A noisy, smelly, smoky and sinful Roman town is dug up from the Cumbrian mud…

A noisy, smelly, smoky and sinful Roman town is dug up from the Cumbrian mud…

As we are celebrating 1900 years since the construction of  Hadrian’s Wall, we thought we would share this brilliant extract from Paul Eastham’s Book ‘Secrets of a Crooked River’ Here Paul explores the story of one Roman site whose importance has been overlooked for nearly two thousand years, until now…

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A noisy, smelly, smoky and sinful  Roman town is dug up from the Cumbrian mud…

From our earliest schooldays we have been taught that the Roman Empire invaded and dominated Britain for the best part of 400 years.

Even so, Cumbrians, and perhaps even residents of Cockermouth, might be tempted to assume Roman forts such as Derventio at Papcastle must be small provincial outposts of little importance.

But the latest archaeology has revealed the vast fortifications on a hill one mile north of the town are, as English Heritage put it, “of major strategic importance and are considerably larger than the average fort in the region.

Derventio was a military, commercial and social centre that was bigger and more important than Roman Carlisle. The enormous fort played a central role in defending the entire northern frontier of the Roman Empire.

It sent supplies to and administered the coastal defences running from Maryport to south of Moresby and the mountains of the Lake District.

Measuring roughly half a mile square, Papcastle was occupied a long time – from the late first to the late fourth centuries, equal to the time between George II’s reign and today. It started as a timber barracks and grew into a mighty stone fortress.

The sheer size and importance of Derventio was made clear by the 2009 flood, which scoured away a one metre thick layer of soil in the Broomlands area. Metal detectorists found dozens of Roman artefacts thrown up by the surging water.

This revealed for the first time that the vicus, or civilian town, which grew up beside the fort extended onto the other side of the Derwent River.

In 2013, archaeologists began concentrating in detail on the evidence for the new part of the vicus. Using sophisticated electronic sensors they uncovered the foundations of what seemed like tightly packed houses, yards and workshops on the eastern side of the original Roman settlement.

The archaeologists uncovered a main road running down the centre of the vicus, and a cobbled lane that gave a shopkeeper outside access to the back yard.

Around this building the team found pottery, glass beads, gaming counters, a spindle whorl and a fragment of a small clay statue of the goddess Venus.

The main road was well built with substantial kerbstones. It all means the busiest part of Derventio was not the fort – but the bustling shopping street leading down to the shore of the Derwent. The river was the main way goods were brought to the fort, not the roads.

An inland harbour emerged at the foot of Sibby Brow. Derventio’s bathhouse and forge were clearly busy social centres.

The diggers found a plethora of coins, brooches, and miniature animals nearby including one shaped like a deer or a stag, and another in the shape of a wild boar.

The team also discovered a dedication to Vacuna, the goddess of rest after harvest, previously unknown in Britain.

It took many attempts to discover one thing that was essential to prove the two sides of the vicus were joined together – a bridge. After one last try, excavators discovered the foundations of just such a crossing, back filled with rubble, the remains of a pier and a road leading to it.

Overall the dig established the population at Derventio were very prosperous for a long time, particularly between 193-235 AD in the reign of the Emperor Severus who travelled to Britain, strengthened Hadrian’s Wall and reoccupied the Antonine Wall.

At its peak Derventio was at least as significant as Roman Carlisle and probably more so.

A vicus was a rather important feature of any major Roman base. Whenever Imperial soldiers stopped and made camp for any length of time, one of these informal civilian settlements would spring up. While these places were essential for providing the extra luxuries that made a soldier’s life worth living, they could also be a trap for the unwary.

Vicuses were populated by itinerant tradespeople, drink-peddlers and working women of various descriptions, all eager to turn a profit from supplying the well-off military with their needs and wants.

“It would have been incredibly noisy and incredibly smelly and probably covered in a pall of smoke,” says Lindsay Allason-Jones, an archaeologist and visiting fellow at Newcastle University, an expert on the Romans in the North of England. “There would have been people from all over the empire there so it would also have been very cosmopolitan.”

Until the 3rd Century AD soldiers were not permitted to marry and so the vicus would have contained the soldiers’ girlfriends along with retired soldiers, shops, restaurants and brothels. But they also offered all the dangerous temptations that an empire can provide.

Picture: the Genius Loci found at Derventio Fort, Papcastle.


This is an extract from our book, Secrets of the Crooked River, a portrait of the lovely Cumbrian town of Cockermouth and the North Lakes that surrounds it.

You can buy a   copy at the New Bookshop on Main Street, Cockermouth, Bookends, Keswick and Carlisle, along with Sam Read, Grasmere.

Or instantly here: www.fletcherchristianbooks.com

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