Wall Mile 31 [HB 215 and 224]
Carrawburgh fort (BROCOLITIA) [HB 216–23]
If you have the time and inclination, note that it is possible to enter Carrawburgh fort via a stile next to the car park. It is mostly humps and bumps inside (as a former boss of English Heritage once helpfully classified archaeology), but with a little imagination you should be able to envisage the layout, and – aside from the outlines of old excavation trenches, particularly around the HQ building – the remains of an excavated turret can be seen on the western side of the fort.
Carrawburgh (pronounced Carra-Bruff) is 5.6km (3.5 miles) from Chesters (pronounced Chesters) and is one of the forts that sits astride the Wall, rather than attached to the rear or even detached. Occupying 1.6ha (3.9 acres), it was constructed after the Vallum, the course of which runs under it. It was garrisoned by the cohors I Aquitanorum in the 2nd century and other units attested include the cohortes I Cugernorum, I Frisiavonum, and I Tungrorum (the last of which was milliary, so only a detachment would have fitted in). Cohors I Batavorum was recorded in the 3rd and 4th centuries.
There is little to see of the fort, although its platform is still prominent, but the mithraeum outwith the fort in the civil settlement is on display.We need to follow the path down the outside of the eastern fort defences, turn right and head down the hill until the small fenced enclose containing the temple heaves into view.
The mithraeum [HB 219–22]
When excavated, the waterlogged conditions preserved many organic remains that have enabled a detailed reconstruction to be built in the former Museum of Antiquities, now recreated with the video display we have already seen in the Great North Museum, both in Newcastle. On site, the organic components have been cast in concrete, which is also the medium employed for the replica statuary and altars.
Designed to mimic a cave and produce what excitable marketing types would probably call ‘an immersive experience’ these days, devotees entered at the south end of this small quasi-apsidal building, encountering a diminutive lobby or vestibule, separated from the rest of the interior by a wooden screen. Beyond the screen were two wicker-lined benches, one on either side, attended by Mithras’ familiar torch-bearing companions Cautes and Cautopates (the former with his torch held upwards, the latter downwards). Cautes has lost his head, but of poor old Cautopates, only the feet remain. At the northern end, there are three altars, dedicated by commanders of the cohors I Batavorum. The one on the left incorporates a nice little effect, whereby the radiate crown of Mithras has been pierced, enabling a lamp to be placed behind it for some minimalistic visual trickery. Evidence of what went on in here includes burnt pine cones, a chicken’s head, and bones from pork, lamb, and more chickens: obviously somebody’s idea of a fun night out in the vicus. The whole thing was thoroughly trashed in the 4th century AD and it is speculated that Christians may have been responsible.
Mithraism was an elitist cult (the temple could only accommodate twelve so it was obviously not meant for the common soldiery), with a strict hierarchy that mimicked the army’s rank structure, and a series of ordeals beloved of such institutions.
Immediately outside the entrance at the western end of the mithraeum was another small shrine, dedicated to the nymphs (unsurprising, given the presence of so much water in the vicinity) and the genius loci (literally ‘spirit of the place’). There was also a bath-house on this side of the fort, excavated by Clayton but not now visible… well, in fact, to be brutally honest, it is currently ‘lost’ (he published a plan but omitted to relate it to the fort).
Leaving the mithraeum, we cross a stile and a stream, then follow the path to the right. The stream issues from Coventina’s Well, which is stioll discernible is an extremely boggy portion off to the right of the path (between us and the imposing ramparts of the fort) and the section with a pond in the middle of it is in fact the site of the shrine itself. Coventina was a local water nymph and, when it was excavated in 1876, the site produced vast amounts of coins (more than 13,000; some were melted down and cast into a bronze eagle – must have seemed like a good idea at the time) as well as other votive material, some of which we saw in Chesters museum, and is characteristic of the Celto-Roman veneration of water deities.
Our next re-crossing of the Military Road is about to occur, so keep a sharp lookout since they drive fast around these parts, as you already know, and the crossing point is at the bottom of the dip.
Once on the other side, it is a gentle climb along the upcast mound of the ditch until we reach Carraw Farm, where we are diverted off to the north (this bit can get a bit plodgy) and then back round and onto the upcast mound again, north of the ditch. Soon, unmarked by any ceremony, we arrive at the position of Milecastle 32.
Milecastle 32 (Carraw) [HB 224; haiku]
Don’t bother looking for it, as it is on the other side of the road (remember: the Military Road sits on top of the curtain wall, so the milecastle is south of that), but it survives as a low earthwork, was of the long-axis type, and was excavated in 1971.