History of Piercebridge Roman Bridge

The remains at Piercebridge are part of a large bridge that carried Dere Street, the Roman road that linked York with Corbridge, near Hadrian’s Wall, across the river Tees. They now lie high and dry on the south bank of the river, which has moved northwards since the bridge was built. Discovered during gravel quarrying in 1972, the bridge provides valuable evidence of the engineering achievements of the Romans. The Roman bridge – which appears to have been the second Roman bridge built here – is one element of a much larger Roman site, which includes a fort, known to have existed from at least the 3rd century AD, and areas of civilian settlement.

Aerial view of Piercebridge

An aerial view of Piercebridge, looking east across the site of Roman civilian settlement in Tofts Field (visible as cropmarks in the grass) towards the site of the later Roman bridge (top right). The modern village (bottom) lies within the area of the 3rd-century Roman fort
© Historic England (NMR 17324/16)

Early Roman Piercebridge

The existence of a 1st- or 2nd-century Roman fort has been assumed at Piercebridge because of the importance of the site as the point where Dere Street, the Roman road linking York and Corbridge (near Hadrian’s Wall), crossed the Tees.[1] To date, however, no such fort has been found. What is known from this period is the presence of civilian occupation, particularly close to the line of Dere Street in what is now Tofts Field, to the east of the later fort.[2]

Further civilian occupation dating from the 3rd century lay south of the river, on either side of the rerouted course of Dere Street (see below), which led to the bridge described here.[3]

          

The Later Fort

There is evidence that Roman legionaries were based here in the early 3rd century,[4] and a large fort to house auxiliary cavalry was built in about AD 260 and occupied until the end of the Roman period. If Piercebridge was Morbium, which is recorded in the Notitia Dignitatum – a late 4th- or early 5th-century list of officials and army units in the Roman Empire – then probably during the mid-4th century the fort was garrisoned by a unit of heavy cavalry, the Praefectus equitatum catafractariorum.[5]

Much of the fort now lies beneath later buildings. Excavations in the 1970s, concentrated near the east gate, revealed part of the wall and ditches surrounding the fort, as well as the road that ran around the perimeter inside the defences.[6] Within the fort a large culvert and part of a major courtyard building have been found; the latter was probably the garrison commander’s house.[7] Also visible are the north-east corner of the fort and the fort latrine within it, and some of the buildings of the civilian settlement outside the east gate.[8]

Reconstruction illustration of Piecebridge Roman Bridge

An artist’s reconstruction of the later Roman bridge at Piercebridge, which was probably built around the beginning of the 3rd century
© Durham County Council Archaeology Section

Dere Street and the Roman Bridges

There is evidence of two Roman bridges at Piercebridge. The first lay on the original line of Dere Street, below Tofts Field and crossing the grounds of the George Hotel (see the downloadable plan). The evidence for this takes the form of timber piles in the river.[9] These probably supported an entirely timber bridge that seems to have gone out of use near the end of the 2nd century. Before the construction of the Cow Green Reservoir in 1967–71 in Upper Teesdale, the Tees was known for its fierce floods, and it may have been one of these that washed the bridge away.

The second bridge was built with stone piers 180 metres downstream from its predecessor. Its construction necessitated a diversion of Dere Street. It lies on the floodplain of the river and would not have been subject to such intense flooding as the first bridge, which crossed the narrow channel further west.

Finds of pottery associated with buildings along the rerouted southern approach road suggest that the bridge was probably built around the beginning of the 3rd century.[10] It may have remained in use into the medieval period, possibly until the present bridge was constructed in about 1500.[11]

The visible remains lie south of the river and it is known that the Tees has eroded northwards since the Roman period, apparently destroying all evidence of the northern bridge abutment. Nonetheless, the surviving remains suggest that the original structure would have been about 123 metres long.[12]

Other Aspects of Piercebridge

A large group of finds recovered near the first Roman bridge by divers suggests that the river had an important religious function. It is possible that the finds represent votive offerings cast from the bridge by travellers, soldiers from the fort and locals.[13]

Although the coins present among the river finds range in date from before the Roman conquest to the end of the Roman occupation of Britain, the bulk date to the 2nd and 3rd centuries, while over 90 per cent of the brooches belong to the 1st to 3rd centuries.[14]

