Maryport, Cumbria: facts and pseudo-facts

The western end of Hadrian’s Wall is at Bowness on Solway. It must have been clear to the emperor and his military engineers that the flank of the wall at this point could easily be turned by seaborne raiders crossing the Solway Firth from ‘Scotland’. Accordingly, for some thirty miles, small mile-forts were constructed down the west coast of Cumbria supported by large auxiliary forts like those at Ravenglass and Maryport (Alauna). The mile-forts don’t seem to have survived the construction of a second wall by Hadrian’s successor as emperor, Antoninus Pius. The large forts had a much longer existence and the one at Maryport may well have survived to the end of the Roman period.

The Senhouse Museum at Maryport houses many important finds discovered during excavations in the fort and the surrounding areas, a collection that has taken several hundred years for the Senhouse family to accumulate. Among these finds are a group of altars with inscriptions addressed to the Roman father god Jove, Jupiter Optimus Maximus. The altars were dedicated by the military tribunes who commanded the auxiliary cohort stationed at the fort. Groups of altars inscribed with the same tribune’s name makes it certain that an altar dedication ritual was an annual event. So much is fact.

The altars were originally excavated from pits and when these were re-examined in the 1870s it was decided that the area of land concerned was the fort’s parade ground, and that each year an altar had been laid to rest with reverence there, as it was replaced by the new year’s example. This theory has been widely quoted in papers and textbooks; it is even illustrated in the museum. It is however quite untrue; a pseudo-fact if you will.

Recently I had the opportunity of hearing the most recent excavation site director, Tony Willmott, talk about his findings. For some years it has been known that the parade ground was situated elsewhere. He and others have been investigating a huge vicus or civilian settlement that grew up round the fort, and which seems to have survived longer than most. The location of the fort was certainly involved in the worship of Jupiter and a building originally identified by Victorian excavators has now been confirmed as a classical temple, the most northerly example in the empire.

Tony Wilmott also re-excavated the pits from which the altars were originally recovered, and was rewarded by the discovery of a further and final example. Many other pits simply contained stones. It turns out that far from ritual burial the altars, and stones, originally just formed stone packing round large post holes. The posts themselves, now long since rotted away, must have supported a major building. The ground plan strongly suggests an apsed structure compatible with an early Christian church. This hypothesis is made more probable by the nearby discovery of some cist burials, a form of early stone-lined Christian interment found in Scotland.

The new fact seem to be that in the late Roman, or early post-Imperial, period the classical temple was demolished and nearby a large timber-framed building constructed which was quite possibly a church. There were other Solway Christian sites nearby, notable St Ninian’s foundation of Whithorn, and the unknown ‘Bannaventa burniae’ from which St Patrick was seized by Irish pirates. This was possibly Ravenglass (Glannoventa), although this may be a pseudo-fact of course.

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