If, as I have discussed in the main text of my book THE ARTHUR OF HISTORY, 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 a candidate for Arthur's 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. The "Avalon" Roman fort at Burgh-By-Sands is only a few miles to the west.
Banna as the Home of St. Patrick
A great deal of controversy still exists over the whereabouts of the home of the famous Saint Patrick. I will not here go over the various candidates, none of which have convinced the scholarly community. Instead, I will make my case for just one of these candidates, as I think new evidence can be provided in support of it.
We are told that the saint was born at ‘uico [vico – “town”] bannauem taburniae (variants taberniae, thaburinde), ‘where three roads meet’ and that this place is ‘near the western sea’. This town is otherwise known as Uentre (variants Nentriae, Nemthur).
It has long been recognized that the form ‘bannauem taberniae’, i.e. bannaven taberniae, shows an incorrect division of this place-name. Instead, it should read
Banna Venta Berniae
Venta is best defined thusly (from “Brittonic Language in the Old North”, The Scottish Place-Name Society):
“In all the cases mentioned, a sense ‘a market, a trading-place’ is quite plausible, but the apparent similarity to Latin vendere, ‘to sell’ and its Vernacular Latin and Romance derivatives is probably misleading. Both *Bannaventa and *Glannoventa, as topographical names, might incorporate the suffix seen in the river-names above, or be based on lost river-names with that suffix. Nevertheless, Sims-Williams in APN p119 includes *Bannaventa and *Glannoventa along with the Venta group, under the sense ‘market’.”
Banna’s etymology is as follows (also from “Brittonic Language in the Old North”):
“Non-IE *ban-, *ben- > Early Celtic *banno/ā- > Brittonic, Gaulish banno/ā-, also Gaulish benno- (in place-names) > Old Welsh bann- > (in place-name Banngolau AC s.s. 874) > middle - modern Welsh ban > middle Cornish ba[d]n > Cornish ban (see CPNE p. 16), Old Breton bann > modern Breton ban; Irish, Gaelic benn > (and Gaelic, manx beinn).
Primarily, 'a horn, prong, antler-time', so also 'a drinking-horn, a sounding-horn'. In Celtic place-names generally 'a point, promontary, spur', and in Brittonic and Pritenic place-names 'summit, top', a use which shaped the Gaelic and manx development of the dative (locative) singular beinn to an independent noun, especially in hill-names.: see G. Barrow in Uses, p. 56 (however, given the rarity of ban[n] in surviving hill-names, the influence of unrelated pen[n] may also have been a factor).
To me, it is fairly obvious that 'Uentre', first found in the Life by Muirchu, is merely a duplication in slightly corrupt form of Venta. Venta as 'market town' is a sort of Celtic substitution for Latin vicus, which has come down to us through Anglo-Saxon as wic or wick, 'market town'.
The Roman fort of Banna on the western end of Hadrian's Wall has often been pointed to as this particular Bannaventa (since the one in central England is not near the sea). The vicus or civilian settlement that surrounded the fort was quite large, so there is no problem with the vicus/venta portion of the name.
The problem is the 'Berniae', which no one has been able to make anything sensible out of. This is plainly a reference to the Tyne Gap, a narrow but distinct corridor running east-west through a lowlying gap between the uplands of the Pennines visible to north and south. The Gap spans the distance from the Tyne in the east to the Irthing in the west, and Banna/Birdoswald is right there at the western end of the Gap.
