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.

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Corbridge (Part II)

Although the fort at Corbridge was demolished in the middle of 2nd century AD this was far from the end of a military presence. Detachments of two of the British legions (probably legiones VI Victrix and XX Valeria Victrix in the first instance) were installed in separate compounds to the south of the Stanegate and we are now going to turn our attention to the eastern legionary compound.

Plan of the guardianship site at Corbridge

Plan of the guardianship site at Corbridge

Undulations on Site 41

Undulations on Site 41

The first thing to note is the curious rippling effect caused by subsidence into the ditches of the earliest fort on the site. These ditches were actually examined by Ian Richmond and John Gillam in three separate locations and found to have a high organic content, which appears to have compacted with time (although the fact that drains were constructed across them suggests the subsidence did not occur until after construction, possibly even long after abandonment of the site). For many years it was said that the site had slumped either side of a buried road, but structures built over old roads on the natural sand and gravel subsoil elsewhere on the site do not normally behave in this way.

The east compound (left), the earlier military wall (centre), and Site 44 (right)

The east compound (left), the earlier military wall (centre), and Site 44 (right)

Starting at the eastern extremity, the compound wall foundation can be seen snaking its way around structures, carefully avoiding some strip buildings south of the Stanegate (Site 44 and the ‘temples’). The function of these structures is uncertain, whilst the circular feature within Site 44 is both striking and mysterious: it was neither an oven (no burning) nor a well (it had a base).

At one point, the compound wall incorporates part of an earlier wall, which it crosses, and this is all that can be seen of military structures that post-dated the fort but pre-dated the compound; we can say little more than that it was there, but it may indicate a brief intermediate phase in the 2nd century before the legionaries moved in. Within the complex known as Site 43, the easternmost building is apsidal and was identified as a schola (a sort of military club): it has to be understood that scholae were once trendy amongst Roman army scholars and anything that was not understood ran the risk of being identified as such.

The HQ in the eastern compound with cross-hall and shrine

The HQ in the eastern compound with cross-hall and shrine

Next to it was a small rectangular building identified as a latrine, and then south of that was a larger structure that, intriguingly, has a tale of exotic lands to tell. This building also incorporates an apse, but is identifiable as a headquarters building (the apse being the shrine of the standards). On either side of that apse are the rear range of rooms, and then west of that is the cross-hall. However, this HQ building has no courtyard and that is a feature known from Eastern buildings of this kind and may suggest familiarity with the East on the part of its builders. It also recalls the wars in that part of the Empire during the 2nd century, participation by British troops, and the inscriptions (like the famous Sol Invictus inscription) that indicate similar interests. Another apsidal structure is tucked into the south-east corner of the site, but the compound actually extended some way down the hill: we know this from both pre-WW1 excavations and evidence from aerial photography, since the compound wall is very distinctive.

The via praetoria of the eastern compound

The via praetoria of the eastern compound

In front of the HQ building is a street leading to the eastern compound gate which we can identify as its via praetoria. The next structure to the west of the HQ is a larger rectangular building that the excavators identified as a workshop (Site 42), and then an even larger one (Site 41) thought to be a store. Beyond that is a much larger and very complex structure (Site 39) that can just about be interpreted as originally having been two officers’ houses, similar to (but smaller than) the tribunes’ houses found in legionary bases. This building even included a pottery kiln in a later phase of its life, but originally there is no doubting its role as officers’ housing.

The levelled eastern compound wall

The levelled eastern compound wall

The foundations of the eastern compound wall are easy to trace, but it is interesting that much of it has been razed to the ground and this happened in the 4th century when the two legionary compounds were united as one with a new, shared wall, and this allowed the demolition of the walls and gates that separated them.

The west gate of the eastern compound

The west gate of the eastern compound

At the western end of the eastern compound, next to the main north–south street (in fact the old via praetoria of the forts), the demolished remains of the compound gate can be seen.

In Part III, we shall explore the western compound.

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Wall Mile 49

Wall Mile 49 [HB 291–309]

Regardless of whether we are following the Trail (which soon dives downhill to join the Stone Wall after passing Milecastle 50 TW) or walking along the road, our paths now (almost) unite on either side of a section of consolidated curtain wall. Having had our interest piqued by the short stretch on either side of Banks East Turret, this is the first substantial length of curtain wall to be encountered when walking from west to east, but it is rather unusual compared to much of the rest of the Stone Wall. This is because, as we have just realised, it is not built on the line of the Turf Wall, which runs up to 200m to the south (at the Milecastles 50), and was constructed shortly before Hadrian’s Wall was abandoned in favour of the Antonine Wall in the AD 140s, being built to the narrow, rather than intermediate, gauge. At the western end, this stretch of curtain wall has been damaged on its northern face by the road but, by the time it reaches Turret 49b (Birdoswald), its full width is intact.

