Shortly after the 13th Pilgrimage to Hadrian’s Wall was completed in 2009, the results of the Carlisle Millennium Project – an important excavation undertaken in 1998-2001 by the former Carlisle Archaeological Unit (CAU) within the Roman fort – were published by Oxford Archaeology North. A decade on, just before the start of the 14th Pilgrimage, we have also published another highly significant Carlisle site, the northern Lanes, located within the large settlement that grew up outside the fort. This was excavated by CAU between 1978-1982. What have we learned about the site since then?
Our story begins in the 1980s, when tree-ring dating of timbers in the south rampart demonstrated that the fort was founded in AD 72-73, towards the end of the Romans’ war with the Brigantes (as recorded by the historian Tacitus), and during Petillius Cerialis’ second winter as governor of Britain. It presumably formed part of an extensive network of military installations built to hold down the newly conquered territory – but what did this complex look like?
A strong case can be made for reconstructing the fort as a regular square measuring 600 by 600 Roman feet (or five actus square), covering an area of approximately 3.2ha (7.9 acres). We can also reconstruct some of its internal features: the Millennium excavations uncovered a small part of the central range, including fragments of what may have been the headquarters building (principia) and the adjacent commander’s house (praetorium), as well as elements of several barrack blocks and other buildings in the southern part of the fort.
The fort commander appears to have been an individual of high social status. Rubbish deposits adjacent to his house were found to contain several fragments of imported storage vessels, including amphorae from the Middle East that had probably contained dates or some other exotic fruit, and a piece of another amphora from southern Spain with an ink-written label detailing its contents: a high-quality (and doubtless expensive) tunny fish relish.
As for who manned the fort, the identity of its early garrison(s) is not known, although timber-lined trenches in some of the barracks are reminiscent of the urine-pits found in cavalry barracks elsewhere, and the fort was certainly large enough to accommodate a 500-strong cavalry regiment. A fragmentary writing tablet (similar to the famous examples from Vindolanda – see p.34) addressed to a trooper of one such unit, the ala Gallorum Sebosiana, was found in the fort in the early 1980s, but this individual had been seconded to the governor Agricola’s personal mounted guard, so it is not certain that the entire regiment was at Carlisle during Agricola’s tenure as governor of Britain (AD 77-83).
Tree-ring dating indicates that the fort underwent a major phase of internal reconstruction in late AD 83 or early AD 84, possibly because the primary buildings, which incorporated a lot of inferior timber, had become structurally unsound. This new fort was in use for about 20 years before it was demolished and the site temporarily vacated, until another wooden fort was established c.AD 100.
Interestingly, this one was not abandoned, as might have been anticipated, when Hadrian’s Wall and the Wall fort at Stanwix were constructed little more than 1km to the north in the early AD 120s. Instead, the Carlisle fort seems to have undergone a radical change of use, perhaps being converted to something like a stores and maintenance depot. Several exceptional pieces of armour were recovered from a probable workshop within this fort, including scale shoulder-guards and laminated limb defences, together with two (unfinished) components from a small artillery piece, the latter a unique find from Roman Britain.
Whatever the site’s new purpose, this phase came to an end after c.AD 140, when it was abandoned for a prolonged period after the northern frontier was advanced to the Forth–Clyde isthmus and the Antonine Wall was constructed. It does not seem to have been fully recommissioned until the construction of a new stone fort in the early 3rd century – a building stone in the east wall of the principia suggests that this installation was built by a detachment of Legio VI Victrix from York, though tile stamps indicate that it may have been garrisoned by men of the other two British legions: II Augusta and XX Valeria Victrix. This fort remained in use to the end of the Roman period, certainly into the early 5th century and possibly well beyond.
What of civilian life at Carlisle? At the site we published earlier this year, the northern Lanes, the earliest evidence for Roman activity comprised the remains of what was probably a small temporary camp, defended by a V-profiled ditch and a wooden palisade that was probably supplemented by a vanished bank. This is not closely dated, but seems to have pre- dated the establishment of a major road leading north to the presumed bridging point of the River Eden, which was very probably in existence by the late 1st century AD.
