Was Hadrian’s Wall awash with cider?

Now, be honest: you’re thinking that I am positively potty, aren’t you? Everybody knows cider was introduced into Britain by the Normans, and that beforehand there was beer (the famed cervesa of the Vindolanda Tablets); imported (and natively grown) wine, of course; and possibly some mead too. But Roman cider? You’ve got to be joking!

One of my cider varieties

One of my cider varieties

I must declare an interest, here. When I lived in the Scottish Borders, I had a small (very small: on espaliered dwarf root stock) orchard and I grew my own apples in order to make cider (or cyder, since it only contained apples, with none of the chemical hotch-potch some producers add). Boosted by windfalls from neighbours (who, as a cider-maker, I rapidly learned soon tire of endless apple pies) and with a little added piquancy (and, importantly, tannin) from wild, hedgerow crab apples down by the old airfield (the one where Wojtek the bear used to live), I made passable cider. I once even managed to secure a few kilos of Kingston Black (a god amongst cider apple varieties): small, ugly, tannin-laden fruits that had a sort of tardis trick with the amount of rich, red juice they produced. That juice turned into a cider to die for. However, I digress – you get the picture: I have an interest in cider, in more ways than one.

Some of my apples

Some of my apples

Anyway, my quest for Roman cider in Northern Britain started out with light-hearted intent, sparked tangentially by a item on a television news programme, but serious evidential questions lie at the root of all this flippant alcoholic speculation, as will hopefully become apparent.

Why might there have been cider on Hadrian’s Wall? Because the most important ingredient necessary for the presence of cider was there. No, not apples (don’t be silly, that much is obvious); I mean cider-lovers.

Underground strongroom at Great Chesters

Useful cellarage at Great Chesters?

The auxiliary units based in Britain were drawn from all over the Empire except, as was policy, from Britain itself. The infantry cohorts, cavalry alae, and part-mounted cohorts came from a variety of peoples, and the mounted components in Britain contained a high proportion of Gallic and Spanish units. In fact, along Hadrian’s Wall, there were Asturian alae at Benwell (I Hispanorum Asturum) and Chesters (II Asturum), and an Asturian part-mounted cohort (cohors II Asturum) at Great Chesters. It has even been suggested that the Roman name of Chesters – Cilurnum – was derived from the Asturians’ home region, rather than an existing local placename. To these might be added the cohors I fida Vardullorum, a double-strength, part-mounted unit that pops up at Castlecary on the Antonine Wall, at Corbridge, Lanchester, Cappuck (possibly), and finally at the Hadrian’s Wall outpost fort of High Rochester in the 3rd century. The Vardulli came from the Aquitanian Basque region around modern Gipuzkoa, where there is still a tradition of cider production and consumption. We can be less certain where the cohors II Vasconum were deployed (they only show up on diplomas, not inscriptions), but the Vascones were neighbours of the Vardulli in northern Spain, so I think we might suspect them too of a fondness for the fermented apple.

A thirsty Asturian from Chesters

A thirsty Asturian from Chesters

And so to the news item. Amidst disturbing coverage of the proposed new anti-abortion law in Spain, Channel 4 News went to Asturias, where a group of women were singing protest songs against the new bill whilst drinking their favourite tipple: their local sidra. Now I’ve sampled Spanish cider and, like German Apfelwein, it can hold its own against British ciders and, at its best, give our finest a run for their money (perhaps just being pipped at the post; I couldn’t resist that…). I even have a friend from the north of Spain whose family had been growing cider apples since way back into the apple-blossomed mists of time. I nosed through a few of my history-of-cider books, most of which are more folklorish than factual (as is so much ‘popular history’; we ancient historians are rather fastidious about what we require as evidence), but all of which agreed on the antiquity of the Asturian love of cider, pre-dating even the Romans. A little bit of research on the web sort of confirmed that rather fuzzy view (the web is so good at sort-of-confirming vague things in a non-specific, word-of-mouthish way), but did not provide hard-and-fast evidence (I need citations, not guff). Then I hit pay dirt (rather appropriate, in an archaeological sort of way).

Asturian cavalrymen's tombstone

An Asturian dreaming of his cider?

