Like many towns and cities, Derby has a long history and a surprisingly rich heritage. The story of Derby, or Derventio as it was once called, largely begins with the arrival of the Romans and their initial militarisation of the area from AD 50 onwards. The first evidence is the fort established at Strutts Park to the west of the River Derwent. Some 20-30 years later as part of a second wave of fortifications the fort at Little Chester was built probably between AD 75-80. It continued to be occupied until some point in the 2nd century, although the exact date of its abandonment is not known for certain. What is known is that the fort, in common with almost all larger Roman forts, was accompanied by a civilian settlement (vicus) and it is thought that the settlement at Little Chester continued beyond the abandonment of the fort (Dearne 1991: 70). There have been many excavations over the years and we do know some things about the fort and settlement. For example, excavations in 1926 traced the course of the Roman road known as Ryknield Street for around 400m and also identified potential pockets of settlement along its course. The presence of the Roman road is an important piece of the Derventio fort complex, and one of the factors determining the fort’s location. The road itself was the associated network of Roman roads in the region. Ryknield Street, located just to the west of the fort, was an important trade and communication route, which ran from Gloucestershire to South Yorkshire. The range of material found includes amphorae (e.g. Williams, 1991), and pottery kilns (e.g. Brassington, 1980), but there is little detail on the civilian settlement and the day-to-day life of it’s residents.
All this is about to change! A new flood defence scheme, currently underway along the river Derwent, is providing a rare opportunity to explore the lost heritage of the City of Derby. The ‘Our City Our River’ project aims to record any archaeology that may be affected whilst the works go on. As part of this development, in 2014 Derby City Council commissioned Oxford Archaeology to undertake small scale excavations on the Little Chester Roman fort. These excavations uncovered evidence that there may be up to four circuits of defensive ditch around the north side of the fort which may be up to 5m deep in places. The archaeology within the interior of the fort was also well preserved, and fresh excavations are to be undertaken over the next year before the flood defence can be built.
During 2016, Trent & Peak Archaeology will be on site excavating in and around Derventio from February until November 2016. As this site was both a thriving fort and civilian settlement, the team are expecting the excavations to recover a huge quantity and variety of, all of which will provide a unique insight into daily life nearly 2,000 years ago. There will be daily opportunities (9.30AM- 3.30PM) for volunteers to take part in artefact processing and learn about the Roman way of life at the project’s Information and Finds centre to be located in the City Road area. This centre will also feature regular displays and talks on findings as work progresses. Trent & Peak are also running a free ‘community archaeology’ excavation along the route of Ryknield Street in May-June 2016, no previous experience of archaeological excavation is necessary and full training in excavation techniques will be provided by the Trent & Peak Community Archaeology team. If you are interested in getting involved in this exciting dig, the artefact processing, or you just want more information please e-mail their archaeologists at: TPA.Volunteering@yorkat.co.uk
There are many articles in the Derbyshire Archaeology Journal which cover the archaeology of Roman Derby and the link takes you to the contents pages. Simply scroll down to page 43 for details.
Brassington, M. 1980 ‘Derby racecourse kiln excavations 1972-3’, Antiquaries Journal, 60, 8-47.
Dearne, M. 1991 ‘The military vici of the South Pennines: retrospect and prospect’, in Hodges, R. and Smith, K. (eds), Recent Developments in the Archaeology of the Peak District, 69-84. Sheffield: Sheffield University Press
Williams, D. F. 1991 ‘Roman amphorae from Derby, Little Chester’, AML Report 28/91, English Heritage. London.