Two thousand years of development in Gloucester’s Greater Blackfriars area

The importance of archaeological archives

The Upper Quay Street site in 1989, prior to redevelopment, looking north from the Quay Street/Upper Quay Street junction towards St Nicholas’ church. The site is now occupied by flats
The Upper Quay Street site in 1989, prior to redevelopment, looking north from the Quay Street/Upper Quay Street junction towards St Nicholas’ church. The site is now occupied by flats

Excavations within Gloucester have a long history of providing exciting archaeological discoveries but, once excavated, most of these remains survive only as archaeological archives and within publications. Creating a secure archive from these excavations is essential if we want to apply new ways and techniques to analyse these materials and records.

Recording the remains of Roman barracks at Ladybellegate Street in 1989. The Roman remains lay at depth, covered by a medieval graveyard and later remains
Recording the remains of Roman barracks at Ladybellegate Street in 1989. The Roman remains lay at depth, covered by a medieval graveyard and later remains

As Glevum, Gloucester was one of the most important towns in Roman Britain, becoming a city of fluctuating fortunes in historical times. It remains a vibrant place to live, work and visit, and its urban landscape continues to evolve. In 1989 and 1991, redevelopment in the Blackfriars/Quayside area of the city prompted excavations at Upper Quay Street and Ladybellegate Street. These were undertaken by staff from the City Excavation Unit under the direction of Malcolm Atkin, who battled difficult conditions to reveal archaeological snapshots into significant moments of Gloucester’s past.

Ladybellegate Street site lies within the perimeter of the 1st-century Roman fortress and later walled town, and excavations here revealed the remains of barrack blocks from the fortress and more substantial buildings of the subsequent Roman colonia (civilian town). The inhabitants of this part of the colonia were evidently prosperous and keen to adopt a Romanised lifestyle, occupying houses furnished with mosaics and painted walls.

Recording the mosaic floor from a Roman town house at Ladybellegate Street
Recording the mosaic floor from a Roman town house at Ladybellegate Street

In contrast to the finery of the town houses at Ladybellgate Street, excavations 250m to the north-west at Upper Quay Street revealed evidence for the working part of the Roman town, where goods were imported and exported via the River Severn, providing trading links up and down the river and its hinterland, and overseas.

The lower-lying land at Upper Quay Street is close to what was in the 1st century AD an inlet from the River Severn, land that has long since been reclaimed. Revealed within six small trenches were the preserved timbers of a Roman wharf, which dendrochronological analysis showed was built from AD 74 onwards.

The Roman wharf at Upper Quay Street, looking landwards from the former inlet. The wooden wharf revetment runs left to right across the centre of the image, with a wooden drain (blocked with a wooden chock) extending beneath it at right angles. In front of the revetment, horizontal timbers and wooden piles are the remains of a jetty against which boats would have moored to load and offload goods
The Roman wharf at Upper Quay Street, looking landwards from the former inlet. The wooden wharf revetment runs left to right across the centre of the image, with a wooden drain (blocked with a wooden chock) extending beneath it at right angles. In front of the revetment, horizontal timbers and wooden piles are the remains of a jetty against which boats would have moored to load and offload goods

Some of the goods landed here were spilled, and it is easy to imagine the curses of merchants as figs, grapes and olives were knocked into the muddy channel, to be discovered by archaeologists some 1900 years later. Further wooden piles had been recorded nearby in the 1930s, but unfortunately the archive for those works had not survived and so the piles are not located with any certainty, making them difficult to interpret.

1930s construction work uncovered wooden piles at Upper Quay Street. Gone are the days when sites featured three-piece suits and cloth caps, but the muddy conditions will be familiar to any generation of archaeologists
1930s construction work uncovered wooden piles at Upper Quay Street. Gone are the days when sites featured three-piece suits and cloth caps, but the muddy conditions will be familiar to any generation of archaeologists

As the colonia flourished in the 2nd century the low ground around Upper Quay Street was reclaimed in advance of Roman house building, and the excavations revealed that at least one of these Roman houses included a mosaic floor.

Despite the significance of the remains at both sites, the excavations were undertaken at a time when funding for post-excavation analysis and publication was not built into rescue archaeology budgets. Malcolm Atkin and his team carried out some initial work and limited publication, and the site archive remained secure but largely unexamined within Gloucester City Museum. Renewed redevelopment now being undertaken within the Greater Blackfriars area prompted Andrew Armstrong, the Gloucester City Archaeologist, to secure funding from Historic England to enable the Roman findings from the site to be analysed and published, so that the results could inform archaeological mitigation strategies to accompany the present redevelopment. This analysis and publication was led by Cotswold Archaeology but was only possible because the site archive had been held securely for 30 years in the City Museum. The results are published in volume 138 of the Transactions of the Bristol and Gloucestershire Archaeological Society (2020) whilst the archive (which includes details of post-Roman remains not analysed as part of the recent project) is back at Gloucester City Museum, secure for future researchers.

Jonathan Hart

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