EARTH burrowing moles are responsible for digging up some of Roman Britain’s deepest secrets in a remote corner of West Northumberland.
They may be the bane of farmers across the land, but some moles are doing the human race a huge historical favour.
Epiacum, an isolated Roman fort close to the Cumbrian border 12 miles south of Hadrian’s Wall, is a scheduled ancient monument and as such, any excavation is banned on site.
But humans has never yet introduced any law understood by Mr Mole – and scores of them are churning up Roman artefacts at Epiacum – or Whitley Castle – as they push out their molehills.
Whitley Castle stands on 1,000-acre Castle Nook Farm, and yesterday a team of 37 volunteers, under the watchful eye of English Heritage, sieved through those molehills to see what our subterranean allies had brought up.
Among the finds were:
A quarter-inch-long piece of rare Samian ware, tableware known as the classic Roman ceramic discovery;
A number of pottery rim fragments from Roman serving bowls and earthenware pots;
A jet bead from a Roman necklace or bracelet.
“We’ve had a good day,” smiled farmer’s wife Elaine Edgar, who is heading plans to develop and promote the fort and this month landed a £49,200 Heritage Lottery grant to help her along.
“The Samian ware is the sort of thing the Romans used to keep up with the Joneses and we found a quarter-inch flat, round piece of it.
“Last year we found a small bronze dolphin-shaped piece which we believe to have been a tap-head from the wash-house. It was just lying there on the side of a molehill.
“We also found a number of nails, which settled the argument of whether the Romans used wood or stone for their buildings.
“And this year we have found some really nice pieces – even the weather was kind to us.”
All the molehill sites at Epiacum, two miles south of Slaggyford and near the Cumbrian border, were ‘gridded out’ 48 hours earlier in 10-metre squares with rods and tape.
“The moles are able to do what we humans are forbidden by law to do,” said Elaine, “and that is excavate on-site. As farmers we are not allowed to do anything that turns the land over.
“English Heritage had to be on site yesterday to make it legal for us even to sieve through the molehills.”
Paul Frodshaw from AONB - Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty – who is one of the four directors of newly-formed Epic Epiacum Ltd, took the Roman finds away in carefully-labelled bags last night to officially catalogue them.
But their ownership falls to Elaine and her husband John as landowners of 30 years.
Now Elaine hopes that she will eventually be able to display them in a display area on the eight-acre fort site.
“That would be my great wish,” she said last night. “I have high hopes, and it is only with the help of the moles that we have been able to find these remains.
“Perhaps we should get them some Roman helmets – then they would be real mighty moles.”