Fort, Minor Settlement, Quarry, Temple Or Shrine and Wall Fort
Vercovicium – ‘The Village on the Slope’
The Roman fort at Housesteads is situated on the eastern end of a mile long crag of whinstone stretching between the Knag Burn in the east and the Bradley Burn to the west. The well-preserved remains of the fort and adjoining sections of Hadrian’s Wall, together with the nearby civil settlement or vicus and its surrounding halo of Romano-British temples and industrial sites, make Vercovicium perhaps the most interesting place on the entire length of the Wall.
The etymology of the Roman name for Housesteads appears to be wholly Latin in origin and may refer to the settlement on the hillside south of the Wall, but the actual name of the fort is in dispute. The name appears as Borcovicium in the fifth century Notitia Dignitatum, where it is listed between the entries for Brocolitia (Carrawburgh, Northumberland) and Vindolanda (Chesterholm, Northumberland), the former fort on the Wall and the latter on the Stanegate. The Ravenna Cosmography of the seventh century lists the name Velurtion, this time between the entries for Carrawburgh and Aesica (Great Chesters, Northumberland), but a dedicatory inscription recovered from the site suggests that the name may actually begin VER… (vide RIB 1594 infra); hence the modern acceptance of the name Vercovicium, translated as ‘The Settlement on the Slope’ (from Latin: vergo incline + vicus village or settlement).
The Auxiliary Infantry Fort
The fort covers an area of about 5 acres (2 hectares) and anomalously faces east instead of north, utilizing the steep cliff of Housteads Crags to augment its northern defences, which also delineated the course of the Wall. The curious alignment suggests that the fort was built primarily to defend against barbarian incursions along the course of the Knag Burn to the east, and replaced the nearby fort at Vindolanda on the Stanegate.
For a general description of the fort itself, the masterful R.G. Collingwood’s The Archaeology of Roman Britain (pp.41-42) states:
Housesteads (built about A.D. 120-125) measures internally 570 by 330 feet (4¼ acres), and has a stone rampart-wall about 5 feet thick with a clay bank behind it bringing the total thickness of the rampart up to about 20 feet. Its four gates are all double, and have guard-rooms entered from the archways; and the via principalis and via quintana divide its internal area into three equal portions, all occupied by stone buildings. Six long blocks occupy the praetentura and six the retentura; in the centre are the headquarters, granaries, commandant’s house, and other buildings. The garrison was a milliary cohort; the ten barrack-blocks of its ten centuries can be easily distinguished from among the other buildings. Its ditches have not been explored. Outside a bath-house and traces of an extensive civil settlement with temples, etc., have been recognised and in part excavated.
During excavations over the years at Housesteads a number of animal bones have been uncovered, including those of Ox, Sheep, Pig and Red Deer; the latter animal very likely being hunted and killed for sport, the others domesticated. (See the article: The Roman Military Diet by R.W. Davies, in Britannia II (1971) pp.122-142).
Dateable Building Inscriptions From Housesteads
Housesteads fort was first erected c.128AD, after the broad wall foundations had been laid down but before the narrow wall was built, and was destroyed (and rebuilt) several times during its lifetime, in 197AD, 296 and 367, before being finally abandoned around the turn of the fifth century. Artillery platforms may have been added to the ramparts in the early-third century.
RIB1612 - Dedication to Septimius Severus, Caracalla, and Geta
[...  ]ERT [...]
[...] ⟦[...]AE [...]⟧
[...  ]EG A[...]
RIB1613 - Inscription
RIB1646 - Centurial stone of Julius Candidus
RIB1572 - Centurial stone of Gellius Philippus
The Roman Legions at Housesteads
RIB1582 - Altar dedicated to Jupiter Optimus Maximus
LEG II A[...]
RIB1583 - Altar dedicated to Jupiter Optimus Maximus, to Cocidius, and to the Genius Loci
ET DEO COCIDIO
LOCI MIL LEG
II AVG AGENTES
V S L M
RIB1577 - Altar dedicated to Cocidius and to the Genius of the garrison
RIVS M L[...]
G VI V P F V P
RIB1609 - Fragmentary dedication
LEG VI V P F
V S L L M
RIB1618 - Funerary inscription for Anicius Ingenuus
I TVNGR VIX AN XXV
RIB1619 - Funerary inscription for Hurmius
MIL COH I
CA[...]PVR[...]VS HER F C
RIB1586 - Altar dedicated to Jupiter Optimus Maximus and to the Divinities of the Emperors
AVG COH I TV
MIL CVI PRAEE
ST Q VERIVS
RIB1580 - Altar dedicated to Hercules
COH I TVNGROR
CVI PRAEEST P AEL
Although not mentioned on any inscription in stone this unit of auxiliary bowmen is eloquently attested at the fort, in the shape of a tombstone of an auxiliary soldier. This second century tombstone (< vide sinistra) suggests the presence of at least part of Cohors I Hamiorum Sagittariorum, a regiment of bowmen from Syria.
