Another Wall Face: Robert H Forster


A new exhibition is currently (21 August to 9 November 2014) running along the length of Hadrian’s Wall. Wall Face uses portraits of antiquarians and archaeologists involved with the Roman Wall to provide a personal perspective on its study. The rather interesting concept it embodies is a distributed exhibition, with components hosted at different venues within the Hadrian’s Wall part of the Frontiers of the Roman Empire World Heritage Site. To see the whole exhibition you simply have to visit all the sites (and there are incentives to encourage you to do so)!

The exhibition covers Sir Ernest Budge, William Camden, R G Collingwood, John Hodgson, William Hutton, John Leland, Sir Ian Richmond, William Stukeley, and Sir Mortimer Wheeler. To mark the opening of Wall Face, then, here is one more face from Hadrian’s Wall that Per Lineam Valli thinks deserves a little additional recognition; unlike most of them, however, he was a local lad.

R H Forster

A Vanity Fair portrait of R H Forster in their Rowers of Vanity Fair series

A Vanity Fair portrait of R H Forster in their Rowers of Vanity Fair series

Robert Henry Forster (1867–1923) was born at Backworth in Northumberland (now not far from Newcastle Airport), trained as a lawyer, made a living as a historical novelist and poet, relaxed as an oarsman, but was most significantly for our purposes an archaeologist. The one thing he was not was the author of the History of Corbridge, as many of the knock-off POD editions available claim (that was a different Robert Forster, 1815–85, a watch- and clockmaker in Corbridge).

R H Forster packing up an inscription in 1910

R H Forster packing up an inscription in 1910 (courtesy Trustees of the Corbridge Excavation Fund*)

Why was Forster important? Together with Newcastle architect W H Knowles, he directed the excavations of the Roman site at Corbridge from 1907 to 1914 (The Corstopitum excavations) after Leonard Woolley left to start digging in the Near East (when they became the first training excavation in British archaeology). His connection with Hadrian’s Wall began in 1899, when he published The Amateur Antiquary, a series of Wall-themed essays that included a fictionalised description of the frontier as he envisaged it. In his Hadrian’s Wall: A Life, Richard Hingley claims Forster’s book as ‘an inspiration for the approach adopted in this book as it effectively brought the remains of the Wall to Life’ (p.204). As Hingley notes, following Eric Birley, Forster was the first to assert that there were two turrets between each milecastle, something we simply take for granted nowadays.

Forster went on to publish a paper in 1901, rather modestly entitled ‘Some notes on Hadrian’s Wall‘ which, whilst not exactly establishing him as a major-league Wall scholar, served to indicate his abilities and interests. It was perhaps this that brought him to Francis Haverfield’s attention when he was recruiting a team of supervisors to support Woolley for the first Corstopitum excavation season in 1906.

R H Forster supervising excavators in front of the W granary at Corbridge

R H Forster supervising excavators on the portico in front of the W granary at Corbridge (courtesy Trustees of the Corbridge Excavation Fund)

Forster was a perfectly capable excavator in the terms of his day (the only fair way to judge an archaeologist), although the reputation of the Corstopitum campaign subsequently suffered at the hands of Woolley’s rather embittered comments on it. A much better assessment of his work can be gleaned from W H Knowles’ obituary of his friend and colleague, where he noted Forster’s popularity with the labourers (mostly agricultural, mining, and pottery men). Annual interim reports were produced, as well as newspaper articles and sundry other discursive pieces. Interestingly, Forster stood up to Haverfield (‘The Pope of Roman Britain’) over the issue of the function of Site 11, the large courtyard building still visible at Corbridge. Haverfield thought it was a legionary headquarters building, but Forster disagreed and some heated and very public discussion ensued.

The First World War brought an end to the Corstopitum excavations and Forster retired early to Devon, where he lived with his wife in Combeinteignhead in a 17th/18th-century house called Rest Dod. His last published work was a book of poems about his garden there and, rather fittingly, he is buried within sight of the house and garden. However, his tombstone is capped by a significant epitaph: ‘a faithful son of Northumberland’.

R H Forster's gravestone in Combeinteignhead churchyard

R H Forster’s gravestone in Combeinteignhead churchyard

Finally, on the grounds that you can probably tell more about a writer by what he wrote than what he looked like, here is R H Forster ‘imagineering’ in The Amateur Antiquary, describing Roman Corbridge more than seven years before he actually dug there:

Soon the road swerves to the right, and slants down to the level of the haughs; and a few hundred yards bring us to the bridge, which forms the last link in the chain of our day’s travel. The water is swirling and gurgling against the massive stone piers and abutments, and, as we ride across by the great timber roadway, we feel half inclined to loiter and admire the view; for the sun is hanging close above the western heights, and the river, as it steals down towards us, is like a stream of dancing gold. But the keen autumn air has made us too hungry to linger over reflections, actual or sentimental: let us press on up the last short ascent, and enter the town which is to harbour us for the night.

