Investigating gigantic timber structures from the imperial twilight
Last time we visited Maryport, a series of pits long assumed to be ritual repositories for Roman altars had just been exposed as a set of gigantic postholes (CA 259). So what did they support? The Newcastle University team investigating this edifice have been exploring when it was erected and how it might have served its community, as Ian Haynes and Tony Wilmott told Matthew Symonds.
Answering one question in archaeology almost inevitably raises more. This has certainly been the case at Maryport, following the spectacularly successful 2011 exploration of a group of substantial pits lying to the north-west of a Roman fort. This work comprehensively debunked the longstanding notion that the pits were cut as an act of reverence to Jupiter. Yet demolishing this bastion of received wisdom brought a new problem: what were the pits really for?
Antiquarian investigation of the pits in 1870 revealed that some contained Roman altars, dedicated by the commanding officer of the unit stationed in the fort, which helped secure the western, coastal flank of Hadrian’s Wall. Neatly carved into the red sandstone face of many altars were the letters IOM, the formula for Iupiter Optimus Maximus: ‘Jupiter Best and Greatest’. The 2011 investigation found that in their haste to recover more of these remarkable monoliths, the antiquarians had overlooked a key feature of the pits: they contained postholes. Rather than ensuring an honourable burial for the altars, the people manhandling them into holes were simply using them as ballast in a monumental building project.
Further excavation in 2012 and 2013 focused on teasing out the extent of the pits. The result has little in common with the haphazard mass of pits plotted on a plan published in the aftermath of the antiquarian soundings. ‘It is very difficult indeed to relate anything in the classic plan to what we have,’ says Ian Haynes, project director and Professor of Archaeology at Newcastle University. ‘Having said that, the original description of the plan says that it shows “the diggings”; if you take that literally, then it could record the holes dug by the antiquarians, rather than the Roman pits they found.’ Yet, while the modern work has scrupulously recorded the location of the pits and, where traces survived, the posts they held, the resulting plan is still not a neat fit for any known building type.
The structure has led to a lot of head-scratching,’ Ian says. ‘At the moment, I think it is well on the way to being a type site of its own.’ Attempts to understand the pattern of pits prompted the excavation team, funded by the Senhouse Trust and Newcastle University, with access to the land granted by Hadrian’s Wall Trust, to explore both the immediate vicinity of the timber complex and its location in the wider landscape. As well as adding another altar to the collection on display in the Senhouse Museum, the ongoing excavations continue to raise fascinating questions about life at Maryport as Roman control of Britain disintegrated.
It has taken three seasons of work to determine the extent of the pits, which are now known to number 64 in total. ‘Ten rows of posts have emerged, and they are rather interesting,’ Ian explains. ‘The rows extend further to the north—south than the east—west. They are not parallel, and the three rows to the east consist of noticeably smaller post pits. These are about 90cm in diameter — so they’re circular — as opposed to the squares with 1.3m-long sides that hold the remainder of the posts. Nevertheless, they seem to contain fragments of altar stone and held timber uprights of the same basic dimensions as the others, which is about 30cm square. Crucially, among these three smaller rows, one seems to slightly overlap with, and in two places cut, the pits in another row. That gives us a sense we are dealing with two phases.’
Initial attempts to impose order on the pit cluster have resulted in the tentative identification of two structures: a larger building to the west, and a smaller one standing over the circular postholes to the east. While the only dating evidence to come from the pits themselves is the mid-2nd-century altars they contain, their relationship with another feature on the site helped to refine their chronology.
When excavations commenced in 2011, the team soon discovered that a ring ditch also sliced through the area under excavation. This was found to contain an altar fragment similar to those packed in the pits, as well as fragments of Crambeck parchment ware — an unassuming, off-grey pottery that dates to the late 4th century AD. As the ditch intersected with one of the pit rows, disentangling which came first had important implications for the timber structures. After careful study, Ian and Tony concluded that the pits were sunk after the ring ditch was cut, implying that the late- 4th-century date for the silting up of the ditch was about as early as the pits could be.
The combination of a late date with a mysterious timber structure in the vicinity of a northern frontier fort inevitably evokes shades of the great hall Tony Wilmott discovered at Birdoswald in the 1980s (CA 116). Could the proposed Maryport buildings have stemmed from the changing needs that arose as the regular Roman garrison gradually mutated into a local warband? While certainty is impossible, two factors strongly imply that the Maryport pits are not a product of the Early Medieval penchant for high-status feasting. One is that the timber halls at Birdoswald were safely tucked within the fort rampart, while the Maryport structures stand proud on a windswept — and highly visible — hilltop to the north of the fort site. The second factor is a cluster of long-cist graves dug about 20m north of the post pits.
