Northgate step repairs reveal 2,000-year history

Archaeologists working on repairs to Chester’s historic walls at Northgate have made finds relating to Medieval and Roman gateways into the city, both previously unknown.

The early 19th century access steps leading up to the city walls were showing clear signs of structural instability and urgent repairs were needed. The steps had been propped since 2011 after surveys found the structure was moving.

Investigation work discovered that the steps were built over a soft Roman rampart and more solid foundations were needed. The steps are being dismantled and rebuilt on a new piled foundation to allow the existing propping to be removed.

During the controlled removal of the steps, archaeological remains have been exposed showing massive stone foundations thought to represent the remains of a Roman gate tower, one of a pair that once flanked the northern entrance to the Roman fortress. There is also evidence to suggest that timber gates and towers from the 1st century preceded the stone towers.

Evidence suggests that the Roman foundations that ran back at right angles from the current line of the city walls, were chopped through, recycled and incorporated into later fabric of the walls, possibly during the early 19th century. However, several courses of Roman gate tower masonry were left untouched, and sealed beneath the current steps.

The area of the North Gate is archaeologically a very sensitive location. On the spot once stood a main gateway to the Roman fortress. The subsequent medieval North Gate also housed a jail, demolished in 1808 and replaced with the current neo-classical structure in the early 19th century.

Cllr Louise Gittins, cabinet member for communities and well-being at Cheshire West & Chester Council, said: “Little is known about the four gates that were placed in each side of the Roman fortress, and any surviving evidence is considered vitally important for our understanding of this site.

“The foundations for the new steps will be designed to leave the important archaeological remains undisturbed.  Indeed, imaginative ways of displaying the Roman tower remains beneath the new structure are currently being explored.”

The repairs are being carried out by Earthworks Archaeology.

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