A Visit to Hadrian’s Wall 3 – Housesteads Fort

465 Housesteads barracks 2

Housesteads Fort (Roman name Vercovicium) is a wonderful place to visit for its location and views alone but it’s also the best preserved of all the forts along the Wall. It’s a World Heritage Site and is owned by the National Trust and managed by English Heritage.

Hadrians Wall 2
Location of Hadrian’s Wall and the Antonine Wall. Author: NormanEinstein. Creative Commons

Housesteads is roughly half way along Hadrian’s Wall and is one of sixteen forts that housed around 10,000 men between them. Archaeologists believe that the original plan for Hadrian’s Wall did not include forts, as several (like Vindolanda) were already garrisoned along the Stanegate Road a mile or so south. The first plan had only manned milecastles and turrets at regular intervals. Once work started, around AD 124, plans changed and a recently built turret was demolished to make way for this fort, the remains of which can still be seen today.

The fort sits high on the escarpment of the Whin Sill ridge on the dip slope to the south of the Wall. At the bottom of the slope is the entrance to the site and where the visitor centre and main car park are located.

502 Map on display at the Visitor Centre (lower down the hill)

The map above is from an information board at the site. It shows the immediate location of the fort, the area to the south of it and the path along which visitors walk up to the fort from the entrance. Disabled visitors can drive further up to the disabled parking area (marked 3 on the map). The other numbered buildings are the little museum (6) activity centre (7) and a holiday cottage (8). The general car park, visitor centre and food and drinks kiosk are a little outside this section of the map. (10) refers to the fort and (9) is the vicus (civilian settlement).

The photo below shows part of the same area, looking south from the fort to part-way down the hill. Some of the ruins of the vicus can be seen in the foreground. 449 View south from Housesteads Fort

Looking north from the fort there are views down to the Knag Burn Gate (just visible in the photo in middle of the stretch of wall after the bend where the people are walking). It is thought that this was inserted in the fourth century, possibly to allow easier passage through the Wall. Gates at either end of the passage suggest that travellers were held inside and searched. Open Northumbrian countryside stretches out beyond the photo and on to the Tyne Valley and Scottish borders.

469 Looking north down to the Knag Burn Ggate

Houseteads has the usual, playing card shape of all Roman forts, its northern side lying along the Wall itself. To the south are the ruins of the vicus. During excavations there in 1932, two skeletons were found beneath a newly laid floor. One, a man, had a sword still embedded in the ribs. The cause of death of the woman with him is unknown. Needless to say, the house has since been called the ‘Murder House’.

450 Housesteads Fort and Vicus

In the centre of the fort are the main buildings. The most central one is the Headquarters, or Principia – the administrative, ceremonial and symbolic heart of the fort.

280 HQ building at Housesteads

It faced the east gate and sat at the junction of the major roads from the gateways.

483 Plan of Housesteads Fort 3

Next to that, on the southern side (right in the diagram immediately above) is the Praetorium or Commanding Officer’s House, with its central courtyard. The Commander lived in style and entertained a lot!

287 Praetorium at Housesteads

At the opposite side of the HQ building are the usual granaries – vital to the feeding of the garrison. The impressive system of underfloor heating/ventilation can still be seen. 475 Housesteads Granary

Hospital at Housesteads
The hospital at Housesteads. Photograph by Mike Peel (www.mikepeel.net). Creative Commons

Another point of interest is that Housesteads had its own hospital with what archaeologists believe to be evidence of an operating theatre. On the above plan, the hospital sits behind (west) of the HQ building.

Either side of this important central area were the soldiers’ barracks, the stables and workshops. My ‘header’ image is an artist’s impression, from an information board at the site, of the outside of a barracks block. This is what they look like today:

Other buildings included stables and workshops – and in the far south-east corner, the lowest point in the fort, is an impressive latrine! For eight years on the trot of going with the school to Housesteads, I seemed to land the roll of ‘Toilet Attendant’! I would stand up there while groups of about fifteen students at a time gathered round to listen to me deliver my spiel.

As archaeological evidence, I must admit, the Housetseads latrine is fascinating. Here are a couple of photos of what can be seen today:

Yes, the latrine was what we would call a communal loo! The men would sit along either side (it could take about a dozen men each side) and do whatever they came to do whilst enjoying friendly banter with their mates. They could have been discussing the ‘son of a bitch’ centurion, or perhaps bemoaning the rigorous daily training expected of them – or even a recent barbarian attack. The question which generally came as one of the first from the students was ‘What did they use for loo roll?”

