Birdoswald Roman fort and the section of Hadrian's Wall and vallum between the River Irthing and the field boundaries east of milecastle 50
Heritage Category: Scheduled Monument
List Entry Number: 1010994
Date first listed: 12-Dec-1928
Date of most recent amendment: 14-Jul-1997
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The building or site itself may lie within the boundary of more than one authority.
District: Carlisle (District Authority)
National Grid Reference: NY 61452 66263
Legacy Record - This information may be included in the List Entry Details.
Reasons for Designation
Hadrian's Wall marks one of the frontiers of the Roman Empire. The
international importance of the surviving remains has been recognised through
designation as a World Heritage Site.
The military importance of the Tyne-Solway route across the Pennines was
recognised by the Romans during their early campaigns through northern England
and into Scotland in the second half of the first century AD. At this time a
military road, the Stanegate, was constructed along with a series of forts.
Subsequently the Romans largely withdrew from Scotland and there is evidence
that the Tyne-Solway route was being recognised as a frontier by the start of
the second century AD. This position was consolidated in the early second
century by the construction of a substantial frontier work, Hadrian's Wall,
under the orders of the Emperor Hadrian. Hadrian's successor, Antoninus Pius,
subsequently attempted to establish the boundary further north, between the
Clyde and the Firth of Forth, but by c.AD 160 growing unrest amongst the
native populations of northern Britain and pressures elsewhere in the Empire
caused a retraction back to the Hadrianic line. Hadrian's Wall was then the
frontier of the Roman Empire in Britain until c.AD 400 when the Roman armies
withdrew from Britain.
Stretching over 70 miles from coast to coast, Hadrian's Wall was a continuous
barrier built of stone in the east and, initially, of turf in the west. The
stone wall was originally designed to be ten Roman feet wide and sections of
this width are termed broad wall. A change of plan shortly after construction
began led to a reduction in the width of the Wall to eight Roman feet, such
sections being termed narrow wall. Today, stretches of both wall types
survive, including some sections of narrow wall built on broad wall
foundations. For most of its length a substantial ditch on the northern side
provided additional defence. Where the Wall crossed rivers, bridges were
constructed to carry it across. Construction of the Wall was organised and
executed by legionary soldiers. From the beginning the barrier was planned to
comprise more than just a curtain wall. At regularly spaced intervals of about
a mile along its length lay small walled fortlets known as milecastles. These
were attached to the southern side of the Wall and most had a gateway through
the Wall to the north. Hence they controlled crossing points through the Wall
as well as affording space for a small stable garrison. Between the
milecastles were two equally spaced towers known as turrets. Together the
milecastles and turrets provided bases from which the curtain wall could be
watched and patrolled. Both the turrets and milecastles are thought to have
been higher than the Wall itself to provide suitable observation points. It is
often assumed that a platform existed on the Wall so that troops could
actually patrol along the wall top; it is however far from certain that this
was the case.
At the western end of the Wall a system of towers, small fortlets and palisade
fences extended the frontier system another 30 miles or so down the Cumbrian
coast and helped control shipping moving across the estuary of the Solway
As originally planned, and apart from whatever space there was in the
milecastles, provision for the accommodation of garrison troops manning the
Wall was left with the line of forts which already lay along the Stanegate. At
some point a fundamental change of plan took place and forts were constructed
along the line of the Wall itself. There are now known to have been 16 forts
either attached to the Wall or in close association with it. Some overlay
earlier features such as turrets or milecastles. At this stage another linear
element, the vallum, was also added to the defensive system to the south of
the Wall. This was a broad flat-bottomed ditch flanked by a pair of linear
banks. It shadows the course of the Wall for almost all its length, sometimes
lying very close to it but sometimes up to a kilometre away from it. The
vallum's main function was to act as a barrier to restrict access to the Wall
from the south. It also had a function in linking the forts along the Wall
with a method of lateral communication. When the forts were placed along the
wall line no provision was made for a road to link them. This situation was
clearly found impracticable and a metalled track was therefore provided in
places along the vallum between the north mound and the ditch.
