The seventh City upon the Wall

“The seventh City upon the Wall,” as described by William Hutton in 1802, is an imaginative and thought-provoking description of the old Roman Station at Carrawburgh, or to give it its correct name, Procolitia.

It might be difficult to picture today the rows of buildings, the roads, temples, bath houses, civilian dwellings, even the huge structure of Hadrian’s Wall itself and its earthworks, as they ran parallel and eastwards before disappearing into the mist toward Sewingshields, or as they approached from the west from Limestone corner which also just happens to be the most Northerly point on the entire 73 mile stretch of the Roman Wall.

But if you do stop to take a closer look, you will find that there are a few things here that make that picture believable, although mainly most remain hidden.

Tucked just out of sight, and south of the fenced off area of the fort, is a Mithraeum. A Roman Temple dedicated to the God Mithras, but now owned by English Heritage. I’ve visited this Temple many times over the years, and still keep going back, yes, almost religiously. It’s an atmospheric, secluded ruin, where visitors often feel compelled to leave small gifts, just as I do. One of the altars has a hollowed top, which makes it a great place to leave a few coins. Last time I visited, there were as many foreign ones as British. But I suppose Mithras is used to that. I know people have also left flowers, even eggs as offerings.

The altar stones you will see inside the Temple are replicas. The originals are on display at The Museum of Antiquities in Newcastle. The real surprise about the Mithraeum though, is that it lay buried and unknown about until1949 when the owner’s dog, a French bulldog called Adam, unearthed the top of the middle altar while digging in the grass. This was during the long dry summer when the area, notoriously boggy, had dried out enough to enable it to give up its own ultimate offering. It wasn’t long until a full excavation had taken place during 1950 with some remarkable results. Adam remained in attendance throughout, but was banished to the sidelines, for obvious reasons. He never did get the credit he deserved.

Many of the original timbers were still in place, even paintwork and wattle fencing, these had lain preserved in the soaking conditions. However, many of those delicate items rapidly deteriorated on becoming exposed, and some were lost forever. It was still a highly significant find though, and a successful operation.

Seven years later, and within tripping-over distance of the Temple, a shrine dedicated to the Water Nymphs was accidentally discovered by some able workmen. This particular feature wasn’t excavated until 1960, when a carved and engraved Altar was found. This impressive stone and its lettering can be examined a few miles down the road at the Chester’s Museum.

There’s a fairly long list of dates stating when and where small areas have been excavated over the last hundred years or so, both around the fort, and in it. John Clayton, who restored much of Hadrian’s Wall, and once proud owner of this site, unearthed a bathhouse here in 1873, of which detailed plans can be found on paper, but there’s nothing left to see in the field. Including that, and all his other work on the fort, he will always be better known for the success his team had in 1878 with Coventina’s Well.

This much documented Well, first noted in 1726, but apparently forgotten about again until re-discovered by Clayton in 1878, caused great interest during and after the excavation. The list of finds they made was as impressive, as it was long. Apart from 13,487 coins, they found shoes, jars, altars, pearls, brooches, incense burners, carved stones and goodness knows what else.

One story about this excavation which made me smile, even though I expect at the time - and probably even today, it made - and still does make, a lot of people furious. But so were the techniques of those Victorian archaeologists, that on digging out such a huge amount of coins, they simply removed the better ones, and made a large pile on the side of the Well with the rest, and left them there, with inevitable consequences.

Newbrough village was, and still is, easily within a young boys walking distance, and it was the youngsters from the village who paid an unscheduled visit to the site of Coventina’s Well and carried off hundreds of those coins. It must have been quite a blow to Mr. Clayton. Many of the coins may well be still in the vicinity, as the boys are said to have lost half of them on their way back home by throwing them at each other! The guidebooks say that the site was raided. Which in a way it was, but you wouldn’t expect to find hundreds and hundreds of ancient coins just dumped on the grass overnight at Vindolanda now, would you.

Wherever those coins ended up, is anyone’s guess, but there was still a huge amount left and many other artefacts already recovered and recorded from the Well, including some highly important pieces at that. These are now also on display at the Chesters. The Well is now just about inaccessible; it’s dangerous to try to reach, as it’s surrounded by an evil gurgling bog. Even if you did risk losing a shoe to get to it, there is sadly once again, nothing left to see, apart from a good crop of water thriving plants.