Well, take a look at these artist’s impressions of what the latrine would have looked like:

For starters, it wasn’t an open-air venue and secondly, the men are not holding lollipops. Those items are simply referred to as ‘a sponges on sticks’ (although I imagine the Romans had other names for them). The drainage channels in front of them are where the sponges were put after use – ready for the next person who needed one. Who needs loo roll, when you can use one of those?

However, there is no evidence that ‘sponges on sticks’ were ever used in Britain. The artist’s impression above is based on evidence from Roman latrines around the Mediterranean. It could be that Romans in Britain used the same ‘toiletries’ as the rest of the ‘barbarians’ – grass, bracken or moss.

Beneath the wooden seats were sewers for the waste, which was flushed away through a conduit to the hillside below. Tanks to collect rainwater stood around the fort, as there was no running water inside. This tank stands outside the latrine, one of several that would have provided water for the sewage system. It can also be seen on the first photo of the latrines above:

286 Water tank at Housesteads

After AD 300 major changes were made to the fort, possibly linked to the way in which the Roman Army was now organised. The old barracks – which housed a century of men (i.e. 80) in ten compartments – were demolished and replaced by chalets for individual soldiers, suggesting that the numbers of men stationed there were declining. The west gate was blocked with stone and in the fourth century, a new bath house was built inside the fort and the isolated, outer one abandoned, suggesting that the security of soldiers may have been a concern.

By AD 410,the Roman Army had been withdrawn from Britain, leaving these islands wide open for attacks from peoples from continental Europe: Angles, Saxons, Jutes, Frisians and a few hundred years later, Danish and Norwegian Vikings. And last but not least were the Normans in 1066.

Some of he many ‘finds’ from Houseteads can be seen in the little museum. Others are housed at the museum at Chesters Roman fort further east, and others at the Museum of Antiquites in Newcastle.

  • All images, other than two from Wikimedia and my own photos are from information boards around the Housesteads site. Information from the same boards and a variety of booklets form the site.

A Visit to Murton Park Viking Village

287 Vikings 2

Last Saturday we had a great visit to the Murton Park Viking Village which is on the site of the Yorkshire Museum of Farming just outside of York. Although we took lots of photos of wonderful old farm machinery, this post is not about old farming methods on this occasion. Today I want to focus on Vikings!

The reconstructed Viking village is excellent, and made specifically for the reenactment group who call themselves Jorfor’s Hall. I found out about them on Twitter (@jorforshall). The village is described as a Danelaw Farming Communityand over this particular weekend (9th and 10th April) the Vikings were in residence. This is the entrance into the village:

055 Entrance to Viking Village

And this is how the group describe themselves on their website, Jorfor’s Hall:

“Jorfor and his family are hunters and trappers, most of them originally hailing from the Troms area of northern Norway, though they have travelled far across the Viking world, some further than others, and settled in many different lands”.

The group takes part in Viking events all over the country, as well as featuring regularly at Murton Park. Events are tailored for a variety of needs including school parties, youth clubs, fairs, fetes and shows. They also take part at the Jorvik Viking Festival in York in February.

The weather on Saturday morning was a bit dreary to start with, and it was very wet underfoot, but that only served to illustrate the conditions people would have lived with 1100 years ago. Most of the pathways through the settlement were wood-planked, to counteract the mud. This tallies with what I found when doing my research several years ago about the Danish trading town of Hedeby. 

This was the man in charge, the chieftain of the village, wth the very appropriate name of Bear. Thankfully, he was a very friendly bear and told us a lot about the great helmet he’s wearing or holding in these photos, as well as how it compares in battle to the one on the stool.

I’d run a mile fast if I saw someone coming at me wearing a helmet like that – and that, according to Bear, was exactly what the helmet was supposed to do: terrify people (especially when the man wearing it was as big as Bear!). The helmet, however, was not the typical Viking style; the more usual design being like the one with a nose guard, shown on the stool. Bear’s helmet is a replica of a famous one discovered in Norway. I think (but I’m not sure) Bear said it was the one found in a 10th century chieftain’s grave at Gjermundbu.

I found this picture of it on Wikimedia Commons.

Viking helmet from Gjermundbufunnet, now at Kulturhistorisk museum. Author: J Jeblad. Creative Commons
Viking helmet from Gjermundbufunnet, now at Kulturhistorisk museum. Author: J
Jeblad. Creative Commons

However, Bear did say that this helmet could be one that had been brought back from the East (trade or raid) and the style was not adopted for long amongst the Vikings. Although the facial shield and eye mask are intimidating to say the least, they could be disastrous in battle. A sword thrust into an eye socket would  direct the sword straight into the eye! With the more usual nose guard, there was the possibility of the sword being deflected away from the eye.