Later, after the withdrawal back to the Hadrianic line from the Antonine Wall,
various refurbishments were made throughout the frontier line. At this stage a
new linear feature was added: the `Military Way'. This was a road linking all
elements of the Wall defence, running from fort to fort within the area
bounded by the Wall and the vallum.
Throughout its long history the Wall was not always well maintained. It was
often neglected and sometimes overrun, but it remained in use until the late
fourth century when a weak and divided Roman Empire finally withdrew its
armies from the Wall and Britain.
It now survives in various states of preservation. In places, especially in
the central section, the Stone Wall still remains several courses high and the
attached forts, turrets and milecastles are also clearly identifiable.
Earthwork features such as the ditch, vallum and Military Way also survive
well in places. Elsewhere the Stone Wall has been virtually robbed out and
only its foundations survive beneath the present ground surface. Similarly,
stretches of the earthwork remains, including sections of the Turf Wall, have
been levelled or infilled and now only survive as buried features. Although
some sections of the frontier system no longer survive visibly, sufficient
evidence does exist for its position to be fairly accurately identified
throughout most of its length.
Whilst all the forts added to the Wall are broadly similar in size, no two are
exactly alike and there is no standard internal layout. However, when
originally built, all forts enclosed a fairly standard range of buildings
including a headquarters building, commandant's house, hospital, barracks,
stables, granaries and workshops. The size and number of barracks blocks has,
in the past, been used to determine the size and type of military unit
stationed there. This is a difficult exercise which remains the subject of
much debate. The area outside the fort was put to a variety of uses. There was
usually a bath house and normally a number of temples, burial grounds and
other official establishments such as lodging houses for official visitors.
Over time sprawling external settlements known as vici grew up around many
forts. These housed a range of people and activities attracted by the military
presence. Some of the inhabitants may have been families of troops stationed
on the Wall, although it was not until the third century that soldiers on
active duty were officially permitted to marry. Others may have been retired
soldiers and their families. Traders and merchants are also thought to have
set up workshops and shops in the vici. The most common type of building found
here, as well as in other areas around forts, was the long narrow strip
building. These appear to have been used for both domestic and commercial
Birdoswald Roman fort and its associated features survives well as a series of upstanding and buried remains. Significant information on the development of the frontier system over time will be preserved. In addition the silted ditches and the remains of the Turf Wall will contain environmental evidence which will allow the character of the surrounding environment to be reconstructed for the Roman period.
Legacy Record - This information may be included in the List Entry Details.
The monument includes the Roman fort at Birdoswald and the section of
Hadrian's Wall and vallum and their associated features between the River
Irthing in the east and the field boundaries east of milecastle 50 in the
west. In the original construction of Hadrian's Wall, the Wall west of the
River Irthing was built as a turf rampart, probably due to a lack of building
stone in the immediate vicinity. East of the Irthing the Wall was built from
stone. However, by the end of the second century AD, the Turf Wall section was
rebuilt in stone.
The Turf Wall ran from the milecastle at Harrow's Scar to the south side of
the east gate of Birdoswald fort, continuing on the west side from the west
gate. However, excavations in 1894 by the Cumberland Excavation Committee and
in 1945 by Simpson and Richmond showed that the Turf Wall and its ditch were
overlain by the fort. Its course has been confirmed by recent geophysical
survey. The remains of the Wall survive as buried features with the only
feature visible on the ground being the Turf Wall ditch west of the fort where
it appears as a broad shallow depression occupied by a buried land drain.
The Stone Wall survives very well in this section, being visible as an
upstanding stone monument for most of this length. It averages 2.2m wide on a
broad foundation 3m wide and averages over 1m high. There is an 874m stretch
of the Wall which is consolidated and in the care of the Secretary of State in
this section. In the section east of Birdoswald fort there are eight Roman
inscribed stones in the south face of the Wall. The Wall where it coincided
with the north wall of the fort has been largely levelled by the farm complex.
