BENWELL AND THE WALL IN WESTERN NEWCASTLE

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LOCATION: 
BENWELL AND WESTERN NEWCASTLE
PROJECT TITLE: 
FINDING THE WALL IN THE WEST OF NEWCASTLE
ACTIVITIES: 
Excavation, survey and desk-based research
TARGETS: 
To search for remains the Roman civilian settlement on the slope south of Benwell fort
ABOUT THE PROJECT: 

A search for remains of the lost Roman vicus or civilian settlement on the slope south of the fort site

Benwell, absorbed into a housing estate in the western suburbs of Newcastle in the 1920s and 1930s, is the site of Condercum, one of the principal Roman garrison forts along the Wall. The Wall itself is buried beneath the main west road, though few realise this. Two excavated Roman structures (Scheduled Ancient Monuments) are on display at Benwell: the gated crossing of the Vallum (the Roman earthwork running parallel to and south of the Wall), 60m south of the fort, and the Temple of Antenociticus, south-east of the fort. Both are hard to find in residential streets. It is known for certain that Roman outbuildings (a vicus or civilian settlement) lay on the slope to the south of the fort, where buildings were contacted during house building in the 1920s and 1930s. Parts of the fort itself are Scheduled Ancient Monuments. Recent sightings of archaeological remains in utilities trenches etc. suggest that although largely built over, remains of the fort and vicus survive.

Since early 2013 WallQuest volunteers have been involved in various activities around the Roman fort of Condercum at Benwell, now mostly covered with buildings but once one of the most important cavalry forts on the Wall.

Volunteer digs have taken place in these places in Benwell:

Grounds of Pendower Hall and Hadrian School, 300m west of the fort at Condercum:

Here digs have found the Military Way, the Roman road running behind the Wall, amazingly well-preserved and only eighteen inches beneath the modern ground surface.  A Bronze Roman coin found beneath the road may supply vital evidence for the date of its construction.

The WallQuest excavation here has also found the Vallum, a great Roman ditch that ran to the rear of Hadrian’s Wall.  This is important because its exact location in this part of Benwell was not previously known.

One WallQuest volunteer has surveyed the line of the Vallum through Benwell by following traces of subsidence in the terraced houses above its line.

In the Pendower Estate, south of Hadrian School (former Dorcas Avenue, south of Bertram, Crescent):

Here four excavation trenches have been dug.  Three out of four produced Roman remains and large quantities of Roman pottery.  This establishes that there are Roman remains extending at least 275m south of Benwell fort down the slope towards the Tyne, showing just how big the Roman civilian town outside the walls of the fort at Condercum was.  Around 80 separate volunteers have participated in the Benwell fieldwork.

Work with finds

Other volunteers have studied pottery and other finds from the 1937 excavation that took place at Benwell when the fort was built over by the present Denhill Park housing estate.  Among the finds are pots with the owners’ names scratched on them, and a big key for operating a lock.

Work on an urban walking trail

The Hadrian’s Wall National Trail, followed by thousands of walkers each year, avoids Benwell, following the bank of the Tyne.  WallQuest volunteers have been pioneering an urban walking trail that will bring visitors along the actual line of the Wall through western Newcastle.  WallQuest will be producing a printed guide to this new urban trail along Hadrian’s Wall.

Benwell Heritage Trail

WallQuest has also collaborated with the Search Project’s Exploring Our West End Project to produce a Roman heritage trail around Benwell.

What happens now?

We are not doing any more excavation work in Benwell at the moment but anyone can get involved in other WallQuest projects in other parts of Tyneside or help with preparing the publications and booklets that will report on what has been found in Benwell.

In February 2014 we held a community event in St James’ Church Hall, attended by 40 people, to report on the results of the Benwell digs.