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Surveying the Roman Fort at Whitley castle
Summary of Lecture delivered at Claremont by Dave Went (English Heritage) 19th January 2013
Notes kindly provided by Dave Went

Whitley Castle: recent research

Whitley Castle is a bit off the beaten track, lying a lonely mountain road (the Maiden Way) some 15 miles south of Hadrian’s Wall and 20 miles north of the main Roman road from York to Carlisle, and this relative isolation may explain why it has largely escaped the attentions of antiquarians and archaeologists. In fact there have been just two recorded investigations: a rough and ready exploration in about 1810 which exposed part of a bath house outside the north corner of the fort, and a single trench cut through a narrow segment of the northern ramparts and small area of the fort’s interior in 1957-8. That, until recently, was the sum total of archaeological work. All other knowledge derived from aerial photography, inscriptions and a smattering of artefacts accidentally unearthed over the years.

The detailed earthwork and geophysical surveys carried out by English Heritage and Durham University in 2007-9 were prompted by changes to the management of the fort which would place far greater emphasis on conservation and making the site accessible to visitors.  The new research drew together all the earlier discoveries in the context of the new work in order to provide a far better overall understanding of the fort, and has now been published as a research report (see the English Heritage website at http://research.english-heritage.org.uk/report/?14825) . A detailed paper will appear in Britannia this year.

Very briefly then, the site, identified as Ptolemy’s Epiacum, is the highest stone-built fort in England (at 325m higher even than Megiobogdum on Hardknott Pass). Its striking lozenge-shaped plan was designed to make best use of the knoll on which it was placed, and it contained (in its latter stages at least) a complement of buildings not unlike those at Wallsend or South Shields, presumably to house a similar, part-mounted garrison. Such a force may have been needed to oversee the production  
and shipment of lead from the Alston ore field – which is the fort’s likely raison d’etre.

A rectilinear pattern either side of the north road (via principalis) outside the fort was first taken to be an extra-mural settlement or vicus, but the absence of structural evidence has changed this interpretation to one of small fields and paddocks with only a few scattered buildings mostly placed close to the foot of the ramparts. The exception, a very substantial building complex -  detached, uphill, upstream (and possibly upwind) from the fort - may have been a guest house (mansio) or other official building.  A more typical vicus pattern was found alongside the rear road (via decumana) partly overlain by the extraordinary elaboration of ramparts on this side of the fort.

Perhaps the most puzzling aspect of the survey is the absence of evidence for any significant Roman activity immediately below the fort’s steep south-eastern ramparts. This area comprises the largest expanse of comparatively level ground (1.8ha) anywhere in the vicinity. It is served with springs, sheltered by the knoll and handy for the fort’s southern entrance and the Maiden Way. All of the above would suggest that it was highly suitable for settlement, or at least for extensive paddocks and yards. The fact that nothing of the sort can be detected on the surface could be dismissed as a consequence of later ploughing; but the absence of geophysical anomalies indicates that such features were never present. This has led to the tentative suggestion that this space may have been set aside for exclusive military use, as a parade ground or training area: a common attribute of auxiliary forts according to Roman sources, but one rarely identified in the field.

Dave Went, English Heritage