New Finds Made Near Famous Roman Legion Base in Britain
Archaeologists have made some impressive new finds at an important Roman site in Britain. The finds are in an area that was once part of a large, Roman legionary camp and barracks. These discoveries are throwing new light on the Romans legions in Britain and how military bases led to the development of urban centers in ancient times.
The objects were found at the £70m ($90m) Northgate construction site in the city of Chester in northern England. Archaeologists from Oxford Archaeology made the finds, having excavated an area that was deemed to have archaeological potential, because of its connections with a famous Roman barracks. Construction work is continuing at the site while the archaeologists are at work and the new buildings at the site have been designed to protect any archaeological remains. The entire process has been directed by Historic England.
Roman legionary gaming
Deeside.com quotes Richard Beacham, a local councilor as stating that ‘Chester is truly alive with history’. In particular, the city has a remarkable Roman heritage. In 79 AD, the future Emperor Vespasian established a legionary base here and it was built to control the local Celtic tribe and to facilitate expansion towards the north. Around the camp, a large town grew up and Chester’s military camp ( castra) was garrisoned by legionnaires until the early 5 th century AD. There are several important Roman sites in Chester including one of the finest surviving amphitheaters in Western Europe.
Archaeologists found a game counter in the earth at the construction site. Oxford Archaeology posted on their Facebook Page that the ‘lozenge-shaped gaming piece is highly polished, probably from use, is approximately 29mm long and features a common Roman decoration of a ring and dot motif’.
Lozenge-shaped gaming piece found at Northgate construction site, Chester. (Oxford Archaeology)
It is believed that this counter or piece was used in a very popular ancient game. Archaeology reports that the archaeologists believe that the piece was related to ‘the game of Ludus Latrunculorum, meaning the Game of Mercenaries’. This was a board game that was widely played in Rome and throughout its empire in various versions. Boards and pieces associated with the pastime have been unearthed all over the former empire and it possibly influenced the development of other board games in the non-Roman world.
Game of Mercenaries
The Game of Mercenaries was a strategy game played by two people and involved trying to capture an opponents’ pieces, rather similar to chess or checkers. It was known to be popular among the legionnaires. It is possible that off-duty soldiers used the counter during a game of Ludus Latrunculorum. ‘It was found in part of a legionary barracks in Chester which would back up this theory’ reports Deepside.com.
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Version of Ludus Latrunculorum board game found at Housesteads Roman Fort or Roman Corbridge, 2nd-3rd century AD, kept at Corbridge Roman Town and Museum. (Image: English Heritage)
There were a number of other finds made at the construction site. According to the Oxford Archaeology Facebook account, ‘Other artifacts found to date on the site include another bone artifact, possibly a comb; a possible spearhead; and a pin or brooch’. These items were possibly owned by soldiers or more likely the civilians who lived around the camp.
Roman camps and towns
Many legionnaires and veterans’ families probably lived near the camp in ancient times. The discoveries at the site are allowing experts to better understand the people who lived in the shadow of the military base. This is not only important to understand the history of Chester and its development, but many modern-day European cities like Chester, including York in England and Cologne in Germany, are a result of civilians settling in and around legionary forts and bases.
Andrew Davison, who works with Historic England is quoted by Deeside.com as stating that ‘Chester residents are unusually knowledgeable about the City’s heritage, including its archaeology, so these finds will excite great interest’. As important as the finds are, they may only be the start of something much bigger. Archaeologists and others hope that many more Roman era remains will be found at the site in Chester.
Top image: Some of the finds from the Northgate construction site, Chester, near the site of an important Roman legion camp. Source: Oxford Archaeology
By Ed Whelan