The 19th century saw several important discoveries within the Roman settlement that lies north-east of the fort at Maryport, but since then little substantive archaeological work had been carried out on the site – until recently. Between 2011 and 2015, two major research excavations were undertaken at Maryport: the Altars and Temples Project, and the Settlement Project. The former sought to contextualise and understand some of the most significant antiquarian discoveries: a cache of 17 altars, found in a series of pits, and two putative temples. Meanwhile, the Settlement Project targeted a previously unexcavated area at the heart of the extramural occupation, aiming to illuminate the everyday lives of the site’s ‘ordinary’ inhabitants. What did these initiatives reveal?
The spectacular collection of Roman military altars held by the Senhouse Museum at Maryport is justifiably famous. Seventeen of these were found in 1870, enigmatically buried in pits, and following the publication of a paper by Peter Wenham in 1939 it was believed that when, every year, a new altar was erected at the site, the previous year’s altar was ritually interred at the same time. This was an appealing image, but by the 1990s a variety of factors had cast serious doubt on the idea.
To investigate further, in 2011 the Senhouse Museum Trust commissioned Newcastle University to excavate the location of the altars’ discovery, hoping to unpick why, how, and when the altars were buried, and where they had been dedicated and venerated. It was also important to understand the archaeological methods of our predecessors. Five seasons of excavation followed, running until 2015. What emerged was illuminating.
Our first two seasons focused on the site of the original altar finds (reported in CA 259 and 289), re-excavating the pits in which they had been placed. Importantly, this proved that the diggers of 1870 and earlier had very seldom emptied the pits stratigraphically, meaning that elements of the original fills were left in situ. From this we could tell that the pits had been filled with stone, and many preserved a green imprint measuring 300mm across at their base. As more pits were excavated and different proportions of fill were encountered, it became clear that these imprints represented the bases of foot-square posts.
In many cases we could still see the shape of these posts, thanks to surviving post-pipes filled with soft silt, and the stone fill was revealed to be post-packing. It was not until the broken corner of an altar (removed from the site before 1725 and now in the Senhouse Museum) was found in one of these post-pits, though, that it was realised that the altars too had simply functioned as post-packing – a far cry from the ritual interment that had been imagined before. This was confirmed when another, virtually undisturbed, pit was excavated: this also retained its post-pipe, packed with stone, and at the base of this packing was a previously undiscovered complete altar. Like so many others, it was dedicated to Jupiter Optimus Maximus (IOM), and its dedicator was also familiar: T Attius Tutor of the 1st cohort of Baetasians, whose name is known from three other altars recovered in 1870.
What were the post-pits for? Their size suggests they had once supported the timbers of a building of significant size which, placed as it was on the highest point of the site, would have been visible for many miles around. However, the fact that so many of the pits lie on different alignments testifies to there being a sequence of structures on the same site. While these were difficult to interpret, what is clear is that one phase of building was characterised by a semi-circular arrangement of posts on its west side. The pits also cut the fill of an earlier ring ditch, in the bottom of which was pottery of the late 4th century, so these timber buildings were therefore later in date. Their precise purpose, though, for now remains a mystery.
Close to the pits we found seven graves, apparently marking the edge of an inhumation cemetery. Some took the form of stone-lined cists familiar from very late Roman and early post-Roman cemeteries, though it is still unclear whether there was a chronological and functional link between the cemetery and the timber building(s).
Having established how and why the altars had been buried, we still needed to try to find out where they had originally been set up. In an attempt to establish this, a second site, previously excavated by local antiquarian Joseph Robinson in 1880, was excavated in 2013-2015. His work had been prompted by the discovery of another altar, dedicated by one of the unit commanders familiar from the 1870 finds, but it wasn’t just altars that came to light during Robinson’s investigation. Instead, he excavated the remains of two stone-built structures, one circular and one rectangular.
What were these structures? The first Roman phase on the site consisted of a pattern of ditches dividing the landscape into approximately rectangular plots, and, spatially, Robinson’s circular building lay within one of these enclosures. Radiocarbon dating added to this picture: analysis of burnt material from contemporary features suggested that it was used in the Hadrianic-Antonine period.
Later, the ditches were backfilled, and the cult area was enlarged and elaborated. Robinson’s rectangular building was constructed, next to the circular structure, over one of the earlier ditches. Beneath it was a foundation deposit comprising a cremated sheep, and radiocarbon dates showed that the building was mid to late 3rd century in date.
