Chesters Roman Fort: Outpost of Empire

English Heritage

A cavalry fort on Hadrian’s Wall

The fort buildings
Lying in the beautiful valley of the river North Tyne, Chesters is one of a series of permanent forts built during the construction of Hadrian's Wall, the Roman empire's northern frontier. Occupied for nearly 300 years, it housed some 500 troops, and in the 3rd century AD was garrisoned by a cavalry regiment from northern Spain.

As you enter the fort at the north gate, you are entering the Roman Empire. The towers on either side were used for sentry duty.

These two barrack blocks have not been completely uncovered. Only half the length of each has been revealed.

Each barrack block housed 30 men of a cavalry troop (turma) and their horses.

The block was divided into ten rooms (contubernia). Each room would have been divided into front and back. In the front part, three horses would be tethered; in the back, three men slept and ate.

The larger rooms at the eastern end would have housed the decurion, the officer in charge of the troop.

This delicate cast copper-alloy phalerae, found in the barracks, is from a horse’s harness or a soldier’s belt. Its delicate openwork design would have glittered in the sun, as it was originally silvered or tinned on the surface. Horse harnesses and soldiers’ belts could be decorated to personal taste.

These baths were built in the 4th century AD. They were probably for the soldiers, perhaps replacing the larger baths outside the fort.

The commanding officer's house, or praetorium, is extremely large and would have been opulently decorated.

The headquarters, or principia, of a fort was always centrally placed. Here at Chesters the principia is larger than that at other forts, reflecting the high status of cavalry units.

The principia’s central courtyard is surrounded by a covered portico. Beyond that is a high-roofed hall, within which the commanding officer would have presided over ceremonies and perhaps given orders.

Opening off the back of the hall are five rooms. The central room, protected by a screen and always guarded, was the shrine (aedes), in which the regimental standards were kept.

On either side of the shrine were offices where records were stored.

Stairs lead down from the shrine into an underground strongroom, where the soldiers’ pay was stored securely.

Outside the fort, on the bank of the river North Tyne, is a bath house, one of the best-preserved Roman military buildings in Britain.

The baths here have a distinctive compact plan only found at forts on Hadrian’s Wall.

Roman bathing involved moving through a series of rooms at different temperatures. This reconstruction shows the underfloor heating system (hypocaust) of the hot rooms at Chesters, powered by a furnace.

The Collection at Chesters
The museum at Chesters has one of the best collections of inscriptions and sculptures on Hadrian’s Wall. The collection was formed by John Clayton, a central figure in the 19th-century archaeology of the Wall. 

John Clayton inherited Chesters Roman Fort in 1832, and excavated all the remains that can be seen today.

By the time he died in 1890 he owned almost 20 miles of Hadrian’s Wall and five Roman forts. He excavated at many of them, as well as protecting them from quarrying, stone robbing and other damage. His finds from Chesters and other sites fill the site museum. A small selection of objects is shown here.

This extremely delicate chain has survived in such good condition because gold does not corrode in the ground.

Each link is a flat-sectioned bar, one end of which has a loop. The other end has been inserted into the loop of the next link, looped and then coiled around its own shank, so forming the chain.

This leather shoe has been conserved and mounted on a modern wooden foot. When the shoe was found, William Tailford, the excavation foreman, took it to the Clayton family bootmaker in London, who made the wooden foot specially for the shoe.

The upper is of one piece – originally there would have been a seam down the centre front of the foot. The upper was originally closed by lacing – there are two plain loops for fastening over the bridge of the foot, and further fastening loops attached to the front and side of the upper, in an openwork design.

There appear to be at least two insoles. The uppers are lapped around them so that they are then enclosed by the outer round-toed nailed sole. One-eighth of the sole, including about 17 hob-nails, survives at the foot end.

This purse was found in a Roman quarry at Barcombe (about two miles south of Housesteads Roman Fort) in 1837 by a quarryman involved in the building of the Newcastle–Carlisle railway.

Arm purses are so-called as they are thought to have been worn on the arm. They have hinged lids, which would have lain securely against the skin.

It contained three gold aureii and 60 denarii, ranging in date from the time of the Republic (509–27 BC) to the reign of Hadrian (AD 117–38).

This represents a large sum of money for someone to be carrying around. Did an officer perhaps lose the purse while supervising work constructing the Wall?

A large number of spearheads have been found at Chesters – 63 in all. About a third of these are of a curious type with expanded middle sections, like this one. It is unlikely that these could have been used as weapons. They may have had a ceremonial purpose.

This is a copper alloy modius, or grain measure. The inscription states that the vessel holds 17½ sextarii, although in fact it holds 20.8. If this vessel was used to collect tax in the form of grain, then the army was swindling the tax payers.

The name of the Emperor Domitian has been scratched out, because after his death the Roman senate wanted to erase his memory from public record.

This ornate cast copper alloy mount is probably from a piece of furniture. In Roman mythology, maenads (a Greek word meaning a mad or raving woman) were known as Bassarids, Bacchae or Bacchantes, as the followers of Bacchus often wore a fox-skin (bassaris).

Bacchus was the Roman name for the Greek god Dionysus, god of wine, and maenads were associated with the god in both cultures. During rituals, maenads would wear ivy wreaths and dance and drink themselves into an ecstatic frenzy.

This belt plate is made from copper alloy, plated in silver. The letters read VTER, and the piece was probably one of a pair, the other part of which would have read FELIX, so the two parts together would have read ‘use happily’ in Latin.

This spectacularly ornate and intricately detailed object has been made from millefiori glass. The term ‘millefiori’ means ‘thousand-flower’.

It is created by fusing rods of coloured glass together, stretching them, and then chopping slices from the multicoloured rod. The slices are then set into pieces such as this mount.

This Samian dish has barbotine decoration on the rim which was piped on before firing. It is a form which was in use from the AD 70s throughout the 2nd century, so is difficult to date closely. This dish was found in Kent, and given to John Clayton by friends.

The maker of this hoe has taken full advantage of the natural shape of the antler. All he has had to do is to trim some of the tines (the branches on an antler) to give him two prongs, and to cut the central piece out of the skull, drilling a hole in the centre.

This is one of two incense burners, or thuribles, found in Coventina's Well, a shrine outside Carrawburgh Roman Fort.

The thuribles are among many votive offerings found at the shrine to Coventina, a mysterious goddess unknown before this discovery.

The altars dedicated to Coventina found at the shrine were carved with great skill, but these thuribles appear to have been made by an amateur – the name of the goddess is spelt differently on each one.

Offerings of this kind were a relatively inexpensive way for a devotee to offer something to the goddess.

Today, Chesters is perhaps the most accessible and informative of all the forts on Hadrian’s Wall. The grass conceals a rich depth of buried remains, awaiting the researchers of the future.

Credits: Story

Contributors
Frances McIntosh, Andrew Roberts, Rose Arkle

Visit Chesters Roman Fort

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The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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