Unfortunately the tombstone is uninscribed but carries a carved image undoubtedly that of an archer, lightly armoured in a short tunic with a peculiarly pointed helmet upon his head and a military cloak about his shoulders, the man is depicted armed with a curved short bow held by his left side, a dagger on his belt and a hatchet grasped in his right hand; the soldier also appears to have a quiver of arrows suspended from a baldric at his right shoulder.
The First Cohort of Hamian Bowmen is the only such regiment known to have been stationed in Britain and they have been attested at the nearby fort at Magnis (Carvoran, Northumberland) on the Stanegate, where they were stationed in Hadrianic times. They would undoubtedly have proved an excellent defensive unit, able to shoot their arrows some considerable distance from the northern battlements of the Housesteads fort.
RIB1594 - Altar dedicated to Mars and the two Alaisiagae and to the Divinity of the Emperor
MARTI ▸ EÍ¡T ▸ DVABVS
ALAISIAGIS ▸ EÍ¡T ▸ N ▸ AVG
GER ▸ CIVÍ¡ES ▸ TVIHAÍ¡NTI
CVNÍ¡EI 3. For this expansion of N. Aug. in the singular see note to RIB 152. 4. For Tuihanti see RIB 1593. For the different readings of the place-name see Richmond and Crawford Arch. xciii (1949) 48, and the section-heading to Housesteads. Addenda from RIB+add. (1995): A cuneus literally means 'wedge', and represented a third-century unit-title of uncertain significance, consisting of cavalry or non-Roman irregulars.
At the end of the third century came the addition of the Cuneus Frisiorum, a small, irregular cavalry force of Frisian tribesmen from Tuihantis (modern Twenthe in Holland). This regiment is attested on a single inscribed stone from outside the Housesteads fort, an altar to Mars and the Aliasagae goddesses. There are two other examples of Cunei Frisiorum; at Derventio (Papcastle, Cumbria; RIB 882; 241AD) and Vinovia (Binchester, Durham; RIB 1036; undated).
RIB1576 - Altar dedicated to the Alaisiagae and to the Divinity of the Emperor
BI ET N AVG
V S L M
By the fourth century the Numerus Hnaudifridi, a Germanic mercenary unit is recorded on a single altarstone to the Alaisagae goddesses. It has been mooted that this unit may be synonymous with the Cuneus Frisiorum on the premise that the original irregular ‘Wedge’ of Frisians may have become depleted to such low numbers, that by the fourth century the unit merited the status of a mere Numerus, and that the commander of the force, one Hnaudifridus, bears a name which is certainly Germanic in origin, and may indeed have been that of a Frisian tribesman.
The Vicus or Civil Settlement
The civil settlement at Housesteads occupied the area to the immediate south and east of the Wall fort, along each side of the two minor roads which linked the fort with the Stanegate to the south-east and to the south-west. The civil buildings were arranged in terraces due to the steep nature of the surroundings, and identified remains include a number of domestic dwellings, shops and taverns, some with shuttered frontages. The buildings in the vicus were mainly rectangular in plan, arranged with their long axes at 90° to the main street. The remains of a couple (or five) of these civilian houses lie just outside the southern gateway of the fort, their gable-ends fronting the original Roman roadway indicating that it led straight down the hill and not by the less strenuous, meandering course of the modern road which serves the farmhouse.
The civil settlement was at its most prosperous in the late-third to early-fourth centuries, but was abandoned by the late fourth century following barbarian raids from the north. A considerable proportion of the civilian population were then re-housed within the defences of the fort itself, and a number of internal buildings appear to have been re-furbished and altered to accommodate them, including even the principia or headquarters building, the former administrative centre of the fort. There was plenty of room to spare in the fort at this time due to the depletion of the garrison over the years, from a nominal force of one-thousand down to only about three-hundred men.
Temples and Altars
There have been over thirty altars to pagan gods unearthed at Housesteads, the greatest number dedicated to Jupiter the head of the Roman pantheon who has nine, closely followed by the war god Mars with seven, both of these powerful deities were often observed by the military. After the two classical gods the Germanic god Vheterus is honoured with six altarstones, the Persian god Mithras has three, the Germanic god Cocidius is mentioned on another three, and the Germanic goddesses known collectively as the Alaisagae also have three, though all of their altars are shared with other deities. There are a number of other altarstones to a wide variety of gods, some shared, others not; to Greek Hercules, Latin Silvanus, also one to the Mother Goddesses and at least another four unidentified. The texts from a selection of these altarstones are given and translated on this page, those naming military units above, others below. All of the known religious texts on stone are tabulated below:
A Breakdown of Housesteads Deities
Possible Nymphaeum Housesteads Temple 1
A small, simple apsidal shrine measuring 13¾ ft. by 16½ ft. with a semicircular wall on the north-west side, lies just south of the vicus settlement, north of Chapel Hill. Inside, four heavy stone slabs set upright in a rough square encloses a strongly-flowing freshwater spring at the bottom of a 4½ ft. well. Two uniscribed altars were found within the building which proves its sanctity, and it is very likely that this very small temple, which may comfortably accommodate no more than six worshippers, was connected with the worship of some unknown water deity, or group of deities, perhaps the water nymphs. Finds of coins and pottery sherds have provided evidence of a construction date for the building around the mid-2nd century and its demise during the early-4th. Other nymphaea are known at Carrawburgh and Chedworth.