Stone Wall leading to Birdoswald

Stone Wall leading to Birdoswald

For those who have opted to follow the Turf Wall, this consolidated section of stone wall and its turret can still be reached from the Trail by climbing over the stile at Turret 49b. Some 12m west of the turret, on the top course of the south face of the curtain wall, the first of three phallic symbols in this wall mile can be seen. The turret, the entrance to which is on the right, is bonded to the curtain wall – in contrast to those already seen (52a, 51b and 51a) – and was never free-standing. Since it is on the Intermediate Wall, it was constructed after those to the east of the Irthing and before the move to the Antonine Wall. It was first excavated in 1911 and consolidated for display in 1953–5.

Turret 49b

Turret 49b

Heading west, we may note in passing a number of drains through the wall at ground level before reaching a gap where a section has been removed many years ago around the entrance to the field. There is another damaged section further on, this time with a disguised stile incorporated, so the wall can be crossed if wished to see the remnants of the ditch to the north of the road. This section terminates near Birdoswald fort, where the old farm access track runs across the line of the wall and the corner of the fort has been neatly rounded off when a ditch was run all round the fort. However, at ground level, the foundations of the junction of the wall and the fort is still visible; the wall butts against the fort as the stone fort pre-dates the construction of the stone wall.

A hidden stile

A hidden stile

Birdoswald fort (BANNA)

The Turf Wall originally strode across the site of the fort at Birdoswald unhindered. When the decision to add forts was made, it is fairly certain (although not yet proven) that the first here was constructed in turf and timber, flattening the Turf Wall rampart and Turret 49a TW, and filling in the ditch. That first fort seems to have been slightly smaller than the stone one we see today, for when the Vallum was built, it avoided the southern end of it with a slight detour, although not enough to avoid successfully the stone fort defences. So much for the early fort, which we can’t even see, but it is time for a brief tour of the stone one, which is admirably apparent.

The Trail guides us up the western side, amongst some trees, and along the northern defences of the fort, on the road to the English Heritage entrance. After entering and paying, another door takes us into a courtyard. Public conveniences are to the right, the museum to the left. Entering the museum at ground level there is an audiovisual presentation in a room to the right whilst the stairs take us up to the main gallery, through a reconstruction of a turret. There are various items of interest here, but at the far end of the gallery, just before the exit, note the ‘stuffed archaeologist’, a passable likeness of Tony Wilmott, director of excavations here since the 1980s and even rumoured to be wearing one of his old wax jackets.

Exiting the museum, we make for the path to the right of the youth hostel and this leads to the west gate (porta principalis sinistra) of the fort. A causeway pierced by a drain crosses the fort ditch, bringing a road through the one surviving gate portal; the other, to the right of it, is blocked. The blocking of twin-portalled gateways will become a theme for our journey along the Wall. To the right of the blocked gateway is some very fine masonry, about the only true example of ashlar masonry you will see on this trip. Most of the stonework on Hadrian’s Wall is what masons term ‘squared rubble’ so this piece is rather special and it has been suggested that it may originally have been part of some sort of commemorative monument constructed here. Crossing the causeway, we can see that the guardroom to the left has been given underfloor heating in its later years, whilst the blocked portal to our right has also been used as a room. When excavated, the Turf Wall ditch was found here, carefully backfilled with rubble.

Once inside the fort, it is important to understand that, for display purposes, the later years of the fort’s occupation have been emphasised. This is not unreasonable, for Birdoswald is especially interesting, in that it demonstrates continuity of occupation from the Roman period, through the early medieval and medieval fortified settlements, right up to modern times and its earlier life as a working farm and subsequent career as a visitor attraction.

Time for a whirlwind tour of a generic Roman fort. All forts had a tee-shaped main road system, with the via principalis running across the fort and the via praetoria running from the main gate (usually on the northern side for Hadrian’s Wall forts) to the headquarters building. In addition, these were all linked by the via sagularis, which ran right the way round the inside of the defences. Key to the way Roman forts operated was their zoning into three parts: a central range of buildings contained the commanding officer’s house, store buildings (often now called granaries), and in the centre a headquarters building. The other two thirds, at either end, were mainly occupied by barracks and (where appropriate) stables. Sundry utilities (cooking facilities, latrines, workshops etc) were scattered around the periphery of a fort. Now you know Roman forts: they are all the same; except they’re not. But we’ll come to that later. Let’s just compromise on ‘they’re all similar’.

At Birdoswald, the two granaries – which are on the right, to the south of the via principalis – were found to have been demolished and overlain by a large timber hall in the post-Roman period and the positions of its main uprights are marked by post stubs. The granaries (horrea) themselves are of a type seen throughout the Roman empire: buttressed outer walls, elevated floors (raised above ground level on dwarf walls or short columns), and loading platforms at one (or even both) ends. The headquarters building (principia) and commanding officer’s house (praetorium) have not been fully excavated and are visible only as (in the words of one former chairman of English Heritage) humps and bumps in the ground. Having admired the granaries, we may now pass through one of the pair of modern gates and turn right, heading for the south gateway.

