This week: River finds

It seems less obvious today, as we hurtle about the country using modern road and rail networks, but river crossings were once dangerous places. In ancient times, rites in the form of prayers and sacrifices would be performed to appease the river gods and to improve the chances that goods and travellers would make it across unscathed.

River Tees at Piercebridge. Image: Wikimedia Commons/Colin Smith.

In this context, the building of a bridge was a major event – one that was imbued with sacred significance. Little wonder perhaps that the Roman word for priest (‘pontifex’) is often said to be derived from the Latin word for bridge (‘pons’) – because of the rituals once performed to ensure safe passage.

As we learn this week on The Past, the results of such activity have long intrigued historians and archaeologists, who pore over ancient texts – such as Suetonius’ famous account of Julius Caesar’s crossing of the Rubicon – and study more recent discoveries in search of clues about riverine offerings and rituals.

In the new issue of our sister magazine Current Archaeology and on the latest edition of The PastCast, our unmissable podcast, we piece together the extraordinary story of the finds made at Piercebridge, in County Durham – the spot at which Dere Street, the main Roman road north, crossed the River Tees.

Between the mid-1980s and 2018, more than 3,600 objects – everything from Roman rubbish to valuable items of gold jewellery – were retrieved from the riverbed next to this busy crossing point by two divers, Bob Middlemass and Rolphe Mitchinson. Together, the objects recovered make up one of the richest collections of Roman finds made in Britain – and as we hear, the entire assemblage is now finally being published in a new book by Hella Eckardt and Philippa Walton.

Also this week, we are diving into the Current Archaeology archives to bring you a deeper understanding of London’s liquid history: to mark the start of the Thames Discovery Project, we joined the volunteers investigating the muddy foreshore of the capital’s great river; then returned 10 years later, to celebrate some of the project’s most exciting discoveries. Elsewhere, we also travelled to Ireland to visit the ‘log boats of the lake‘, revealing a ships’ graveyard spanning 4,000 years.

And finally, we continue the watery theme with our latest quiz, which this week is designed to test your knowledge of bridges in history. Good luck, and we hope you enjoy The Past!


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