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Fort's last hold on history.

Byline: By Tony Henderson

Environment Editor Tony Henderson visits a fort with a touch of Troy.

There are views in the North of England which royally repay every ounce of effort expended to reach them and, once seen, stay in the mind's eye.

One such is the vista from the Cumbrian side of the River Irthing, which separates the county from Northumberland.

It is from a high spur on the south west corner of Birdoswald Roman fort.

The land plunges sharply into the partly-wooded gorge of the meandering river.

It is a giddying aspect, and one which was described by a 19th Century Earl of Carlisle as being akin to the view from Troy.

It has long been a special place, for a prehistoric stone-lined burial chamber was discovered there.

You don't exactly have to hurry to appreciate the view before it is gone, but the expert consensus is that go it will.

Excavations at Birdoswald have shown that the drop was once many feet further away and that eventually the spur will erode and the fort will plunge into the river.

For 300 years, Birdoswald, on the edge of the village of Gilsland, was one of the forts which were part of the Hadrian's Wall frontier system.

It has a long history of occupation, from the Roman to the Dark Ages of the Fifth and Sixth Centuries, and from the medieval to modern times.

In fact, Birdoswald was farmed until only 21 years ago by the Baxter family, who moved there in 1956.

There was no mains water and supplies were drawn from the River Irthing, while the farm was not connected to the electricity grid until 40 years ago.

That chimes in with the feeling that the modern world has, until recently, passed Birdoswald by and that the echoes of the past are still loud and clear.

In this rugged country, it paid to make use of any resources to hand and all the farm buildings were constructed with stone taken from the fort.

Built into one wall is part of an altar dedicated to the troops who manned the fort in the Third and Fourth Centuries.

They represent the region's unlikely link with Romania.

In the First and early Second Centuries, the Dacians, from what is now Romania, were the tough enemies of Rome under their king Decebalus.

Eventually, the Emperor Trajan triumphed over the Dacians whose fighting qualities impressed the Romans so much that they were recruited as auxiliary soldiers.

A cohort of Dacians worked on the building of Hadrian's Wall and Birdoswald became the home of what was known as the First Cohort of Dacians, Hadrian's Own, consisting of 1,000 infantry.

Although they were at Birdoswald for 200 years, they never forgot their roots, with the Dacian curved sword being carved on building inscriptions.

A gravestone from Birdoswald is to a child called Decebalus, after the Dacian king.

The cemetery at the fort was discovered 44 years ago when ploughing turned up pots containing cremated bone.

One gravestone is that of Aurelius Concordius, the infant son of the commander of the Dacian garrison, Aurelius Julianus, whose name appears on tablets marking the building of granaries at the fort.

Inscriptions record the names of 17 top officers, including the commander from the 230s Flavius Maximianus, who was a former member of the Praetorian Guard.

Another tombstone commemorates a soldier called Septimus, aged 40, who served for 18 years with the Dacian cohort.

The Wall was a pretty cosmopolitan place. One gravestone is to G Cossurtius Saturninus, of the Legion VI Victrix, who was born in North Africa.

Six years ago TV's Time Team was at Birdoswald cemetery and uncovered a Third Century cooking pot containing created remains, and an accompanying drinking cup from Gaul.

The funeral stones are not the only ones to tell a story. On show in the fort's exhibition is an altar dedicated to Silvanus, the god of woodland and uncultivated land, by the Venatores Bannienses, which means the "hunters of Banna" ( the Roman name for Birdoswald.

A scratched name on a piece of pottery is that of Martinus, a cavalry troop commander from a unit based at the fort in the time of Hadrian.

Banna is also recorded on the Rudge Cup, a bronze bowl unearthed in Wiltshire which carries the names of forts along Hadrian's Wall.

The soldiers at Birdoswald would have lived 10 to a room in barracks of eight rooms, which have been located under the farm buildings and adjacent courtyard.

It has been discovered that in the Third Century, one barrack was remodelled to include officers' quarters with underfloor heating.

The only drill and exercise hall to be found in any auxiliary fort in the Roman Empire has been identified at Birdoswald.

It was 48 metres long and 16 metres wide, and provided the troops with an all-weather facility.

The drill hall remains may be the "church" which was referred to by the intrepid schoolmaster Reginald Bainbrigg, from Appleby in Cumbria, who visited Birdoswald in 1599.

He wrote: "I came to Birdoswald, whiche doth seame to have bene some great towne by the great ruynes thereof."

The fort has also given up some fine finds.

In the 19th Century, diggers discovered a gilt-bronze statue of Hercules, thought to have been made in the image of the Emperor Commodus.

A stone statue of the goddess Fortuna was found in the bath house of the commander's house in 1855. The first fragments ever found of a leather Roman army tent were discovered at Birdoswald in the 1930s.

And pity the poor individual who lost a bronze purse full of silver coins which was found in the rampart at the side of the fort.

* Birdoswald is open from March 1-November 9 from 10am-5.30pm. During the winter months the exterior only is open.

Admission is adults pounds 3.60, concessions pounds 2.70, children pounds 1.80, family pounds 9. There is a tea shop.

Telephone (01697) 747602.

The fort is reached off the A69 via Greenhead and Gilsland.
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Copyright 2005 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Publication:The Journal (Newcastle, England)
Date:Nov 7, 2005
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