For we do indeed have some literary evidence: Pliny the Elder (after whom, I discovered, a beer is named, but that is irrelevant) comes to our aid, specifically NH XIV.19. He tells us how both apples and pears could make an alcoholic drink (cider and perry respectively, although whether true perry pears were known is another matter). Strabo (IV.3.7) describes how the mountain Spaniards (which included the Cantabrians and Asturians) drank zytho and it has been argued that this is linked to the Greek Σίχερα, Latin sicera, and thus ultimately sidra. It should be noted that sicera, with the sense of a non-specific intoxicating drink, is claimed by various other modern beverages, not just cider!

Thus it seems that some form of cider was at least known from Roman literary sources. What about archaeology? That’s harder. You see, apples are entimophilous, which means you need insects to pollinate them and that means they do not contribute to the pollen rain: that’s the stuff that drops out of the sky, possibly giving you hay-fever in passing, but which almost exclusively derives from wind-pollinated plants. That in turn means that you can look as hard as you like through all the peat cores and pollen samples taken along Hadrian’s Wall (and there’s quite a few now), but apples just will not show up unless a tree was right next to the coring site. They are, as someone once said, A Known Unknown. So can environmental archaeology help us at all? Luckily it can. Apple pips could theoretically survive through waterlogging (as at sites like Vindolanda or Carlisle) and by carbonisation (where they are accidentally burned and turned to charcoal). Find apple pips and you have apple consumption. Crab apples are neither edible nor a good source of cider by themselves, so pips from a Roman site ought to be cultivars grown for consumption in one way or another.

The label from the back of my ciders

The label from the back of my ciders

Unfortunately, environmental archaeology has only really taken off after Benwell, Chesters, and Great Chesters were excavated, so any hope of proving apple consumption at those sites is forlorn. We may be able to use comparative data from other neighbouring sites, however. Excavations at Vindolanda and Carlisle have already been mentioned as possible sources of waterlogged material and Carlisle (Howard-Davis 2009, 524) has produced evidence for the consumption of both apples and pears.

The sub-literary evidence provides some interesting confirmation. Vindolanda Tablet 302 includes a request for ‘a hundred apples, if you can find nice ones’ in the same sentence as other foodstuffs, like beans, chickens, and eggs. The editors suggest this concerns the acquisition of food for the commanding officer’s house, so these would perhaps be more likely to be dessert apples, rather than intended for cider making, but it makes the point: apples were readily available for that fort, even if not necessarily grown there, and in relative bulk.

Apples.

Apples. Yum!

So where does this leave us? As in so many details of life in Roman Britain there are things the novelist can invent and the ancient historian and archaeologist can only dream of verifying. Was cider only introduced to Britain by the Normans or could Roman auxiliaries have been quaffing it merrily? Despite the lack of fossil pollen evidence (and at least you have learned why there is likely to be none), there were clearly cultivated apples available on the northern frontier, and there were as many as five auxiliary units with the best part of 3000 men from a land with a cider-making and -consuming tradition that (allegedly) pre-dated the Romans. There appear to be good grounds to at least suspect that cider, like many of the soldiers (when opportunity arose), may have been drunk in the vicinity of Hadrian’s Wall. Yes, I’ll drink to that. Waes hael! (or should that be gayolá!?)

Postscript

Now I hesitate to mention this, and please don’t tell the French, but it is a commonplace that some of the British garrison troops who never made it back to Britannia after the usurpation of Magnus Maximus in AD 383 may have settled in Brittany. (It is an incidental, but colourful, detail that Maximus himself hailed from Gallaecia, a region in north-west Spain that included Asturia.) If the stranded troops brought a love of cider with them, could that not be the origin of Normandy and Brittany cidre and that eventual Norman (re)introduction of cider to Britain? I’d best not say any more; there’s a chap with a baguette and a mean look in his eye heading this way…


Howard-Davis, C. (2009) The Carlisle Millennium Project 1998–2001. Volume 2 The Finds, Lancaster

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Wall Mile 9

Wall Mile 9 [HB 162–4]

Now that we are on the south side of the road, we can look across the wall at the fields. Nothing much to see, but the Vallum is there. In fact, if you look eastwards towards the terraces of houses in Walbottle, you can usually see a differentiation in the vegetation which marks its course (it is very clear from the air, as Google Earth or Maps confirm). The ditch has largely disappeared to the north of the road: this is indeed hostile territory in which to be a mural frontier, but it gets worse. Even so, as we shall see, the Wall nearly always wins through.

