7th October 2013:
Since the beginning of August, OA North has been running a community and research excavation at Maryport, on the west coast of Cumbria. The project, which is being undertaken across two eight-week field seasons in 2013 and 2014, is being conducted on behalf of the Hadrian’s Wall Trust, and funded by the philanthropist Christian Levet. The works have involved geophysical survey, trial-trench evaluation, open-area excavation, and scores of volunteers, and have attracted hundreds of visitors.
A fort may have been established at Maryport as early as the AD 70s during the Roman army’s initial penetration of the region, though very little evidence for this period has yet been found. From the AD 120s, a stone fort (which still survives as a grass-covered earthwork) was constructed, and was a key element in a defensive chain of forts, fortlets and signal towers extending down the Cumbrian coast from the western end of Hadrian’s Wall. These coastal defences formed an integral part of the Hadrian’s Wall frontier, and as such, Roman Maryport represents a significant site in the Frontiers of the Roman Empire: Hadrian’s Wall World Heritage Site.
Our investigation has focused on the extramural settlement that lay north-east of the fort, and is shown by geophysical survey to have extended for several hundred metres along a road leading from the fort gate. Like frontier towns throughout history, Maryport is likely to have been a cultural ‘melting pot’, and it is assumed that the inhabitants were a cosmopolitan mix of locals and incomers from across the Empire, including retired soldiers, serving soldiers’ dependants, and individuals who made a living from servicing the fort.
Geophysical survey suggests that the settlement was divided into a series of long plots running at right angles to the Roman road. We selected four adjacent plots on the north side of the road for a ground-penetrating radar survey, and for evaluation trenching. All four trenches revealed structural remains, with one likely to have been a timber building with clay and cobble foundations, and the others being stone structures.
The best-preserved stone structure was a 20m-long by 5m-wide stone strip building lying end on to the street frontage. Rather unexpectedly, we also had a neighbouring structure barely a foot to the east, and another, separated by a metalled trackway, to the west. This suggests that what we thought was a single plot had changed over time. It is already clear that, after several phases of construction, the building comprised three rooms, with a rather rougher extension, or perhaps a yard, to the rear. The main room at the street frontage has several layers of clay flooring, and may have been open to the street. Strip-buildings are found in most settlements of this kind, and many were probably multi-functional, perhaps with a shop on the street and workshops and domestic quarters to the rear, and/or in an upper storey.
The discovery of fragments of mail, a form of armour that may well have been worn by the fort’s garrison, is particularly interesting. Two inscribed stones might also be informative. One, with incised circles, may be a reused prehistoric piece, while another has a pecked out stick man. The latter is rather crude, but appears to show a pointy-bearded Pict at the prow of his ship, his shield slung on his back and his sword in his hand. Overlooking the Solway Firth, the Isle of Man, and Northern Ireland, the Cumbrian coast is likely to have seen its fair share of sea-borne raiders.
The excavations have attracted hundreds of visitors, and recently site directors John Zant and Jeremy Bradley welcomed philanthropist Christian Levett, trustees and senior officers of the Hadrian's Wall Trust, Lord Redesdale (secretary of the All-Party Parliamentary Archaeology Group), Peter Wilson from English Heritage, and Rachel Newman, Senior Executive Officer of OA North, on a site tour.
Update 2nd April 2014:
Excavation of the extramural settlement of Maryport has re-commenced. Already there has been media interest on the latest fieldwork, including a feature on BBC News Online and an article in the News and Star.