Pons Aelius (Newcastle) Fort
Bridge, Fort and Wall Fort
Pons Aelius – ‘The Aelian Bridge’
When the emperor Hadrian visited Britain in 122AD and the need for a continuous northern frontier wall was first envisioned, the eastern terminus was to be marked by a fort at the first crossing point of the River Tyne, at Newcastle. A new bridge was built here to carry the road from the existing fort at Concangis (Chester le Street, Durham), and was called Pons Aelius after the emperor’s family name, which title was – over a period – transferred to the fort itself. The only evidence we have for the Roman name comes from the Notitia Dignitatum of the 4th/5th century (vide infra). The Newcastle fort was not to mark the wall’s oriental end for long, however, as an extension eastwards to another fort at Segedunum (Wallsend, Tyne & Wear) was started before the wall had been completed westward beyond Cilurnum (Chesters, Northumberland).
There are eleven inscribed stones recorded in the R.I.B. for Newcastle, four of them added since the work was first published. There are seven altarstones, a statue or altar base dedicated to the emperor’s mother (RIB 1322c), a relief depicting a triad of goddesses (1318), and two building inscriptions, one of which records the restoration of the bath-house (1322d), and another recording the arrival of troops from the continent (RIB 1322; discussed below). Many of the texts from these stones are shown here.
The Auxiliary Fort and Bridge
The praetorium and principia of the Hadrianic fort at Pons Aelius were recently found in the grounds of the castle adjacent to the Castle Keep, the castle being built directly upon the site of the former Roman encampment. Originally built c.122AD to mark the eastern terminus of the Wall, the fort at Newcastle is quite small and was sited here to guard the important river-crossing, the first major encampment being nearby at Condercum (Benwell, Tyne & Wear). The unit which comprised the original garrison of the fort is unknown, however, a recently unearthed stone dedicated to the empress Julia Domna and dated to c.213AD, gives the name of the unit then stationed at Newcastle, and the Notitia Dignitatum provides the name of the late-fourth century garrison. Another recently-discovered inscription records the building or restoration of a bath-house which evidently stood outside the Newcastle fort.
The Roman bridge had two stone abutments and, although only two piers have so far been located, it is estimated that there were originally ten. The pier found in 1872 was 16 feet wide and 20 feet long with cutwaters both upstream and down to cope with the tidal nature of the Tyne at this point in its course. The pier caisson was constructed from closely-set, iron-shod oak piles, with the internal space filled with stone rubble. The total length of the Roman bridge from bank to bank is estimated to have been 735 feet.
There are a number of small tributary streams of the Tyne which must have passed through culverts beneath the Wall. The Pandon Burn emptied into the Tyne some 150 yards downstream from the Roman bridge near the Custom House, and the substantial Ouse Bourne confluence lies over ¾ mile further downstream. Another small stream named the Skinner Bourne entered the Tyne just over 300 yards upriver from the site of the Roman bridge beyond the Mansion House, and another named the Lort Burn lay to the east about 1/3 of the distance between the Pandon and Ouse Burn confluences.
The Military Units
Legio VI Victrix is mentioned on two altarstones dredged up from the Tyne, one dedicated to Oceanus and the other to Neptune, both powerful water deities (vide infra). They are also mentioned on a dedicatory inscription which records reinforcements from the German provinces for Legio VI along with the other two British legions, II Augusta and XX Valeria. These supplementary troops were neccessary to bolster the Island’s garrison after losses incurred c.150AD when the northern tribes revolted, and may have arrived in the train of the governor Gnaeus Julius Verus c.158, also mentioned on the stone.
RIB1322 - Building dedication to Antoninus Pius
NO AVG PIO P
LEG II AVG ET LEG
VI VIC ET LEG
XX V V CONR
BVTI EX GER DV
OBVS SVB IVLIO VE
RO LEG AVG PR P
At the beginning of the fifth century the Notitia Dignitatum records that Cohors I Cornoviorum was stationed at Pons Aelius; they were raised from among the Cornovii tribe who inhabited Cheshire and Shropshire, and were the only native British unit known to have been stationed on the wall.
A stone tablet was found on the south side of Hanover Square in Newcastle that records the work of Cohors I Thracum on the vallum (RIB 1323), but it is thought unlikely that this unit was ever permanently stationed here.
RIB1316 - Altar dedicated to Jupiter Optimus Maximus
TE ET VICTOR
RIB1321 - Altar dedicated to Silvanus
G VAL ❦
RIB1318 - Dedication to the three Mother Goddesses
PATRIS AVRELIVS IVVENALIS
RIB1319 - Altar dedicated to Neptune
RIB1320 - Altar dedicated to Ocianus
Whilst there was a substantial Roman presence at Newcastle for nearly three centuries, whatever evidence was left behind now lies buried beneath the modern city streets, and nothing much now remains to be seen. Since the Wall was made a World Heritage site, there has been a surge of archaeological interest in the Wall and its environs, which has resulted in the discovery of the first recorded milecastle at Westgate Road (see below).
- The Roman bridge: was built of timber with ten masonry piers and two abutments, and lay on the same line as that of the present swing-bridge to Gateshead, built in 1872.
- The Auxiliary fort: has only recently been discovered, the remains of the praetorium and principia were uncovered beside the castle keep, and the rest of the fort lies buried beneath the castle. It would appear from dimensions of the recovered remains that the fort itself was quite small.
- The Wall itself: passed just to the north of the Roman Catholic cathedral (built in 1841) in the centre of the city, roughly followed the line of the modern A187 eastwards, and is buried beneath the A6115 to the west.
- The Vallum: is first apparent at Arthur’s Hill, about a mile west of the town centre.
Pons Aelius Related Links
References for Pons Aelivs
- Hadrian’s Wall Map and Guide by the Ordnance Survey (Southampton, 1989);
- Hadrian’s Wall in the Days of the Romans by Ronald Embleton and Frank Graham (Newcastle, 1984) pp.47-51;
- The Roman Inscriptions of Britain by R.G. Collingwood and R.P. Wright (Oxford 1965).
Roman Roads near Pons Aelivs
Wrekendike: S (8) to Chester-le-street (Chester-le-Street, Durham) Wall: W (2) to Condercvm (Benwell, Tyne & Wear) Wrekendike: E (12) to Sovth Shields (South Shields, Tyne & Wear) Wall: E (3) to Segedvnvm (Wallsend, Tyne & Wear)