Friday, 19 August 2016

Roman Channel Islands

There was an interesting new story in Guernsey Press this week:

ARCHAEOLOGISTS from Alderney, Guernsey and the UK have uncovered 25ft of Roman wall at the Channel Islands’ oldest building. Built to protect ships moored in Longis Bay, which it overlooks, the nunnery contains the best preserved Roman small fort in the UK. A team of 12 have been working at a 10-day dig there, peeling back the earth to uncover the secrets of the building, which has been continuously occupied since the 4th Century AD.

Dr Jason Monaghan, head of Heritage Services in Guernsey, said: they had embarked on the dig to find the west wall of the Roman tower. ‘We have found the west wall of the tower – 25 Roman feet of that, so that’s pretty exciting.'

When I was growing up, the connection with Rome to the Channel Islands seemed tenuous at least. There was very little evidence of Romans in Jersey apart from the St Lawrence Pillar and the remains of a temple at the Pinnacle - there is much more now. Our view of the Channel Islands has changed; it clearly was a fully integrated part of the Roman Empire, even in Jersey, which had no natural deep harbour.

Notably, in 2010, the JEP reported on a dig of a building and skeletons of the Roman era, attached to Grouville Church:

‘Archaeologists have made what could be the first ever discovery of Roman dwellings in the Island. They describe the finds as “very significant”. Evidence of Roman life has been uncovered at Grouville Church, with a search in the building’s cellar unearthing items of pottery that could date back almost 2,000 years, as well as ancient skeletons and the remnants of Roman roof tiles.‘The latest find could be the first example of a Roman dwelling to be discovered in Jersey.‘Two particularly old skeletons were uncovered, together with significant Roman pottery remains, including part of an amphora of a style not made after 261 AD, pieces of roof tile and some Samian pottery, which was produced in Gaul from about 60 AD.’

Guernsey was more on a trade route, and had a deep water harbour. The name "Castel" of one Parish suggested "Castra", the Roman word for a fort. Excavations in St Peter Port near the old market have confirmed that the Romans used the island as a trading base and probably stayed here for around 250 years. A 3rd century Gallo-Roman shipwreck was discovered in the mouth of the harbour in 1982.

The route was called the Antonine Itinerary. It states that a ship leaving Vectis (Isle of Wight) on its way to Gaul passes a number of islands before it reaches Uxantis (Ushant or Ouessant): among them are Riduna, Sarnia and Caeasarea. Riduna, the first mentioned, has been suggested to be Alderney; Sarnia, Guernsey; and Caesarea, Jersey. But is this right? The next island visible from a vessel after Riduna-Alderney is Sark – and there is an unarguable similarity in the sound of ‘Sarnia’ and ‘Sark’. That would make Guernsey ‘Lesia’, and Jersey, the island next in the list after Lesia, ‘Andium’. And Lesia also features in the Life of St Sampson, who certainly visited Guernsey.

Going back to the Guernsey excavations, BBC news also reported on the earlier finds in 2010:

Dr Jason Monaghan, Guernsey Museums director, said: "In 2009 we proved there was a Roman building inside the Nunnery and began to suspect this was a tower as all the northern English forts have a tower in the middle.

"In 2010 we went back specifically looking to prove there was a tower there - and 'wow' is there a tower. The walls are 2.8m (9ft) thick, we don't know how high it was, but it would have been a very big structure - it's as thick as Hadrian's Wall. The tower was found to be about 18 sq m. (58 sq ft). He said the team dug down to prove the outside walls were also Roman before doing the same for the gateway”

"It's in an extremely good state of preservation... it's better preserved than all the other small Roman forts in Britain. It's in a better state than what they call the Saxon shore forts off southern England, it's in better nick than most of Hadrian's Wall.”

And in Teaching Through Nature, there is a very full piece by Dr Monahan entitled "Ridunda: Alderney in the Roman Empire" which sets out both the Alderney finds, and the bigger picture of the Roman Channel Islands.

Ridunda: Alderney in the Roman Empire
by Dr Jason Monaghan

Alderney was part of the Roman Empire for over 400 years. It was one of the islands called the Insulae Lenuri and was known as Riduna. Not much was known about Romans in the Channel Islands until the 1980’s when Roman buildings were found in St Peter Port and a shipwreck was raised from its harbour. At least four more Roman shipwrecks are now suspected around Guernsey. Jersey also had the remains of a small temple

The Romans commanded by Julius Caesar conquered the nearby coasts of Gaul in 56BC. Guernsey may already have been friendly to the Romans before this as ships had been stopping there carrying Roman pottery and wine possibly as early as 120 BC. Guernsey was on the route taken by merchant ships sailing up the Atlantic Coast of Gaul and into the Channel. Most would have avoided Jersey as it did not have a good harbour and was ‘in the corner’ surrounded by dangerous reefs. Alderney’s rocks and currents were also to be avoided. Ancient sailors however liked to sail in sight of land so it is likely they would have used Alderney as a navigation point when sailing north from Guernsey, or south out of the Channel.

Roman objects found in the islands came from modern France, Germany, Britain, Spain, Italy, North Africa and Palestine. Trade goods included olive oil and fish sauce carried in amphorae (large jars). Each style of amphora came from a different region and experts have worked out what many of them carried.

Remains of Roman buildings have been found two metres under the sand at Longis Common. Longis was a natural harbour and seems to have been the main settlement in Roman times. It is possible that a whole village is buried under the sand at Longis. Roman graves called ‘cists’ were found eroding out of the sand-dunes on the top of the beach before the Germans built their sea wall. Roman roof tile is also found on the beach. It is possible that the Channel Islands were governed from the Roman town of Constantia (modern Coutances).

A Roman small fort was built at the Nunnery to guard the harbour at Longis. The fort was probably built in the middle of the fourth century, but there may have been an earlier building on the same site. It is the best surviving small fort in Britain, with the walls still standing up to 5m high. It is approximately 40 metres square with walls up to 2m thick. It has rounded corners with semi-circular bastions that may have been designed to carry bolt-shooting catapults (ballistae). Originally it had a massive square tower in the centre, with walls 2.8 metres thick.

The Nunnery was probably a base for the Roman navy, which would have mounted patrols against pirates and raiders to stop them sailing through the Race. It was built at a dangerous time for Rome when ‘barbarian’ tribes were attacking from the direction of Germany and the North Sea. The Romans used small fast warships called ‘picti’ which were painted blue to hide them while hunting pirates. The Nunnery also stopped the pirates themselves using Alderney as their base. The Nunnery would have come under the command of a Roman general known as the Duke of Armorica (dux tractus Armoricani et Nervicani).

In AD 410 the Romans abandoned Britain and in AD 486 the Franks defeated the Roman armies and took control of Gaul. We do not know exactly when, but at some time between AD 400 and AD 500, Alderney ceased to be controlled by Rome.

No comments: