Twin guardians of
A road, Matfen Piers are still
A northern gateway.
The Corbridge Hoard
In 1964, the Durham/Newcastle University training excavation at Corbridge revealed one of the most important finds to come from Northern Britain (no hyperbole here, of course… well, not much): a large wooden chest containing a variety of objects. In many respects, despite its final publication in 1988, it remains a forgotten treasure. Certainly, one of its components – some sets of articulated Roman plate armour – went on to become very famous and provide the basis for countless reconstructions of the type of defence known as ‘lorica segmentata‘ (the name is a 16th-century invention coined to describe this type of armour where it was depicted on Trajan’s Column in Rome). However the other finds have tended to get overlooked, possibly because there was no precious metal, so let’s try and redress the balance a little with this Brief Guide to the Corbridge Hoard.
M for mineralisation
The natural sands and gravels of the river terrace at Corbridge are not very conducive to organic survival, under normal circumstances, but the huge amount of ferrous material in the Corbridge Hoard allowed something akin to fossilisation to take place, affecting the box and all its contents. This is mineralisation, whereby the cell structure of the organic components was replaced by minerals leached from the corroding iron and steel. Thus things that do not normally survive in the archaeological record without anaerobic conditions (wood, leather, feathers and so on) were found in the Hoard.
Analysis showed that the box containing the Hoard had been made of alder wood, a species that normally grows in damp areas and typically the sort of timber cleared for a riverside site like Corbridge. Thus it is possible this was constructed when this (or conceivably another) fort was first built (the first fort at Carlisle was partly built from alder). The planks of the chest were carefully dovetailed at the corners and it had clearly been more than just a crate in its heyday: it was covered in leather, hinting at a degree of luxury. It was 0.88m long and 0.58m wide and up to 0.41m high. The chest was hinged, had a lock plate, and had iron reinforcements on each corner.
The armour was painstakingly pieced together by Charles Daniels and its interpretation aided by collaboration with Henry Russell Robinson of the Tower of London Armouries. Every re-enactor wearing ‘lorica segmentata‘ today owes them a great debt of gratitude. Consisting of six non-matching top units in three pairs and three equally disparate lower pairs, it is a curious mix (more for what it implies about the missing halves than what is actually there). Frequently repaired in the past it was in the process of being cannibalised again. Quite apart from allowing us to understand the structure of this type of armour, it is an exquisitely frank document of combat, vicious, brutal, and prolonged.
The chest contained several bundles of spearheads, tied together with cord, fragments of their wooden shafts still in the sockets. Again, these were weapons that had been broken in combat and were in need of re-shafting.
A saw, a pickaxe, a chisel, a crow-bar, shears, and a knife were included in the Hoard, along with a variety of nails and carpentry fittings. These are all the sort of things that would be found in a workshop.
The writing tablets and papyrus
Everybody knows of the wooden ink writing tablets from Vindolanda, but there were re-usable wax tablets from there too and the Corbridge Hoard also contained some of the latter. Of even more interest were the tiny fragments of papyrus, hinting at long-vanished bureaucracy on a foreign medium.
The feathers were a curious addition. Do they represent cushions or perhaps plumes from helmets? We have no way of knowing and can only note the rich variety of material stowed within this chest.
The other stuff
A large tankard, a scapula (possibly modified as a scoop), a pulley, an uneven number of gaming counters, and a crusie (a wrought iron lamp holder, virtually identical to 19th-century examples) were amongst the numerous odds and end that seem to have been thrown into the box.
Examination of the stratigraphy of the find showed that it had been buried at the end of occupation of either the second or third phase of occupation (AD 122–38) and thus belonged within the Hadrianic period. In this respect, the signs of combat amongst the material within the Hoard are intriguing and later matched by finds of the same period from Carlisle, as we shall see.
