Hadrian's Wall - Fort - Bowness on Solway (Maia)

Hadrian's Wall Fort and Vicus

Bowness on Solway marks the western terminus of Hadrian’s Wall, and the site was originally occupied by the eightieth milecastle. The milecastle was built of turf and timber, and when the Wall nearby was replaced in stone, the milecastle was demolished and replaced by a timber-built fort, which was itself rebuilt in stone at a later date.

The fort was the second largest on the entire Wall, and it is generally accepted that Bowness on Solway was for this reason named Maia (‘The Larger’) by the Romans, due to the fact that it was largest of the forts to the west of Stanwix (Uxelodunum) where was situated the military administrative centre of the Wall (which also represents the geographical centre of the Hadrianic fortifications if the Western Sea Defences are taken into account). The name Maia is attested in two sources, the The Ravenna Cosmography, and the Rudge Cup, which inscription begins ‘A MAIS ABALLA …’, or ‘From Maia to Aballava …’, Burgh-by-Sands (Aballava) (Burgh by Sands) being the next but one station eastwards along the Wall, four miles beyond Concavata (Drumburgh).

It is of note that Maia is also the name of a Roman goddess, a daughter of Atlas and Pleione, and the mother of Mercury by Jupiter. She was one of the Pleiades, accorded the brightest among the Seven Sisters. Maia was also a surname of Cybele, a Phrygian goddess, daughter of Coelus and Terra, and wife of Saturn, who was herself synonymous with Ceres, Rhea, Ops, Vesta, Bona Mater, Magna Mater, and others. The garrison units which occupied Maia are not known, but if one of them does turn out to be a regiment from Phyrgia, it would lend credence to the premise that the fort may have been named after the goddess.

The Auxiliary Fort

The fort at Maia covered an area of around 7½ acres (3ha) and was the second largest encampment on the Wall, second only to Petrianum (Stanwix). It lies with its main axis parallel to the seashore, and is thus aligned west-south-west by east-north-east. After the turf had been stripped and the old milecastle levelled, a layer of white clay was laid down on top of the subsoil to provide a firm foundation for the interior buildings of the fort.

Bowness may have been built at the same time and for the same purpose as the fort at South Shields (Arbeia) near the mouth of the Tyne, namely that of a fortified stores-depot from which supplies brought up the north-west coast were distributed along the Wall inland. It is possible that the nearby fort at Kirkbride was superceeded in this capacity by Bowness, which is definitely a later construction, but it should be added that there is no proof for these suppositions.

The Wall’s Western Terminus

The Wall at Bowness ran down into the waters of the estuary past the low-tide mark, emulating Wallsend on the Tyne. It has also been mooted that the original western terminus of the Wall was at Stanwix (Uxelodunum), and that the wall was only extended to Bowness as an afterthought, again similar to the situation at Wallsend (Segedunum).

Although the Wall itself ends at Bowness, a number of fortlets and signal towers – equivalent to the Wall’s milecastles and turrets – continued along the north-west coast of Cumbria for a further 25 miles (40km). This string of fortifications is nowadays referred to as the ‘Western Sea Defences’.

The vallum also finishes at Bowness, but not before making an abrupt turn to the south; the intention, clearly was to continue further round the coast. The only form of continuous defensive works beyond the Maia fort is a pair of shallow parallel ditches with a central rampart which links the milecastles and watchtowers along the Solway Estuary all the way to the fort at Kirkbride. It appears that the central rampart was surmounted by a simple palisade of wooden stakes, but even these flimsy defenses were not maintained in the face of continual costal erosion and flooding.

The Civil Settlement

A number of civilian tombstones recovered from the vicinity denote the presence of a small settlement or vicus outside the south gate of the fort. One sculpted tombstone, thought to have been comissioned from the Romano-British school at Carlisle, depicts a seated woman holding a dove in one hand, while she feeds a small dog sitting at her feet with the other. The tombstone is now on display at the Tullie House Museum in Carlisle (Cat. No.145).

Another dedication to an unknown god has recently been found, commissioned by a local merchant who promised to “emboss these letters with gold should my current venture prove profitable”. This inscription lends credence to the hypothesis that Maia was the western centre of trade and commerce along the line of the Wall, like Arbeia in the east.

Numismatic Evidence from Bowness-on-Solway

A small number of coins have been recovered during investigations carried out in 1930, 1973, 1976 and 1988. Only 8 coins have been identified; silver coins of Hadrian (2) and Crispina, also coppers of Domitian, Trajan (2), Postumus and Gratian. The 1988 results are not included, but are all thought to be 2nd-C. copper issues.

Marching Camps in the Bowness Area

There is a small temporary camp at Knockcross, about ¼ mile east of the Bowness fort, and another two superimposed camps at Brackenrigg, about ½ mile (0.8km) south of MC.79.

References for Maia

  • The Roman Inscriptions of Britain by R.G. Collingwood and R.P. Wright (Oxford 1965);
  • Roman Coins from North-West England by David Shotter (Lancaster 1990) p.52.

Roman Roads near Maia

Wall: E (3) to Concavata (Drumburgh, Cumbria) Possible road: SSE (3.5) to Kirkbride (Cumbria)

Sites near Hadrian's Wall - Fort - Bowness on Solway (Maia)