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Piercebridge (Morbium)

1850 OS map of Piercebridge, showing the village, which was built over the fort, and to the east the "Tofts" area, which was the vicus.

See also the TTFF/BrigantesNation research page.

At some point in the Roman period, there was a large stone structure which straddled the River Tees at Piercebridge. This was rather like a bridge, but was apparently much wider and had a paved surface at the level of the water bed. This has been interpreted by Archaeologists as a simple bridge, which was built during the Roman period to replace a nearlier bridge (in the same place as the current road bridge) which was perhaps washed away by a flood. Ray disagree's with this interpretation, and sees the masonry as part of a riverside complex, and that this was part of a large dam and spillway. To help re-inforce this argument, the Northern Archaeology Group (NAG) have performed an extensive diving search of the riverbed, and have found a consideral quantity of votive type river deposits all by the original bridge - indicating it never went out of use.

As a result of our visit to the remains, together with the presentation put on by NAG we can see that there was a significant amount of doubt surrounding the "given knowledge" with regards to Pircebridge's "second bridge" and that Ray's theories in general may hold the key to a considerable amount of new research with regards to Roman Britain.

Piercebridge Roman Fort.

Piercebridge Second Bridge/Dam

Piercebridge Riverworks

The second bridge?

Raymond Selkirk wrote a book several years ago called "The Piercebridge Formula". The basis of its hypothosus was that one of the sites at Piercebridge was a dam, rather than a second bridge which so far has been assumed, this theory was expanded in 'Chester-le-Street & it's place in history. The author set out to investigate as to whether the Romans were using the waterways to move heavy goods such as food. Previous to this there has been a general assumption that the Roman's used the road system to transport most goods. In 'Chester-le-Street' Selkirk sets out strong evidence of Roman use of Rivers, he points out that water based transport is significantly more efficient than road, especially for heavy goods. Selkirk point to recent evidence at Corbridge, Hylton and Chester-le-Street as well as other locations accross the Empire where extensive Roman use of waterways is indicated.

With Piercebridge in mind Selkirk points out the difficulties of navigation on the tidal rivers of Britain, in summer in particular the already low water level would drop significantly at low tide, grounding ship too high up the river and making it only navigable at times restricted by the tide and the general water level.

Selkirk suggests that rather than live with this problem the Romans developed a system to re-engineer the water flow in order to make navigation a less periodic activity.

Why a dam at Piercebridge?

Dams, as Selkirk points out, can be used for a veriety of purposes then simple to build resevoir's as we tend to think. A dam ultimately is simply a way of controlling the flow of water down a river. In the case of a tidal river, water can be stored upstream at high tide in order to be let out at low tide to keep the river level high enough for shipping. This is probably the reason for the dam at Piercebridge.

The structure at Piercebridge is traditionally interpreted as a bridge carrying Dere Street over the Tees: Selkirk believes it to be part of a spillway to help regulate the river level, and that the real bridge is nearby.

As part of his investigations Selkirk investigated many known Roman dam and other river based features to help compare the structure and purpose of the works at Piercebridge. In all a strong case is put for extensive use of waterway's by the Roman's including the possibility of similar structures to the Piercebridge 'dam' elsewhere in the north east (Hylton, Sunderland) and also in other parts of the empire. The question is - is he right?

The book and Selkirk's theories are highly compelling, however he has attracted a lot of criticism, perhaps in part for the sheer "new-ness" of his views. English Heritage considered RS's theories to be completely beyond the pale for a long time, though recently it seems there's some softening of the antipathy between the two camps.

Raymond Selkirk did a documentary for BBC Knowledge in the last few years, setting out the gist of his ideas. Ray Selkirk is Secretary of a local archaeological group - NAG (Northern Archaeology Group). Members of the group have set up a Piercebridge website which has a 3d representation of the dam. Currently the Northern Archaeological Group are involved in a water based investigation to look for evidence of the dam.

Coin find evidence - From the NAG Website.

"A thousand Roman coins have been found by NAG's divers along the line of the genuine Dere Street Roman Bridge at Piercebridge, on the present and Roman riverbed, which were one and the same. Forget about the expensive stainless-steel notices on the Roman site downstream which claim that the remains of the high-and-dry Roman spillway of a dam was a second Roman bridge and that the river has moved sideways and cut a sixteen-feet deeper channel since Roman times. How could our sand-free Tees cut a sixteen-feet deeper channel through solid rock in less that 2000 years when the Colorado River, the most abrasive in the world and which is liquid sandpaper and carries ten tons of sand in suspension past any point every second, has taken 2,000 years to cut down nine inches? Where therefore is the Piercebridge Canyon? And while the Colorado started its cutting action millions of years ago, why is it that our “experts’ postulate that the Tees suddenly commenced its mythical excavation through sixteen-feet of rock only during the Roman period? Arts-trained archaeologists should set themselves up as neither civil engineers nor geologists unless they take the appropriate degrees or receive proper training. The time has come when they can no longer bluff the general public merely by having a university background.

John Casey of Durham University identified most of the coins from the genuine Dere Street Bridge and pronounced that that they were votive offerings cast onto the Roman riverbed during the whole 400 years of Roman occupation. However, local museums proclaim that the river in Roman times was not here at all but sixteen-feet higher and 200 yards to the south running through midair over the high-and-dry spillway of the Roman dam. According to these museums, after flowing under the genuine Dere Street Roman Bridge, the river leapt upwards and sideways to flow over the high and dry flood spillway of the Roman dam further downstream. Only high winter floods crossed this spillway, which was a Roman dam protection device. Similar spillways can be seen on almost every dam in the world and these devices are usually at an extreme end of the structure to be protected from flood damage. "

More evidence of Roman inland waterways trade and navigation. NAG website.

"Cedric is a very skilled and industrious chap and is an honorary warden of public footpaths of the Lake District. His knowledge of the area is second to none. He has also found a suspected Roman barge basin in Ullswater and several associated Roman lead mines with hitherto unknown Roman roads and defenses. His interest in the Roman navigation of the River Eden was sparked off by "On the Trail of the Legions" (R. Selkirk, Anglia 1995), which described a possible Roman flash lock at Wetheral. This was described by local historians as a fish-trap built by the monks of Wetheral Priory. The features however showed Roman characteristics. Cedric has investigated the river further and found the post-holes of a suspected Roman dam and also relocated a forgotten Roman inscription carved by soldiers of the XXth Legion. This evidence is at NY 4678, 5370, just downstream from St Constantine's Cells, which are artificial caves cut into the cliffs and according to Charlie Emett in his The Eden Way, (Cicerone Press,) are thought to date from pre-Roman times. The Romans have certainly used the River Eden as a major supply line."

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