What was it for? Our best guess is that it was a selection of stuff (junk would be too harsh a word, although probably quite near the mark) hanging around in a workshop awaiting repair or re-use. Then, when the time came to abandon the fort, it was simply buried to save having to take it away and keep the raw materials from falling into the hands of an enemy.
It will soon be the 50th anniversary of the discovery of the Hoard and English Heritage have just mounted a new display of the items from the chest in July 2012, including film footage shot by Charlie Anderson during the excavation.
To find out more about Roman Corbridge and enjoy your personalised (and not-too-unfriendly) tour of the site, see the sections of the blog dealing with the buildings north of the Stanegate, the eastern legionary compound, and the western legionary compound.
Between the two legionary compounds is a a street running north to south and this is of huge significance for a number of reasons. First, it is on the line of the via praetoria (the main street) of the early forts: stand on it and look to the north and you will see the remains of the shrine of the standards of the last of those forts, retained as a workman’s hut in the middle of Site 11 by its constructors. So the heart of Roman Corbridge, the junction between this street and the Stanegate, was also the focal point of the earlier forts: the groma, which was quite literally the point from which the first fort was originally surveyed (using an instrument called – you guessed it – the groma).
Now the Roman army had a tradition, which was that when they set out a camp, fort, or fortress, the via praetoria would always either face the enemy or face east. Most of the Hadrian’s Wall forts face north, except Housesteads which, because of the awkward terrain, had to be shoehorned into place by making it face east. Corbridge, on the other hand, always faced south. Moreover, it was not alone; its twin site, Carlisle, also faced south, as recent excavations have demonstrated. This is an important point in any discussion of the Stanegate as a frontier system and one to which we shall return.
We have commented on the subsidence into the fort ditches that lie under the east compound and the same phenomenon is visible to the west. It is also just visible to either side of the road where the ditch terminals were situated, and excavation by Ian Richmond and Eric Birley just to the north of these, on the west side of the street near one of the water tanks (and deep beneath the modern surface), found the remains of one of the gate posts from the earliest fort.
Later, that same street, broadened considerably, went on to divide the two legionary compounds. There is small joke here, because the two compounds faced each other, thereby making it quite plain where each legionary detachment thought the ‘enemy’ lay!
The Western legionary compound
The gateway into the western compound lies opposite its companion to the east, but immediately north of it lies an apsidal building (Site 40), slightly recessed into the line of the east wall of the compound. In fact, close inspection reveals that the compound wall butts against the other structure, clearly showing that it already existed and had had to be accommodated by the compound when it was constructed. Let’s mosey over and have a look at it. There is an apse at its western end and an entrance to the east. Outside that entrance, on the street, is a small portico marked by four column bases. Richmond and Birley thought that this was a schola or military guild building (trendy, remember?), but it is equally possible that it was in fact a small temple. With the recent discovery of a Dolichenum within the stone fort at Vindolanda, we know temples could be included within forts. The corresponding respect shown for this structure at Corbridge may indicate that it too had some ritual significance. When it was first excavated, back in 1912, a strange series of channels was identified under the floor: the mystery only deepens.
Within the compound gateway and to the south lie the northernmost extremities of a set of structures (Site 40S), again originally excavated before the First World War and now mostly reburied. They are, however, mirrored (and better preserved) to the north of the road, so let us examine those. These buildings (Site 40N) resemble miniature cavalry barracks, aligned north to south, broad at either end and narrow in the middle, and set in pairs, back-to-back. Richmond and Birley called these Workshops I to IV (numbering from the east), a designation heavily influenced by what they found inside: massive amounts of metalworking debris (in particular smithing, with large numbers of arrowheads and pilum points discovered). It is worth remembering something archaeologists often forget: the function of a site need not always have been the same, the last one usually leaving the most obvious traces. So whilst they may indeed have been workshops in the final, united, compound, it does not necessarily follow that that was their initial intended purpose in the western legionary compound. Indeed, the fact that they resemble miniature barrack blocks may just give a clue to that original function.
