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Time Pieces History Project Item 38 – Segedunum

First time on the blog or new to the Time Pieces History Project? Find out what it’s all about here, and then come back to this page for today’s item – Segedunum.

Segedunum – Introduction to Item 38 

The Roman fort site of Segedunum in Wallsend, Newcastle upon Tyne

The site from the viewing tower.

The museum at Segedunum opened when I was 18, but I seem to have a memory of visiting it earlier than that. However, it’s only been in recent years that I’ve gone round the museum and fort site, which has been carefully preserved.

I’ve long had a fascination with the Romans, probably like a lot of people. I had several of Terry Deary’s Horrible Histories books, including the Rotten Romans, and living in the North East of England, you can find yourself literally walking into ancient artefacts.

When I was younger, Durham University’s Museum of Archaeology was located in a little building on the banks of the River Wear, and I loved visiting it whenever we were down there. After looking round the exhibits, you could go to the gift shop and buy Roman coins, and I remember taking one to school with me one Monday morning so my best friend Louise and I could play at being Roman sisters, driving our chariot around the city.

The History of Segedunum

The Romans, as we know, saw the advantages of Northumbria, and built forts, towers and more across the county. Segedunum stands at what is now Wallsend – so named, of course, because the fort guarded the east end of Hadrian’s Wall.

The spot was chosen because it sat at the bend of a river which allowed for clear views in both directions of the river and its banks. The river served as the frontier between the coast and Wallsend, and soldiers were stationed on the South of the Tyne too.

What we see there today is how the fort would have looked in 200AD, with as much of the original stone used as possible. The site includes the commanding officer’s house and the headquarters, with the hall where the officers Wooden standards used by Roman Soldiers at Segedunumreceived their orders, and administrative rooms including the strong room.

There is also a water tank, most likely fed by a nearby stream, and a double granary used for storage. There is the cavalry barracks, a building which was probably a hospital, and the site of the old bath house.

Segedunum, though, was actually used as a barracks for 300 years, with the first soldiers arriving in approximately 122AD, some time before the current recreation and at the same time as the Pons Aelius was being constructed, and leaving in about 400AD.

A white building with red roof

The rebuilt bathhouse

Various groups of soldiers were stationed there, with the Cohors II Nerviorum being there first. They were replaced by the Fourth Cohort of Lingones, who were partly a cavalry cohort – 120 horseback soldiers and 480 foot soldiers.

While this is the only Segedunum in Britain, there were another four across the Roman Empire, with another in Germany and three in the home of Asterix the warrior – Gaul. The meaning of the name is unclear, although it has been suggested it comes from the Celtic ‘sechdun (‘dry hill) or ‘sego’ ‘dunum’ (‘strength’ and ‘fortified place’).

The origins may also lie in the Celtic word for ‘victorious’, and as it crops up throughout Europe as ‘segh’ to mean ‘strength and ‘vigour’ and even the German word for victory – ‘sieg’ then ‘strong fort’ seems like the best guess.

After the site was abandoned, it was used for centuries as farmland. In the 1800s, when the North of England Historian John Hodgsonwas enjoying the coal-mining boom, collieries were sunk on the land. In 1814, a local historian by the name of John Hodgson describes the discovery of the bath house when a staith to carry a waggonway was being built.

Unfortunately, people at the time were more concerned with industry than history, and the discovery was soon forgotten about. In 2014, volunteers used old maps and documents to pinpoint the exact location of the baths, 120 metres from the fort itself.

Hadrian’s Wall

Along with Julius Caesar, the Emperor Hadrian is possibly one of the most famous Roman rulers. Hadrian took charge in 117AD, and ruled for 21 years. He travelled around almost the entire empire, and made the strengthening and demarcation of borders a priority. His activities in the North of England built upon those of his predecessor, Trajan, who had overseen the laying of roads.

A bust of the Emperor Hadrian, resting on a plinthHadrian is described as having a great interest in architecture, and may have influenced the design of Pons Aelius (which is named for him). As well as our famous Wall, he is responsible for the palace at Tivoli, the Pantheon (temple) and a mausoleum for his own burial.

Hadrian’s Wall began somewhere between 119 and 122, and was complete in around 128AD. After the death of its namesake in 138AD, work was begun on the Antonine Wall, which runs between the Firth of Forth and the Firth of Clyde in central Scotland, and was named after his predecessor Antoninus Pius. This led to Hadrian’s Wall being abandoned between 140 and 160. When Marcus Aurelius took over, the Antonine Wall was abandoned and Hadrian’s was reoccupied – a bit confusing!

Newcastle University’s short course on the Wall explains that it was made up of five distinct parts. A V-shaped ditch was dug, sometimes into the bedrock, possibly to indicate a no-entry point to anyone approaching the wall who shouldn’t have been there.

Next was the berm (nothing to do with Inspector Clouseau!) a three metre stretch of ground. In some places, the An illustration of Hadrian's Wall, crossing fields and hillsberm has had pits dug into it, which historians believe would have been used for sharpened sticks to prevent access to the Wall.

The curtain is what people are referring to when they talk about the Wall, and it was only built of stone from Wallsend to Birdoswald. From there to Bowness-on-Solway timber and turf was used, although it was replaced with stone later. The Vallum is a steep, flat-bottomed ditch with an earth mound at either side. Finally, the Military Way is a narrow road which was built in the end of the 2nd century.

The Wall Structures

The Wall, of course, wasn’t just a wall. There were structures built all the way along, serving different purposes and of varying sizes. There were also some gates through the Wall.

An artist's impression of a Roman milecastle, showing two barracks and a surrounding wall with an entrywayThe milecastles, or fortlets, were usually small, and square or rectangular. They stood at each (Roman) mile mark, and were also used as gates. Most of them were made of stone, although some at the western end were built of turf and wood. The milecastles were guarded, and each had a garrison of between 20 and 30 soldiers, stationed in two barracks behind the building.

Turrets were situated at every one-third of a Roman mile. Made of stone, there were two of these towers between each milecastle and reached an estimated nine metres high. They would have been used as observation posts.

Lastly, rectangular forts were also built, more often than not on the top of the Wall, but some have been found behind it. These larger structures would have served as a base for the soldiers, and would have housed a number of buildings.

Carrawburgh fort, which would have been known as Brocolitia (possibly meaning ‘badger holes’) has the remains of a temple, or mithraeum, nearby. This would have been dedicated to the god Mithras, who was in turn borrowed from the Greeks and originally the Iranian/ Zoroastrian deity of light, Mithra. This is one of three sanctuaries at the site.

References

The content in this blog was informed by the display boards around the Segedunum site and a short course from Newcastle University via FutureLearn.

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