Corbridge, along with Carlisle, is one of the pivotal sites of northern Roman Britain. It is near Hadrian’s Wall, but not part of it; it is south of the frontier with Caledonia, but always looked beyond it. And when Q. Lollius Urbicus set out to subdue that northern region, he seems to have started from Corbridge.
You will see it called many things (Corstopitum, Coriosopitum, Coria), but the name that seems to be endorsed by the Vindolanda writing tablets is Coria (which means a hosting place, an apt term for the junction of two roads by a river; remember, the Romans did not invent roads in Britain, they merely engineered them to be all-weather).
It is also crucial in the development of British archaeology, with the involvement of Francis Haverfield, the Father of Roman Britain as he was often called, and the training of some of the later big names in the discipline: the future Chief Inspector of Ancient Monuments, J. P. Bushe-Fox, began as a supervisor on the first campaign of excavations there, working with Robert Forster (who was a rowing partner of his brother). Fox it was who called in Eric Birley to supervise the clearance of the site in the 1930s, after it had been given to the nation, which developed into the second major campaign of excavations on the site. Ian Richmond became involved and work continued into the early years of the Second World War, but it was not until after the war that the major series of training excavations got under way, lasting up until the early 1970s. There was rescue excavation too: when the A69 bypass was put in and the new site museum constructed. Nevertheless, what we know of Roman Corbridge is derived from only a tiny proportion of its total area.
So, with that by way of introductory background, it is time to begin our virtual visit to the Roman site at Corbridge. Enter the museum but go straight out onto the site and leave the museum until later; everything should make more sense by then (you might also think in terms of suspension of gratification or cherries/icing on top of buns/cake).
In this first part, we shall consider the structures to the north of the Stanegate.
At the heart of the English Heritage site as you now see it lies the original forts which are, paradoxically, barely visible now. The first was the largest and they lasted from around AD85 to about AD163 and were replaced by two novel, walled, military compounds, each containing a detachment from one of the British legions. The stone granaries from the last fort were retained, presumably to supply the legionaries, since they were also walled off and these are the first thing you see as you venture onto the site.
Like all Roman military granaries, they have a raised floor with ventilated underfloor area; the hatchway at the south end of the west granary (Site 10) is clearly visible (it was blocked when first excavated but the blocking is long gone). Each had a raised loading platform at the south end, but the continual raising of the level of the Stanegate meant these ultimately became inaccessible: the awkward gap between granaries and road was Roman, not modern. The east granary (Site 7) still has an intact mullion in one of its ventilator slots (although the lintel above it has been replaced, ‘borrowed’ from elsewhere on the building).
Next to the granaries are the remains of the fountain house (Site 8) of the aqueduct. This was built after the forts had been levelled, the aqueduct swerving around the fort bath-house on its way to the site from the north (the water was drawn off the Cor Burn north of the A69). The legio XX Valeria Victrix proudly proclaimed their part in constructing the feature (and perhaps with it the aqueduct) and its significance should not be overlooked, for this is just one sign of a deliberate attempt at the urbanisation of Corbridge. Forts did not have prominent aqueducts and terminal fountain houses: towns did.
Tucked away behind the granaries and next to the aqueduct is Site 12, a strip-house of no great significance, other than it was here in 1908 that a hoard of forty-eight gold solidi from the late 4th century AD (probably some time after AD 383) were found. If gold is your thing then these should ding your bell; personally I find a box full of rust far more interesting (and informative), as we shall see.
To the east of the fountain house is situated one of the most unusual (and, so far, unique) buildings of Roman Britain: Site 11. A near-square courtyard structure, with ranges of rooms on four sides, it bears a close resemblance in plan to the Halifax Piece Hall and may well have been intended to have stairs in each corner. Its model may have been the Macellum Magnum built by Nero in Rome. Whatever it was intended to be, however, it was never completed, for the ambitious plans for Corbridge appear to have changed and only the west and south wings were finished. When it was found, the archaeologists bickered over its interpretation (Haverfield thought it a legionary headquarters building, Forster a forum).
Finally, to either side of this magnificent range of structures, there were ordinary strip houses of the sort you could find on most Romano-British settlements: Site 9 to the west (now replaced by the museum building) and Site 20 to the east, at the edge of the modern site.
So much for what you can see. What is no longer visible is the underlying military history. Both Site 9 and Site 20 lie directly over the ramparts of the cohort-sized fort that succeeded the earliest, larger fort. The courtyard of Site 11 contains (to the west) part of the headquarters building of the fort (the shrine of the standards to be exact), preserved because it was used as a builders’ hut during the construction of the massive courtyard building, and part of the commanding officer’s house. The post-war training excavations concentrated on looking beneath Site 11 and attempting to untangle the sequence of four forts: Phase I (the largest, c.AD86-103); Phase II (c.AD105-22); Phase III (c.AD122-38); and the first stone fort (c.AD139-63).
In the next part, we shall examine the area south of the Stanegate, then finally we can think about the Corbridge Hoard, a forgotten treasure of Roman Britain.