Corstopitum is a curious, irregular little place. The cramped fortress, which Julius Agricola planted here on the ruins of some old Otadene stronghold, has already been swallowed up by the thriving town, to which peace and commerce have given birth. There is no troop in garrison now; but some two thousand rough, pleasure-loving soldiers are quartered within a few miles of the place, and Corstopitum lives on them. Even at this late hour the forum is ringing with the clamour of bargainers; for during the afternoon various parties have come hither on leave from Cilurnum, Hunnum, and Vindobala; and every man of them is bent on enjoyment. Garrison life in these Wall-fortresses is a monotonous form of existence; and many a rough soldier knows no other charm to beguile its dulness, than the memory or expectation of these “noctes Corstopitanae”.

But let us take a peep at the scene in the forum, if we dare risk our ear-drums in such a pandemonium. The little square is packed with the stalls of provision-dealers and wine-sellers; each tradesman is volubly extolling his own wares, and giving full, particular, and extremely libellous accounts of the stock, person, character, and genealogy of his nearest rival. Here a spruce Asturian trooper is wildly threatening vengeance against an unwashed Otadene, who is trying, with the aid of many grimaces, to pass off sparrows for larks: here a petty officer of the Ala Sabiniana is explaining, in a mixture of barbarous Latin and good but highly flavoured Norican, that the market-woman’s sausages are no true product of the genuine pig; and the good lady is indignantly, but not altogether truthfully, recounting the names and titles of the various distinguished persons, who have eaten of the accused dainties, and afterwards sent for more: and here a heavy-witted Frisian private, three parts drunk already, stands, like the ass between two bundles of hay, lost in hopeless indecision between two capacious jars of wine, which the smiling and subservient Greek merchant is smoothly assuring him contain prime Massic and choice Caecuban respectively.

“Believe him not, good sir,” cries his subtle countryman from the next stall. “By Dionysus! he made both of them himself, here in Corstopitum.”

Meanwhile the taverns, which appear to be numberless, are doing a roaring trade; and the two or three temples, which the town contains, are trying their utmost to outbid the taverns. The more sedate deities of official Rome find little favour at Corstopitum: orgy-loving gods from Syria and Egypt have ousted them, and the temples are ablaze with lights, and ringing with the clash of cymbals and the rattle of the sistrum. But these places are too thickly crowded to allow us to make further investigations in comfort, and of too dubious a character for respectable travellers to enter without risk of insult or loss of reputation: and finally, seeing that the process of painting Corstopitum red is about to begin, we are driven back to the one building which will escape this general redecoration, the official posting-house, where we are to pass the night.

Morning comes once more, and after much worry and certain explosions of temper we resume our journey. Corstopitum wears an air of depression, and we are up too early to suit the habits of a town which usually goes to bed in the not-very-small hours of the morning. However, threats and promises induce the sleepy posting-house attendants to bestir themselves at last; and soon Corstopitum has fallen asleep again, and we ourselves are riding northward up the long hill, which leads us towards the Wall.

At last the straggling woods, through which the steeper part of the road passes, are left behind: there is a glorious view behind us, the wide expanse of Tynedale, backed by the wooded hills, between which the Devilswater comes rushing out to join the greater Tyne; but we can spare no more than one brief backward glance for all its beauties: a small entrenched camp lies close to the wayside on our left; but we do not stop to examine it. Straight in front of us is something better worth looking at, the Wall itself. Dignified as we are, we set our horses to a canter, and challenge each other to try who shall reach it first; an exciting but frivolous amusement, which nearly brings us into trouble. There are sentries posted at the gap, where the road pierces the great earthworks, which run parallel to the Wall, upon the southern side; and such is the eagerness of our competition that we can hardly rein in our steeds, when the guardians of the pass shout lustily to us to stop (for none may go northward of the Wall without a proper authorization), and angrily enquire whether we imagine that we are in a maledicted circus.

Further Reading

Bishop, M C (1994) : Corstopitum: an Edwardian Excavation, London

Forster, R H (1899): The Amateur Antiquary: His Notes, Sketches, and Fancies Concerning the Roman Wall in the Counties of Northumberland and Cumberland, Newcastle upon Tyne

Freeman,  P W M (2007): The Best Training Ground for Archaeologists: Francis Haverfield and the Invention of Romano-British Archaeology, Oxford

Hingley, R (2012): Hadrian’s Wall: A Life, Oxford

Knowles, W H (1923): ‘Robert Henry Forster’, Journal of the British Archaeological Association 29, 293–5

* R H Forster was an executive committee member when the Corbridge Excavation Fund was set up in 1907. The Fund not only still exists, but owns all of the pre-1930 artefacts from the Corstopitum excavations, making them available to English Heritage through a loan agreement.

