Maryport’s mystery monuments

19 mins read

Investigating  gigantic timber  structures from  the imperial  twilight

Last time we visited Maryport, a series of pits  long assumed to be ritual repositories for  Roman altars had just been exposed as a set  of gigantic postholes (CA 259). So what did  they support? The Newcastle University team  investigating this edifice have been exploring  when it was erected and how it might have  served its community, as Ian Haynes and  Tony Wilmott told Matthew Symonds.

The Maryport pits under excavation in 2012. The location of the Roman fort is just visible in front of the houses on the horizon. A curvilinear ditch can be seen intersecting a row of the pits at the bottom left of the photograph.

Answering one question in  archaeology almost inevitably  raises more. This has certainly  been the case at Maryport, following  the spectacularly successful  2011 exploration of a  group of substantial pits lying to the north-west  of a Roman fort. This work comprehensively  debunked the longstanding notion that the pits  were cut as an act of reverence to Jupiter. Yet demolishing  this bastion of received wisdom brought a  new problem: what were the pits really for?

Monumental makeover  

Antiquarian investigation of the pits in 1870  revealed that some contained Roman altars, dedicated  by the commanding officer of the unit stationed  in the fort, which helped secure the western,  coastal flank of Hadrian’s Wall. Neatly carved into  the red sandstone face of many altars were the letters  IOM, the formula for Iupiter Optimus Maximus:  ‘Jupiter Best and Greatest’. The 2011 investigation  found that in their haste to recover more of these  remarkable monoliths, the antiquarians had overlooked  a key feature of the pits: they contained  postholes. Rather than ensuring an honourable  burial for the altars, the people manhandling  them into holes were simply using them as ballast  in a monumental building project.

The traditional view of the pits was that they were dug to receive altars after they were replaced; this was thought to be a regular occurrence, with new altars possibly erected on an annual basis. This painting shows the old altar being rolled away on logs for burial. It is now known that the altars were recycled en masse as part of a major construction project.

Further excavation in 2012 and 2013 focused  on teasing out the extent of the pits. The result  has little in common with the haphazard mass of  pits plotted on a plan published in the aftermath  of the antiquarian soundings. ‘It is very difficult  indeed to relate anything in the classic plan to  what we have,’ says Ian Haynes, project director  and Professor of Archaeology at Newcastle  University. ‘Having said that, the original description  of the plan says that it shows “the diggings”;  if you take that literally, then it could record  the holes dug by the antiquarians, rather than the  Roman pits they found.’ Yet, while the modern  work has scrupulously recorded the location of  the pits and, where traces survived, the posts they  held, the resulting plan is still not a neat fit for any  known building type.

The structure has led to a lot of head-scratching,’  Ian says. ‘At the moment, I think it is well on the way to being a type site of its own.’ Attempts to understand the pattern of pits prompted the excavation team, funded by the Senhouse Trust and Newcastle University, with access to the land  granted by Hadrian’s Wall Trust, to explore both the immediate vicinity of the timber complex and its location in the wider landscape. As well as adding another altar to the collection on display in the Senhouse Museum, the ongoing excavations continue to raise fascinating questions about life at Maryport as Roman control of Britain disintegrated.

A plan of the excavated features including the rows of pits, the large curvilinear ditch, the long cist burials (centre top) and the edge of a roundhouse (centre right). Rows of smaller post pits, containing posts of a similar size to their larger counterparts, are visible to the right.


Hall marks?
It has taken three seasons of work to determine  the extent of the pits, which are now known  to number 64 in total. ‘Ten rows of posts have  emerged, and they are rather interesting,’ Ian  explains. ‘The rows extend further to the north—south than the east—west. They are not parallel,  and the three rows to the east consist of noticeably  smaller post pits. These are about 90cm  in diameter — so they’re circular — as opposed  to the squares with 1.3m-long sides that hold  the remainder of the posts. Nevertheless, they seem to contain fragments of altar stone and held timber uprights of the same basic dimensions as the others, which is about 30cm square. Crucially, among these three smaller rows, one seems to slightly overlap with, and in two places cut, the pits in another row. That gives us a sense we are dealing with two phases.’

The post pits towards the end of the 2012 excavation season. This photograph is taken looking south, with the possible apse visible in the extension to the trench (top right), and the rows of smaller pits apparent at the far left of the shot.

Initial attempts to impose order on the pit cluster have resulted in the tentative identification of two structures: a larger building to the west, and a smaller one standing over the circular postholes to the east. While the only dating evidence to come from the pits themselves is the mid-2nd-century altars they contain, their relationship with another feature on the site helped to refine their chronology.

When excavations commenced in 2011, the team soon discovered that a ring ditch also sliced through the area under excavation. This was found to contain an altar fragment similar to those packed in the pits, as well as fragments of Crambeck parchment ware — an  unassuming, off-grey pottery that dates to the late 4th century AD. As the ditch intersected with one of the pit rows, disentangling which  came first had important implications for the timber structures. After careful study, Ian and Tony concluded that the pits were sunk after the ring ditch was cut, implying that the late- 4th-century date for the silting up of the ditch was about as early as the pits could be.

A fragment of an inscribed ‘S’ used as packing in one of the Maryport pits.