Aligned on this road was a large timber building measuring 11m wide and at least 52m long (possibly considerably more), which comprised a single range of rooms with a road or track extending along its back wall and at least one other, much smaller, timber building beyond that. This complex had been built after the temporary camp was abandoned, as the camp ditch was deliberately infilled at this time, and it was clearly a substantial structure. The walls of the main building, erected on massive oak baseplates set into the ground, were made from wattle-and-daub panels fixed to large wooden posts (the latter mortised into the baseplates), and the whole was rendered inside and out with plaster. Unusually, two layers of panelling had been employed, creating a cavity wall effect. The purpose of the building is not entirely clear, but it was probably a mansio, providing accommodation for those travelling on official business.
Whatever its function, the complex was ultimately destroyed by fire, possibly around the mid 2nd century AD, after which the site was gradually absorbed into the developing civilian settlement, represented by the establishment of narrow building plots (very like those at Maryport – see p.48), extending back from the main road. During the second half of the 2nd century, these contained a succession of timber-framed buildings, yards, and other occupation features, but by the early 3rd century, about the time that Carlisle was elevated to the status of a civitas capital (the administrative centre of the local tribal polity, the Carvetii), one plot held a rectangular, stone-built ‘row’ house, so-called because it comprised a simple row of three rooms.
This latter structure was similar to the strip buildings at Maryport, but was located towards the back of the plot, well away from the street (perhaps for a bit of peace and quiet), and was aligned parallel to the road, rather than perpendicular to it. This was soon enlarged by the addition of projecting wings on the frontage and a corridor at the rear, with the three original rooms being knocked together to form a large central hall. A final phase of modification saw the construction of a heated room, one of only a very few hypocaust systems known from Carlisle. Interestingly, the building turned its back on the road, instead looking east – perhaps over a garden.
Though lacking the size and sophistication of many of the townhouses of southern England (mosaics are entirely unknown at Carlisle, and painted wall plaster is also scarcely attested), this was probably, by local standards, a relatively high-status dwelling – a view supported by the discovery, in a small pit located in the yard outside, of an amber finger-ring depicting the goddess Minerva. A pewter statuette of Diana was also recovered from a later deposit nearby. Despite its rapid expansion in the early part of the 3rd century, the building was relatively short-lived, and was abandoned around the middle of the century, after which the plot appears to have remained largely vacant.
A murder mystery
By contrast, in the plot next door, relatively simple timber buildings continued to be erected on the street frontage throughout the Roman period. During the late 2nd century, this property contained a barrel-lined well, at the base of which a remarkable discovery was made: the remains of a wooden cartwheel. A century later, this same plot was the scene of a brutal murder, when a middle-aged man was beaten to death and his body thrown into another (stone-lined) well at the back of the property, his remains being concealed beneath large amounts of rubbish. The perpetrators of this crime were evidently keen to ensure that the spirit of their victim did not come looking for revenge, since the material sealing his body included the bones of ravens (birds well known for their association with death and the underworld) and two dogs (frequently found in ‘ritual’ deposits of the Roman period), together with three cattle skulls that had been used as targets in archery practice.
The exact significance of the skulls is unclear, for if they had been shot at by serving soldiers then it seems likely that they would have been found in or near the fort, not in a civilian building plot several hundred metres away. Consequently, it is conceivable that these unusual items had some specific connection with the unfortunate individual found in the well. Is it possible that he was a retired veteran, perhaps an archer who ‘kept his hand in’ by practising in his own backyard, or did the skulls find their way into the well by chance? We shall never know for sure, but their presence among other, more overtly ‘ritual’, items is suggestive.
Whatever the truth, the well and its macabre contents were soon buried and forgotten beneath a sequence of cobbled yards and timber structures representing continued occupation extending into the later 4th century. In the aftermath of this mysterious death, life at Carlisle evidently went on.
John Zant is a Project Manager at Oxford Archaeology North.