Castra Exploratorum (Netherby) Fort
Fort and Minor Settlement
The site of the Netherby Roman fort is now completely obliterated by the monumental living-quarters and landscaped gardens of Netherby Hall, a 15th century Tower House which is thought to have been built directly upon the site of the fort’s principal buildings, re-using a large quantity of Roman construction material within the fabric of its own seven-feet-thick stone walls. Over the years, extensions to the original mansion house and additional outbuildings such as the coach-house, stables, ice-house, coop-house and outlying gardens and orchards, have gradually removed all trace of Roman occupation.
Despite the lack of physical evidence concerning the dimensions and alignment of the fort’s defenses, we may make deductions based on the type of garrison units it is known to have housed; it would appear from recovered inscriptions that the site must have seen at least two military encampments and we may postulate at least two others. The first recorded garrison was Cohors I Nervanorum, a five-hundred strong regiment of foot-soldiers which was probably stationed here c.125AD and would have required a fort of about 3 to 4 acres (c. 1.2 – 1.6 ha); the later resident unit, Cohors I Hispanorum, comprised a nominal one-thousand men and about three-hundred horses, which would require an occupation area of anything between 6 to 9 acres (c. 2.4 – 3.6 ha), depending on the frugality or generosity of the living-quarters within its defenses.
It is generally assumed that the known Hadrianic occupation of the site was probably preceded by an earlier establishment during the Agricolan Campaigns c.80AD, but the strength and composition of the garrison at this time remains unknown and, indeed, unproven. The location of the associated settlement, in the area to the north-west of the fort, implies that the original camp probably faced in this direction, across the Esk into Dumfries & Galloway. It should also be noted that the Roman name for the site, ‘The Fort of the Scouts’, itself implies a very small mounted garrison unit during the late-Roman period, perhaps numerus or a cuneus, which again points to another, much smaller fort or fortlet on the site.
Classical References for Castra Exploratorum
Mentioned only in the Antonine Itinerary, the identification of Netherby with the Castra Exploratorum of Iter II is nontheless fairly certain. This station occurs near the start of the second itinerary, where it is recorded between Blatobulgium (Birrens, Dumfries & Galloway) the northern terminus of Iter II and Luguvalium (Carlisle, Cumbria). The recorded distance from Netherby to both of these posting-stations is the same, namely twenty-two Roman miles, however, this does not fit the actual measured distances very well at all, though it is feasible that at the time the Antonine Itinerary was produced, the Roman road between Netherby and Carlisle took a dog-leg east along the Stanegate to Old Church, in order perhaps to avoid the marshes of the Solway Estuary.
The name Castra Exploratorum is easily translated as the Fort or Camp of the Exploratores. These were part-mounted auxiliary units recruited from among tribes noted for their tracking and hunting skills, and used primarily to reconnoitre enemy territory, akin to the Scouting service of colonial America.
The Builders of the Netherby Forts
RIB974 - Dedication to Hadrian by Second Legion Augusta
LEG II AVG FEC
RIB981 - Building inscription of the Sixth Legion
There was perhaps a further bout of construction during the reign of Commodus, as building work within the fort was dedicated to him (vide RIB 975 infra), perhaps by contingents of Legio Sextae Victrix whose work is also recorded (vide RIB 981 supra).
RIB975 - Inscription
RIB980 - Dedication to an unknown emperor by the Twentieth Legion and the First Aelian Cohort of Spaniards
Further work was perhaps undertaken by Cohors I Hispanorum who left four datable inscriptions ranging from 213 to 222ADAD. A further inscription dated to c.215-20AD records the work of this auxiliary unit along with vexillations from Legio II Augusta and Legio XX Valeria Victrix, but the stone has been recut and the reading is unreliable (Vide supra).
The Garrison Units
RIB966 - Altar dedicated to Cocidius
V S L M
RIB976 - Dedication to Caracalla and Julia Domna
M MATRI AV[...]
ET CASTR [...]
PR PR COH [...] AEL
This part-mounted unit is named on several stone inscriptions including five dated to the first quarter of the third century. It would seem that the regiment occupied the Netherby fort during the campaigns of Severus and Caracalla into Scotland between 208AD and 212, and were perhaps stationed there more or less permanently afterwards.
RIB977 - Building dedication by the First Aelian Cohort of Spaniards
[...  ...] ANTO
[...]Ạ EX SOLO
[...] SVB CVR G IVL
[...]G AVG PR PR INSTANTE
[...]Ṛ MAXIMO TRIB
RIB979 - Building dedication by the First Aelian Cohort of Spaniards
TATE CONLABSV[  ...]
AD PRISTINAM [...]
MAVIT IMP D [  ...]
There is apparently some confusion in the Notitia Dignitatum concerning the Wall fort at Stanwix which is listed in the N.D. under the name Petrianis, after the garrison unit the Ala Gallorum Petrianum, even though its official name was Uxelodunum. But, … there is another entry in the N.D. for a fort named Axelodunum, obviously, meaning the Stanwix fort, but listing the garrison unit as Cohors I Hispanorum, which is the attested garrison of the Netherby fort. In light of this, it seems likely that the N.D. entry for Castra Exploratorum was mistakenly named Axelodunum.
