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Historic England Research Records

Housesteads Roman Fort

Hob Uid: 15175
Location :
Northumberland
Bardon Mill
Grid Ref : NY7897568799
Summary : Housesteads Roman Fort, known to the Romans as VERCOVICIUM, is situated on the prominent crest of the Whin Sill escarpment with commanding views to the north and south. A vicus or civilian area was situated to the south and east. The fort site consists of largely consolidated masonry remains, making up the most complete example of a Roman Fort in Britain. Housesteads was constructed shortly after AD 122 on a 'playing card' plan, the long axis parallel to the wall. During the early years the garrison appears to have been largely Tungrian, accommodating a cohort of 800-1,000 strong before being later reinforced by a cavalry unit. The east-west orientation is unusual among Wall forts but this is due to the constraints imposed by the topography. The internal layout is more typical. Gatehouses were centrally placed in each short side, but displaced to two-thirds of the distance along the long sides. The internal layout was divided into three divisions. Six rectangular barrack blocks aligned parallel to the long axis occupied each of the eastern and western thirds of the internal area. The commandant's house, granaries, headquarters building, and a rectangular building aligned parallel to the short fort sides occupied the central third. The main north-south road separated the east blocks from the central area. The defences were modified from the late third century when there were radical alterations to the internal layouts of the barracks and granaries, and additional interval towers were added. Further modifications were made in the 4th century, notably the construction of a bath-house in one of the barracks blocks and the north wall of the fort was repaired. There is some evidence for further late repairs to the fort, which may not have been completely abandoned after the end of Roman rule. An apsidal ended building with a cist burial, which may have been a chapel or church, was constructed either very late in the Roman period or after the nominal end of Roman rule.
More information : [NY 7899 6880] VERCOVICIUM ROMAN FORT [R] (1)

Ministry of Works pamphlet. (2)

The perimeter wall of the fort is well preserved with excavated internal remains of buildings visible. Turf-covered foundations of vicus buildings are visible with some excavated remains. Re-surveyed at 1/2500. (3)

The archaeological history of Housesteads Roman fort has been summarised by Birley to 1961 (4a), and Daniels has provided a description with a full bibliography to 1978 (4b). The fort was surveyed at 1:1000 by RCHME Newcastle as a part of the Housesteads Survey. (4)

Full description of the remains. Excavations of the barrack block XIII and the NE curtain, were completed in 1981. In 1951 the fort and museum were placed under guardianship of the Ministry of Works; since then the fort wall, gates and internal buildings, laid bare by excavations, have been consolidated to ensure their preservation for the future. The fort is now in the care of English Heritage and open to the public; it is the most complete example of a Roman fort in Britain. Appendices containing detailed description of main archival holdings up to 1994. (5)

Work started on Hadrian's Wall in 122, and shortly after in the area around Housesteads. The earliest structure is Turret 36b and a length of Broad wall foundation. Work then began on the fort with the North wall set forward of the earlier turf wall line. After completion of the fort, work continued on the Narrow Wall to the West of the fort. Like other forts on the Wall, it has the characteristic 'playing card' plan, the long axis parallel to the Wall. The alignment is East-North-East to West-South-West.

The curtain wall is 1.3m thick topped by a narrow wall walk. Originally this was backed by an earth rampart which would have provided a wider wall walk. Gateways flanked by towers on the short sides of the fort are centrally placed, but on the long sides they are displaced to two thirds of the distance from the western end. An intra-mural tower is placed at one third distance. Each corner contains a tower. Linking the North and South gates is the via principalis with six barrack blocks to the East of it. On its West side are, from South to North, the Commandants House, Headquarters, Granaries and the rectangular barrack building VII. On the West side of the Commandant's House is a rectangular building (Building XI) aligned North-South and to the North of that is the Hospital. Between this central complex and the West side of the fort are 5 rectangular barrack blocks and a workshop.

Only barrack blocks XIII and building XV have been excavated in recent times. Each early barracks was a long rectangular building parallel to the long axis of the fort. Each was subdivided into ten units with a separate large apartment for the centurion facing the intervallum street. A veranda ran the length of each barrack supported on timber or stone piers. Each was half-timbered, the timber, with wattle and daub infill, being set in a low sandstone wall bonded with clay. The roofs had a single ridge from West to East.

