Later Romano-british Town
The town was first established in around 122 AD at the western end of Hadrian’s Wall.
The only classical geographical source for the name of the Roman fort and settlement at Maryport is an entry in the Ravenna Cosmography. The station Alauna appears in this document between Gabrosentum (Moresby, Cumbria) and Bibra (Beckfoot, Cumbria). The modern town was founded in the late eighteenth century and named Mary Port, after the wife of the landowner and industrialist Humphrey Senhouse who built the harbour here in 1762.
It is possible that the Roman name for the fort and settlement at Maryport is derived from a Celtic word which described its location, perhaps meaning ‘beautiful, wonderful’ (q.v. Gaelic alainn(e) ‘elegant, beautiful, splendid’). A plausible alternative, given the many altarstones found on the site, is that the name may be derived from a Celtic word for ‘shrine’ or ‘altar’ (q.v. Welsh allor (plural allorau) ‘altar(s)’). The suffix Carvetiorum is used to distinguish this particular site from others, also named Alauna in Roman times, and qualifies this town as belonging to the tribal lands of the Carvetii.
Excavations at the British Roman settlement site at Maryport has revealed the remains of six buildings, including at least one shop, and a Roman road. Stephen Rowland, project manager for Oxford Archaeology North said: “Previous detailed geophysical surveys of the site have shown lines of structures likely to be buildings either side of the main street running from the north east gate of the fort, so we had a good idea where to start digging and we’ve been able to confirm the survey results.
“The building we’ve spent most time looking at this year might have been a shop at some point during its use. It is stone built and 5 metres wide by 20 metres long with several rooms, some with flagged floors. The reason we think it may have been a shop is the fact there isn’t a stone wall at the end facing the road. Instead, there could have been a booth-like timber frontage, or perhaps double doors that have long since rotted away. This kind of construction has been found at other sites.
“At Maryport we have possible evidence of a stairwell too, perhaps suggesting that people would have worked on the ground floor and lived upstairs. We haven’t yet been able to determine what was sold here, but we have found a large in situ sharpening stone, and lots of smaller whet stones for honing blades and tools.”
The land to the rear of the buildings, equivalent to a modern backyard, is surrounded by a ditch. It contains several pits, perhaps used for outdoor toilets or for dumping rubbish, and at least three square wells or cisterns for holding water.
Altars to Jupiter Optimus Maximus
In the 18th and 19th centuries, numerous altars were dug up. They were all to Jupiter Optimus Maximus – the great Jupiter. And it appears that a new altar had been erected every year and dedicated by the commandant of the fort, but was then abandoned.
Recently the pits in which they were discovered have been re-excavated and have been shown that they were not originally to contain the altars, but had been dug out in the late Roman period where they formed the base of a large timber building and the altars had been used simply as convenient packing stones.
The altars however and other archaeological stones were collected by the Senhouse family, the local landowners and stored at their country house. When this was burnt down, the stones were removed to a new museum at Maryport. This was originally a Victorian Naval battery in a fine position overlooking the sea, but this has been transformed into the Senhouse Museum and is one of the finest collections of Roman carved stone in the North, but in a rather remote situation. It is well worth visiting, as indeed is Maryport itself which was built as a new town in the 1750s and flourished at first as an iron making centre. It then collapsed and is only now beginning to revive as an interesting town with a fine museum.