AMATEUR archaeologists have discovered a long-lost Roman road which sheds new light on North-East history.
Enthusiasts from the Northern Archaeology Group have found evidence of a ramrod straight road, which stretched from Lanchester, in County Durham, up to Hadrian’s Wall.
Divers working with the team have also found underwater timbers and paving stones from a Roman bridge where the road crossed the River Derwent, at Bludder Burn Dene, near Ebchester.
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Historians have long thought the Roman legions used the famous Dere Street, which meanders between the forts of Lanchester, Ebchester and Corbridge, as the route to reach the Wall and Scotland.
But the part-time team believes the road they have uncovered, known as Proto Dere Street, may pre-date the famous Roman highway and was used solely by the military to transport rapid reaction forces to the Wall.
The discovery was made by retired builder Bill Trow, a 72-year-old from Newton Hall in Durham.
Before his death in 2006, Raymond Selkirk, a pilot and founder member of the Northern Archaeology Group, proposed the existence of the road, based in part on his aerial observations of the landscape.
Although the theory was largely dismissed by archaeologists, Mr Trow found evidence backing it up by studying the writings of the 14th Century monk Richard of Cirencester and antiquarian papers dating to the mid-18th Century.
Armed with documentary evidence to support his friend’s theory, Mr Trow pinpointed the road to a site around 300-metres upstream of the Roman fort at Ebchester and within an hour of his first dig in September 2012 had unearthed the first glimpse of the forgotten road in centuries.
He said: “We found it virtually straight away – it was a fantastic feeling. It is a very early Roman road, possibly the first in the area.”
The road is only nine-feet wide, made up of stone, clay and cobbles, which suggests it would have been used solely by legionnaires, while the 22-ft wide Dere Street would have been congested with civilian and commercial traffic.
Mr Trow said: “It would have been for purely military use rather than the public, because it does not go between the towns - it is a direct route to Scotland. Rather than a two-mile detour to go through Corbridge, this is a straight fast-action military road.”
After the initial discovery, the team has repeatedly returned and excavated 25 trenches on both sides of the river, mapping a half-mile stretch of the road which heads straight towards the Wall.
Although a single hobnail from a legionnaire’s boot was the only artefact found, they also discovered a quarry which provides evidence to suggest it was built before Dere Street.
They also enlisted help from a team of divers, who found the preserved timber and paving stone remnants of a Roman bridge which carried the road over the Derwent, which was then about a third of the width it is now.
Mr Trow plans to write a book on his discoveries and will present the research findings to the records officers covering Northumberland and Durham.
He said: “It’s not really practical for me to go any further with it, but I am absolutely delighted that all this evidence has been recorded.”