Come and discover the heritage of the Western Lake District and Hadrian’s Wall Country this Summer and follow in the footsteps of the ancient pilgrims, discover the majesty of the coast and the tranquility of the fells, places that never cease to inspire.
Let’s set the scene - the year is AD 43 and the conquest of Britain by the Romans begins in earnest, but due to fierce resistance by hill tribes from the west and north it takes another forty years to consolidate. Later as part of this continued consolidation Emperor Hadrian builds a wall in AD 122, which clearly defined the northern frontier of the Roman Empire in Britain.
Fast forward a thousand years and the latest wave of conquerors – the Normans – are embarking on an unprecedented national church-building programme. With a policy of using local materials wherever possible, here they choose to recycle stone from Hadrian’s Wall to create their monuments to the glory of God. Places of peace and spirituality fashioned from the building blocks of conflict.
The question is what was happening after the departure of the Romans and the arrival of the Normans? There is increasing evidence from across Hadrian’s Wall that the end of Roman imperial administration did not mean that everything came to a stop and the country descended into chaos. Many sites continued to be occupied through the fifth and sixth centuries as people kept things going as best they could. The garrisons of the former Roman forts are also likely to have stayed put – for several generations they had been locally recruited and would have been firmly rooted to their local areas. They probably provided the nucleus of the warrior bands that supported local leaders who filled the power vacuum following the end of Roman rule. Christian religion, the official religion of the late Roman Empire, may have been an important element helping to bind society together in troubled times.
Some of the best evidence of this continuity and of the importance of Christianity comes from West Cumbria and the western end of Hadrian’s Wall Country. At Birdoswald fort east of Carlisle a local leader or warlord built a timber hall on the foundations of a Roman granary. Carlisle seems to have been the administrative centre for the whole Roman frontier, from Ravenglass to South Shields and was the only town in northern England whose citizens were allowed by the Romans to govern themselves (a civitas).
Roman buildings still existed in the city and fountains still functioned when Bishop Cuthbert visited in 780 AD. Cuthbert’s visit also suggests Carlisle was an important ecclesiastical centre at this time, which ties in with our knowledge of strong Christian heritage in Dumfries and Galloway from the fifth century at sites such as Whithorn and Kirkmadrine. There is circumstantial evidence to suggest that St Patrick came from a settlement near Birdoswald fort.
At Maryport a stone bearing the chi rho, an early Christian symbol, originally part of the Senhouse collection of Roman artifacts in Maryport, gave a clue to continuity here. (The original disappeared in the early C20, and it is believed to have been returned to Italy at the request of Mussolini in the 1930’s).
But what really adds weight to our understanding of the Cumbrian coast as an important early Christian centre is an ongoing archaeological dig at Camp Farm, Maryport, which has so far revealed four early Christian graves, overlooking the Roman fort and settlement.
The painstaking excavation carried out by a team from Newcastle University alongside local volunteers has revealed bone fragments, caps of tooth enamel, a glass bead necklace and a tiny fragment, about the size of a thumbnail, of ancient textile. New things are being discovered on an almost daily basis, which is providing archaeologists with new insights into what happened on the site across hundreds of years.
It will take a while to process all the information following the dig but initially the archaeologists believe they are looking at an early Christian cemetery close to a sequence of Christian religious buildings. If this is the case then this is a very exciting discovery - an early post-Roman Christian religious site occupied at the same time as other famous early Christian sites at Whithorn and at Hoddom across the Solway in Dumfriesshire.
The westernmost grave is a typical long cist grave, lined with stones. Such graves, found occasionally in the west of Britain and in southern Scotland, are characteristic of the late Roman and early post-Roman Christian settlements of the area. They are dated to the period 400 to 600AD. In this stone lined grave was a white quartz stone, deliberately placed there at the burial. This is also a marker of this period, found at several sites including Whithorn in Dumfriesshire, in Ireland and on the Isle of Man, and at Whitby in North Yorkshire.
The deepest grave, also stone lined, is very small, possibly the grave of a child. In one corner, coiled up, was a necklace of glass beads. In a pagan grave the deceased would probably have been wearing this necklace, but here it looks as though it has been placed in the corner, possibly as a favourite object deposited as a keepsake. The textile fragment was found during wet-sieving of the lower fill of this grave.
The bone fragments and the textile fragment will now be sent to an archaeological laboratory to see if there is enough material for radiocarbon dating, and the glass necklace will be conserved for display in the Senhouse Roman Museum.
Peter Greggains of the Senhouse Museum Trust said: “We are delighted that, for the second year in succession, the careful work of the volunteers and the Newcastle University team, ably directed by Ian and Tony, has produced such breath-taking results.
“The Maryport site’s importance as a unique and valuable resource capable of providing information about the remote past has been established beyond doubt, and we now have new light on the Dark Ages.”
Nigel Mills, director of world heritage and access for the Hadrian’s Wall Trust said: “We are delighted that the importance of Maryport in the Hadrian’s Wall World Heritage Site is being fully confirmed through this important work.
“Evidence of continued occupation of former Roman sites across Hadrian’s Wall is transforming our understanding of how people adapted to the end of Roman rule.”
This year’s Maryport excavation is funded by the Senhouse Museum Trust, Newcastle University and the Mouswald Trust. The team includes archaeologists and students from Newcastle University and 42 local volunteers.
The site is part of the Hadrian’s Wall World Heritage Site and a scheduled ancient monument. It is owned by the Hadrian’s Wall Trust and is part of the proposed Roman Maryport heritage development.
This Saturday, 4 August, there is an excavation open day from 11am to 4pm for people to find out about what goes on behind the scenes of an excavation. Senhouse Roman Museum admission applies.
Visitors to the museum will be able to take guided tours around the site and to the site of the Roman fort and civilian settlement until Tuesday 14 August, every day except Saturday. Due to the nature and location of the site all public access will be by guided walks to the site led by the museum’s volunteer guides (starting at 2pm & 3.30pm), followed by a tour of the excavation led by one of the site supervisors. The tour of the excavation is included in the museum admission and will add up to 1 hour to the museum visit. The museum will be open every day, 10am – 5pm. Museum admission: Adult - £3.00, child - £1.00, family - £8.00.
More information is available at www.senhousemuseum.co.uk
For further information about early Christianity along the Solway Coast, Cumbria visit http://www.solwaycoastaonb.org.uk/abbeyhistory.php where you can discover sites including Holme Cultram Abbey, Abbeytown.
For more information about the Western Lake District please visit www.western-lakedistrict.co.uk for a wealth of information on the area’s many foods, activities and accommodation offerings.
For more information about Hadrian’s Wall Country, including detail on Connecting Light, the London 2012 Festival art installation on 31 August and 1 September, and the national walking and cycling routes that connect the coast to the Wall
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