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


Ordnance survey map of Birdoswald Roman fort and the section of Hadrian's Wall and vallum between the River Irthing and the field boundaries east of milecastle 50
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The building or site itself may lie within the boundary of more than one authority.

County: Cumbria

District: Carlisle (District Authority)

Parish: Waterhead

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 Firth. 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 purposes.

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 the fort. 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 1961. 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 included.

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

End of official listing