DIVERS are on the verge of rewriting the history books after discovering what appears to be the remains of a long-lost Roman bridge.

The amateur archaeologists believe they may have uncovered the first Roman crossing over the River Wear on the outskirts of Durham City.

Rolfe Mitchinson, Bob Middlemass and his son Philip Middlemass have discovered stakes, other timbers and worked stone in the murky waters close to the modern Shincliffe Bridge, which carries the A177 over the Wear. They bear all the hallmarks of work by Roman engineers.

If corroborated by university dating specialists, it will confirm the existence of a 40ft-wide bridge that would have carried Roman legions across the river.

The team, who came together as deep sea divers in the North Sea, first made the headlines in 1987 when they found the remnants of a Roman bridge at Piercebridge, near Darlington.

Since then, they have uncovered a priceless hoard of up to 900 coins and about 1,000 other finds in nearby waters.

Known since then as The Piercebridge Divers, the trio went on to discover a Roman road at Middleton-One-Row, near Darlington, a Roman bridge at Tadcaster, in Yorkshire, and a road leading to a suspected crossing of the River Tweed, on the Scottish Borders.

Historians have long known of the existence of Cade's Road, which runs from the Humber to Newcastle, but disappears just north of Sedgefield as it heads towards Durham.

The team received a £19,500 grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund and Countryside Agency towards a two-year project to find the crossing.

Mr Mitchinson, 65, said: "If we can find the Roman bridge, it will be the first confirmed crossing of the Wear and, while we have had success elsewhere, we are all from Durham and it would be nice to discover something on our own patch."

The search was centred on Shincliffe because records show a bridge dating back to the 12th Century, which was eventually swept away in the 18th Century. There is a natural gap in the surrounding escarpment which would have offered the Romans only one easy route down to the river. The site is close to Maiden Castle, where the most northerly villa in the Roman Empire was discovered by archaeologists.

After discovering what appears to be about a dozen supports of a medieval bridge, which spans the river between The Rose Tree pub and Houghall College, the divers are excited to have discovered thicker supports, less than 12 inches in diameter, which jut out more than 15ft into the river and are firmly fixed to the riverbed about 100 metres upstream from the existing bridge.

Mr Middlemass, 57, said: "Roman stakes are just under 12 inches wide and they would have driven them into the riverbed with big piledrivers."

The divers are now working with Durham County's Archaeology Office to verify the age of the surviving timbers - and are also examining encouraging finds further downstream at Kepier, which they suspect could be the site of a second crossing.

The team would like to hear from anyone who has discovered any Roman artefacts in the Shincliffe area to get in touch with them on 0191-385 3655.