Book Review by Steve Matthews of Bookends.
Maryport: A Roman Fort and its Community by David J Breeze. Archaeopress. £14.99
In 1870, a ploughman was ploughing a field above Maryport. His plough struck a carved stone. It was a Roman altar. It was one of “seventeen altars buried in a series of pits on the whaleback ridge on which sits the Roman fort”. Many of the altars were dedicated to Jupiter.
Roman altars had been known at Maryport for many years. In 1587, the Elizabethan historian and antiquarian, William Camden, referred to two altars in the possession of Sir John Senhouse, “a very honest man”. Twelve years later he described how “the ancient vaults stand open, and many altars, stones with inscriptions, statues are here gotten out of the ground . . . and placed orderly about his house.”
Later visitors, William Stukeley and Alexander Gordon, described the fort where the Senhouses had been “continually digging” with “hundreds of cartloads of hewn stone” being carried off and wrote of ramparts that were 16 and 18 feet high.
The Senhouses were custodians of the site. Some such as the third Humphrey Senhouse supported reports to the journal Archaeologia. Others gave the altar stones away. The large altar to the Genius of the place was given to Lord Lowther in 1683 and today it resides in the British Museum. In 1935, Guy Senhouse made a present of one of the Jupiter altars to Mussolini.
For centuries these stones, taken “from the ruins of a Roman city”, were displayed round the walls of Netherhall. In the 1960s, Netherhall was deserted and left to go derelict. The altar stones were kept in a leaky stable block. Eventually, through the energy and dedication of Brian Ashmore, the stones found an appropriate and secure home in the Battery on the Sea Brows which is now the Senhouse Museum.
The fort on the north-western extremity of the Roman Empire was home to cohorts originally of Spaniards, Dalmatians and Baetasians, from the Netherlands. The fort itself was almost square, with sides measuring in the region of 135 metres. The walls were two metres thick and may well have stood five metres high. There was a gate in the middle of each side. The interior was packed with buildings, with barracks and granaries and storerooms. The regimental headquarters with its administrative offices was placed at the centre.
The coins found at Maryport suggest that the fort was occupied until some years before the Romans left Britain in 410 AD. Other coins indicate that the fort may have been established in 100 AD, possibly on the site of an earlier fort. It is probable that the fort remained as a Roman look-out on the Solway coast for three centuries.
The altars offer a tangible sense of some of the men who served at the fort of Alauna during those three hundred years. J. Cammius Maximus was promoted to the Eighteenth Cohort of Volunteers. L. Antistius Lupus Verianus came from Sicca in North Africa to this cold northern coast. M.Censorius Cornelianus came from Nimes in the south of France and was transferred to serve with the Tenth Legion in Judaea.
Outside the fort itself was a large extra-mural settlement. A tombstone identifies one inhabitant as Julia Martina.
In addition to the altars dedicated to Jupiter, there are ones to Neptune, Mars, Vulcan, Mercury and to the Emperor’s Victory.
The study of a fort such as Alaua is complex. The slow process of archaeological investigation and tentative speculation means that the full story of this important Roman fort will never be told. With admirable clarity and economy, David Breeze outlines the history of work at Maryport over the centuries and gives an overview of our current level of knowledge and understanding.