Corbridge (Part III)

The Street

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).

Corbridge Via Praetoria

Corbridge: the via praetoria of the early forts

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.

Site 40, the apsidal building

Site 40, the apsidal building

Site 40S

Site 40S

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.

Site 40N, Workshops I–IV

Site 40N, Workshops I–IV

Strongroom of Site 45

Strongroom of Site 45

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.

The junction between the unifying and west compound walls

The junction between the unifying and west compound walls

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.

The museum

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.

A Corbridge lion

A Corbridge lion

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.

The PLV eboojs

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