AT FIRST it seemed like many other archaeological digs, giving little more than a clouded glimpse into the past.
But the excavations have now provided a fascinating window on a Roman Sheffield that no one realised had ever existed.
Archaeologists who started the history project back in April in a field on the edge of Sheffield initially found traces left by Stone Age hunter-gatherers, but there were few surprises. Trenches yielded evidence of the foundations of medieval buildings and stone tools were also discovered.
However, the experts who arrived at Whirlow Hall Farm in the spring were soon to make a massive discovery when suddenly a whole new layer of history was unearthed. The decision to undertake a geophysical survey earlier this summer revealed what appeared to be a large, ditched enclosure.
Archaeologists told the Yorkshire Post at the time they suspected the site might be Iron Age or Romano-British. But yesterday they revealed that since then magnificent finds have confirmed the area is even more significant.
Speaking at the site, director Dr Clive Waddington said: “The realisation just came completely out of the blue. The enclosure is actually about 70 metres (230ft) square so it’s quite a big monument, and would have been home to a wide variety of activities.
“We have discovered Roman pottery and evidence of gatepost holders around the entrance which suggest it would have had large gates and would have been a big, complex site. The pottery we have discovered is from around Britain and there are also examples which would have been imported from Gaul, which is modern day France. This shows that the occupants weren’t just farmers but were also traders.
“The site lies alongside what was a packhorse route from Sheffield to Manchester, and the location of this farmstead suggests the route was also in use during the Roman period. It probably linked to a Roman road which ran from Manchester, to Hope in the Peak District and then down to Sheffield on its way to Doncaster.
“The people who lived here would have traded farm goods and produce with Roman travellers using the route. It conjures up a picture of the place being really busy and being used as a Roman trading post.”
Dr Waddington, of Derbyshire-based Archaeological Research Services, said the discovery was particularly exciting because at present there was little or no recorded evidence of this period in the Sheffield area.
Volunteers involved in the dig have also recently discovered what the experts believe may be Roman coins, but they have to be examined by specialists before a confirmation of their date can be made.
The archaeological project had been commissioned by the Whirlow Hall Farm Trust, a charity which runs the site as a city farm to encourage local children to learn about agricultural lifestyles and rural pursuits. Dr Waddington said that he had no idea that when it began that it would result in the discovery of such a “high status” and important Roman site.
About 100 volunteers have been involved in the dig so far, and although work on the first phase ended yesterday, it is now planned to extend the project, with further test pits planned for November. It is as yet unclear whether the people who lived on the farmstead were themselves of Roman origin or native Britons of the time although Dr Waddington said the evidence suggested they were Roman.
He said: “Initial assessment suggests the site dates from the second century AD, the period of Hadrian and Antoninus Pius, times when the Roman emperors were very interested in Britain. The discovery that the farmstead was so large and important came as a complete surprise because when you stand and look at this field there is nothing on the surface to suggest that there is anything like this.
“There have not been any Roman discoveries made anywhere in Sheffield for many, many years, and this is really helping to fill in that historical jigsaw and help flesh out what has been a poorly understood period.”
Dr Waddington said the latest discovery at has been a series of lead fragments, which suggest that there may also have been an industrial dimension to the site, which lies on the south-western edge of Sheffield.
Staff at the farm trust said that once the project was complete, all the findings would be used to create a heritage trail and a programme of heritage walks and talks.