of this earthwork will be one of the main objectives of the first phase of the project.
West of Eaton Road can be seen the diversionary route taken by the road to Eccleston in the medieval period along with extensive remains of ridge and furrow and enclosures of various shapes and sizes.These may well relate to the 'lost' medieval village of Claverton, which is known to lie in the vicinity.
The name of the site prior to 1824 was Ironbridge, derived from the fourteenth-century 'pons ferreus'. Rather than iron, this seems to be an erroneous latinisation of the Old English word 'hyrne', meaning a nook, a corner or a secluded place. Thus the Anglo-Saxon form of the place-name 'hyrne-brycg' would mean 'bridge at a corner', perhaps referring to the bend in the river at this point. An outcrop of rock is visible near the west bank when the river level is low and recent inspection has noted a collection of worked stone protruding from the bank nearby. There are indications of a trackway leading westwards from this spot, which aligns with a break in the west side of the earthwork enclosure, the latter perhaps denoting the site of an entrance or gateway. Metal-detectorist finds of Roman and later material from the east side of the river support the notion of an ancient crossing as well as suggesting settlement in this area. Both possibilities are high priorities on the project's research agenda.
You can find out
more about the site in:
Mason, D 1988 The Roman site at Heronbridge. The Archaeological Journal 145, 123-57
Excavation reports in: Journal of the Chester Archaeological Society new series vols 30 (1933), 5-45; 39 (1952), 1-20 and 41 (1954), 1-38.
Heronbridge Excavations 2004
Excavation of the silt deposits at the foot of the quay successfully located further pieces of sculpture from the funerary monument, though not unfortunately the much-desired inscription giving us the identity of these obviously wealthy citizens. Another portion of the panel of relief sculpture found last year was recovered and matches up with the two earlier pieces. This formed the upper left-hand corner of the panel and includes not only the head of one of the two female figures depicted (probably respresenting the deceased lady and her maidservant) but also the end of the pediment-shaped area above, decorated with what appear to be a dolphin and a sea-centaur or Triton.
Further clues were found regarding the fully three-dimensional sculpture which once sat atop the tomb structure. The item of furniture represented life-size in stone, of which one leg was recovered last year, turned out to be rather puzzling. A new fragment shows this to have resembled a four-legged, stool-shaped object with a circular, possibly boss-shaped, projection centrally positioned on the underside of the ‘seat’.
The upper surface of the latter has been finished to give a very smooth surface, still adhering to which is a short strip of lead. The lead is joined to the stone in such a way as to suggest it was used as a solder to ensure that whatever was placed upon it was firmly attached. Unfortunately, unless research currently underway comes up with a parallel for this object, we may never know just what that final element looked like, as we have now exhausted the easily-accessible portion of the deposits in front of the quay.
A new trench, Trench VII, was opened at the site of the main 1930/31 excavation. Its main purpose was to locate and, if possible, explore part of the so-called 'battle cemetery', cut into the ruins of the Roman buildings fronting onto Watling Street (Eaton Road). The 1930s excavation was successfully located and, during the course of clearing out part of it, a section of the feature then designated as the ‘long wall’ (in fact a side-wall of one of the Roman buildings) was re-exposed, along with underlying traces of kilns or ovens belonging to the earliest phase/s of the settlement. An unexpected bonus in this trench was the discovery – amongst a spread of rubble thought to derive from the masonry revetment at the front of the rampart of the post-Roman fort – of the central section of an inscibed Roman tombstone.
Enough of the upper part survives to show that it was carved with the common ‘funerary banquet’ scene. The first two lines of text show that it commemorated a lady whose first name was Justa and whose second began Do[. The upper part of the letters in a third line also survive and expert scrutiny might enable their restoration. This is the first inscribed tombstone to be found in or near Chester for forty-five years.
It is now clear that those who built the earthwork fort over the site of the Roman settlement not only recovered what reusable stone they could from its ruined buildings but also removed tombstones, and presumably more elaborate sepulchral monuments, from the neighbouring Roman cemeteries. This raises the possibility that the rubble resultant from the gradual decay of that post-Roman rampart, whether spread about the site or lying amongst the fill of its accompanying ditch, might contain a collection of inscriptions and sculptures of a size and richness equal to that recovered from the north wall of the fortress in the late nineteenth century.
Once the edge of the1930s trench had been defined, excavation of a small area of previously unexplored deposits commenced. This quickly located more burials and it soon became very obvious that this was indeed a battle cemetery.
Part of a mass grave pit was exposed in which the bodies (all seemingly male like those excavated in the 1930s), aligned west-east, had been laid side by side in partially overlapping rows. Within a space measuring only three metres by two metres, there were at least fourteen individuals. Two skeletons were fully excavated and removed for analysis and radiocarbon dating. Both had clearly sustained fatal head injuries. The results of subsequent osteoarchaeological study (by Malin Holst of York Osteoarchaeology Ltd) confirmed them as males and showed that both had died as a result of several sword blows to the head. They were both well-built individuals and the elder, aged around forty, if not both, had been in battle before, suggesting that they may have been experienced soldiers.
The excavation of Trench V was continued and extended. Here the aims were to look for evidence of an entrance into the post-Roman fort and to excavate the fills in the accompanying ditch, in order to recover samples for radiocarbon-dating of the twigs/branches mentioned by earlier excavators. These were found in abundance. Many had been cut through diagonally, giving the impression of being off-cuts discarded during activity such as hurdle-making. A report on this and other recovered organic material is currently being prepared by Liz Huckerby of Oxford Archaeology (North). This has already revealed that the ditch was used for flax-retting (soaking the flax stems at an early stage in the process of linen manufacture) some time after it had become obsolete. No evidence was found to suggest there had been an entrance into the fort. The visible break in the rampart here is a much later feature associated with the spur track which branches off from the westerly diversion of Eaton Road constructed in the medieval period.
Bone samples from the two skeletons removed from the mass grave, along with two flax seeds from the fort ditch fill, were submitted to the Scottish Universities Environmental Research Centre for Carbon 14 dating.
The results for the former were as follows:
The date of the Battle of Chester – circa AD 613 – lies right in the middle of these date ranges and, in the absence of any other known substantial engagement in the area, the mass grave seems likely to be associated with that event. The care with which the bodies were laid in the grave suggests they belonged to the victorious army of Aethelfrith of Northumbria rather than the defeated forces of Gwynedd and Powys.
Even more surprising in some ways were the results from the flax seeds:
These dates relate to the secondary usage of the ditch as an improvised flax-retting tank after it had become obsolete as a defensive work. As this activity seems to have been underway as early as the middle of the eighth century, or possibly even earlier, it implies that the ditch, and thus the earthwork fort to which it belonged, was built in the seventh century. There is thus a very strong possibility that it was constructed by the Northumbrian forces following Aethelfrith’s victory.
The dating of both battle cemetery and earthwork to the seventh century have vastly elevated the importance and status of the Heronbridge complex. If officially recognised as such, Heronbridge could qualify as the earliest positively identified battle site in England, while Anglo-Saxon fortifications of this early period are virtually unknown.
Dr David Mason (Project Director)
© 2012 Chester Archaeological Society. Last updated 23-09-2012