The village itself displays a variety of housing styles and shop fronts, generally from the 9th and I0th centuries. But, as it says on the information poster at the entrance, no one knows for certain what buildings looked like. They were all made of timber, which rots away leaving little evidence. Roofing materials in the village vary from thatch to split tree trunks, wood planks and shingles and some of the buildings are decorated with colourful designs and some some have little gardens:

Inside these houses, space was limited and indoor life continued around the ever-present central hearth fire. Every home would have a loom, where women would make clothes, blankets and wall hangings. Storage chests did what storage chests usually do. 🙂

To finish with, these are a few of the villagers themselves, some about their work, others just cooking or socialising. Jobs and trades around the village would be many and varied, and of course, warriors would always be on the alert in case of attack.

. . . and the cross section through the hull of a reconstructed Viking ship that greets visitors on the way in. It shows how Viking ships were built using overlapping wooden planks (known as clinker planking) which made them waterproof. This technique is still used today in wooden ship construction. It was donated by the Yorkshire Museum.

057 Viking ship reconstruction

Mother Shipton’s Cave

096 Entrance 3

I’ve been away in York for the past five days, during which time we visited several interesting sites. We decided to go to York initially to visit a Viking Village at Murton on Saturday, but we managed to fill the rest of the days very nicely, too. I must apologise for not visiting blogs at this time, as the internet connection in the hotel was more off than on. I hope to get to as many as I can in the next few days.

Anyway, the Mother Shipton site was the first one we visited and here’s some information about it.

Mother Shipton’s Cave – a site which also includes the Petrifying Well – has been England’s oldest visitor attraction since 1630. It’s located in the historic market town of Knaresborough, four miles east of Harrogate, in North Yorkshire, UK.

Map of North Yorkshire, UK. Author Nilfanion, created using O.S. data. Creative Commons.

The actual cave was home to England’s most famous clairvoyant and prophetess – Mother Shipton herself:

063 Mother Shipton in her cave
Sculpture of Mother Shipton in her cave

This famous attraction sits in unspoilt parkland, a remnant of the once extensive Royal Forest of Knaresborough. The park lies along the banks of the River Nidd, which at this stage, flows through a gorge created by a glacier during the last Ice Age, 12 000 years ago.

There are many lovely views across the river. Some simply look over to the buildings of the town, others to the gorge and Knaresborough Castle sitting atop it. And across an impressive, roaring weir is the old mill, aptly known as Castle Mill. There are also great views of the viaduct carrying the railway, and the lower (in height) bridge known at the High Bridge.

As our visit was during the Easter holidays, a special children’s event was running, this one with the theme of Alice in Wonderland. It involved some of the staff dressing up in costumes, such as the Queen of Hearts, the Mad Hatter and White Rabbit. Children seemed to be enjoying the fun:

Both Mother Shipton’s Cave and the Petrifying Well are natural geological features which can be found close to each other on the site. The latter never fails to fascinate visitors from near and far. It was first opened to the general public in 1630:

Any object left in this well for a period of months/years becomes ‘stony’ on the exterior. It’s a natural phenomenon, due to the evaporation of water with a high mineral content. Nowadays, objects from various ‘celebrities’ have been left to undergo transformation. But at one time, these strange occurrences at the Petrifying Well were believed to be the result of magic or witchcraft. People believed if they just touched the water they would be turned into stone.

So, just who was Mother Shipton . . . ?

Mother Shipton was born on a stormy night in 1488, with the name of Ursula Southeil. Her fifteen-year-old mother, Agatha, gave birth in the cave after being banished for refusing to reveal the name of the father of her unborn child. After two years of a struggling to survive in the cave, the fate of the mother and child became known to the Abbot of Beverley, who decided to help them.  Little Ursula was taken into the home of a local family, but her mother was sent to a convent in Nottinghamshire, here she died two years later.

As a child, Ursula grew to love Knaresborough and often played along the banks of the Nidd. At school she far surpassed other children at reading and writing, but her looks were what most people saw as ugly. The other children taunted her and ridiculed her long, crooked nose, bent back and twisted legs. They even claimed she took her revenge, and could feel her by pulling their hair and pushing them to the ground – when she was nowhere near.

Mother Shipton 2
Old engraving of Mother Shipton. Author Unknown. Public Domain.