Temple of Martius Thincsus and the Goddesses Alaisiagae Housesteads Temple 2
RIB1593 - Altar dedicated to Mars Thincsus, the Alaisiagae, and the Divinity of the Emperor
BEDE ET FI
ET N AVG GER
M CIVES TV
V S L M
RIB1591 - Altar dedicated to Mars
COH I TVNG
V S L M
RIB1595 - Altar dedicated to Mars and to Victory
RIB1596 - Altar dedicated to Mars and Victory and the Divinities of the Emperors
ET NVMINIB AVGG
SVB CVRALIC . VI
. IVIC ... II .
.. V . IS VALLVTI
. I . I ... SIC ..
VS ... VIVIOB
... CVS ARM
.. SD .. T
The Mithraeum Housesteads Temple 3
RIB1599 - Altar dedicated to Mytras
BF COS PRO
SE ET SVIS V S
RIB1600 - Altar dedicated to Mitras
Situated to the south of the fort was a small temple dedicated to Mithras, the Persian Sun-God. It measured 54 feet in length by 16 feet broad, and had a paved central isle 6½ feet wide running between platforms raised at least 2 feet high on either side. A sanctuary at the far end of the temple was flanked on each side by a small altar stone, and contained a sculpted relief of the Birth of Mithras. A spring provided the building with running water, which was presumably required for ritual purposes. There is another superb example of a Mithraeum at the nearby fort of Carrawburgh.
RIB1601 - Altar dedicated to the Sun-god
V L M
RIB1578 - Altar dedicated to Silvanus Cocidius
V S L M
RIB1598 - Altar dedicated to the Mother Goddesses
COH I TVNGR
Altarstones to the God Hueterus
RIB1589 - Altar dedicated to Jupiter Optimus Maximus
[...] ET SVA SV[...]
[...]M POSVIT VOT
[...]Q SOLVIT LIBE
NS TVSCO ET BAS
RIB1597 - Altar dedicated to Mars
Along the precipitous Housesteads Crags to the west of Vercovicium the usual broad foundation of the Wall was discarded, and it seems that this section was planned from the outset to be built in a narrower gauge.
The area surrounding the Housesteads fort is bristling with other shrines and signs of industrial and agricultural activity:
- Bath House – A military bath-house has been found to the east of the fort on the opposite bank of the Knag Burn.
- Industrial Furnace – Evidence of large-scale iron-working was discovered in a building just outside the east gate of the fort to the south of the Military Way.
- Lime Kiln – Identified in the area between the eastern fort ramparts and the Knag Burn.
- Cultivation Terraces – Evidence of extensive cultivation of the surrounding hillsides is evident in the form of these furrows, which run along the gentle slopes to the south of Houseteads Crags.
- Quarries – Nearby quarry workings which supplied building stone for the Wall and fort, were at one time mistakenly identified as a military amphitheatre. [The exact location of these quarries is unknown to me, but may possibly lie north-east of the fort at the western end of Kennel Crags, where an ovoid feature north of the Wall is depicted on the OS Outdoor Leisure Map #43 at grid ref. SY791690. ]
- Cemeteries – Two possible Roman cemeteries have been identified; the first to the south-west of the Mithraeum, and the second between the Stanegate road and the Knag Burn, south-east of the Temple of the Matres.
Excavations on the site of the valetudinarium or military field hospital in the centre of the fort (NY790688) in 1970 revealed evidence that the building continued to be used after it had ceased to function as a field-hospital.
Vercovicium Related Links
References for Vercovicivm
- 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.130-151;
- Hadrian’s Wall History Trails Guidebook III by Les Turnbull (Newcastle, 1974);
- Britannia ii (1971) p.250; Britannia i (1970) pp.276/7 & Fig.4;
- Temples in Roman Britain by M.J.T. Lewis (Cambridge 1966) p.73 & fig.74;
- The Roman Inscriptions of Britain by R.G. Collingwood and R.P. Wright (Oxford 1965).
Roman Roads near Vercovicivm
Wall: E (5) to Brocolitia Military Way: W (4.75) to Cawfields (Northumberland) Military Way: E (2.75) to Coesike Wall: W (5.5) to Great Chesters (Great Chesters, Northumberland) Probable road: SW (4.25) to Vindolanda (Chesterholm, Northumberland)