Uncovering our town’s extraordinary past

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ONE of the most fascinating parts of Rugby’s history lies in the ancient ruins of Tripontium – a Roman town some three-and-a-half miles north-east of Brownsover.

Thanks to Rugby Archaeological Society, Rugby’s museum is full of artefacts from the town, which were forged almost 2,000 years ago by the Roman civilisation. Tripontium (which roughly translates in Latin to Three Bridges) started as a military outpost in around 50AD on the old Roman Road that today is known as the A5. The ancient road was the main route between Londinium and Lindum (London and Lincoln).

For centuries it was assumed Tripontium was a mere military outpost, but we now know it was much more important. It existed for around 500 years, lasting just beyond the decline of Roman Britain in around 500AD.

Thanks to RAS excavations, which began in 1961, we know it had a larger civilian population than first thought. The settlement had large public baths, an extensive administrative building that possibly used for collecting taxes and a hotel.

Dr Graham Morgan, chairman of the RAS, explained: “The bath house there, which had an under floor heating system, was far too big and complex for it to belong to a small settlement. One of the exciting things about the site is that we don’t know for how far it extends and what else is there. There’s a possibility it could contain a temple, but what is more likely is a shrine that travellers could have left offerings at while they were on their travels.”

It’s also possible that Roman emperor Constantine the Great visited Tripontium as a milestone with his name on it was found nearby.

Dr Morgan added: “We don’t know if the milestone was a political statement or a sign that the Emperor visited, but it’s quite possible he stayed there.

“Another exciting object found was a bronze peacock belt buckle. It’s reminiscent of Christian symbolism at the time and the same design featuring the two peacocks has also been found on a roof tile, meaning it was likely used as the society’s symbol.

“It’s finding objects like this that draws many people to archaeology. Piecing together the clues we’ve uncovered is a bit like crime-scene investigation, and we now know significantly more about Tripontium than we did before the 1960s.”

The excavation, which ceased in 2006, is the largest of its type carried out by an amateur archaeological group and was made possible thanks to Matthew Bloxam’s discovery of the settlement in 1836. It’s not known if future excavation will take place but according to Dr Morgan it has not been ruled out.

For now Rugbeians can see the rich array of objects discovered in the remains of Tripontium in the Jack Lucas Gallery in the museum, named after the first RAS chairman and driving force of RAS between 1968 and his death in 2006. The museum provides a permanent home for the many important discoveries that were unearthed mainly during the period 1961 to 2006.

Angie Irvine from the museum explained: “It is very fortunate that the entire collection was kept intact and has been made available by the society to current and future generations of Rugby residents and visitors to the town.”

After the Romans left Britain, possibly because of pressure from local tribes combined with a faltering economy, the town would have been left to disintegrate. But there’s more to the site’s history than just Tripontium. Dr Morgan explained: “We also know there are the remains of a medieval priory around the site somewhere, and it would be great to find it. Unfortunately, all we’ve found so far is Medieval pottery.”

It’s not possible to see the remains at present as they are on private land and have been covered for conservation purposes. However, published reports are available from RAS covering all the excavations and research.

The society worked with the museum long before the museum was opened to the public in 1998 and their close cooperation has continued since that time. More recently a joint programme of free and open events has been put together for people interested in archaeology and Rugby’s history and from April RAS is planning to organise a programme of outings and more practical events. Meanwhile the museum works with local schools to teach children about Roman Britain. If you would like to be part of the future of RAS or would like further details of anything in this article then please email RAS secretary Irene Glendinning, ireneg@coventry.ac.uk. If you’re a teacher interested in the activities on offer, the museum can be contacted via ragm.org.uk.