Ursula soon realised that she much preferred to be on her own, and came to spend most of her time in the cave. Despite having no memory of having lived there, she claimed it drew her back. She learnt much about the forest, its plants and herbs, and how to make cures for ailments and various potions. She also discovered, she was able to predict the future, and her prophecies are what she became famous for.

At twenty four, Ursula  met and married Thomas Shipton, a carpenter from York. For two years they were very happy, but Thomas died young – before any children had been born. But Ursula kept the name of Shipton, and as she aged, the title of ‘Mother’ was added to it. She died in 1561 at the age of seventy three, but her prophecies lived on . . .

Mother Shipton made many prophecies, several about people who lived during or just after her own lifetime. She predicted the end of the Catholic Church in England under Henry VIII and the fall of Cardinal Wolsey. She also foretold the death of Henry’s son, Edward VI, the ‘bloody’ events of Mary’s reign and that her sister, Elizabeth, would take the throne. Mother Shipton also foretold the coming of the Spanish Armada and, according to the diary of Samuel Pepys, the Great Fire of London in 1666.

Other predictions relate to later times, including the coming of iron ships (in the 1830s). There are dozens of these prophecies, which can easily be found online. But we need to bear in mind that many people believe them to be fake – like this one, which did not appear until 1862:

The world to an end shall come
In eighteen hundred and eighty one.

Its true author, Charles Hindley, later admitted in print that he had invented it.

In the 17th century, when witch hysteria hit England, the image of Mother Shipton gradually changed from prophetess to witch. She became known as one of England’s most renowned witches. This moth – known as the Mother Shipton Moth – got its name because of the markings on its wings, which resemble an old hag’s head. They are common over much of the British Isles, and can be seen in May and June in the woods around Mother Shipton’s Cave:

Mother Shipton Moth 2
Mother Shipton Moth, named after the pattern on the wings resembling the face of a hag. Author Callistege – mi_02 (xndr). User: Sydmolen. Creative Commons.

Hadrian’s Wall (2) – Vindolanda

031 Helmet plume from Vindolanda, how in The Roman Army Museum

Vindolanda is my favourite site to visit when we go up to Hadrian’s Wall. It has everything a history lover could want: ancient ruins to walk around – with an ongoing archaeological ‘dig’ during the summer months – and reconstructions of parts of Hadrian’s Wall. There is also an excellent, award-winning museum housing many of the finds from the dig. The scenery around the site and the landscaped gardens and little stream close to the museum are a delight in themselves.

Vindolanda was the longest occupied fort along the Roman northern frontier, built between AD74 and 85 and continuing through to end of Roman Britain in AD410. It is sited pretty much centrally between the eastern  and western ends of the Wall but is not on Hadrian’s Wall itself, being a mile or so to the south of it. These maps aren’t that clear, but they may give some idea of location:

Route of the Stanegate Road.
Route of the Stanegate Road. Author: Neddysegoon. Creative Commons
Approximate location of Vindolanda
The x marks the approximate location of Vindolanda. The photo is of an information board at Housesteads fort.

The fort, and the settlement that grew up with it, were first constructed four decades before Hadrian decided to build his wall. It formed part of a line of a few forts along the Roman road known as the Stanegate (Stone Gate). By the time the building of Hadrian’s Wall began around AD122 there had already been four forts and towns on the site (wood rots!).

At its height, Vindolanda would have supported a population of 3-4000, of which 1000 would have been largely auxilliary soldiers. The rest was made up of the soldiers’ families, traders and merchants, servant and slaves. People from all over the Roman empire would have lived here: from North Africa, Spain, Syria, France (Gaul/Gallia) and Germany and Italy itself. Hence there would be a great variety of customs, diets, dress and dialects.

395 Map - Roman Empire (2)

While Hadrian’s Wall was under construction, Vindolanda became a sort of ‘base camp’ for the legionaries and many workers involved. Once the Wall was completed, Vindolanda formed part of the Wall garrison, despite being a mile south of the actual Wall.

But the population of Vindolanda was always on the move, shifting from one ‘posting’ to the next, and the majority of the people would have gone with them. At one point, between AD280-304/5, the site was abandoned and lay derelict, and was rebuilt in AD305. Excavations have unearthed remains of a large bonfire on the site. It had been used to destroy all the household goods of the prefect/commanding officer at that time as his household prepared to move on to another site. At he bottom of the huge pile of remains, many letters and other communications had survived: wonderful archaeological evidence of life up on the Wall at that time.