Seven graves in this cemetery were excavated, with six of them seemingly concentrated around a deeper, central burial. In terms of workmanship, the central grave is the finest, while its satellites display a more rough-and-ready appearance. Sadly, the acidic soil in which the cists were sunk is notorious for eating away any bones interred within it, and — sure enough — less than a gram of skeletal material was recovered in total. A strange wooden feature in one of the graves initially raised hopes that it might provide enough material for a radiocarbon date, but they were soon dashed when it proved to survive as no more than a tantalising shadow in the soil.
One of the diggers had more luck when they managed to detect a minute fragment of textile in what — from its size — must have been a child’s grave. The textile, which turned out to be a fleece, was not buried alone. Instead, it lay in the corner of the grave with a bead necklace that might be Roman in date. Radiocarbon dating the fleece revealed that it had been sheared in the period from AD 240-340. While this might seem to point to a date rather earlier in the Roman period than the late-4th-century Crambeck ware in the ring ditch, leaving the burial plot divorced in time from the monumental timber structures, the upper fill of the central grave yielded a Valentinianic nummus coin, minted after AD 364.
As the other burials were clustered around the central cist, it stands to reason that it should be the earliest one. So what is going on? ‘The fleece could be an heirloom,’ says Ian, ‘or it could still be actively used in the 4th century. The date is not necessarily that far in advance of the pits being dug, as the earliest graves could be contemporary with the period when the curvilinear ditch was open. What is clear is that the graves — and there are many in the area — do not encroach on the space where the building is, and the building does not encroach on the space where the graves are.’
One final find from the graves might shed some light on the nature of the community burying its dead in the long cists. A couple of small, white quartz pebbles were found in the central grave. Not local stone, the inclusion of similar stones in graves elsewhere has been explained as a signature of Christian burial. This is based on a reading of Revelations 2:17, which holds that ‘To the one that overcometh will I give to eat of the hidden manna, and will give him a white stone…’. While it is also possible that these pebbles were simply used as grave-markers, they are not the only hint of early Christian activity on the site.
Two early Christian-style tombstones are known from Maryport, dedicated to Rianorix and Spurcio, as well as a long-lost altar recut with a Chi Rho monogram — a symbol that superimposes the first two Greek characters spelling ‘Christ’. This unusually rich concentration of Early Medieval material would certainly fit with the presence of a Christian community. Intriguingly, the isle of Whithorn — far out in the Solway — is visible from the site on a clear day; Whithorn is traditionally associated with the 5th-century ministry of St Ninian. Even the intercutting burials at Maryport may have religious overtones, as a recent study of Iron Age Christian burial rites in Scotland by AdriÃ¡n Maldonado indicates that such clusters are strongly associated with early Church sites.
Foundations of the church?
So should we be thinking of a complex founded on an exposed, but highly visible, location near Maryport Roman fort by a fledgling Christian group? The presence of an apparent apse projecting from the western side of the possible larger building makes comparisons with a church inevitable. Ian prefers to let the evidence speak for itself. ‘While one would have to see it as some kind of hall-like, aisled building, it does not occupy a very sensible habitation site, and there does seem to be a close connection between it and the graves, which must surely be contemporary,’ he says. ‘I still find that and the location of the site in a place that is intervisible with Whithorn potent. I think we are seeing a Late Roman Christian community evolving in the shadow of some kind of substantial structure up on the most conspicuous point of the hillside.’
The remarkable series of Jupiter altars from Maryport fort runs to 23 certain examples, as well as fragments of a probable 24th. By far the largest individual haul came from the antiquarian investigation of the pits to the north of the fort in 1870. We now know, though, that some pits were discovered and opened at a far earlier date. A fragment found in a pit in 2011 was matched to an altar that was first recorded in 1725 (CA 259).
In 2012, the first Jupiter altar to be found since 1870 was detected by the Newcastle team in a pit that had been overlooked by the antiquarians (see CA 271). That altar names Titus Attius Tutor as the prefect of the cohors I Baetasiorum. This was Tutor’s first command, which came after serving on the council of his home town of Solva in modern Austria. It is possible that the altars were erected annually to mark either the Emperor’s birthday, or vows in honour of perpetuating the Empire on 3 January. Two other units, and nine further commanding officers, are named on the remaining altars. Many of the altars are on display in the Senhouse Museum.
This article appeared in issue 289 of Current Archaeology.