Western Sea Defences - Milefortlet 21 - Swarthy Hill

Western Sea Defences

The Milefort 21 lies on top of Swarthy Hill,  close to the village of Crosscanonby in Cumbria.  The site was the first total excavation of a milefortlet when it was excavated in 1990 and 1991, its turf banks rebuilt at that time so you can get an idea of the scale of the structure which once stood here.

It dates from 122 CE  when Emperor Hadrian built his frontier system. Hadrian’s Wall was his finest achievement and is a testament to the might of the Roman Empire. However, contrary to popular belief, Hadrian’s Wall did not solve the Romans’ problem of border security. In areas like West Cumbria the armies had a particular problem – the open coastline was in very close proximity to the border with Scotland. It would take little effort for their enemies to bypass the Wall and raid the Cumbrian coast. To combat this weak link in their defences, the Romans built a series of milefortlets, which linked with Hadrian’s Wall. These were interspersed with small towers, though, unlike Hadrian’s Wall, they were not connected by a continuous stone or turf barrier. The full extent of Roman defences along the Solway Coast isn’t really known. There are remains of milefortlets between Port Carlisle in the north and to the south near Maryport. Yet the usefulness of the border defences didn’t last. Emperor Hadrian reigned between 122AD and 140AD, after which time the West Cumbrian milefortlets appear to have been abandoned.

The milefortlet was part of the coastal system of defences during the Roman era, between Bowness-on-Solway, the western end of Hadrian’s Wall, Maryport, and Ravenglass. The fortlet would have housed soldiers who defended the coast, this site was built in turf and stone by thousands of members of the troops. Having two towers per milforlet, there is a ditch that surrounds the forlet on the coastal side. The stone milefortlets measured about 15 x 18 metres, and the typical layout is clearly shown here – with two gates, a central passageway, and either side of this accommodation for the men in two barracks. None survive above a few stone courses, so it is impossible to know what they actually looked like.

It’s located just off the coast road, just over the brow of Swarthy Hill, overlooking the area’s historic saltpans.




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