All this construction and rebuilding work meant that in places it has been necessary for archaeologists to dig down as much as 7 metres below the original ground level to reach many of the ‘finds’.  But the constant renewal of the site also helped to create the excellent preservation conditions (anaerobic/anoxic levels) where there is little or no oxygen.

Photo of excavation work at Vindolanda from a display board inside the museum.
Photo of excavation work at Vindolanda from a display board inside the museum.

The ruins need to be viewed in two parts. First there is the fort. Although there is still a lot of it to be excavated, some buildings are clearly identifiable. Most of the outer walls and gates are visible, as well as both the NE and SW corners and a latrine. As all Roman forts, this one had the typical playing-card shape (rectangular with rounded corners). It also had the three central and most important buildings of every fort: the headquarters building; the commanding officer’s/prefect’s house and the granaries. Then there were the other usual buildings such as the soldiers’ barracks, latrines and so on. I don’t intend to describe all these here because my next post is about a single fort (Housesteads) and I’ll be talking about that then.

What I’d like to focus on now is the vicus at Vindolanda  – the settlement that grew up outside the walls of the fort.

066 Model of Fort and Vicus on Entering Vindolanda
Model of the fort and vicus at Vindolanda in the entrance to the site.
Plan of Vicus at Vindolanda
Plan of Vicus at Vindolanda

The present day ruins are quite incredible and give us plenty of insight into everyday life in a Roman settlement at this time.  I couldn’t possibly describe all of the different remains in a single post but they included everything from temples and mausolea, shops of various types, a tavern and workshops to a military bath house, wells and water tanks.

Finds from the dig have produced the most important archaeological discovery of the last 50 years: the writing tablets. They are currently housed in the museum – on loan from the British Museum in London – and displayed in an hermetically sealed case, protected from the decaying effects of oxygen, moisture and humidity.

The first writing tablet from Vindolanda was unearthed over 30 years ago. It was one of the most important archaeological discoveries in Britain since 1945. The collection of about 2,000 documents is an invaluable source of information about life in the Roman army on the northern frontiers during the years immediately before the building of Hadrian’s Wall. The tablet I always loved is one from Claudia Severa to Sulpicia Lepidina, the wife of the garrison’s commanding officer in AD100, inviting her to her birthday party. But the largest tablet is a four page one from Octavius to Candidus, listing business transactions between Vidolanda and Catterick Roman fort in Yorkshire, roughly 68 miles away. It contains the amusing phrase ‘the roads are awful’!

Other ‘finds’ from the dig include armour, shoes, socks, wigs, wood and leather items, textiles, glass, pottery, ironwork, inscriptions and sculpture. One of the most impressive finds is the hair-moss crest from a helmet, now housed at the Roman Army Museum at Carvoran, where we photographed it. That museum is also run by the Vindolanda Trust (so, unlike some of the other sites along the Wall, these two are not run by English Heritage or National Trust).

031 Helmet plume from Vindolanda, how in The Roman Army Museum

This was made from a type of moss that grows nearby, simply referred to as ‘hair moss’. It is believed these crests would have been in several colours, but the only one I found on Wikipedia was red:

Reconstruction of a centurion helmet with crest made of hair moss. Photographed from a show of Legio XV from Pram, Austria, No details about author. Creative Commons
Reconstruction of a centurion helmet with crest made of hair moss. Photographed from a show of Legio XV from Pram, Austria, No details about author. Creative Commons

Here’s a selection of other finds on display at Vindolanda. Most were displayed behind glass and in bright lights …sorry about the glare:

To finish with here a a few photos of the Temple to the Water Nymphs and a couple of altar stones outside . . .

. . . and some photos from inside the reconstructed house and shop nearby:

Following the Roman period the Vindolanda site was of little importance to anyone other than farmers and those needing stone to build their houses. Odd artefacts turned up occasionally, but the reality of what lay beneath the soil remained a mystery. When more and more finds were made, in 1832, the Reverend Anthony Hedley built his new house on the site and called it Chesterholm. The house is now an integral part of the museum. He also made the first real steps in preserving the site.

Yet it wasn’t until 1929 when young scholar, Eric Birley, bought the property that the amazing potential of Vindolanda came to light. He ran the first series of excavations, but the Second World War put a halt on things for a while. After the war, excavations continued, and the site stayed in the hands of the Birley family until 1970 when Eric’s son, Robin, handed it over to the Vindolanda Trust on behalf of the nation.

I haven’t done credit to the Birley family here as this post is rapidly becoming a book! But if you visit Vindolanda during the summer, you may catch a glimpse of one or the other of this awesome family, still happily digging away.

437 Wooden and stone turrets at Vindolanda