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MARYPORT Excavations
Account of RAS excursion to Maryport Excavations on August 4th 2012
On the 4th August a few members of the RAS made the long drive (4 hours plus) from the Leeds area to Maryport in Cumbria where an excavation, begun in 2011, project directed by Professor Ian Haynes of Newcastle University and site managed by Tony Wilmott, was holding an Open Day.

Dominating the southern heights above the Solway Firth at the western end of Hadrian’s Wall, was the fort built by the Roman army around which grew an extra-mural settlement. It was in part of this that the dig was taking place.  

After meeting up at the Senhouse Museum and ascending the nearby wooden lookout tower, a reproduction of one built in the Napoloeonic era, with its stunning panoramic views of the various sea approaches much as they would have appeared during the Roman occupation, we were collected by a guide and taken over a couple of rough pasture fields, crossing some, now shallow, ditches that had formed part of the fort’s defences. Professor Ian Haynes, interpreted the site for us on behalf of the, largely local, band of volunteers and Newcastle University students. (Tony Willmott happened to be away for the weekend but appears, working on site, in a video, screened in the museum).

Many altars dedicated to Jupiter, dated to the second century AD, had been discovered around this site which scholars had long assumed were dedicated annually and that as each new one was erected its predecessor was buried to keep it from profane hands. These inspired    the creation of Senhouse Museum to curate them, along with other material from Maryport, part of one the oldest antiquarian collections know in Britain.

The excavations revealed a confusing miscellany of pits, which represented the locations of earlier antiquarian excavations, in each case triggered by either the real or imagined presence of the ancient post pits.  Work in 2011, together with this season’s excavations, demonstrated that the famous Roman altars had in fact been buried within these pits – where they had been used for ballast.  A highlight of the season was the discovery of an intact altar,          
dedicated to Jupiter by the commander of one of the units of the Maryport garrison.  Fascinatingly, this was the third altar dedicated by T. Attius Tutor to have been discovered at the site.  Together the pits provided crucial evidence for a complex series of structures, standing at the most visible point at Maryport – a place that could be seen from far out into the Solway and far inland, a site conspicuous to the north and the south.  Work is still ongoing in the interpretation of this complex, but a further important discovery at the site may shed light on what has been discovered.  In the north west of the site, the team discovered a concentration of so-called long cist burials, some associated with small quartz pebbles – a classic indicator of early medieval Christian funerary ritual.  Material from these graves, including fragmentary human bone and a scrap of fabric, has been sent away for radiocarbon dating, so it is not possible to offer a precise date for them – but it appears that they were contemporary with at least some of the post-pit structures.   The pits stop before the graves and the graves never encroach on the area of the pits.   

By about one o’clock, the weather which had been gloriously sunny started closing in, with mist soon obscuring the previously magnificent triple views of sea and promontories, while   claps of thunder resounded. (Was Zeus hurling his bolts at the desecration of his memorials?) Ian, however, standing his ground (like the legendary Horatius at the bridge) continued his talk, ignoring the deluge, and answered questions for a further ten minutes or so.

We then headed back to dry off and eat our packed lunches in the museum after which we   spent a good half hour viewing the treasures. It was staffed, for this Open Day mainly by local people –I particularly enjoyed talking with two proud women whose husbands, working on the dig, had found the pottery on display in one of the glass cabinets.  Other Roman finds included pieces of carved masonry and a stone roof tile, made of the locally quarried quartzite sandstone. Also available were audio monologues, spoken in the first person, from translated inscriptions, revealing the lives of “ordinary people”.

Then of course there were the altars displayed in rows, furnished with translations of names and dedications offered by soldiers along with far flung origins. A replica shrine or sacellum plus a picture with a fanciful image of a Maryport altar were also on view. It would have taken several hours to really appreciate all on offer and a visit is strongly recommended.
The dig which was coming to the end of its second season will continue next summer (2013) when it is planned to open up the southerly section of the site.

Maureen Berlin.

(With thanks to Professor Haynes for his editing and useful comments.)

© John Cruse

The latest alter being lifted out in August