There is much evidence to suggest that as early as 80AD, a Roman fort existed besides the River Derwent, at Little Chester, which the Romans called Derventio. Archaeological excavations of the site revealed that the defences of the fort were rectangular in shape, enclosing an estimated area of seven acres, being surrounded by two deep ditches placed 100 ft apart. A clay rampart was later added, and later still the site was reinforced with a thick stone wall some 10ft to 15ft high.
The playing field and car-park at the junction of City Road and old Chester Road is probably where the main headquarters building stood. it is also thought that several other buildings occupied the site, including an infirmary, an armoury and other smaller units making the whole site of Little Chester self-sufficient.
Past Excavations at the Little Chester
Although no inscriptions have yet been found at Little Chester, there are references from other ancient sources where the later name Derbentione, appears between Lutudarum and Salinac in a seventh-century town listings (the Ravenna Cosmography). The only indication as to how many soldiers were stationed on the site lies in the size of the fort, which covered seven acres and therefore had to have housed one of the bigger auxiliary forts. The largest cavalry units (Alla Milliaria), meaning a thousand horsemen, was believed to be stationed in Britain, at Stanwix, on Hadrian’s Wall. The unit appearing to be most suitably placed at Little Chester would have been a Cohors Equitata Milliaria, which consisted of ten centuries of infantry, and in total five of these units were stationed in Britain.
Much of the site at Little Chester has been excavated, although there is almost certainly a great deal yet to be uncovered. Some interesting finds, however, have surfaced at the site, amongst which is a grindstone block, crudely carved in the shape of a shrine containing within it the nude figure of a horned man. This was found in the last century by a gardener digging near the River Derwent. This grindstone block, known as the Mercury Stone, has so far been the only carving found at the site, and although originally the figure was thought to represent the Roman god, Mercury, it is now believed to be the horned god of the Brigantes whose cult became combined with that of the Roman deity. The Mercury Stone is at present on display, at Derby Museum and Art Gallery. The carved stone figure is also believed by many to represent a horned god of fertility, worshipped by ancient pagans and still held sacred by modern-day witches.
Mysterious grave patterns and rituals
In November 1978, a burial ground was discovered when trees and undergrowth were being removed by bulldozers on the Racecourse Playing Fields. This ancient graveyard is believed to have existed on the east side of the encampment as Roman law stated that no burials, except those of young children, were allowed within town. Other burial grounds were also uncovered on the Racecourse. One particular grave site, containing both inhumations and cremations, had unusual features: several of the interments had been mutilated prior to or whilst being buried; the left hand of one had been severed; others had been decapitated and in several cases the heads had been placed between the knees; two others had been buried face down.
The reason for these strange rites at the time of burial perhaps dates back to an old superstitious belief concerning witches and dark sorcery. When a dead person was believed to have been a witch or black magician, or in any way connected with magic and witchcraft, it was the custom to bury them face down or remove their head in order that they should not rise from the grave and haunt the living.
Another grave site, not far from where the mutilated remains were found, consisted of three male bodies, one of which was found to have two coins placed upon him. These coins were probably placed there in the belief that they would be accepted by the deity Charon, whose job it was to ferry the souls of the dead across the dark waters of the River Styx on their journey to the Underworld.
Haunted buildings and Ghosts at Chester Green
Many buildings at Chester Green, especially those buildings close to the remains of the excavated Roman encampment, are known to be haunted. One interesting story comes from a lady who lives in a house whose history probably dates back to a time when part of the building was used for storage by the Romans, Although the ghost has not made a personal appearance he, or she, has manifested themselves in other ways. The ghost frequently clears away household rubbish, closes opened curtains in the living room, and has been known on several occasions to wash dirty crockery, much to the appreciation of the owner.
Another instance, seemingly more frightening, is the appearance of a spectre which is said to resemble a Roman centurion. One Derby man claims to have seen this figure one dark, foggy winter’s evening whilst walking home from work. “The ghost,” I was informed, ‘Just glared at me with very large eyes.” This gentleman went on to state that he had not waited about to question the apparition but had hurried home to the waiting comfort of his front room and a stiff drink.
Hauntings and Ghosts
Many times over the last decade, I have received requests from people living in the Chester Green area, who have asked me to investigate a haunting that they feel they might have. Several of these people had indeed disturbed forces within their homes, whilst others were perhaps suffering from over-active imaginations.
Other ghosts have been seen in the area, including a whole regiment of Roman soldiers, seen and heard marching one night near the River Derwent. The apparition of a ghostly child with snow-white hair has been observed near the site of a Roman well. One lady who has lived in the area for many years claims that the area of Little Chester has always had the reputation of being haunted by sinister things. This lady also claims that since excavations have been carried out in the area in 1978, even more ghosts have been seen. She further stated that the excavations has disturbed spirits which should be best left untroubled, in their final resting places.
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