Perspective: Scratching beneath the Surface; as More Ancient Treasures Are Found Ros Dodd Looks at Recent Discoveries Which Reveal Birmingham's Past

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Byline: Ros Dodd

As sparkling modern buildings rise up in celebration of our future, so beneath their foundations lie secrets of our rich past.

New roads built to roar today's motorised traffic through what was once forested countryside and rolling hills are laid down over ancient evidence that horses and carts were once the fastest method of transport.

News that Iron Age, Roman and medieval remains have been uncovered along the site of the Birmingham Northern Relief Road (BNRR) is a reminder that the city and its environs boast a treasure trove of archeological 'finds', revealing what the Romans and others did for us.

The most important discovery of the past few years was at Metchley in Edgbaston where in 1999 - nearly 2,000 years after invading Roman armies pitched camp there - archaeologists unearthed new evidence of their activities.

Digging carried out as part of preparations for Birmingham's new 'super' hospital revealed a glimpse of how the Romans established a major base on the site - and then repeatedly abandoned it and returned again as they consolidated their grip on Britain.

A hitherto undiscovered ditch and rampart indicated there were three forts instead of two. One of the forts was a massive barracks, covering 15 acres and housing up to 1,000 legionnaires.

'Metchley is a nationally important site,' Peter Leather, a lecturer in Birmingham Studies at Birmingham University, said yesterday. 'The results (of the 1999 dig) are to be published in the near future and in the archaeological world they're going to have a considerable impact.'

Metchley could become one of the best-known Roman fort sites in the country, on a par with the Lunt fort at Bagington, near Coventry.

Another important recent discovery in the city is that the Bull Ring - currently in the the throes of a massive redevelopment programme - has a medieval past. Archaeologists revealed three years ago that the market area was one of the centres of Britain's leather industry as long ago as the 13th century.

A range of unearthed artefacts and remains - including deep pits used for leather tanning - shed light on a hitherto unknown area of Birmingham's industrial heritage.

'The Bull Ring finds are remarkable and have knocked on the head forever that Birmingham started as an Anglo-Saxon village,' says Mr Leather.

The most notable example of the city's medieval history is Weoley Castle, situated in the south-western suburb of the city which bears its name.

Once a fortified moat and manor house, research suggests it was occupied as far back as the 12th century. Pottery and iron artefacts have been unearthed and it is thought more ancient treasures still lie buried.

Such treasures prove that the Birmingham area has a much broader ancient inheritance than was previously thought. As well as Roman and medieval settlements, evidence of Iron Age and Bronze Age dwellings has also been dug up.

'Birmingham is as archaeologically rich as anywhere else in Britain and richer than some other cities,' observes Dr Mike Hodder, head of the city council's archaeological team. 'Some cities have Roman sites, others have medieval sites or Iron Age sites, but we've got some of each. …