THE first Roman Fleet diploma ever to be found in Britain has gone on display in a North-East museum.

Pieces of the bronze certificate inscribed with Latin were discovered, near Longovicium, the Roman Fort, near Lanchester in County Durham, by metal detectorist Mark Houston.

The Northern Echo: DISPLAY: The diploma now on show at the Museum of Archaeology, Palace Green Library. Picture: TOM BANKS

DISPLAY: The diploma now on show at the Museum of Archaeology, Palace Green Library. Picture: TOM BANKS

It was issued by the Emperor Antonius Pius (138-191AD) to Tigernos, a native of Lanchester in around 150AD and was physical proof of rights granted to an individual on retirement from the Roman military.

Mr Houston, 47, who is from Lanchester, but now lives at Ushaw Moor, found the diploma around eight inches beneath the surface at the end of cold day while out detecting last February.

He said: “There was a crisp tone and you know have got something when you get such a good signal.

“I dug four or five inches then used a probe to get down a bit deeper. That when I uncovered the top with my trowel and saw the green that was evidently a copper alloy.

“I cleared it back and realised it was a number of plates in a stack.

“At first I thought it could be a discarded motorcycle battery.”

Mr Houston, a father-of-two, who works as a prison officer at Low Newton Prison, near Durham, has been metal detecting for around five years.

He said: “I laid them out at home on the window sill after cleaning them with a cloth and the sunlight caught them, which showed the engraving on the plates. I used a magnifying glass and said ‘hang on, this is all Latin’.

“That is when I thought: ‘Right, I have got something here.”

Mr Houston finds plenty of ring pulls from fizzy drinks cans, and his main artefacts tend to be musket balls. Until discovering the diploma his best find was a Palstave bronze axe head, which dates back thousands of years.

He has now sold the diploma to Durham University’s Museum of Archaeology for a five-figure sum, splitting the money with the landowner.

Mr Houston said: “For me, the only place it should be is in a local museum for local people because it is part of our local history, and a massive part of our local history.

“This is the best place for it.”

The sailor, Tigernos, was a native Briton, and the son of a Briton, who had served as a private soldier, and he spent his 26-year career sailing to the Germanic lands, mostly on the Rhine.

Museum curator Gemma Lewis said the artefact has been named the Lanchester Diploma.

She said: “A Roman Fleet Diploma provides a wealth of information about Roman times.

“We believe him to be one of Britain’s first named sailors.

“The diploma granted him and his descendants Roman citizenship and the legal right of marriage. To earn the diploma he served in the Roman Fleet in Germany, most likely for 26 years before honourable discharge on his retirement.”

The diploma is now on permanent display at the Museum of Archaeology at Palace Green Library and is part of this year’s Festival of British Archaeology.

Dr Keith Bartlett, director of culture at Durham University, said: “This is such a rare object, only around 800 have been found across the Roman Empire.

“It is the first complete Roman Fleet Diploma to be found in this country and tells a remarkable story.”