Roman Britain

Forte or Fortissimo? Fort-itude on the Wall

Creating a slideshow on the Roman fort sites along Hadrian’s Wall this past weekend for the group that is hiking the wall in the spring started me wondering which site or sites I would choose as must-see and which ones I would pass by if I didn’t have the time.

Number one to see has to be Vindolanda. The artefacts in the Chesterholm Museum alone are worth the visit. And I haven’t been there since they updated the museum in 2011, so I think it might even be better now.

Replica Milestone at Vindolanda

Number two would be Chesters with its interesting museum and diversity of remains including the extensive bath house ruins.

Which sites could I go by without seeing again if I didn’t have the time? Probably Birdoswald, because it has the fewest ruins and the best parts of the wall there are outside the site.

And if time was tight in Newcastle, I might choose the Roman exhibit at the Great North Museum over Segedunum Roman fort.

Luckily for our group hiking along Hadrian’s Wall, the wall itself and its setting are the biggest attractions, especially between Walltown Crags and Housesteads Fort, and there will be no missing them.

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A Stone’s Throw

One September morning last year two older couples were enjoying their morning coffee at St. Swithin’s church in Lincoln, UK when I had to ask them to move. Problem was their little card table in the church hall was right beside a 2,000 year old Roman altar and I couldn’t get a good picture of it without disturbing them. They were very accommodating, though, even inviting me to join them for coffee.

To the Goddesses, the Fates and the Deities of Augustus Caius Antistius Frontinus, being curator for the third time, erects this altar at his own cost

People over the years, including the Romans themselves, recycled stones in later buildings. This altar, dedicated by Augustus Caius Antistius Frontinus, was reused in the fourth century for Lincoln’s East Wall and only discovered in the 1870s when St. Swithin’s was built. Other signs of recycling in Lincoln include Roman bricks in a cottage chimney and a Roman wall incorporated into a much later shop front.

Lincoln Cottage Chimney with Roman Bricks
Lincoln Shop with Roman Wall

I started thinking about the recycling of Roman stones when writing about Maryport on England’s west coast. Here the entire fort of Alauna, built in AD 120s, was dismantled in the 18th century to build the new town of Maryport. Thankfully at the time Colonel Humphrey Senhouse hired a man to record and rescue any inscribed or carved stonework, adding to a collection started by his ancestor John Senhouse in 1570. Today the Senhouse Roman Museum has the largest collection of Roman military altar stones and inscriptions in Britain.

All that remains of Alauna Fort

Another example is found in Caerwent, Wales, where inside the village church is a statue base with one of the most important inscriptions from Roman Britain, the Pulinus inscription. This early 3rd century dedication by Tiberius Claudius Paulinus, commander of the Second Augusta Legion, gives details about military and civilian careers, as well as civil administration in Roman Britain. It had been part of a post Roman building in the village.

All these moving stones are pieces in the puzzle of ancient history, and one never knows where they’ll turn up.

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Palma Non Sine Pulvere

Hadrian’s Wall along the crags

Over the weekend I put on a slideshow for a group who want to hike Hadrian’s Wall next spring. What struck me as I was putting it together was that most of the remains are in the hilly parts of the walk. The flat lands on either coast, from the west coast at Bowness-on-Solway and east of Carlisle to Walton, as well as west of Newcastle, have very few remains.

This makes sense once you think about it because over the centuries people would have taken the stones for building material from the parts of the wall where they were easiest to move, the flat parts. Also they would have used many more stones closest to the large settlements of Carlisle and Newcastle.

So to see the best remains – the forts at Birdoswald, Housesteads and Chesters, the many milecastles, turrets and Carrawburgh Mithras Temple, as well as seeing the stunning views of what is left of Hadrian’s Wall snaking along the craggy Whin Sill – our group will have to get in shape over the winter to do the necessary hiking up and down the hills of Cumbria and Northumberland to see the Roman footprints of Hadrian’s Wall.

Palma Non Sine Pulvere – No Reward Without Effort, as my old high school motto says.

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New Digs

Many sites of ancient Roman ruins lie frozen in time. Not in the time of the Romans, but at the time when they were excavated decades ago. Fortunately others have active excavations that continue to expand our knowledge of the Roman world.

Six years ago I made a quick visit to Hadrian’s Wall and saw both Housesteads Roman Fort and Vindolanda. When I visited them again last autumn, I found that Housesteads hadn’t changed at all but Vindolanda’s exposed remains had expanded considerably.

Vindolandais excavated every year by experts and volunteers. They have a unique program and anyone can apply to spend a week or two excavating at Vindolanda (

Other sites in Britain that are also experiencing a renaissance of excavation:

  • In Norfolk archaeologists are digging for three weeks this summer at the site of Venta Icenorumat Caistor-St-Edmund. When I visited this site four years ago, all that was visible were its earth covered walls. The excavations are open to the public until September 3, 2011 with a Family Day on Sunday, August 28th.
  • Archaeologists have been digging at Caerleonin Wales over the last year and have discovered the second known port of Roman Britain (the first one being in London). Here is a link to an article about this remarkable find that also includes a video with reconstructions of all of Caerleon’s Roman remains including the fort, amphitheatre and baths:
New Excavations at Vindolanda

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Welcome to Roman Britannia! Salvete Britanniae!

Rutupiae Monument Base

Richborough Fort, which the Romans called Rutupiae, was the gateway to Roman Britain. Its history began in AD 43 with the invasion force led by the emperor Claudius. This May I explored Richborough which is near Dover in the county of Kent.
Rutupiae began as a base marching camp for Claudius’ conquest of the island. During the Roman occupation of Britain the site developed from a military base to a civilian town and harbour and then in the third century AD a stone Saxon Shore fort was built here.
Model of Gateway to Britannia Monument

Rutupiae was the main port into Britannia from the English Channel and one of the things I discovered visiting the site was that the Romans built a huge monumental archway that could be seen for miles as the physical gateway into Roman Britain. Built in AD 85, this monument was covered in white Carrara marble from Italy and bronze statues. It stood 86 feet high. All that remains of it now is the foundation.

Defensive Ditches at Richborough

The large grass-covered ditches that dominate Richborough are also striking and unusual. It is uncommon for fort defensive ditches to be left exposed after excavation. They date from the third century fort.
Other nearby Roman sites in Kent worth visiting are Reculver Roman Fort, the Roman Lighthouse (pharos) in Dover Castle and the Roman Painted House in Dover.

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High Up Hardknott

How high could it be I thought? England has no real mountains (not like the mountains where I come from). And the trek up Hardknott Pass started gently enough, with its views of heather-covered hills and babbling brooks, lulling me into a false sense of “just another Roman fort”. After a week of visiting many forts along Hadrian’s Wall, Hardknott needed to be special to impress me.

But soon the country lane turned into a single track mountain road with hairpin turns and what seemed like nearly vertical grades. Near the top, if the cars coming down didn’t give way then I’m not sure we could have got the car going again once we stopped.

Mediobogum or Hardknott Roman Fort sits on a ridge of undulating ground at 800 feet above sea level, not too far from the top of the pass. The views from the site are spectacular to say the least. No the pass isn’t as high as those where I come from but it is impressive and unexpected.

And perched on hills and in fields around the fort, were herds of Herdy (Herdwicke) sheep. Those incredibly cute Lake District sheep start out life as black lambs with white faces and become grey as they age. Their faces are truly adorable.

For quick facts about the fort’s remains and history, go to Hardknott Fort.


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