It was a chilly September morning and the assistant in the antique shop at Barnard Castle was convinced that winter had arrived. However, as we drove east down the Tees valley the weather gradually improved and by the time we reached Piercebridge the clouds had cleared. It had turned into a pleasant late summer's day.
Upon arrival, we parked beside the village green, keen to seen the ruins and the remains of the Roman bridge which had once spanned the Tees. Indeed, it was the bridge which we headed towards first. Surprisingly, it was some distance from the village and the site of the fort, which immediately aroused our curiosity. We had presumed that the old Roman road would have run through or been overlooked by the fortifications. This is certainly the case at other strongholds along Dere Street, such as Catterick to the south, and Binchester to the north. Why was Piercebridge different?
The bridge itself was little more than a pile of stones, although one pier remained intact and you could still see some of the flat stone paving which had lain on the riverbed. These flags had once calmed the waters to prevent the river from eroding the piers. You could imagine what the bridge must have looked like with a wooden superstructure. Interestingly, some of the iron clamps which held the stones in place are still visible.
There is an alternative theory, which suggests that the piers are the remains of a dam and part of a water management system which the Romans used to control the Tees. Personally, I don't give this idea much credence. A flat-bottomed vessel such as a Jon boat can float in a few inches of water and the Romans would have known how to construct a similar type of craft. Ammianus alludes to the use of inflated goatskins by the Mesopotamians to provide buoyancy for rafts and pontoons. Perhaps a similar form of flotation was used upon the Tees. Intriguingly, the Notitia Dignitatum records the presence of a unit of Tigrian bargemen at Arbeia (South Shields). Personally, I believe the Romans would have been able to move supplies and goods without the need for a complex water management system. The picture below shows the Tees from what would have been the south side of the fort.
Traipsing back to the village we were now keen to view the fort. However, from a sight-seeing perspective the site was a bit of a disappointment. Only the south east corner of the fort has been excavated and what's on show isn't much to see. However, part of the remaining ruins were described as belonging to a "courtyard building." This archaeological interpretation was a surprise, as most Roman forts tend to follow a conventional design. Under normal circumstances I would have expected us to be looking at a granary or a barrack block. In the picture below you can see the ditch in which many of the horse bones were found, whilst beyond it lies the east wall and beyond that the so called courtyard building.
An interesting conundrum was now developing. Why was the fort so far from the bridge and the road? Why was the vicus situated between the road and the fort? Furthermore, how could you explain the unusual presence of a courtyard building? Perhaps Piercebridge wasn't built to house a garrison or to defend Dere Street? Could it simply have been a supply base?
Confused, we now wandered around the village hoping that something Roman would catch our eye. To our delight we found this magnificent doorway. It was the entrance to an old cottage, which lay behind the courtyard building. Had this magnificent frame been removed from the ruins in the distant past? It was easy to think so!
Not far away lay the approach to the new bridge (Georgian) and at its base there stood a truncated column. Had this too been recycled?
It was time for a cup of tea. However, this being a time of plague the tea shop was about to close. Disappointed, we were pleased to see an array of horse troughs outside the shop. Were these anything to do with the cataphracti?
Still feeling thirsty we instinctively headed down to the river to look for a Roman harbour. The waters were peat stained and murky and although there was nothing obvious to see, it didn't seem implausible that a small boat might reach this far upstream. It was interesting to note that canoeists seem able to reach Piercebridge without much difficulty, especially when the water levels are high. Under such conditions even Barnard Castle (another Roman fort) is accessible.
At the end of the day, we left Piercebridge feeling more puzzled than when we arrived. The fact that the bridge and the road are so far away from the fort seems to negate its value as a military base. Perhaps it had a more logistical purpose? Did the fact that the fort was originally built during the period of Severan expansion suggest as much? Could the river and the transportation of goods by water have been more important than we realise? Was it the case that in times of advance places such as Catraeth were too far away from the frontier to support an army on the march? In such circumstances did Piercebridge grow in importance? There is no doubt that Piercebridge houses a mystery, but personally I don't think it has anything to do with a missing regiment of cataphracti.
Next stop Ilkley!