Dig in again as Ribchester is Revisited

Dr Jim Morris with a coin found during  the 2017 dig
Dr Jim Morris with a coin found during the 2017 dig

UCLan is once again leading an archaeological dig in Ribchester. Fiona Finch caught up with Dig Co-Director Dr Jim Morris as this year’s team set up camp in the Ribble Valley village.

There is expectation in the air, there is hope - and there is definitely ambition.

Nobody yet knows what new "finds" will be discovered in 2018 in the small Lancashire village of Ribchester on the banks of the Ribble.

What the 50 plus temporary new residents, comprising students and academics who set up camp here today do know is that there is a lot of digging, analysing and detective work ahead - and the clock has already started ticking.

Many will be veterans, making a return visit to the Ribble Valley archaeological site on land once occupied by Roman soldiers.

They will relish once again discovering more about life in the former fort.

But for others it will all be new, an opportunity to get vital hands on experience of a dig and build their specialist skills.

The finds may not be officially classed as "treasure" in the conventional sense, but whether it is an odd coin, a piece of broken pottery or microscopic traces of gold, sivler and mercury all provide valuable evidence and clues about life here centuries ago.

Ribchester Revisited is an archaeological project run by UCLan, in conjunction with project partners Ribchester Roman Museum, the Australian National University and the Institute for Field Research.

For Dig Co-Directors Dr Jim Morris, lecturer in archaeology and Dr Duncan Sayer, Reader in archaeology at UCLan it is actually their sixth year on site. The first two years saw students working on the preliminary exploratory excavations, prior to the launch of the five year research project.

For each of those five years a team has or will be in residence locally for one month. This is year four and Dr Jim reports: “We’ve a team of just over 50 students and staff. We have 17 from the Australian National University and 10 American students from various universities. There are Friends from the Friends of the Ribchester Roman Museum and we also have college students. Every week some local sixth form students come out to work with us.”

Returning to work on the big main trench it’s an exciting time. Dr Jim said: “ We’re now moving from late Roman into the mid-Roman period. Previously we’ve been looking at the end of the fort and now we are going to be looking at the fort at its height in that middle Roman period. We’ll be excavating a number of buildings (already) identified. We’ll also be looking for evidence of the early timber fort under the stone onen, dating from the early 70s A.D.”

While rain can hamper the dig, the wet conditions of the local land have positives for the researchers. Dr Jim said: “The wet conditions mean that there’s extant preservation of the archaeology. Organic materials can survive in deeper layers, wood and leather that you don’t normally find as archaeologists.”

They will also be looking for evidence of the Sarmatian cavalry unit which was stationed in Ribchester in this earlier period.

Asked what qualities students will need he said: “You need some patience. You need to be able to multi-task and it’s quite a large logistical effort if you think of 50 or so people living and working together for a month.”

For a start 25 loaves and 30 pints of milk are delivered to the group every other day. They look to local businesses to supply their food wherever possible - with one supplier delivering breakfasts and another pizzas.

The students are there to learn techniques and methods,including learning about environmental archaeology, processing samples to extract preserved seeds and small animal bones and artefacts which are not visible to the naked eye.

Jim said: “We work with he museum as well. We help with some of their tours. We do some activities with children visiting the museum as well.

“It’s great to be able to do this in conjunction with Roman Museum - we wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for them.”

All the artefacts found on the site will eventually be donated to the museum, which is located off Riverside.

The students are expected to build their communication skills by leading site tours and providing explanations of finds and their research methods to members of the public.

They will be putting out blog posts and video diaries.

To catch up with what is going on this year see ribchesterrevisited.org

* The dig site near the museum will be open to visitors from Thursday until July 15, every day except Mondays. There will be an end of dig talk on Saturday July 14 at 3.30pm

* Visitors to the village can also visit the remains of Roman baths and a granary. The museum itself has a replica of Ribchester's most famous discovery - a bronze ceremonial helmet dating to the late 1st or 2nd century A.D. which was discovered in 1796. Ribchester Museum is currently seeking volunteers. Contact curator Patrick Tostevin on 01254 878261 or ribchestermuseum@btconnect.com if you can help.