Birdoswald Rather Than Stanwix as Arthur’s
If, as I have discussed in the main text above, the Irthing River and Valley may preserve an English form of a regional designation Arthwys, and Arthwys personified as an ancestor is to be associated with Arthur, then the possibility that the Irthing region was the actual power center of
Arthur must be considered.
I’ve elsewhere made the case for Stanwix, site of the 1,000 strong cavalry regiment garrisoned at the Uxellodunum Roman fort, being Arthur’s probable capital. However, there is a site in the Irthing Valley that shows sub-Roman activity whose dating is preferable to that of Stanwix: the Banna Roman fort at Birdoswald.
The possible late timber structures at Stanwix do not appear to have continued in use into the first quarter of the 6th century, something which is necessary for a historical Arthur who perished
c. 537 at the Camboglanna/Camlann (Castlesteads) Roman fort – itself on a tributary of the Irthing. But some remarkable timber structures at Birdoswald do meet this critical requirement.
From Excavations at the Hadrian’s Wall fort of
Birdoswald (Banna), Cumbria: 1996–2000 by
Tony Wilmott, Hilary Cool and Jeremy Evans with contributions by: K F Hartley, Katie Hirst,
Jacquline I McKinley, Quita Mould, David Shotter, A G Vince, D F Williams and S H Willis, in H
A D R I A N ’ S WA L L : A R C H A E O L O G I C
A L R E S E A R C H B Y E N G L I S H H E R I
TA G E 1 9 7 6 – 2 0 0 0:
“Periods 5 and 6: sub- and post-Roman
The later 4th century and later periods at Birdoswald have been extensively discussed elsewhere (Wilmott 1997a, 203–231). In summary, Period 5 represented the late-Roman transition between the Roman occupation of Period 4, and Period 6, which may be described as ‘non-Roman’ in character. During this Period, the ventilated sub-floor of the south granary was backfilled and the flagstone floor re-laid. The latest coin from this fill was dated to 348, giving a terminus post quem for this work. Silty layers were succeeded by a re-laid patchy stone floor, incorporating two hearths at one end of the building, around which were found highstatus items such as a gold earring, a glass finger ring and a worn, silver Theodosian coin (388–95).
At the same time, the north granary roof collapsed (terminus post quem 350–3) and the building was robbed of its walling stone and floor flags, the former sub- floor being used as a dumping area. The coinage from these dumps ran on from 348–378, and the finds also included a small penannular brooch of a characteristic sub-Roman type (Snape 1992, 158).
‘Non-Roman’ Period 6 was characterised by the erection of timber structures over the remains of the north granary and over the roads of the fort.
The first major building was post-built with most of the posts placed in shallow postholes located in the tops of the robbed granary walls. A new floor of re-used flagstones over facing stones was laid over the roof tile spread from the building’s collapse. This building was larger than the granary.
A small service building was constructed as a post-built lean-to against the inner side of the fort wall south of the west gate. The second phase of timber buildings saw the erection of a freestanding, framed building founded on postpads.
The south wall was on the site of the former granary, but the north wall on the former via principalis, aligned with the spina of the west gate, thus covering the road inside the blocked south gate portal. This building was surfacebuilt, as were two small structures founded on surface-laid sleeper beams on the intervallum road. Apparently at the same time, the west gate was provided with a new, timber-built outer portal, possibly allowing gates to be hung to open outwards, and thus to be more defensible.
Dating for Period 6 is problematic. The south granary was clearly re-used, possibly as a hall building, with the hearths at the western end provided for the leading figures in the fort community.
If the timber structures were the functional successors of this building, as seems likely, the terminus post quem for the first is c 388–95. As the Theodosian coin was worn, however, this could be assumed to be later, perhaps c 420. An estimated life of 50 years for each building would bring the close of occupation to c
The excavations reported above had little to contribute to knowledge of these phases because the barrack areas within the fort were heavily truncated and activity in the extra-mural areas ended in the later 3rd century. The sole evidence thought to relate to Period 5 to survive in the north-west praetentura was the final phase of Building 803, the officer’s house in the northwest corner of the fort. This building clearly survived in use longer than the adjacent structure to the east. The terminus post quem for the apsidal structure within this building is 330–70, which places it within the same period as the late 4th-century re-use of the south horreum (Wilmott 1997a, 203–6). It is tentatively inte preted as a possible church. Similar interpretations have been advanced for an apsidal structure built at Housesteads on a street in the north-west corner (Crow 1995, 95–6), and at Vindolanda, within the courtyard of the praetorium (Birley et al 1998, 20–1).
At South Shields there is some evidence that the principia forecourt was transformed into a church in the late 4th century (Bidwell and Speak 1994a, 102–3). Also at Vindolanda the early Christian tombstone of Brigomaglos, dated c 500, indicates a late Roman/early post-Roman Christian presence (Jackson 1982, 62), as does other recently discovered artefactual evidence.
Long-cist graves (all empty) have been claimed adjacent to the church at Housesteads, at Sewingshields (Crow and Jackson 1997, 66–7) and east of Birdoswald (Wilmott 2000, fig 16). It is possible that Birdoswald was one of a number of forts that persisted as a Christian centre.”
Mr. Wilmott was kind enough to answer my questions regarding some possible sub-Roman graves found at Birdoswald. From his personal correspondence:
“The long cist found to the east of the fort seems to be a one-off, though admitedly there has been no further work in this area to confirm a cemetery or otherwise.
However I can give you further info. In 2011 we did a small excavation of the known Roman cemetery to the west of the vicus (there was a threat of loss to river cliff erosion). There we found an enclosure containing largely 2nd-3rd century cremations. In the entrance to the enclosure, effectively blocking the entrance, were two inhumation graves. There was no bone in either due to the acid conditions. One appears to have been double. This contained a flat pillowstone in the half which would have held the taller individual. The second grave was pebble lined in the manner of a long cist. One of these cut the fill of the enclosure ditch, from which came Crambeck parchment ware dated AD 375 +. So a 5th century date is the best fit.
Analysis towards publication continues on this project.
I tried, as you will have seen, to summarise some of the thinking in my excavation report in
1987, but this was largely in context with a recent (at the time) book, and also the fact that the moment the hall buildings were found the press invoked Arthur based on the old identification of
Birdoswald/ Camboglanna, disproved, of course by Hassall in 1976. I wanted to get the story of the archaeological findings out without this overlay, as the archaeological community were at first sceptical of the evidence in the ground.
When the exercise basilica was reported I had a phone call from an Irish nun who identified the word 'basilica' with church and asked if I'd found the basilica of St Patrick. It seems that you are going to give a rather more reasoned analysis of the material.”
We therefore have at Birdoswald structures which indicate the presence of someone LIKE Arthur at Arthur’s time. The Irthing River, whose region was perhaps designated as Arthwys, the place of the Bear, may have received its name from Arthur himself, the ‘Bear-king’. The fact that Camlann or Castlesteads was only several miles to the west in the same river valley system adds weight to an argument seeking to place Arthur at Birdoswald.