Durobrivae means 'defended site with bridges', being those over the Billing Brook and the Nene. It is mentioned in The Antonine Itinerary - a Roman road Map of official Imperial posting stations. The area of the Roman walled town covers some 18 hectares, but has extensive suburbs and cemeteries outside the walled area. There are indications that it overlies earlier occupation.
E.T Artis carried out excavations in the nineteenth-century, when it was known as 'The Castles Field', probably from the outline of the wall and its towers. A limited investigation of the defences was undertaken by E. Greenfield in the 1950s. However little is known of the buildings within the town. No synthetic analysis of the town has yet updated that of Burnham & Wacher 1990 (The 'Small Towns' of Roman Britain, Batsford, 81-91) but a new programme of investigation is now underway.
In 2017 an exploratory programme of geophysical work started to reveal the internal arrangements of the town. In 2018 a more comprehensive magnetometry survey was undertaken (see below). This is providing new detail which will help to underpin future surveys and excavations.
1970s aerial view of Durobrivae - looking south (SG Upex)
Durobrivae - 2018 Geophysical Survey
This 2018 Durobrivae geophysical survey was commissioned by the Nene Valley Archaeological Trust and conducted by Archaeological Services Durham University.
The magnetometer survey encompassed 23 hectares within the walled area of the town. The survey has revealed a plan of the town, which developed along both sides of Ermine Street, a major Roman road. The layout of the town does not conform to any regular grid pattern of streets, but has various roads on different alignments.
Substantial lengths of the town wall have been detected, especially around the southern parts of the town, where possible wall towers or bastions have also been identified as well as two large external ditches. The survey has confirmed that the wall is staggered at at least two of the main gates, the south-east (London) and south-west (Irchester) gates.
Durobrivae - South gate and double ditches
Many buildings have been detected, often represented by stone wall footings though others are interpreted from probable robber trenches or construction slots. The buildings are concentrated along the roads, typically with a short gable end at the street frontage, though many other buildings are also present, set further back, away from the roads. Two particularly large buildings or complexes have been detected, both on the west side of Ermine Street. The southern of these comprises a very large courtyard building, set a short distance back from the road within a largewalled enclosure, with smaller, ancilliary buildings (possibly stables and/or baths) and almost certainly a temple at the south-western corner of the enclosure. This complex may have been a mansio, though the large complex just to the north could equally have served such a function. Unusually for a Roman ‘small town’, both buildings appear to have had official or public functions.
Durobrivae - Large buildings and possible temple south-west of Ermine Street
The majority of buildings measure between 12-18m in length and 7-9m in width, though both larger and smaller buildings are also present. The buildings which share a street frontage are densely packed and there is magnetic evidence to suggest that a substantial fire spread through many of the buildings towards the northern corner of the walled town, along both sides of Ermine Street; the fire appears to have extended for about 130m along the road.
Many smaller isolated anomalies probably reflect waste pits, wells, ovens and hearths. Larger irregular shaped pits were almost certainly for sand and gravel extraction.
Pre-Roman features detected within the survey might include a few circular and arcuate ditches, which could possibly be associated with Bronze Age barrows. The age and nature of the low mound and its associated ditches in the south-east quarter of the site remain uncertain. Whilst the area within the inner ditch circuit appears to be undisturbed, there may have been some encroachment of settlement across the outer ditch circuits. This feature may be part of the prehistoric landscape of the Nene Valley.
Another feature which probably pre-dates the Roman settlement is a ditch aligned north-east/south-west, which appears to underlie the whole of the walled town area. This could perhaps be the remains of a landscape-scale boundary ditch, such as those recorded at Ferry Meadows to the east.
Durobrivae - Circular mound and ditches