Evidence of various burials has also been found in the surrounding area. A cremation burial dating to AD 130–40 was found in Tofts Field,[15] and inhumations from the 3rd century and probably later are known from Carlbury (west of Dere Street to the north of the fort).[16] A tombstone was recorded from east of Dere Street near Tofts Field in 1749;[17] two inhumations are known from the river bank, suggesting that a cemetery may have been lost to erosion there;[18] and a further tombstone is known from the south bank of the river.[19] Stone coffins were discovered near the south-east angle of the fort, indicating the location of a further cemetery, and another is suggested by a stone cist found about 100 metres west of the fort.[20]

          

Later History

The river crossing, located on a key north–south route, remained a focus for occupation through the medieval and post-medieval period on what became known as the Great North Road (now the A1).[21]

Excavation of the fort at Piercebridge began in 1934, and from the late 1960s onwards a series of excavations transformed knowledge of not only the fort but also the surrounding settlement and the stone bridge, which was discovered during gravel quarrying in 1972. 

            

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About the Author

Pete Wilson PhD, FSA, FSA Scot, MIfA has published extensively on the Roman period in Britain.

Footnotes

1. Dere Street was probably constructed not long after the conquest of the area in the late 1st century AD and, given the difficulty of crossing the river Tees at Piercebridge, it is likely that the first bridge was built at the same time.
2. Known as ‘the northern vicus’ (village): see HEM Cool and DJP Mason, Roman Piercebridge: Excavations by DW Harding and Peter Scott, 1969–1981, Architectural and Archaeological Society of Durham and Northumberland Report 7 (Durham, 2008), 81–121.
3. Known as ‘The Holme House settlement’ or ‘the southern vicus’: see Cool and Mason, op cit, 123–6.
4. Ibid, 302.
5. The date of the Notitia is much disputed and, whatever its exact date, it is probable that the garrison lists used for Britain were out of date. See ALF Rivet and C Smith, The Place-Names of Roman Britain (London, 1979), 216–25.
6. See P Scott and S Large, ‘The fort: the internal buildings’, in Cool and Mason, op cit, 29–57.
7. See P Scott and S Large, ‘The fort: the defences’, in Cool and Mason, op cit, 59–80.
8. P Scott, Guide to the Visible Remains of Roman Piercebridge (1977; updated and revised by D Mason, Durham, 2007), 17–24.
9. GH Richardson and GS Keeney, ‘Excavations at the Roman fort of Piercebridge 1933–4’, Transactions of the Architectural and Archaeological Society of Durham and Northumberland, 7 (1934–6), 240. Timbers recorded by W Hutchinson (in History and Antiquities of the County Palatine of Durham, vol 3, Newcastle upon Tyne, 1794, 214) and a wedge-shaped stone found in 1915 (see E Wooler, The Roman Fort at Piercebridge, Frome and London, 1917, p 88) may provide other evidence (accessed 6 Nov 2012).
10. AP Fitzpatrick and PR Scott, ‘The Roman bridge at Piercebridge, North Yorkshire–County Durham’, Britannia, 30 (1999), 125–6 (accessed 7 March 2015; subscription required).
11. The longevity of the bridge has been challenged, however: see PT Bidwell and N Holbrook, Hadrian’s Wall Bridges (London, 1989), 112.
12. P Scott, ‘The bridges at Piercebridge, co Durham: a reassessment’, Transactions of the Architectural and Archaeological Society of Durham and Northumberland, new seres, 6 (1982), 80.
13. PJ Casey, ‘A votive deposit from the river Tees at Piercebridge’, Durham Archaeological Journal, 5 (1989), 37–42; P Walton, ‘The finds from the river’, in Cool and Mason, op cit, 286–93.
14. Figures taken from Walton, op cit, 286–90.
15. Cool and Mason, op cit, 108.
16. Archaeus [H Denham], A History of the Olden Times in the North of England and the Isle of Man (1854–6) (aka the Denham Tracts), cited in Wooler, op cit, 171–80; Cool and Mason, op cit, 14.
17. RSO Tomlin, RP Wright and MWC Hassall, The Roman Inscriptions of Britain, vol 3: Inscriptions on Stone Found or Notified between 1 January 1955 and 31 December 2006 (Oxford, 2009), no. 3258; Cool and Mason, op cit, 15.
18. Cool and Mason, op cit, 14, 93.
19. RG Collingwood and RP Wright, The Roman Inscriptions of Britain, vol 1: Inscriptions on Stone (Oxford, 1965), no. 1025.
20. Wooler, op cit, 179–80.
21. NW Webster, The Great North Road (Bath, 1974).

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