Although the building had been badly robbed, it was clearly a Classical temple with a tetrastyle façade, the north-westernmost example so far discovered in the Roman Empire. An area of stone had been identified by Robinson as the building’s collapsed back wall, and though much had been robbed away since 1880, the fragment that remained for us to investigate included the top of the wall, the cornice, and part of the roof gable, enabling us to determine its pitch and to create an accurate reconstruction of the building’s appearance. The area to the north of the temples was home to a contemporary cobbled surface, as well as a separate entrance building; this area’s boundaries were defined by a combination of ditches and stone walls.
Yet, while some aspects of this picture seem to be coming into focus, the mystery of the altars remains. As the 17 altars from the pits all date to the 2nd century, they must pre-date the consecration of the Classical building. Thinking continues, and we hope to feature our final conclusions in a future issue of CA.
And what of the Settlement Project? During two digging seasons in 2013-2014, Oxford Archaeology North undertook a research and community-training excavation at Maryport, on behalf of the former Hadrian’s Wall Trust, exploring part of the settlement that ran along the main road north-east of the fort. This work sought to engage a wide cross-section of the community, and to address a series of research questions raised by earlier work. In 2000-2004, an extensive geophysical survey had identified many narrow building plots that merited further investigation. Extending 350m north of the fort on both sides of the road, most of the plots appeared to contain buildings and other occupation features – and, in order to improve understanding of the settlement, we selected a representative building plot around 150m north of the fort to explore in greater detail.
The targeted plot proved to contain the remains of three successive strip buildings, each measuring about 5m wide and 15-16m long, and aligned gable end-on to the road. The earliest was constructed c.AD 130, several years after the fort itself was established, and had been replaced by a very similar structure around 20 years later. Since the earliest building clearly referenced the position of the road, this must have been in existence by the late Hadrianic period and was not, like the Military Way associated with Hadrian’s Wall, a later feature. Both the earlier buildings were entirely of timber, and each was subdivided into three rooms – few internal features survived, but part of a small altar (of a kind that might have been placed in a household shrine, though lacking an inscription) was found behind the structures.
After the second building was demolished c.AD 200, the street frontage was covered by soils containing large amounts of rubbish. This suggests that the site had been abandoned for a time, but c.AD 220-230 another strip building was erected on the same spot. This was of similar size and form to its predecessors, and probably had a largely timber-framed superstructure, though in this case the walls were placed on stone sills. The building may have had an upper floor and a reed-thatched roof, though the evidence suggests the latter was later destroyed by fire and probably replaced with stone slates.
What were these structures? There is no clear evidence that they were anything other than houses, though it is thought that many strip buildings were multifunctional, perhaps with a shop facing onto the street. Such an arrangement might explain why the front wall of the latest building was different to the others, being marked by a row of flat stones. Perhaps these supported a timber frame that was either open to the street, or which could be opened up, as might be the case in a shop. The area behind the buildings does not seem to have contained any other structures, but a group of six rectangular, vertical-sided pits (presumably once timber-lined) was found, possibly representing wells and/or water cisterns.
One particularly notable feature of the occupation sequence was the continuity that we could see in the positioning of plot boundaries: they were repeatedly reinstated on or close to the original line, even after the probable occupation hiatus marked by the build-up of soil and refuse. This suggests either that the boundaries continued to be marked in some way, or that accurate records existed that allowed them to be recut.
On the south side of the plot was a well-defined area of sandstone paving, probably part of a minor street extending north-west from the main road. This surface had other secrets to give up, though: one stone was marked with a crudely incised but intriguing image, seemingly of a figure holding a square shield and brandishing a sword. This is similar to other representations of ‘warrior’ deities from Maryport, and also to depictions, found elsewhere in northern England, of the god Cocidius, whose cult centre was probably at Bewcastle, in north Cumbria.
The latest strip building had been demolished by around AD 270, which is consistent with the chronology for the end of other extramural settlements elsewhere in the Roman North. After this, the building’s stone footings were extensively robbed, and subsequent Roman activity was limited to the cutting of a ditch along the north-eastern plot boundary, and of a second, roughly perpendicular ditch to the north-west. This latter feature was associated with late 3rd- to early 4th-century pottery, but mid- to late 4th-century ceramics and coins were entirely absent from the site. It seems that this marks the end of the settlement’s life, after which it was wholly abandoned.
Tony Wilmott is a Senior Archaeologist with Historic England; Ian Haynes is Professor of Archaeology at Newcastle University; John Zant is a Project Manager at Oxford Archaeology North.