We descend to Walbottle, passing a primary school built over the Vallum, then begin to climb once again, always gently, but the terrain is still key to the line of the Wall. We are now on a 3km straight stretch, the last part of which is lost in a huge interchange when finally we reach the A69. Past the school, in the field on the left, the hints of the Vallum are more substantial, but the curtain wall lurks beneath the road, still, and the ditch is lost to us.

The line of the Vallum at ground level

The line of the Vallum at ground level

We cross over at a junction, the northern arm of which is a dead-end, cut off by the A69 (although the Google Street View car rather gamely goes down it anyway), the line of the Military Road still reflecting that of the curtain wall, with the Vallum to our right and the ditch to our left; the last shows up as lusher grass just beyond the roadside wall, reminding us it is still there.

A sign soon proclaims that we are entering Blucher Village, reflecting the name of the coal mine that once stood here, named after Gebhard Leberecht von Blücher, the Prussian general who saved the day at the Battle of Waterloo. At the far end of the terrace of houses, as fields open out to the south of us again, we reach the site of Milecastle 9, shyly loitering behind a park bench and a flowerbed.

Milecastle 9 (Chapel House) [HB 162–4; haiku]

Blucher and the site of Milecastle 9 from the air

Blucher and the site of Milecastle 9 from the air

Milecastle 9 (Chapel House) is a special milecastle. ‘Why is that?’ you may justifiably ask. Well, this is the one Eric Birley was digging when Chesterholm (Vindolanda) was put up for auction and he decided to buy it. This long-axis milecastle was excavated in 1929, 1951, and 2000, when details of an internal building were noted, whilst outside the south wall, three skeletons (one of them headless) were found. They were thought to be Roman or post-Roman, but it is interesting to note that there was a curious trend in headless burials from the late 3rd century AD onwards which has caused much speculation amongst scholars (executions and barbarian beheadings being invoked). Some of the stones of the milecastle itself were marked with Roman numerals and it is thought this may relate to the way in which they were quarried.

roadsad

Wall Mile 39

Wall Mile 39 [HB 258–61]

There is now a nice, gentle downhill stretch to take us to near Steel Rigg plantation and its neighbouring car park, where we need to cross the road (bearing in mind the traffic, looking for somewhere to park, frequenting this road). From the moment we leave Milecastle 40, at the eastern end of Winshields Crags, the ditch reappears to the north of the curtain wall (the line of which is still marked by its attendant field wall) and as we head for the plantation it makes a fine sight to our left.

The ditch heading for Steel Rigg car park

The ditch heading for Steel Rigg car park

To the south of us, the Vallum has now joined the line of the 18th-century Military Road, which was constructed on its south berm for a distance of about 1.9km. Further south still is the Stanegate, making its way towards Vindolanda, and then the terrain slopes down into the valley of the South Tyne.

Ditch and curtain wall at Steel Rigg

Ditch and curtain wall at Steel Rigg

Once we have crossed the road, the National Trail moves to the northern side of the curtain wall, which is now Claytonized once more. The path carefully, almost inconspicuously, sidles into the ditch itself, so that as we turn to the south-east after 140m, we can look up to our right at the curtain wall behind its berm. The keen-of-eye will note that we are entering another re-entrant covering a gap in the crags, and this is Peel Gap.

Peel Gap Tower

Peel Gap tower

Peel Gap tower

Excavation in 1987 revealed an additional tower inserted into the Wall scheme, between Turret 39b (the site of which we passed immediately west of the road) and Turret 39a (ahead of us, up on Peel Crag), inserted into a blind spot that may well have originally been a transhumance route. The tower was an afterthought and its builders did not take heed of their fellows who had built the rest of the curtain wall out of sandstone, since they dressed whin stone to make its walls. A platform on the west side may have been the base for an ascensus, or stairway to the wall walk (which may or may not have existed… and so on). The best view of the tower is to be obtained by carrying on up the steps onto Peel Crag and looking back: no pain, no gain.