A large water tank lay to the south of the westernmost of these barracky workshops, its vast upright slabs originally caulked with lead to make it waterproof, and then we come face-to-face with another miniature legionary headquarters building (Site 45), since we have arrived at the groma of this compound. Like its companion to the east, which it faces, this building has no courtyard but just a cross-hall and a series of three offices to the rear. The central room was the shrine of the standards and a staircase led down from it to the south, into the underground strongroom. Your mileage on whether you are allowed down into this may vary (sometimes it floods) and it is often fussily surrounded by a rope barrier (a health-and-safety precaution, to avoid the massive numbers of people who fell into it in preceding years; site staff were forever having to shovel corpses out of it*). The steps are very narrow so need care negotiating them, but once down in the base you can inspect the careful stonework and just make out that the topmost level of facing stones is in fact slightly corbelled because, just like the example at Chesters, this strongroom was originally vaulted. The entrance way jambs consist of two massive monolithic slabs, a technique we see used in buildings at Chesters too. Here would be kept the soldiers’ savings and their pay (which were probably often one and the same thing, due to one of those accounting sleights-of-hand that any banker performs with money by ensuring that much of it is always theoretical and existing only in record form). In its final form, the HQ building was given an apse to the rear of the shrine of the standards and (bizarrely) a bath wing to the north.
We can now head up to the south-west corner of the archaeological site and look back over this western compound. Its wall snakes around the military structures and again carefully avoids pre-existing structures to the north, one of which (Site 4) was found to contain large amounts of pottery during excavation in 1906, thereby earning it the nickname ‘the pottery shop’ ever after. Both compound walls were symbolic, rather than defensive, and recall a similar wall that divided the military area of the garrison city of Dura-Europos in Syria from the (much larger) civilian part. At Corbridge, not only were civilians and legionaries being kept apart, the two legionary detachments were segregated too! Inscriptions to harmony (concordia) between the legionary detachments here are classic indicators of its absence on occasion whilst a statue base to the Discipline of the Emperors (discipulina Augustorum), found tumbled down the stairs of that strongroom, may also be indicative of behavioural difficulties amongst the legionaries. Ultimately, the model of two separate legionary compounds was changed, a new uniting wall built across the street between the compounds, and much of the old compound walls demolished to turn it into one vast military zone, with Site 45 as its HQ.
Having looked at the site we can now head for the museum and look at some of the goodies on display. before entering, note the headless stone lion at is southern end. This is one of the Shorden Brae lions, vandalised a few years ago, when its head was knocked off and stolen.
The museum not only contains the usual material detritus of any archaeological site (pottery, metalwork, glass) in admirable qualities (and what is on display is only a tiny proportion of what has been found), but there is also the inscriptions and sculpture, most of which was re-used as hardcore by the Romans, mainly to build up the Stanegate. The inscriptions help make the point of the importance of Corbridge as a military site, with the granary slabs recording construction by Lollius Urbicus prior to advancing into Scotland, the Sol Invictus stone, and various building records from the units based here. Examine the rich selection of sculpture, most of it religious in nature and including the most famous of the Coridge lions, and then finish by exploring the shopportunity (which, like most English Heritage properties these days, has a disconcertingly large alcoholic section: are EH attempting to turn the middle classes into lushes?).
In Part IV, we will finish with Corbridge by examining hordes, hoards, and the Hoard.
*This is of course a joke; the casualty rate is comparatively low.
Although the fort at Corbridge was demolished in the middle of 2nd century AD this was far from the end of a military presence. Detachments of two of the British legions (probably legiones VI Victrix and XX Valeria Victrix in the first instance) were installed in separate compounds to the south of the Stanegate and we are now going to turn our attention to the eastern legionary compound.