Even the car park is hiding a couple of Roman buildings. Dorothy Charlesworth lead a Ministry of Works excavations team in 1964 prior to the tarmac being laid, and discovered not only was the going tough, because the trenches kept filling with water, but less that two feet from the soon to be car park, was the remains of what she thought was another temple, and another unidentified building.

Apart from all that, and the nearby Milecastle, which you could hit from the fort with an arrow, the civilian settlement areas to the south and west, and a little known cemetery lying between the fort and Milecastle, there is of course the actual fort itself, Procolitia.

It is very easy to zoom straight past this on the B6318, or Military Road as it is better known, without even realising you’ve missed a Roman fort, let alone City. The road here is a swooping straight bit that travels downwards then away and over into the distance. Barely offering the fenced-in fort a second glance. Which is a bit of a cheek really, considering it stole its northern wall for a foundation, and probably much of its interior stone as well.

One thing that puzzled me for a long time about the place, which now I think I might have resolved, was the correct spelling. Sometimes it’s called Brocolitia, sometimes it’s called Procolitia. All infuriating and highly confusing. It seems that the letters P and B were interchangeable at one time in the Roman alphabet! Although I’d not like to offer that as a reason for today’s uncertainty. But according to the Land Deeds, the spelling does begin with a P. So considering this against reports of the fort being named after badgers, it seems quite a straightforward choice between the two varieties. I wonder if anyone had considered that the B might just be a not so ancient spelling error?

Anyway, into to the fort. For the best part of 2001 it had remained sealed off to both local and tourist, probably the first time this has happened since it was occupied by 500 foot soldiers in the third century. Thankfully it should be re-opened shortly after the New Year following the eventual retreat of foot and mouth. When last I checked on Christmas Eve, the fort and surrounding area was still cordoned off. It is the final section on the “Wall” still under restriction.

When it is re-open, it is a great place to stop for a short walkabout, and that is mainly because it is so wild, exposed and unspoiled. There’s no one here to charge you for anything, and no one to sell you anything. The only expense you might encounter is when you reach the Temple of Mithras, where you might feel obliged to leave a scattering of coins. Unless you’ve brought a dozen eggs!

This immediate area is popular with visitors all year round. Even if some of them are left glancing at their maps while standing by their warm cars and scratching their heads. But it is easy to see where the walls were that bordered the fort, and where each gateway stood, even if they are just long bumps or gaps in a field. And as you trudge through the nettles and thistles over the actual fort, you become aware of the stones beneath your feet, then suddenly you’ll stumble upon some remains of some Victorian archaeology having been at work.

But one American tourist with a map, a wife and a perplexed look asked me while I was standing in the 1964 built car park, where exactly the Roman Wall was, as he had travelled from Michigan and couldn’t find it. I did feel guilty pointing at the smooth surface of the B6318, and saying, “It’s under there.”

His expression must have matched that of Mr. Clayton when he returned in the morning to find his coins had gone missing. But having shown him the fort and temple, which obviously weren’t what he’d expected to find, I packed him off to the Chesters, but told him to look to the left on the way.

I think he was expecting to see something like the Great Wall of China.

A chat with Mrs Olive Archer from nearby Carraw Farm revealed that her farm, built entirely of Roman stones was once a retreat for nearby Monks, at another time a Pub, and that her family had found coins and other bits and pieces of Roman related items while going about their normal work. My camera began to shake in anticipation. But everything they’d found over the years had been passed on to Durham University, and rightly so.

She showed me a very fine piece of silk work, a handcrafted map of the area, and told me about a murder which had taken place in the 1960’s close to the Fort. With the thought of a murder story etched now into my calculating mind, I asked if the area had a ghost? To which Mrs Archer replied, “By hell no!” And I thought that was such a superb reply to such a daft question.

Having also chatted with the owner of the fort, it was confirmed that there are no plans for any immediate explorations at the site. The fort, and surrounding buildings are lying in wait for our future generations. Perhaps they might have the tools to do so much more than we can do today.

It would be ideal though if Coventina’s Well could be re-exposed and a path made towards it, as many people come here with viewing it in mind, then find they can’t even find it. Initially I was one of them.

Anyway, despite some of the guidebooks saying, “that there’s nothing here to see” and encouraging travellers not to stop, I think they are wrong. I think it depends on what you’re looking for. If you can picture the “Seventh city upon the Wall” like William Hutton, then you should stop. Or, if you want to see a Mithraeum you should stop, but if you’re looking for the “Great Wall of China,” just keep on driving.


© 2012 Alistair Burrowes. Originally published in The Northumbrian magazine and used here with Alistair's kind permission.


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