The curtain wall romps up the side of the crags, partly covered by a field wall, and turns a sharp left to the north, thus closing the re-entrant. We can see the turn to the right, once at the top, next to the stile. The Trail then takes us along the south side of the Claytonized curtain wall. There is little to mark the site of Turret 39a, other than a slightly smoother sward. We begin to descend and paving stones appear to reinforce the Trail but there is no re-entrant and accompanying ditch here, despite a wiggle to the north by the curtain wall, since it is just following the edge of the crags, as it heads down into another nick. This is Cat Stairs. Up, again, and then we encounter another one of the iconic views of the Wall: Milecastle 39 sitting in another meltwater spillway, Castle Nick.

Milecastle 39 (Castle Nick) [HB 257–8; haiku]

Milecastle 39

Milecastle 39 in Castle Nick

The surrounding walls of the long-axis Milecastle 39 (Castle Nick) are Claytonized and it has been the object of the attentions of excavators in 1854, between 1908 and 1911, and most recently in the 1980s. The structures visible inside it are for the most part post-medieval (it is said to have been used as a milking parlour) and demonstrate once again the re-use of milecastles for agricultural purposes in later years. It was not located in its measured position but further east, perhaps deliberately to place it in the gap.

Wall Mile 56

Wall Mile 56 [HB 328–9]

Proceeding east from Cambeckhill Farm, the ditch can just be distinguished as a slight depression, whilst the line of the curtain wall is indicated by a modern fence to the south of the Trail.

Looking towards the Cam Beck

Looking towards the Cam Beck

Castlesteads

To your south, amongst the trees on the high ground beyond the Cam Beck (a tributary of the Irthing), lies the site of Castlesteads (Camboglanna), one of the detached forts immediately south of the Wall (the others being Carvoran, Vindolanda, and – probably – Newcastle). Neither Carvoran nor Vindolanda were within the Vallum, but it makes a very deliberate detour in order to include Castlesteads. The fort lies 12.8km (8.0 miles) east of Stanwix and occupies about 1.5ha (3.7 acres: an informed guess, since the western defences have been eroded by the river). The site is on private land and has effectively been razed by the formal garden of a late-18th-century listed building, Castlesteads, constructed on the site of an earlier Walton House belonging to the Dacre family. No trace of the fort is visible from the air, although the civil settlement has been detected by geophysical survey and the fort itself was summarily trenched in 1934, allowing the extent of its defences to be defined and the fact that the stone fort was preceded by a turf-and-timber one to be determined. However, even if you could see it, there is little to see.

The site of Castlesteads fort from the air

The site of Castlesteads fort from the air

Inscriptions reveal that the units based here included the part-mounted cohors II Tungrorum and cohors IV Gallorum (who were also to be found at Vindolanda). The Notitia Dignitatum omits the garrison of Camboglanna whilst mentioning the fort, possibly a scribal error. Old Ordnance Survey maps equated Castlesteads with Uxelodunum, all part of the confusion caused by thinking the well-preserved Watch Cross camp (now under Carlisle Airport) was a fort.

The ditch running up from the Cam Beck to Sandysike

The ditch running up from the Cam Beck to Sandysike

Back on the National Trail, before long we reach the wooded valley of the Cam Beck itself, a small wooded gorge that almost certainly had to be crossed by the Wall, just as the Trail now crosses it, by means of a bridge. Once over the far side, the line of the ditch climbing up towards Sandysike is very prominent, although near the top the Trail takes a detour off to the north alongside Swainsteads, before heading south again towards Sandysike itself. We dive into woodland and emerge to cross a small burn, another tributary of the Irthing, before climbing up the hill towards Walton. Here, uncharacteristically, the line of the Wall is to the north of us, crossing open ground, and the field boundary immediately to our south has nothing to do with it. Finally, we emerge into the western outskirts of Walton, where the measured site of Milecastle 56 is assumed to be, although another minor road must be crossed before we can proceed.

Milecastle 56 (Walton) [HB 328; haiku]

The site of Milecastle 56?

The site of Milecastle 56?

Milecastle 56 (Walton) is assumed to lie beneath the now-defunct Centurion Inn (which boasts an amusing cod-Latin date on its western gable end) but no trace of it has ever been found.

Wall Mile 66

Wall Mile 66 [HB 347]

The Wall now crosses former railway yards whilst the Trail, diving under an old railway viaduct, hugs the riverside, ultimately arriving at Bitts Park, on the floodplain of the Eden and just north of Roman Carlisle.