RIB978 - Building dedication to the Emperor Severus Alexander by First Aelian Cohort of Spaniards
SEVERO ALEXANDRO PIO [...]EL AVG
PONT MAXIMO TRIB POT COS P P COH I AEL
HISPANORVM â†€ EQ DEVOTA NVMINI
MAIESTATIQVE EIVS BASELICAM
IAM PRIDEM A SOLO COEPTAM
SVB CVRA MARI VALERIANI LEG
AVG PR PR INSTANTE M AVRELIO
SALVIO TRIB COH IMP D N
SEVERO ALEXANDRO PIO FEL
When the above inscription was first discovered archaeologists and historians greeted it with great enthusiasm as it gave the actual name the Romans employed for the large riding-hall attached to the front of the principia in many auxiliary cavalry forts (see note #2, above).
The Gods of Castra Exploratorum
Over the years a number of stone altars have been unearthed at Netherby, some of which were dedicated to the familiar gods of classical Roman mythology although almost half offer thanks to gods of Germanic origin. The classical deities are; Apollo the sun-god and patron of music, the goddess Fortune (vide supra), Silvanus the god of the forest, Mars the war god and Jupiter the leader of the Roman pantheon. The Germanic gods represented are Cocidius (vide RIB 966 supra), Huetirus, Moguntus and Belatucader. There is also one altarstone to an unknown deity (RIB 967; not shown), which has been considerably damaged.
RIB971 - Altar dedicated to Mogons Vitiris
V S L M
RIB969 - Altar dedicated to Jupiter Optimus Maximus
RIB973 - Altar dedicated to Hueter
RIB968 - Altar dedicated to Fortuna Conservatrix
VS COH I AEL HI
V S L M
RIB965 - Altar dedicated to Apollo
[.] AVRELIVS M[...]
S[...]LV[...]E [...]VA ET MI [.] IIANAISA
MA [.] V S L M
RIB970 - Altar dedicated to Mars Belatucadrus
RO [...]VR [...]CA[...]
OR V S [   ] M
RIB972 - Altar dedicated to Silvanus
It has been mooted that the Brocara entry in the Ravenna Cosmography (RC#156), which appears between the entries for Fanocodi (Bewcastle, Cumbria) and the unknown station Croucingo, may refer to the civilian settlement outside the ‘Camp of the Scouts’; there is no corroborative evidence to support this. The Brocara entry in the RC is now thought to apply to the fort at Brougham (Cumbria), which was named Brocavum.
Even though nothing remains of either the fort or its associated civil settlement, we are lucky in that the site has been visited over the years by several antiquarians, historians and amateur archaeologists who recorded a number of Roman features in the area. Stukeley reported that the mansion house was surrounded by the buildings of a Roman fort; Stukeley, Gale and Goodman reported that a Roman vicus settlement lay outside the north-west defences of the fort extending down towards the River Esk, where Leland observed moumental buildings and evidence of a river port, now silted-up. Stukeley also saw a Roman cemetery outside the fort, although he does not state on which side, but this probably lay to the south-east, farthest away from the settlement site.
A Roman bath-house lying on one of the side-streets in the vicus was discovered and investigated by antiquarians in 1732 but the exact location was not recorded. It may be postulated, however, that the bath-house was supplied with fresh water via the stream issuing from Friar’s Bush and if this was the case, the baths building probably lay in the north-eastern part of the settlement just to the north of the fort, thereby to avoid having to convey the fresh water needed by such an establishment over the line of the road leading north-westwards into Scotland.
RIB984 - Funerary inscription for Titullinia Pussitta
The RIB records a single tombstone from Netherby which is, oddly enough, that of a woman, named Titullinia Pussitta (vide infra). It is possible that she was the wife of one of the unit commanders stationed at the fort, who would be the only woman (apart from domestic slaves in her household) you would normally expect to find in a military camp. The inscription however, does not name the bereaved husband let alone his rank, which would be expected if she was the wife of a senior officer.
- The Roman province of Raetia lay mostly in south-east Gemany, extending into eastern Austria and the south-western part of the Czech Republic.
The absence of the husbands name and titles from her memorial indicates that Titullinia was more likely the wife of an ordinary soldier or perhaps even a native merchant, and as such would not be entitled to live inside the fort, but in a street-settlement or vicus positioned outside the defences of the camp. These small villages were normally located along each side of the road issuing from the main gate of a Roman fort, and the vicus at Netherby has been identified to the north-west, between Castra Exploratorum and the River Esk, where there was probably some sort of crossing in Roman times. The site of the 19th century steel suspension bridge, built solely for the benefit of the folk at Netherby Hall in order to attend the Church at Kirkandrews on the opposite side of the river, is no indication of the site of the postulated Roman crossing, which probably lay a little further upstream.
Map References for Castra Exploratorvm
References for Castra Exploratorvm
- Chronicle of the Roman Emperors by Chris Scarre (Thames & Hudson, London, 1995);
- Chronology of the Ancient World by E.J. Bickerman (Thames & Hudson, London, 1980);
- The Roman Inscriptions of Britain – Vol.1 – Inscriptions on Stone by R.G. Collingwood & R.P. Wright (Oxford 1965);
Roman Roads near Castra Exploratorvm
Iter II: WSW (15) to Blatobvlgivm (Dumfries & Galloway) Possible Road: N (7.5) to Broomholm (Dumfries & Galloway) S (8) to Uxelodvnvm (Stanwix, Cumbria) possible early road: SE (10) to Old Chvrch (Cumbria)