Buried remains will survive below the farm area and road. At the west end of
this section the remains of the Wall are buried below ground to the south of
the modern road. The wall ditch is visible in this section immediately to the
north of the modern road which occupies the berm between the Wall and ditch.
Here it averages 2m in depth. Towards the fort the ditch fades out due to
silting; east of the fort the ditch is silted and marshy. Remains of the ditch
upcast mound, usually referred to as the glacis, survive to the west of the
fort as a low amorphous mound to the north of the wall ditch.
Milecastle 49 is situated on the west side of the Irthing gorge on the cliff
known as Harrow's Scar. It survives as an upstanding stone feature. It is
consolidated and in the care of the Secretary of State. It measures 23m north
to south by 20m east to west. Excavations by Richmond took place in 1953 which
revealed a gateway and the remains of the earlier phase turf milecastle below
it which measured about 16.6m north to south by 15.4m east to west. The
construction of a cottage, which probably dates to the 18th century, has
destroyed much of the internal remains.
Turret 49a was situated on the line of the Turf Wall before Birdoswald fort
was built, although it was itself made of stone, as were all the turrets. It
was located by Simpson and Richmond during excavation in 1945. It was situated
in the centre of Birdoswald fort below the Commandant's House. Its remains
consisted of foundations only which survive buried below the fort remains.
Turret 49b was situated on the line of the Turf Wall 350m west of the west
gate of the fort at Birdoswald. It was located by Simpson, Richmond and St.
Joseph during excavation in 1934, and was constructed in stone as were all the
turrets. The excavators examined only the side walls in order to identify the
position of the turret. The walls had been laid in a construction trench, and
only the foundations remained. It is likely that the turret was demolished
when the replacement Stone Wall was built to the north, and the stone from the
Turf Wall turret used in its construction. The turret survives as a buried
feature below the turf cover with no remains visible above ground.
Turret 49b, built for the Stone Wall, also survives as an upstanding stone
feature and its walls have also been consolidated; it is in the care of the
Secretary of State. Excavations in 1911 by Simpson showed there to be two
early floor levels as well as late pottery demonstrating that the turret had
continued in use, unlike many other turrets.
The course of the Roman road known as the Military Way, which ran along the
corridor between the Wall and the vallum linking turrets, milecastles and
forts, is known throughout this section. West of the fort it survives as an
intermittent low linear mound, 0.1m in maximum height. East of the fort a
geophysical survey in 1986 by Walker confirmed the existence of the Military
Way below the turf cover.
The vallum survives as a buried feature for most of its course in this
section. The only remains visible on the ground are to the south and west of
turret 49b where the ditch is up to 2m deep, enhanced by a mole drain along
its base. The ditch is also discernible as a depression, 0.4m deep, at the
edge of the Irthing gorge. Excavation by Richmond from 1928 onwards showed
that the vallum skirted the fort to the south. Richmond discovered a causeway
across the vallum ditch which had vertical sides faced with ashlar and gaps
showing where heavy masonry supporting an arched gateway over its centre had
been before the structure was dismantled. The vallum seems to have been
levelled here at the end of the Hadrianic period and wooden structures erected
over its course.
