The Best Bits of Hadrian’s Wall: the Forts (Carrawburgh)

Carrawburgh fort (BROCOLITIA)

plan of Carrawburgh

Carrawburgh (pronounced Carra-Bruff) fort is 7.6km (4.75 miles) from Housesteads and 5.6km (3.5 miles) from Chesters. It 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 Frixiavonum, and I Tungrorum (the last of which, as we know from Housesteads, 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 (and can be inspected using the stile next to the car park), but to the south-west, the mithraeum outwith the fort in the civil settlement is on display. When excavated, the waterlogged conditions preserved many organic remains that enabled a detailed reconstruction to be built in the former Museum of Antiquities, now recreated as a rather-less-successful video display 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.

mithraeum at Carrawburgh

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’).

The remains of Coventina’s shrine lie nearby, but 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’.

Coventina's Well with Carrawburgh behind