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Whitley castle
Account of RAS excursion to Whitley Castle on September 9th 2012
The second RAS visit of 2012, on 9th September, was again to the remains of a Roman fort but this time on the Northumberland/Cumbrian border. Whitley Castle, (aka Castle Nook after the farm on which it lies) is the well preserved site of a 2nd century Roman fort, that, like others, underwent several phases of reconstruction and may have overlain an Iron Age fortification. It is usually associated with the Epiacum listed in Ptolemy’s Geographia, and   translated as “estate or property of Eppius”, a presumed Romanised Celtic chieftain, in The Place Names of Roman Britain (Rivet & Smith,1982, p 360).

Our guide, local historian and archaeologist Alastair F Robertson led our gruelling ascent over boggy, stone littered, undulating rough pasture to the commanding summit which offers all round views but particularly over the Roman road, now known as the Maiden Way, since it connected, Carvoran on the Stanegate to the north, with  Bravoniacum on the road running from Penrith to Brough  to the south.

From certain angles we could discern the foundations of the unusually diamond shaped outer walls with their multi-vallate defences. These ranged in number from two ramparts, plus berms, of the mid 2nd century to an amazing seven by the late 3rd,  possibly in response to various uprisings of local Brigantian tribes and attacks from across the northern border and especially after the withdrawal of troops by various contenders for the emperorship. Major rebuilding occurred, (probably under Severus) but was not completed until the reign of Caracalla who, in 213AD, had opened up entry to the legions, previously the preserve of elite Roman citizens, by granting universal citizenship within the Empire.  This is corroborated by an on-site temple dedicated to him on which inscriptions showed that the Second Cohort from the lower Rhine in Belgium garrisoned the fort in the 3rd century. Spasmodic unrest occurred until the reign of Theodosius in 369 but by c400AD Britain was abandoned and the fort returned to local usage.

Sadly artefacts such as “altars, statuary, pottery, querns, lead pipe fluorspar and jet,” discovered by local antiquarians as recorded by Rev.W Nall, in 1884, have unfortunately found their way to distant collections, such as those owned by Sir Thomas Robinson at Rookby in Huntingdonshire. Alastair is now able to add glass and jet to the present              
collections while an excavation of 1957-58 unearthed 2nd, 3rd and 4th century cooking pots, bowls and dishes, all predating 367AD. Moreover Mr Henderson (proprietor of the estate containing the fort) while installing drainage pipes in local fields in 1825 had discovered a 1500 year old “middenstead” from which emerged a number of items, then on view in the farmhouse, including several, variously sized, studded shoe soles, of which two, along  with a boot, are now in Newcastle’s Museum Of Antiquities. Other 19th century finds included a copper breast pin and a spoon.

Similarly recorded items included fragments of red tile, earthen vessels with relief decorations of human figures and horses, lead piping, glass bottlenecks, spring rings, a wooden comb, querns fashioned from stone imported from the Rhineland, a huge battleaxe, and black and red highly polished pottery (Samian?) with relief ornamentation of pagan divinities. Hazel staves, with sharpened points, set at outward facing angles were noted as probable defensive measures.
     Contours of various rooms, in particular the Headquarters building and the sunken treasury, were discernible within the walls as were the feint outlines of the four roads connecting the gates. However the attempt to the replicate the standard fort layout proved difficult given the rhomboidal shape of the summit on which it was constructed. Just N.W. of the fort a  hypocaust suggested a bath house, used in times of peace, as, like the midden, it represented a weakness in the defences, and was rebuilt in slightly different locations, perhaps, at times, in unsettled times.

A “ Celtic” Stone head was found in a local drystone wall farm buildings while a “mutilated head” (present whereabouts unknown) noted in 1924 as being in the Nook farmhouse was associated with an altar to Hercules from Epiacum Fort, now in the possession of Bedford City Museum. Fortunately another altar, dedicated to the worship of Mithras, according to the relief figures adorning it, is safely under the curation of the Museum of Antiquities in Newcastle. Reliefs on its three sides portray Apollo Citharoedus, flanked by (probably) Cautes and Cautopates, thus equating Apollo with Mithras. On the right panel the sun god wears a radiate crown, and on the left a hooded figure, being offered a libation, represents Apollo conflated with Maponus, a native deity. This is further indication of local participation in the legions.

Unsurprisingly Mithraea have been found in various locations in northern England since Mithraism was a much favoured religion amongst the Roman military. Under this altar were found four coins, one of which, possibly representing Faustina, wife of Antoninus, is dated 141-161AD. The only other coin found “near the fort” is a radiate of the 3rd century and   listed in a CWAAS report of coins found in Cumbria.

A collection of lead seals, found at Brough-Under- Stainmoor used to secure packages, sometimes counter-sealed by fort commanders and officials, not only reveal much  about the history of the personnel but are an indication of the importance of the fort, providing  further reason for its location: the protection of the lead mines and their associated silver.  It was also concluded that families, too, dwelt within the fort from the evidence of the foot wear, beads, a comb, a rattle, a bronze dolphin green glass and the spring ring etc.   

Due to its scheduled monument status further excavation on the site is prohibited, so, in April 2012, English Heritage drafted in 37 volunteers to sieve all the mole hills that could be found, soon coming up with a jet bead, shards of Samian and other pottery. (See http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/the-northener/2012/apr/moles-roman-remains-epiacum.)      
Maureen Berlin.

Acknowledgements to Alastair Robertson, author of “Whitley Castle   Epiacum A Roman Fort near Alston in Cumbria”, for his excellent exposition of the site and editing of this article along with the very useful literature and photographs he provided, much of them