The fort at Birdoswald, known to the Romans as Banna, is situated on the
gentle north facing slope of a ridge with a steep scarp to the south. It was
located here to guard the bridging point of the Irthing 500m to the east. The
walls of the fort are in the care of the Secretary of State. The fort measures
178.5m north to south by 123m east to west, enclosing an area of 2.2ha. It
survives as a well preserved fort with walls and gateways standing as exposed
features. Farm buildings occupy the north west corner of the fort and the farm
yards and the modern road have levelled the north curtain of the fort, which
was also the main frontier Wall at this point. There has been a complex
history of archaeological work on this site from the early 19th century
through until the late 1980s. Buildings identified in the interior include the
Commandant's House excavated in 1945 by Simpson and Richmond, the Commandant's
Bath House excavated in 1850 by Potter, barrack blocks excavated by Richmond
in 1928 and granaries, part of the west curtain and gate, together with the
triple defence ditches by Wilmott in the late 1980s. The stone revetted
causeway across the ditch outside the west gateway is exposed as an upstanding
feature. A unique feature of this fort is the remains of an ashlar structure
made of very finely dressed stone on a chamfered plinth abutted by the west
wall of the fort, adjacent to the west gate. A large Roman basilica was
constructed in the north sector of the fort and was interpreted by Wilmott as
a parade or drill hall. Wilmott also discovered an early medieval hall and
associated structures constructed inside the fort over the earlier Roman
remains, demonstrating continued use of the site in the post-Roman period. The
area excavated by Wilmott to the south of the house has been consolidated by
English Heritage. To the south of the fort Richmond located and excavated a
pair of parallel ditches which contained Housesteads Ware pottery and leather
from a tented camp which predates the fort which was, truncated by
the ditch of the vallum. The excavations in 1930 revealed a building 20ft
square with three walls standing 13 courses high, identical in plan to a Turf
Wall turret or a signal tower. The depth to which it was buried suggests that
it may have been buried within the north mound of the vallum. The fort was
originally occupied by the first cohort of Dacians, 1000 strong, and probably
early in the third century by the part- mounted first cohort of Thracians.
Finds from the fort have included small hoards of denarii as well as altars,
statuary and inscriptions. The conversion from the Turf Wall to the Stone Wall
in this section involved a new line for the Stone Wall, which was brought up
to the north angles of the fort. This created a larger space around the fort
to the east and west. This space to the east of the fort may have contained
the parade ground for the fort garrison. The parade ground at Birdoswald is
attested by an impressive group of official parade ground dedications
including over 20 to `Jupiter Best and Greatest', however its exact position
on the ground has not yet been confirmed. In 1859 a delivery tank from an
aqueduct was discovered near the centre of the fort together with an
underground channel which was still delivering water from a point 277m west of
A civil settlement outside the fort, usually known as a vicus, appears to have
been located on the east side of the fort. Trenching in 1898 by Haverfield and
in 1930 by Richmond to the east of the east gate of the fort showed evidence
of some structures. Remains of buried features are visible on the ground as a
series of scarps and stony banks up to 1m high. The concentration of stone in
this area also implies the existence of buildings here.
A number of tombstones have been found reused in the fort testifying to an
associated cemetery near the fort. The main cemetery may have been located to
the west of the fort as the vicus was positioned on the east side and to the
south is the steep scarp down to the Irthing. A number of Roman cremations in
cinerary urns were discovered during deep ploughing in 1959 in New Field,
north of Blackbank Wood. A childs' sarcophagus was also found but reburied.
Furthermore a tombstone was found in this area to the west of the fort in
All field boundaries, English Heritage fixtures and fittings, road and track
surfaces and the farmhouse and farm buildings at Birdoswald (elements of which are Listed
Grade II) are excluded from the scheduling, but the ground beneath them is
MAP EXTRACT The site of the monument is shown on the attached map extract. It includes a 5 metre boundary around the archaeological features, considered to be essential for the monument's support and preservation.
The contents of this record have been generated from a legacy data system.
Legacy System number: 26073
Legacy System: RSM
Books and journals
Willmott, A R, The Roman Cremation Cemetery in New Field, Birdoswald
Haverfield, F, 'Transactions of the Cumbl/d and Westml/d Arc and Antiq Soc' in Report of the Cumberland Excavation Committee 1897, , Vol. 15, (1899), 172-179
Richmond, I A, 'Transactions of the Cumbl/d and Westml/d Arc and Antiq Soc' in Excavation at milecastle 49 1953, , Vol. 56, (1956), 18-28
Wilmott, T, Birdoswald Roman Fort, forthcoming
This monument is scheduled under the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Areas Act 1979 as amended as it appears to the Secretary of State to be of national importance. This entry is a copy, the original is held by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport.
End of official listing