Carlisle from the air

Carlisle from the air

The fort at Carlisle (Luguvalium) was never part of the Hadrian’s Wall system, but was rather connected to the ‘Stanegate frontier’ (itself a notion which regularly comes into, and then goes out of, fashion). The redevelopment of the city centre has seen large portions of the extramural settlement and the southern portion of the fort being excavated (the northern part is situated under the castle, which is still Crown property), the earlier levels showing a degree of organic preservation second only to Vindolanda. It has the distinction of its first fort being dated very precisely to AD 72, thanks to dendrochronology, and there is then a cycle of renewal approximately every ten years, with the garrison probably changing each time. Writing tablets (similar to, but less famous than, the Vindolanda examples) mention the presence of ala I Gallorum Sebosiana in AD 105. Like the Roman fort at Corbridge, its later garrison included detachments from the three British legions, II Augusta, VI Victrix, and XX Valeria Victrix.

The curtain wall crossed the Caldew and then the Eden by means of stone bridges and Camden observed that ‘within the chanell of the river mighty stones, the remaines thereof, are yet extant’. This lay just downstream of the bridge that carried the Roman road to the outpost fort at Netherby across the Eden and through the Wall (probably with a gateway like that at Portgate, north of Corbridge). Stones from one (or more) of the bridges can be seen in Bitts Park, just after crossing the bridge over the Caldew, off the path to our left.

Stones from a Roman bridge in Bitts Park

Stones from a Roman bridge in Bitts Park

After Bitts Park, the National Trail continues along the south bank of the Eden before crossing the river, but we are going to deviate and cross by means of the road bridge, about 200m from the site of the Roman bridge carrying the Wall, so that we can keep more closely to the line of the frontier and explore the neglected remains of Stanwix fort.

Milecastle 66 (Stanwix Bank) [HB 346; haiku]

Site of Milecastle 66

Site of Milecastle 66

Milecastle 66 (Stanwix Bank) – to the left as we cross the bridge – was noted by Thomas Pennant in 1772 on his way north to explore Scotland again. He saw it perched on the edge of the north bank of the river, recording ‘vestiges of some dikes describing a small square’ but no trace now remains.

Wall Mile 74

Wall Mile 74 [HB 358]

As with Wall Mile 75, nothing is known about Wall Mile 74. This might therefore be a good time to consider the Turf Wall.

Initially, Hadrian’s Wall consisted of a stone curtain wall between Newcastle and the River Irthing (Wall Miles 4 to 48) and then a turf rampart from the Irthing to Bowness (49 to 79). The rampart, nowadays called the Turf Wall, was built on a base about 6m (20 Roman feet) wide with no foundation trench; in some places just laid turves, in others cobbles, were used as a base, but it seems to have depended what materials were available. The rear face sloped at an angle of about 67° and the front was vertical near the base and then probably sloped above.

The Turf Wall was equipped with turf and timber milecastles but stone turrets. These turrets, built free-standing and with the turf rampart then butted against them, were retained when the stone curtain wall was built. The ditch that was dug for the Turf Wall was retained for the Stone Wall, although the berm increased in width from around 1.9–2.4m (6–8 Roman feet) to 6m (20 Roman feet).

Turf Wall reconstruction

Reconstruction of part of the Turf Wall and a Turf Wall milecastle tower

It is assumed there was some sort of wooden superstructure, such as a walkway and parapet, but almost no evidence has survived to support this. The one clue that there might have been a walkway comes from the fact that when the Turf Wall was replaced by a stone curtain, that stone wall was set back slightly from the front of the turrets. Some scholars have suggested this shows it was lined up with existing doorways on the turrets giving access to a walkway.

When forts were added, those in Wall Miles 49 to 79 started as turf-and-timber constructions (this has been shown by excavation at Bowness, Drumburgh, and Castlesteads, and presumed for Burgh, Stanwix, and Birdoswald).

Reconstructions of the Turf Wall can be seen at Vindolanda and in the Borders Gallery of Tullie House Museum in Carlisle.

Milecastle 74 (Burgh Marsh) [HB 358; haiku]

Naturally, Milecastle 74 (Burgh Marsh) has not been found.