South gate at Birdoswald

South gate at Birdoswald

Both portals of the southern gateway are open, although when originally excavated in 1851 the eastern was found to be blocked and converted into a room. Examination of the portals shows that the pairs of door leaves originally opened inwards and were stopped against a threshold over which wheeled traffic had to bump, a bit like ‘sleeping policemen’, the wheels often wearing ruts in the raised part of the threshold. Roman gates were also not hinged, but rather pivoted, which made them much stronger: whilst a hinge would have had to be nailed to a wooden gate leaf, pivots were integral to its fabric. These pivots were then inserted into socket stones, one at the top and one at the bottom, the lower of the two usually having a channel to enable the pivot to be slid into place. The pivot was fixed by means of an iron ring placed around it which was then cemented to the pivot stone by means of molten lead. We shall see such pivot stones several times on our journey (look on either side of the portals now), but when we get to Benwell we will actually see one of these iron rings still in situ.

Passing out of the southern gateway we now find ourselves standing on a promontory above the gorge of the River Irthing. When excavated, a Roman encampment was found, complete with preserved fragments of wood and leather (it was one of the first sites where pieces of Roman tent leather were identified), and it has been suggested that it may have belonged to troops building the Turf Wall.The Vallum swerved around the south end of the fort and a causeway with a gate was discovered during the excavations: there is nothing to see now but, as just hinted, we will be inspecting an example at Benwell, later in our journey.

Returning to the fort defences, we take the path to the right and pass around the south-east corner of the fort (rounded, as they all are on the Wall). As we head north along the eastern wall, ahead of us is a section of tumbled curtain wall, frozen in the act of tumbling outwards. Excavation showed that this was in fact a reconstruction of a previously fallen length; the botched reconstruction of failed structures is another recurring theme on Hadrian’s Wall. Beyond the tumbled length of wall, take a close look at the upstanding section to the north of it, particularly the coursing of the stones. It is clear how the construction of the wall was split into stints, a feature that is known from other Roman sites such as the ‘Saxon Shore’ forts at Pevensey and Richborough, and it is likely that each stint was the responsibility of one work gang.

East gate at Birdoswald

East gate at Birdoswald

Moving on to the east gate, we can see that the northernmost jamb survives to the height of the springer for its arch. Again, excavation in 1852 revealed that the north portal was blocked. So why build all those twin-portalled gates only to block one gate on each? We don’t know, but it may be that use showed that only one was needed or desirable.

Time to head back to the exit and be on our way once more. Shopportunities await the acquisitional in the English Heritage retail outlet on the way out, but remember: what you buy you are going to have to carry.

To avoid the road, the Trail briefly weaves through a small plantation and, as it passes over the eastern fort defences, we may look down to our right and see a circular post-medieval corn-drying kiln set into the Roman wall. Before passing through the kissing gate, we can walk a little way down the path towards the car park and admire the length of Wall that is exposed on our right, weirdly sculpted right back into its core by the combination of its former role as a field boundary and the action of some large tree roots that had to be removed when it was consolidated in the 1950s. As you look eastwards, the ditch is clearly visible in front of the wall. We may now return to that kissing gate and head along the south side of this same curtain wall.

The curtain wall east of Birdoswald

The curtain wall east of Birdoswald

East of Birdoswald, this fine stretch of curtain wall continues as far as the edge of the Irthing gorge. When consolidated by the Ministry of Works masons, this section produced numerous building inscriptions, many of which are now in Tullie House Museum in Carlisle, although some have been left in situ. It also revealed two further phallic symbols on the south face; if the same density found in this Wall Mile were repeated for the whole of Hadrian’s Wall, there might originally have been around 350 along the Wall. The first phallic symbol occurs 10m east of the western end of the field wall parallel to the curtain wall, just before a culvert through the wall. The culvert is interesting, since it is additional to the normal ground-level drains that can be seen in this Wall Mile and whilst it may have been designed to cope with a spring which is no longer evident (which seems unlikely), it may have served to debouch a sewer from an as-yet-unidentified extramural building into the ditch to the north. A building inscription (RIB 3434) is preserved in the top surviving course at 35m from the end of that field wall and another (RIB 3427) is found at 110m. There are two more (RIB 3426 and 3425) at 130m and 140m respectively. Finally, the third of the Wall Mile 49 phallic symbols occurs at 193m.

Just before the wall reaches Milecastle 49, it changes alignment slightly and this is the point where the Turf and Stone Walls converge once more. The Turf Wall ran in a straight line from here towards the main east–west street (via principalis) of Birdoswald fort (it pre-dated the fort, as we have seen).

Milecastle 49 (Harrow’s Scar) [HB 291–3; haiku]

Milecastle 49

Milecastle 49

Much of the interior of Milecastle 49 (Harrow’s Scar) has been removed by the modern track which passes through it, but this is the first consolidated milecastle encountered when walking from west to east. It therefore provides our first real opportunity to get the measure of one of these fortlets, although it is not as informative as its neighbour, Milecastle 48, which we will reach soon. The main structure inside the milecastle is part of a medieval farmstead, recalling just how many milecastle sites came to serve as a farm. On the east side there is one wall of an original internal Roman building. The rounded south-west corner is well-preserved. Astute observers will note how the defensive walls of the milecastle butt against the curtain wall. This tells us that the curtain wall was built first, then the milecastle, an important detail to remember when we get to the next milecastle. The modern farm track does not use the Roman gateway, which is just to the west of it.

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