Moles unearth Roman artefacts at Epiacum's ancient fort

Epiacum Roman fort remains Epiacum's impressive earthwork defences are still visible to this day

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Epiacum is a site full of buried treasure, which no-one can reach - no-one human at least.

Near Alston in Cumbria, close to the Northumberland border, where now there are fields, there was once a thriving Roman fort.

Unfortunately for archaeologists, they cannot access any of the historic artefacts beneath the ground - because the site is a scheduled ancient monument.

Moles, however, pay no heed to the land's protected status.

The velvety creatures have not only been digging up the earth, but doing their bit for archaeology by inadvertently pushing ancient objects to the surface.

Paul Frodsham, an archaeologist with the North Pennines Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB), runs a project called Altogether Archaeology, which has signed up 500 volunteers to take part in digs under professional supervision.

'Bigger vision'

Fifty of those have taken part in an effort to sift through the molehills at Epiacum and keep a record of what the animals dig up and where.

Nature's tunnellers

  • Moles can dig up to 20m (66ft) of tunnel per day
  • They create nests by lining large chambers within the tunnel system with dry grass
  • They feed mainly on earthworms, but also eat other invertebrates and even reptiles
  • They can be found anywhere with soil deep enough for tunnelling, including deciduous woodland, grassland and farmland

Source: BBC Nature

"I realise it sounds a bit ridiculous, but it's actually quite serious," Mr Frodsham said.

"We look at all the finds and we work out what's going on in different parts off the fort and different kinds of pottery tell us what dates different buildings are."

He stressed the work must be done with the permission of English Heritage.

As well as fragments of pottery and glass, the moles have dragged up some attractive and intact artefacts.

A molehill recently pushed up a piece of Samian ware - a type of brown pottery common on Roman sites - thought to be a stand for a vase or bowl, or possibly an egg cup.

Last year they discovered a jet bead and a decorative bronze dolphin.

Elaine Edgar, who with her husband owns a farm on the land, is trying to promote the site as a tourist attraction as part of an 18-month project, funded by a £49,000 lottery grant.

Mrs Edgar said she had run a series of events as part of the project, which had attracted higher than expected numbers and she had received "fantastic support".

But she expressed mixed feelings about the subterranean creatures that were playing their own part.

"Moles are the bane of landowners' lives," she said.

Volunteers sifting through molehills Volunteers have been sifting through molehills to locate hidden artefacts

"They're up there all the time digging away on the land and my husband generally wants to get rid of them."

For the time being though, they are serving an important purpose.

"I'd like them to uncover as much as they can for the foreseeable future, until we can hopefully do an organised dig somewhere on the fort," Mrs Edgar said.

"We're looking towards our bigger vision, which is to establish a fully-fledged visitor centre on the farm."


The fort dates back to about the 2nd Century AD, when it is thought the Romans wanted to control lead and silver mining in the north of England.

The history of Epiacum

  • The Romans established a fort there probably in the 2nd Century AD, around the same time Hadrian's Wall was built
  • It is thought they abandoned it sometime in the 4th Century
  • The fort had a distinctive rhomboid shape to adapt to the spur on which it was built
  • It underwent minor excavations in about 1810 and 1957, but is now a scheduled ancient monument and cannot be dug

Source: English Heritage

The Romans maintained a military presence there until the 4th Century, when they seem to have abandoned the fort.

A recent English Heritage survey also revealed there was an extensive civilian settlement, or vicus, beyond the ramparts.

There have only been two recorded digs of Epiacum, in about 1810 and 1957, covering small areas of the 100-sq-m site.

Despite such limited excavation, the foundations of the Roman buildings are still visible.

There are four rings of earthwork defences, which Mr Frodsham described as "spectacular".

"From that point of view, it's one of the best-preserved forts anywhere in the empire," he said.

But, it seems, only the moles know the true extent of its treasures.

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