From the Electronic Dictionary of the Irish Language on the Irish word for 'gap':
berna beirn berne bearn Bernai bernad bearnaidh bearna
Keywords: Gap; breach; pass; defile; position; defence; attack; refuge; breach; occupied; warrior; undefended; weak; position; defence; attack; position; danger; strait; fight; gap; break; flaw; drinking-horn; ungapped
ā, f. also berna iā, d and n. as. B. Chon Culaind, RC viii 54.20 ( LL 13397 ). ds. b.¤, Sitzb. , v 93 § 30 , beirn, LL 17995 , gs. berne, FM v 1636.9 . bearn f., IGT Decl. § 39. as. Bernai, Corp. Gen. 206.17
gs. cacha bernad, LL 8030. berna f., IGT Decl. § 4. as. bearnaidh, Éigse xiv 98 § 29. gs. bearna, § 28 .
gap, breach; pass, defile; hence weak position in defence or attack: dot luid i mbernai (ar berna, v.l. ) ar-mo chenn-sa thou camest into the breach against me , Sc. M² 13. is b.¤ ina coṅgaib catha a breach in their battle position , CRR 57.
do coimét na mbernd cumung robui ag techt aran slia[bh], ZCP vi 56.10 . annsa mbeirn = in the gap , Ez. xxii 30. aon- fhear faire re seasamh gach beárnan, Keat. Poems 463. nī fhūicēb-sa an b.¤ (bern-, v.l. ) sin dom c[h]onāch gan caithem, ML² 1412. bearna as mo ré `a part of my life-span ', Dán Dé xvii 8 . ar bearna an bháis, DDána 30.6 . ? berna a eric, Laws ii 98.6 .i. ar in fechiumh nos gaibh, uair do rochuir ní di, 13 Comm. b.¤ na ngrás gur daingen duid refuge, IGT Decl. ex. 411.
In phrr. b.¤, berna churad, ¤míled etc. breach made or occupied by a warrior, etc.: ruc beirnd curad . . . dar cath na nAnmarcach, Cog. 188.23 . ra briss beirn míled i cath naṅGréc, LL 32300 ( TTr. 1488 ). do bris b.¤ céit isin cath i n-urc[h]omair a aigthi `made a breach of a hundred ', Fianaig. 90.30 . berna cēt, TBC² 3672. Phr. b.¤ báegail undefended or weak position in defence or attack: aḟágbáil ar bernadaib bǽgail nó ar doirrsib aideda, Mer. Uil.² 99. ni b.¤ bægail in læch fuil and `no easy victim ', Aen. 750. See G 7.27 . Hence b.¤ position of danger, strait; fight: iarṁbrath na mb.¤, Rawl. 69 a 27 . suan ón bheirn `from fight ' (Vocab.), O'Hara 2609. re ndul san mbeirn, Dán Dé xxv 21 . gap; break, flaw in general: (expl. Bernán Brigte, name of saint's bell) foceirt forru co mmebaid ass a bernn `its gap broke out of it ' (i.e. a piece broke off), Trip. 114.14 . (of a drinking-horn) sēt blāith cen beirn `ungapped', Measgra Uí Chl. 150 § 19. an bhearn do-cháidh san chloinnse `the gap thus broken in her family ' (by a death), Aithd. D. 13.10 . dar bernadaib in inair sin, Acall. 5808 n . tar beirn na luirige, BB 435 b 46 . Compds. trias na beilgibh bernbriste dorónadh las an ordanas broken into gaps , FM vi 2300.2 . See berrbróc. beilge berncairrgidhe na banBhoirne, Hugh Roe 242.13 .
Just as importantly, the early name of Patrick in Tirechan is Magonus. The god Mogons (and variants) is found on Hadrian's Wall, especially the western half/end - where the Banna Roman fort is located. According to Celticist John Koch, the alternative name of Patrick, Magonus, might be related to this god name.
Finally, thanks to the paper by Dr. Andrew Breeze of Pamplona ("St.Patrick's Birthplace", Wlsh Journal of Religious History, 3, 2008, pp. 58-67), I have learned of the 3rd century (?) inscription, apparently from Corbridge but now at Hexham Abbey, by a Q. Calpurnius Concessinius. Martin Charlesworth of Cambridge noticed that this Roman-period name contained both the family names of St. Patrick, whose father was Calpurnius and mother Conchessa. Q. was a prefect of an unnamed cavalry unit celebrating the slaughter of a tribal group called the Corionototae. This stone thus places both of the names of Patrick's parents near the Wall, where Banna/Birdoswald is located.