The first thing to note is the curious rippling effect caused by subsidence into the ditches of the earliest fort on the site. These ditches were actually examined by Ian Richmond and John Gillam in three separate locations and found to have a high organic content, which appears to have compacted with time (although the fact that drains were constructed across them suggests the subsidence did not occur until after construction, possibly even long after abandonment of the site). For many years it was said that the site had slumped either side of a buried road, but structures built over old roads on the natural sand and gravel subsoil elsewhere on the site do not normally behave in this way.
Starting at the eastern extremity, the compound wall foundation can be seen snaking its way around structures, carefully avoiding some strip buildings south of the Stanegate (Site 44 and the ‘temples’). The function of these structures is uncertain, whilst the circular feature within Site 44 is both striking and mysterious: it was neither an oven (no burning) nor a well (it had a base).
At one point, the compound wall incorporates part of an earlier wall, which it crosses, and this is all that can be seen of military structures that post-dated the fort but pre-dated the compound; we can say little more than that it was there, but it may indicate a brief intermediate phase in the 2nd century before the legionaries moved in. Within the complex known as Site 43, the easternmost building is apsidal and was identified as a schola (a sort of military club): it has to be understood that scholae were once trendy amongst Roman army scholars and anything that was not understood ran the risk of being identified as such.
Next to it was a small rectangular building identified as a latrine, and then south of that was a larger structure that, intriguingly, has a tale of exotic lands to tell. This building also incorporates an apse, but is identifiable as a headquarters building (the apse being the shrine of the standards). On either side of that apse are the rear range of rooms, and then west of that is the cross-hall. However, this HQ building has no courtyard and that is a feature known from Eastern buildings of this kind and may suggest familiarity with the East on the part of its builders. It also recalls the wars in that part of the Empire during the 2nd century, participation by British troops, and the inscriptions (like the famous Sol Invictus inscription) that indicate similar interests. Another apsidal structure is tucked into the south-east corner of the site, but the compound actually extended some way down the hill: we know this from both pre-WW1 excavations and evidence from aerial photography, since the compound wall is very distinctive.
In front of the HQ building is a street leading to the eastern compound gate which we can identify as its via praetoria. The next structure to the west of the HQ is a larger rectangular building that the excavators identified as a workshop (Site 42), and then an even larger one (Site 41) thought to be a store. Beyond that is a much larger and very complex structure (Site 39) that can just about be interpreted as originally having been two officers’ houses, similar to (but smaller than) the tribunes’ houses found in legionary bases. This building even included a pottery kiln in a later phase of its life, but originally there is no doubting its role as officers’ housing.
The foundations of the eastern compound wall are easy to trace, but it is interesting that much of it has been razed to the ground and this happened in the 4th century when the two legionary compounds were united as one with a new, shared wall, and this allowed the demolition of the walls and gates that separated them.
At the western end of the eastern compound, next to the main north–south street (in fact the old via praetoria of the forts), the demolished remains of the compound gate can be seen.
In Part III, we shall explore the western compound.
The idea for a milecastle haiku (just one, initially) came in 2011, whilst walking the Wall from west to east with a group from Andante Travels. I make it a regular treat to stop off at Vallum Farm ice cream parlour and, in conversation, for some reason the subject of writing a haiku about it came up as we reached Matfen Piers, the site of Milecastle 19. I set to seeing if I could do it and, by the time we had reached the location of Milecastle 18 (at Vallum Farm), I was amazed to find I had made a passable stab at it. Later, as I was deciding how to follow on from my initial tweeting and blogging of a west to east Wall walk, one of the many ideas I came up with was writing haiku for each of the milecastles, this time going east to west. I am no poet (prose is my weapon of choice) but the idea intrigued me enough to lodge firmly in one of the less dusty corners of my brain. Each, I felt, should hint at the account already blogged, but each would also tie in with a further project I am currently working on which, when put together, will produce something rather special. The blog will be posted in a sort of omnibus edition once a week, containing the past seven haiku and at the end of it all will conclude with a competition, so pay careful attention. The prize is undecided as yet, but you will be relieved to know it will probably not be a book of my awful haiku!