Vercovicium: Housesteads Roman Fort
Vercovicium shown within Northumberland
|OS grid reference||NY789687|
|List of places: UK • England • Northumberland|
Vercovicium, now known as Housesteads Roman Fort, was an auxiliary fort on Hadrian's Wall, in the Roman province of Britannia. Its ruins are located at Housesteads (grid reference NY790688) in the civil parish of Bardon Mill in Northumberland, England, somewhat to the south of Broomlee Lough.
In the 2nd century AD, the garrison consisted of an unknown double-sized auxiliary infantry cohort and a detachment of legionaries from Legio II Augusta. In the 3rd century, it comprised cohors I Tungrorum, augmented by the numerus Hnaudifridi and the cuneus Frisiorum. The Tungrians were still there in the 4th century, according to the Notitia Dignitatum. By 409 AD the Romans had withdrawn.
The fort was built in stone around AD 124, soon after the construction of the Wall began in AD 122. Vercovicium was built overlying the original Broad Wall foundation and Turret 36B. The fort was repaired and rebuilt several times, its northern defences being particularly prone to collapse. A substantial civil settlement (vicus) existed to the south, outside the fort, and some of the stone foundations can still be seen, including "Murder House", where two skeletons were found beneath an apparently newly laid floor when excavated.
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The fort's orientation is unorthodox, in that its long axis is arranged parallel with Hadrian's Wall (which forms its northern defensive wall), due to the lay of the land. Most other early forts straddle the Wall and therefore protrude into barbarian territory. It is also unusual for Britain in that it has no running water supply and is dependent upon rainwater collection (for which purpose there is a series of large stone-lined tanks around the periphery of the defences). It also has one of the best-preserved stone latrines in Roman Britain.
A recent geophysical survey commissioned by English Heritage was carried out by TimeScape Surveys at the fort using magnetometry and resistivity techniques. It identified field systems to the west of the fort and an area of settlement to the south enclosed by ditches and the Vallum. A possible bathhouse has also been identified. It is considered that the planning arrangements reflect a decision by the military to zone land use around the fort.
It is likely that the site for the fort was chosen just as much for its strategic position commanding a gap in the Whin Sill ridge overlooking Knag Burn, as occupying a site on or close to a native settlement. The designation of land use shown by the enclosed settlement and the siting of field systems to the west of the fort clearly support the authors’ thesis that the areas around a fort were precisely defined both in extent and use at a very early date by the army.
The survey to the south and west of the site is surprising in that the known vicus (civilian settlement) immediately to the south of the fort is clearly shown to be contained by ditches to the east and west, and the Vallum to the south. In addition, there is little evidence of other buildings apart from alongside the west road and possibly to the south of the survey area. The large building to the east of the settlement is probably a bathhouse. The fort collected rainwater in a collection tank near the latrines and used the water to flush the latrines. The source of the water supply for drinking water is unclear, but it probably came from springs on the hillside.
The site is now owned by the National Trust and is currently in the care of English Heritage. Finds from Vercovicium can be seen in the site museum, in the museum at Chesters, and in the Museum of Antiquities in Newcastle upon Tyne.
Housesteads is a former farm whose lands include the ruins of Vercovicium. In 1604 Hugh Nixon "Stealer of cattle and receiver of stolen goods" became the tenant of Housesteads farm. From 1663, Housesteads was the home of the Armstrongs, a notorious family of border reivers. Nicholas Armstrong bought the farm in 1692, only to have to sell it again in 1694 to Thomas Gibson of Hexham for the sum of £485. They remained as tenants. They were a well-known band of horse thieves and cattle rustlers who used the old Roman fort as a corral for their ill-gotten gains. They traded as far afield as Aberdeen and the south of England. At one time every male member of the family was said to have been a 'broken man', formally outlawed by English or Scottish authorities. Nicholas was hanged in 1704, and his brothers fled to America. The Armstrongs lived in a typical 16th century defensive bastle house of two storeys: the ground floor for livestock and the upper level for living quarters. Its ruins remain built up against the south gate of the Roman fort and clearly show its defensive nature, with external stone steps and narrow loop windows. A corn drying kiln was inserted into the gate's guard chamber in the 17th century.
In 1698, the farm had been sold to Thomas Gibson who turned the land around the fort to agriculture and thus ploughed up numerous Roman artefacts. The 17th-century bastle was replaced by a farmhouse located over the Roman hospital, which was sketched by Stukely in 1725. Throughout the 18th Century Housesteads was farmed by a single tenant farming family. Since Hodgson recorded the presence of William Magnay as the tenant during that period this fixes the tenure. In particular, the well (thought to be Roman) was documented as having actually been built by William, and used by the family as a bath. Interest in the fort increased in the 19th century, particularly after the farm was purchased by the historian, John Clayton, in 1838, to add to his collection of Roman Wall farms. The Roman site was cleared of later buildings by Clayton, and the present farmhouse built about 1860. John Maurice Clayton attempted to auction the fort in 1929. It did not reach its reserve and was donated to the National Trust in 1930. The farm was later owned by the Trevelyans who gave the land for the site museum.
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- Thomas Brown (2006) Celtic Roots, Trafford Publishing ISBN 1-55212-585-8 [Amazon-US | Amazon-UK]
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- Hickey, Julia. "Carlisle and the Border Reivers". TimeTravel-Britain.com. Retrieved 2006-02-08.
- Gibson papers, Northumberland Record Office (NRO)
- J. C. Crow, Housesteads Roman Fort and its Environs, Univ. of Newcastle 1994
- J. Crow, ‘Housesteads’, Bath Press 1995
- John Hodgson, History of Northumberland vol III part II page 288
- Crow, J. Housesteads, London: Batsford (1995) (second edition, Stroud: Tempus 2004)
- Rivet, A.L.F. The Place-Names of Roman Britain, London: Batsford (1979)
- VERCOVICIUM FORT On the line of Hadrian's Wall as it exists today
- Hadrian's Wall and Housesteads Fort - National Trust
- Housesteads Roman Fort - The Grandest Station
- History and visitor information: English Heritage
- Information for teachers: English Heritage
- Children's Guide: English Heritage
- Details of Housesteads and the rest of Hadrian's Wall
- Tour of Housesteads Roman Fort