Roman Maryport

Maryport altar(This image, taken by our Society photographer Bill Shannon last year, is of the new altar found at Maryport in 2013).

On Friday 17th April Dr John Zant came to talk to us about the Roman settlement at Maryport in West Cumbria. Digging has taken place at the fort since the late sixteenth century and indeed finds from that time have formed the backbone of the collection at the Senhouse Museum in Maryport. There has also been sporadic digging in the last 150 years but little or no excavation of the extra mural settlement. However to look at the settlement it is important to view it in its context. The fort formed part of the Cumbrian coastal defence system – essentially a continuation of Hadrian’s Wall – the wall without an actual wall but punctuated with forts and milecastles and watchtowers. There is also tantalising evidence of a pre-Hadrianic timber fort at the site, evidence of which may now be under a playground. The stone fort is thought to have housed about 500 men probably a mixed force of cavalry and infantry. The settlement from the geophysical results would appear to have housed a similar number of people. The settlement was north of the fort.
The project was set up as a community archaeology dig by the Hadrian’s Wall Trust and directed by Oxford Archaeology North and its aim was to find out about the ordinary life of the settlement. There were two excavation seasons and they are now in the process of evaluating the results so that in the future there will be much more information to come out about the site. He also pointed out that only a tiny section of the settlement has been dug so there is huge potential for furthering our knowledge of this site.
During the settlement dig very little prehistoric material was found – a few Mesolithic worked flints and a Neolithic Langdale axe. Traces of a roundhouse were also found but with no associated dating material it could be Neolithic to post-Roman. Their first major discovery was the Roman road which was fronted by houses on both sides. This road came from the north-east corner of the fort. What is the date of the settlement? Could it be associated with the possible timber fort? One of the houses was investigated and a total of 700+ sherds of Samian ware were found and just 10 could possibly have predated the Hadrianic fort.
An early 3rd century strip building was investigated but its function is unknown. It was three rooms deep on stone footings but with no foundations but with a slate roof, some stone slates were found. In the corner of one of the rooms on an exterior wall was found a square stone platform in the right location to suggest a possible stair to a second storey. This building on the evidence of the pottery finds seems to have been abandoned before the end of the 3rd century. Earlier in the settlement’s history pottery seems to have been locally made but towards the end of the period it appears to have been centrally supplied.
The site produced finds of Roman armour, lorica segmentata and armguards. fragments of glass bangles were found and he brought one to show us as well as a single example of chainmail. Melon beads were also found which he thought were probably used for horse bridle decoration originally. A small portable altar was also found as well as a carving of a probable local God as well as an incised stone which may have had religious significance.
Alongside this excavation a separate one was undertaken by Newcastle University to investigate the location of the 17 altars that have been found. It was discovered that the altars had been used as packing for timber posts and that there is the possibility that these timber posts could possibly have been part of a church in use at the end of the Roman period or even the post-Roman period.
This was a most interesting and well delivered talk on a fascinating site which has great potential to increase our knowledge of such settlements and of Maryport itself in the future.

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