The PLV ebooks

The garrison: Part I

The cavalry

Five cavalry units are known to have been based along Hadrian’s Wall. That does not, of course, mean there may not have been others we do not yet know about.

Auxiliary cavalry were organised in units known as alae (literally ‘wings’, from the fact that they used to be placed on the flanks of a Roman battle line). They were either quingenaria (regular strength; literally 500-strong) or milliaria (double strength; literally 1,000-strong), although their exact strengths are a matter of dispute (and even the occasional mud fight). Alae were composed of turmae which are thought to have been around 32 men, including a decurio and standard bearer (other interpretations of the limited evidence are available); probably 16 turmae for an ala quingenaria (giving a theoretical total of 512 men) and 24 for an ala milliaria (and thus 768 men).

The units along the Wall came from three distinct regions: Gaul, Spain, and Pannonia. The two Asturian alae originated in one particular region of the Iberian peninsula (Asturia, naturally), and may have enjoyed a fondness for cider. The Wall garrison included the largest (and most prestigious) of the cavalry units in the Exercitus Britannicus, the ala Petriana, and we shall start with them.

Ala Gallorum Petriana milliaria civium Romanorum bis torquata

Named after its first commander, T. Pomponius Petra, and ultimately the only milliary  cavalry unit in Britain, the ala Petriana was still apparently only quingenary at the time that Flavinus (RIB 1172) died and was buried, most likely in the Flavian period and probably at Corbridge. By AD 98, it had received a block grant of Roman citizenship and then by AD 122 it had been increased to double-strength, both recorded on diplomas. An inscription from Carlisle notes the unit as milliary and torquata (meaning it had received a block grant of torques as a distinction), whilst a career inscription of a former commander, C. Camurius Clemens from Matelica, in Umbria, records the unit as bis torquata. Ala Petriana is placed in the Notitia Dignitatum at an eponymous base, generally supposed to have been Stanwix. Support for the identification of Stanwix as its base comes from a tile stamp and tombstone missing its inscription from the site, which − at 3.27ha − is the largest fort on the Wall (Housesteads, by comparison, is only 2ha).

Ala Augusta ob virtutem appellata [Gallorum]

This is now thought to be the same as the ala Augusta Gallorum Proculeiana civium Romanorum known from diplomas. It has been suggested that the unit was originally called the ala Flavia by Domitian, but that it was subsequently renamed to Augusta following his damnatio memoriae. The unit’s presence at Lancaster is attested by the tombstone of Insus (RIB 3185), before next being recorded under Hadrian at Chesters. It had settled at Old Carlisle by the middle of the 2nd century, with dedications by prefects from AD 185, 188, and 191, and is last recorded there in AD 242. An inscription from Carlisle (RIB 947) may also belong to this phase, possibly between AD180 and 184, rather than actual occupancy at Carlisle. Whether it is to be identified with the ala I Herculeia of the Notitia Dignitatum at that same station is unknown. The unit’s presence (under its formal title ala Gallorum Proculeiana) in the Exercitus Britannicus is recorded on diplomas from AD 122 through to 145/6.

Ala I Hispanorum Asturum

This unit may have arrived in Britain with the initial invasion of AD 43, although there is no clear evidence for this. By the 3rd century AD, it was at Benwell, where it is also attested in the Notitia Dignitatum. The presence of a tombstone belonging to a trooper’s freedman from South Shields is probably not relevant to the location of the unit.

Ala II Asturum

This unit is recorded in Pannonia in the Claudio-Neronian period (CIL III,14349). It appears to have transferred to Britain with Petilius Cerealis at the beginning of his command of the Exercitus Britannicus in AD 71 and to have been based at Ribchester at the end of the 1st/beginning of the 2nd centuries AD. A member of the unit (one Caravus) may have been the owner of the Ribchester cavalry sports helmet. Ala II Asturum subsequently moved to Chesters, presumably replacing the ala Augusta, where it was to remain.

Ala I Pannoniorum Sabiniana

This ala is first listed in the famed Hadrianic diploma of AD 122 (CIL XVI, 69). Its early postings are unclear, but by the 3rd century it was based at Haltonchesters, where it may have been producing brick and tile (a stamp comes from South Shields). Lead seals bearing its stamp are also known from South Shields, Corbridge, and Pittington Farm and it is assumed that these were destinations receiving communications or goods from the unit when it was at Haltonchesters. The Notitia Dignitatum records it as still being based at Haltonchesters. Although normally just referred to as the ala Sabiniana, a former prefect is more formal by calling it, like the diplomas, ala I Pannoniorum Sabiniana in an inscription.

Those, then, are the alae. They are not, however, the only mounted troops on the Wall. The mixed cohortes equitatae contained an element of cavalry in them and it is those we shall examine next.

NEXT: The garrison: Part II