Sunderland’s Roman past under the spotlight

Some of the famous Brigg Stones that are now part of sea defences along the side of the North Pier.
Some of the famous Brigg Stones that are now part of sea defences along the side of the North Pier.
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Sunderland’s Roman past is at the centre of an historical project.

And as Norman Kirtlan, one of the people involved, explained, it is quickly gathering pace along the length of the River Wear.

Huge worked stones at North Hylton.

Huge worked stones at North Hylton.

At the heart of the project is a mysterious group of stones that appeared on 19th century maps, and which have been in the river at Hylton for centuries.

Norman explained: “Over the years, many Roman coins have been found along the river banks and also in gardens in nearby Pennywell.”

Roman stones appear in the fabric of Saint Peter’s Church in Monkwearmouth, and mosaics are said to have been discovered under the Vaux site.

Norman said there was credible evidence on which to base a theory that the city once had “strategic importance to our Roman visitors.”

To finally solve the riddle of the Brigg Stones would be a wonderful achievement, and would add a new and exciting chapter to the history of the River Wear

Norman Kirtlan

The Brigg Stones are stones which historians believe may once have been the foundation of a river crossing between North and South Hylton.

They were scattered near and far during work in the 1860s, by the River Wear Commissioners.

The River Wear Commissioners believed that they would impede transport between the sea and the industries which were lying at the time as far west as Biddick.

Other historians believe that the sheer number of stones may indicate that a large dam existed in the area.

Hylton in Victorian times.

Hylton in Victorian times.

It would have flooded the River Wear and made its western reaches accessible as far as the Roman Fort which was based at Chester le Street.

Norman added: “Many of these stones were relocated to the north of the Old North pier, and are still in place today.

“Each huge block of sandstone, almost 4ft in length, bears a Lewis hole at its edges, a feature that often appears on Roman building blocks.”

The aim of them, said Norman, was to help in the lifting and placing of stones during the period of construction.

Some of the stones are to be found at Penshaw Monument, while others remain embedded in the river banks at Hylton.

Norman added: “The origin of the stones was examined many years ago by the Northern Archaeological Group, members of which are heavily involved in present-day operations.”

Recent work by Norman and fellow local historian Ian Stewart uncovered Roman coins, tools and even a tiny carving of a Roman God.

This led to a lottery bid being submitted by Councillor Denny Wilson and Castletown’s neighbourhood action group.

The success of that bid has meant that funding of almost £100,000 was available for archaeological and scientific research.

Norman told the Echo: “Digs will be undertaken this summer, beginning at South Hylton, and it is hoped that members of the public can visit the periphery of this site, where a marquee will be erected and information shared with interested parties.”

There will also be excavations and field walks in North Hylton, in which Castletown schoolchildren will be able to take part.

Norman said: “To finally solve the riddle of the Brigg Stones would be a wonderful achievement, and would add a new and exciting chapter to the history of the River Wear.

“What was the origin and purpose of hundreds of huge stone blocks at the Hylton riverside?

“They are far too big to be quayside construction or domestic dwellings, so were they indeed part of a river crossing or a dam?

“Perhaps, by the autumn we will have answers to these questions, and more.”

For more information on the project, along with dates of events and other information, visit the website sunderlands-forgotten-stones.com.

* Is there a part of Wearside’s history you would like us to feature? If so, get in touch by emailing chris.cordner@jpress.co.uk