The combination of a late date with a mysterious timber structure in the vicinity of a northern frontier fort inevitably evokes shades of the great hall Tony Wilmott discovered at Birdoswald in the 1980s (CA 116). Could the proposed Maryport buildings have stemmed from the changing needs that arose as the regular Roman garrison gradually mutated into a local warband? While certainty is impossible, two factors strongly imply that the Maryport pits are not a product of the Early Medieval penchant for high-status feasting. One is that the timber  halls at Birdoswald were safely tucked within  the fort rampart, while the Maryport structures  stand proud on a windswept — and highly visible  — hilltop to the north of the fort site. The second factor is a cluster of long-cist graves dug about  20m north of the post pits.

Long-cist cemetery

Seven graves in this cemetery were excavated,  with six of them seemingly concentrated around a deeper, central burial. In terms of workmanship, the central grave is the finest, while its satellites display a more rough-and-ready appearance. Sadly, the acidic soil in which the cists were sunk  is notorious for eating away any bones interred  within it, and — sure enough — less than a gram  of skeletal material was recovered in total.  A strange wooden feature in one of the graves  initially raised hopes that it might provide  enough material for a radiocarbon  date, but they were soon dashed when  it proved to survive as no more than a  tantalising shadow in the soil.

Recording one of the Maryport pits. The void where a wooden post decayed in situ can be clearly made out to the left of the tape measure running across the pit.

One of the diggers had more  luck when they managed to  detect a minute fragment of textile in what — from its size — must  have been a child’s grave. The textile,  which turned out to be a fleece, was not  buried alone. Instead, it lay in the corner of the  grave with a bead necklace that might be Roman  in date. Radiocarbon dating the fleece revealed  that it had been sheared in the period from AD  240-340. While this might seem to point to a date  rather earlier in the Roman period than the late-4th-century Crambeck ware in the ring ditch,  leaving the burial plot divorced in time from the  monumental timber structures, the upper fill of  the central grave yielded a Valentinianic nummus  coin, minted after AD 364.

As the other burials were clustered around the  central cist, it stands to reason that it should be  the earliest one. So what is going on? ‘The fleece  could be an heirloom,’ says Ian, ‘or it could still  be actively used in the 4th century. The date is not  necessarily that far in advance of the pits being  dug, as the earliest graves could be contemporary  with the period when the curvilinear ditch was  open. What is clear is that the graves — and there  are many in the area — do not encroach on the  space where the building is, and the building does  not encroach on the space where the graves are.’

One of the white quartz pebbles discovered in the central grave. Might their presence have Christian connotations?

One final find from the graves might shed some  light on the nature of the community burying its  dead in the long cists. A couple of small, white  quartz pebbles were found in the central grave.  Not local stone, the inclusion of similar stones in  graves elsewhere has been explained as a signature  of Christian burial. This is based on a reading  of Revelations 2:17, which holds that ‘To the one  that overcometh will I give to eat of the hidden  manna, and will give him a white stone…’. While  it is also possible that these pebbles were simply  used as grave-markers, they are not the only hint  of early Christian activity on the site.

Two early Christian-style tombstones are  known from Maryport, dedicated to Rianorix  and Spurcio, as well as a long-lost altar recut  with a Chi Rho monogram — a symbol that  superimposes the first two Greek characters  spelling ‘Christ’. This unusually rich concentration  of Early Medieval material would certainly  fit with the presence of a Christian community.  Intriguingly, the isle of Whithorn — far out in  the Solway — is visible from the site on a clear  day; Whithorn is traditionally associated with  the 5th-century ministry of St Ninian. Even the  intercutting burials at Maryport may have religious  overtones, as a recent study of Iron Age  Christian burial rites in Scotland by Adrián  Maldonado indicates that such clusters are  strongly associated with early Church sites.

Foundations of the church?

One of the early Christian-style tombstones from Maryport, on display in the Senhouse Museum. The stone was set up in memory of Rianorix.

So should we be thinking of a complex founded  on an exposed, but highly visible, location near  Maryport Roman fort by a fledgling Christian  group? The presence of an apparent apse projecting  from the western side of the possible  larger building makes comparisons with a church  inevitable. Ian prefers to let the evidence speak for  itself. ‘While one would have to see it as some kind  of hall-like, aisled building, it does not occupy  a very sensible habitation site, and there does  seem to be a close connection between it and the  graves, which must surely be contemporary,’ he  says. ‘I still find that and the location of the site in  a place that is intervisible with Whithorn potent.  I think we are seeing a Late Roman Christian community  evolving in the shadow of some kind of  substantial structure up on the most conspicuous  point of the hillside.’


IMG_9026Annual altars?
The remarkable series of Jupiter altars from Maryport fort runs to 23 certain  examples, as well as fragments of a probable 24th. By far the largest individual haul came from the antiquarian investigation of the pits to the north  of the fort in 1870. We now know, though, that some pits were discovered and opened at a far earlier date. A fragment found in a pit in 2011 was matched to an altar that was first recorded in 1725 (CA 259).

In 2012, the first Jupiter altar to be found since  1870 was detected by the Newcastle team  in a pit that had been overlooked by the antiquarians  (see CA 271). That altar names Titus Attius Tutor as the  prefect of the cohors I Baetasiorum. This was Tutor’s first  command, which came after serving on the council of  his home town of Solva in modern Austria. It is possible  that the altars were erected annually to mark either the  Emperor’s birthday, or vows in honour of perpetuating  the Empire on 3 January. Two other units, and nine  further commanding officers, are named on the  remaining altars. Many of the altars are on display  in the Senhouse Museum.

This article appeared in issue 289 of Current Archaeology.

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