A 1,800-year-old carved stone head of what is believed to be a Roman god has been unearthed in an ancient rubbish dump.

First year Durham University student archaeology student Alex Kirton made the discovery within what was probably a bath house at Binchester Roman Fort, Bishop Auckland.

The sandstone head, which measures about 20cm by 10cm and dates from the second or third century AD, has been likened to the Celtic deity Antenociticus, thought to have been worshipped as a source of inspiration and intercession in military affairs.

A similar sandstone head, complete with an inscription identifying it as Antenociticus, was found at Benwell, in Newcastle, in 1862.

Mr Kirton, 19, from Hertfordshire, said: “As an archaeology student this is one of the best things and most exciting things that could have happened.

“It was an incredible thing to find in a lump of soil in the middle of nowhere – I've never found anything remotely exciting as this.”

Dr David Petts, lecturer in archaeology at Durham University, said: ““We may never know the true identity of this new head, but we are continuing to explore the building from which it came to help us improve our understanding of late Roman life at Binchester and the Roman Empire’s northern frontier in Northern England.

“Antenociticus is one of a number of gods known only from the northern frontier, a region which seems to have had a number of its own deities.

“It's also an excellent insight into the life and beliefs of the civilians living close to the Roman fort.”

Dr David Mason, principal archaeologist at Durham County Council, which owns the site, added: “The head is a welcome addition to the collection of sculpture and inscriptions from Binchester.”

The Binchester head is African in appearance, but Dr Petts, who is also associate director of Durham University’s Institute of Medieval and Early Modern Studies, said experts were unsure whether these features were deliberate or coincidental.

The find was made as part of a five year project at Binchester Roman Fort which is shedding new light on the twilight years of the Roman Empire.

The Binchester dig is a joint project between Durham University’s Department of Archaeology, site owner Durham County Council, Stanford University’s Archaeology Centre and the Architectural and Archaeological Society of Durham and Northumberland.

  •  Visitors attending the Binchester Roman Festival on the weekend of July 13 and 14 will be able to see the head for themselves, along with other objects found during the current excavations.

The festival features guided tours by Dr Mason as well as a programme of re-enactment events and demonstrations of ancient riding and fighting skills.