Maryport Roman settlement: Unearthing a Roman civilian's past
An archaeological team is unearthing the remains of a Roman fort and settlement in the hope of gaining a better understanding of everyday Roman civilian life.
Oxford Archaeology (OA) and a team of volunteers are excavating an extramural settlement at Maryport Roman fort on the west coast of Cumbria.
Built high on the cliffs overlooking Solway Firth, it is believed the fort was founded in the First Century AD when the Roman army initially entered the region.
Now, a project is being undertaken to explore part of the fort's civilian settlement to "build up a picture" of what ordinary life was like.
Believed to be founded before 120 AD during the reign of Emperor Hadrian, historians say the stone fort was an "integral part" in coastal defences extending down the Cumbrian coast from Hadrian's Wall.
The civilian settlement, which lies north-east of the fort, is believed to be the largest currently known along the Hadrian's Wall frontier.
Today the scheduled site is hidden under permanent pasture, but geophysical surveys have revealed that the well preserved settlement was divided into a series of long plots which extended along a 1,378ft (420m) length of Roman road leading to the fort gate.
There have been several excavations at Maryport in previous years, but they have been limited and carried out in specific areas.
The Roman Settlement Project, which is being carried out in two eight-week field sessions on behalf of Hadrian's Wall Trust and funded by philanthropist Christian Levett, aims to dig deeper into initial research done in the 1800s and more recently by a team of archaeologists from Newcastle University.
Dr Nigel Mills, World Heritage Advisor for the trust, said: "The work is very important... civilian settlements are poorly understood across the Roman Empire because the emphasis of research in the past has been on the Roman military.
"Understanding civilian life gives us a more rounded picture of the Roman world and of life in the frontier areas."
Coins and pottery
In the 16th Century, the then owner of the Senhouse Museum, John Senhouse, began to form the Netherhall collection - a collection of inscriptions and sculptures which later became the largest private collection of Roman antiquities found at a British site.
In 1870, 17 altars were found buried in the village which were all dedicated by the fort's garrison commanders to the Roman god Jupiter.
Believed to be the biggest single find of Roman inscriptions ever made in Britain, the altars provide evidence that three regiments from as far away as Spain and Germany were stationed at the fort.
A decade later, in the 1880s, archaeologist Joseph Robinson unearthed the remains of a rectangular building, an adjacent circular structure and altar fragments.
Newcastle University re-excavated the temple site in 2013 and discovered the remains of a Roman temple from the Second Century AD, which is estimated to have been about 8.4m (27ft) high.
Now, the team want to investigate further the remains of the temple and look deeper into the "speculation" the round structure could have been a second temple and if the 17 altars came from the building.
Site director John Zant said: "Very few temples have been found in settlements of this type so we don't know a lot about them.
"We think it was probably built specifically for the garrison but it is likely that very soon afterwards it would have been used by the non-military community."
The excavation of the temple, which is funded by the Senhouse Museum Trust, is being carried out in June.
Last autumn OA picked four plots in a part of the settlement which was lived in by "everyday people" for evaluation trenching to see what the archaeology was like underneath the grassy exterior.
All four revealed structural remains just 1ft (30cm) down from the top soil, but full excavation of one of the plots unearthed an entire Roman building.
The structure, which was about 65ft (20m) long and 16ft (5m) wide, is a stone strip building built sometime about 200 AD and had three main rooms.
Mr Zant said the team believes it would have been occupied for between 200 and 300 years.
He said: "It's nice to have a Roman building to build up a picture of who was living there and who they were.
"We found a few bits of coins and pottery which indicate the site was not occupied for more than half a century and it was abandoned in the late Roman period.
"We are still unsure what the building would have been used for, but we believe it probably had a multifunctional purpose and one possibility is that the front room was used as a shop."
The group believes the inhabitants would have been a mix of local people and people from other parts of the Roman Empire, including serving and retired Roman soldiers and those making a living at the settlement.
The team is now going back to the site in April for another eight-week dig to explore their findings further.
Mr Zant said: "Hopefully the dig at Maryport will help us build up a whole history of the life of the site from its beginning to its abandonment and its relation to the fort."
"We hope to find evidence of what women and children were up to - life in the forts tends to be very male focused as this is where the soldiers lived.
"We want to know what they were doing, their ethnicity, the makeup of the settlement and how Maryport fits into the bigger picture of northern England and the Roman empire generally," Mr Zant said.
About 90 volunteers took part in last year's excavation with OA. It is hoped by getting the community involved it will help raise the public profile for the area, both for local people and for visitors.
Dr Mills said: "It is very important to us to get the community involved in discovering their past. The more people can be involved in finding out about local history, the more they can take pride in it and help to protect it for future generations.
"It's their local history, it's where they came from if you like, it's their own past."