Case Study: Aballava Fort Contextual Plaque, St Michael’s Church, Burgh-by-Sands, Cumberland
During the filming of the BBC series ‘Black and British: A Forgotten History’ in 2016, a consultant to the series pointed the BBC team to archaeological evidence of African soldiers stationed at the fort of Aballava on Hadrian’s Wall. The BBC wanted to mark the presence of these soldiers in the ‘Black and British’ series. After a consultation process, it was decided that the best way to mark them was by erecting a plaque. Its unveiling involved many people in the village and was filmed by the BBC. In 2022 a stone commemorating the introduction of African culture to the area was added to a timeline of stones in the churchyard, to enhance the interpretation of the site for visitors.
- Site and type of structure: Plaque in the grounds of a rural parish church
- Location: St Michael’s Church, Burgh-by-Sands, Cumberland
- Country: England
- Legal protection: St Michael’s Church is a Grade I Listed Building. The area under and around the churchyard is the site of the Roman fort of Aballava, attached to Hadrian’s Wall. This site (excluding the churchyard) is a Scheduled Monument and Hadrian’s Wall is a World Heritage Site.
St Michael’s Church in Burgh-by-Sands, near Carlisle, was built on the site of the third century Roman Fort of Aballava, attached to Hadrian’s Wall. In 1934, part of an inscribed Roman altar stone from the fort was discovered in the nearby village of Beaumont, where it had been reused as a building stone in a cottage. The altar stone dated to about 250-260 CE and bore a dedication to Jupiter by the commander of 'Numerus Maurorum Aurelianorum' (The Unit of Aurelian Moors). These soldiers were recruited from the Berber people from present day Algeria and Morocco and (with the attendant civilian settlement) this is the first record of an African community in Britain. A later commander of Aballava, Flavius Vibianas, was also African, from modern-day Libya.
The context for reinterpretation
In the 1930s when the altar stone was discovered, the diversity of the soldiers stationed on Hadrian’s Wall was already understood by archaeologists. Soldiers stationed on Hadrian’s Wall came from across the Roman Empire, from Iraq in the East to southern Britain. While the presence of African soldiers along Hadrian’s Wall has long been apparent, it has not been a widely known or discussed aspect of history. At the time there was little appreciation among archaeologists of the emotional significance of this find to the UK’s Black and other ethnic minority communities, for whom it evidenced their long presence in the UK.
In more recent years there has been growing interest in the ethnic composition of Roman Britain, including the interactions of soldiers with local civilians, and there has been growing speculation as to whether there is any evidence for the survival of African DNA markers in the local population. One of the historians who had written about the potential for genetic legacies of African populations in the UK was Dr Richard Benjamin, Director of the International Slavery Museum, Liverpool. He later became a consultant for the BBC’s Black and British series, presented by Dr David Olusoga and first broadcast in 2016. During the preparation of the series Dr Benjamin pointed the BBC to Burgh-by-Sands and the evidence from the altar stone.
What was done and who was involved?
The story of African soldiers on Hadrian’s Wall is not contested in that archaeological evidence for their presence is strong and not subject to alternative interpretations. Rather, these soldiers’ presence was until recently a hidden history which was interpreted.
As part of the BBC series, it was decided to dedicate a plaque to the African soldiers. This was preceded by research and consultation. Humphrey Welfare, a local archaeologist headed this process. He was also a Burgh-by-Sands resident, a former Director of English Heritage and a former Chair of the Hadrian’s Wall Partnership Board, so had the trust of the community and expert stakeholders. Welfare advised on the wording of the plaque and held conversations with the local community in the village. The BBC team also involved the North East of England African Community Association, who were very supportive of the plan to mark the presence of African soldiers on Hadrian’s Wall.
After these conversations took place, a consensus emerged that the best way to mark the African soldiers was a through a plaque outside the church which read “The first recorded African community in Britain guarded a Roman fort on this site, 3rd century AD, BBC History Project.” It was unveiled by members of the North East of England African Community Association at a ceremony filmed by the BBC and broadcast as part of the Black and British series. Local residents and school children were also present at the ceremony.
Since the unveiling, primary school teaching resources have been produced by the local school that enable children to learn about the lives of African soldiers on Hadrian’s Wall. In addition to this material a number of other heritage organisations, including Historic England and English Heritage, and the African Lives in Northern England project have also produced teaching resources on this subject.
In June 2022, the parish added a stone commemorating the introduction of African culture to the area to a series of stones in the churchyard that forms a timeline from AD 122 to 2022. The stones formed part of a development project conceived in 2013, involving three churches working together (St Michael’s, Burgh-by-Sands, St. Mary’s, Beaumont and St. Michael’s, Bowness-on-Solway) and funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund, the Rural Development Programme for England (RDPE) and other partners. The funding supported visitor interpretation and, for St Michael’s in Burgh-by-Sands, infrastructure changes too.
The reaction of the village was one of initial surprise at being told about the African soldiers stationed at Aballava. This sentiment soon became pride, with many villagers turning out for the unveiling and the local primary school actively involved. The BBC team and the visitors from the North East of England African Community Association told of the warm welcome they were given in the village.
There was little or no opposition to the plaque in the surrounding area. The church at Burgh-by-Sands receives visitors each year, some of whom now come primarily because of the African connection. The story of African soldiers stationed on Hadrian’s Wall formed part of the 1,900 year anniversary celebrations of Hadrian’s Wall in 2022.
While those involved in this reinterpretation project feel that public reactions to the plaque unveiling were warm in the local area in 2016, the interpretation received some hostile coverage in 2017, following the broadcast of a BBC children’s cartoon about life in Roman Britain. The cartoon featured the story of the son of a Black African commanding officer stationed on Hadrian’s Wall. The children’s programme was attacked for its 'political correctness' and the evidence about African soldiers was also cast into doubt by some commentators. When the classicist Professor Mary Beard intervened in support of the series it became the focus of a heated social media debate. Some overtly racist views were expressed on social media. The church, local residents and the Hadrian’s Wall partnership were unprepared for this reaction. However, there is no evidence that the 2017 events had any negative impact on public opinion in this part of Cumberland. The new stone was dedicated by the Bishop of Carlisle in December 2022, with the local primary school and the North East of England African Community Association taking part.
Lessons and insights
A national spotlight, such as from the media, can significantly accelerate a process. While the BBC’s involvement was vital for what occurred in this case, getting community buy-in is also vital to secure a lasting legacy. This case study again highlights that consultation and open conversations with stakeholders are an integral part of successful reinterpretation (or in this case, interpretation).
While responses to any form of interpretation may be initially supportive, external events and anniversaries can generate heated debate and opposition. Custodians of heritage need to be prepared for their interpretation to be challenged at a later date.
- Reinterpretation of hidden histories requires consultation with historical experts and relevant community organisations or stakeholders
- The process of reinterpretation can generate useful educational resources, for outreach in schools and universities
- Stakeholders responsible for reinterpreted heritage assets should be prepared with messaging for instances of opposition and contestation