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How did 2,000-year-old Roman bricks end up in Washington State?

In 1982 a collection of unusual bricks were found at Fort Vancouver in Washington state. It turns out they were made 2,000-years ago in Roman England and may have been transported to America in the early 19th century when being used as ballast in a supply ship belonging to the Hudson’s Bay Company.

Back in 1982, the bricks in question had been examined by an archaeologist named Karl Gurcke who specializes in the identification of bricks. “The only bricks that come near to matching this type in size are the so-called ‘Roman’ bricks,” Gurcke wrote in a report on excavations at Fort Vancouver. This suggested that the “type may indeed be Roman in origin,” and that they were “shipped over from England.”

Converse tested the presumed Roman bricks, using a process called neutron activation analysis, which allows scientists to determine the elemental components of a material. Bricks made from different clays and at different times show particular chemical signatures, so she could compare bricks from the Fort to bricks from Endland. “They tested very well like Roman bricks from England,” Bob Cromwell, an archaeologist at Fort Vancouver told me. “It is still a hypothesis, but the data is all pointing in that direction: the size and the elemental analysis compares very favorably with definitive Roman bricks.”

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Story: Alexis C. Madrigal, The Atlantic | Photo: Fort Vancouver Historical National Historic Site

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