The headquarters building (principia) was a single-storeyed building divided into three parts. The main entrance was in line with the street leading from the East gate, the via praetoria. Within was an open court with a colonnade around the South, East and North sides. At the West side was a blank wall with a doorway leading to a cross hall, (basilica). A colonnaded aisle ran along the east side of the basilica, and beyond an archway opposite the doorway in the East side led directly to the chapel of the standards (aedes). A further four rooms, two either side of the aedes, are interpreted as administrative offices, but little survives of them.

South of the principia lies the commandant's house, (praetorium). The courtyard plan reflects that of Roman town houses throughout the Empire. Due to the slope, this has been a complex building with later alterations, and subsequent stone robbing has complicated interpretation. The West and North sides, and part of the East side, are Hadrianic, but the South and East sides are later Roman. The building may have been completed around the courtyard in timber originally, the later stone structures being servants quarters and stables. The Hadrianic rooms include two with hypocaust floors, a urinal and kitchen. It is not clear whether a bath suite also existed, although earlier excavations indicate an apsidal building at the South end of the adjacent building XI which may have been a bath suite.

The hospital (valetudinarium) lay North of the praetorium and West of the principia. The central courtyard was surrounded by a low wall supporting a colonnade. The long northern room was possibly the surgery. Smaller rooms surrounded the other sides, with a latrine in the South-West corner.

The granaries (horrea) were built on the highest, and therefore driest, part of the fort, a decision which necessitated the North fort wall extending beyond the line of Hadrian's wall and Turret 36b. The original granary was a wide hall internally 23.75m long by 13m wide, and divided by a row of six piers supporting a double span roof across the two aisles of the granary. At the West end were two separate doors to each aisle. The granary was altered by the addition of two cross walls aligned East-West.

The fort's bath-house stood 250m east of the fort across the valley of the Knag Burn. In the later 4th century the East end of building XV was remodelled to incorporate a bath-house, which may indicate a reduced garrison.

In the 3rd century, alterations were made to several buildings. The praetorium was slightly altered, the granaries appear to have been reduced in size, and the principia appears to have been provided with a second storey. The major feature of this period is a rebuilding of Building XV, probably as a stores.

Circa AD 300, and probably at the same time as the storehouse (Building XV) was built, the barracks were radically altered. Each barrack block was rebuilt with individual chalets for each soldier. Most have hearths, although braziers were also used. Some incorporate stonework from other buildings in the fort, particularly the gates, indicating a general period of reconstruction. In blocks XIII and XIV the centurion's quarters became communal rooms.

The defences were also modified during the fort's history. Repairs to the North and South walls were carried out towards the end of the 2nd century due to instability of the footings. This was concurrent with the construction of new buildings against the interior fort wall and a latrine in the South-East angle being rebuilt. A narrow curtain wall was was built circa 300 on the North rampart, a new rampart bank being constructed against the interior face. Further repairs were undertaken before the collapse of part of the North curtain wall after the mid 4th century.

The West gate had been blocked with stone and by the addition of two external banks and ditches, probably circa 300. At the same time the other gates were also partly rebuilt, the North gate from its foundations upwards, and the internal ramparts reinstated. The two internal interval towers between the North and South gates and the West side of the fort date from this period, as do the two internal towers in the South-East angle. In common with other forts along the Wall, the refurbishments followed the same design as the original Hadrianic forts, ignoring new fort design, such as those of the Saxon Shore forts, in favour of established, traditional fortification.

All of this evidence points to a relatively peaceful frontier with perhaps a small reduction in the effective strength of the garrison. The hospital and granary were converted to more domestic use, but whether this was military or domestic is not possible to establish, and the date of these changes is uncertain.

In the later 4th century, continuing problems of North curtain wall collapse led to successive repairs. It was successively widened, so much so that the intravallum road was reduced to only 1.4m wide. The stone interval tower on the North wall was replaced by a timber structure. The Southern towers were also remodelled, those in the South-West angle standing independently of the curtain wall.

Once Imperial authority collapsed in 407, the garrison abandoned the fort. There are no deposits of the 5th or 6th centuries to indicate inhabitation, although Bosanquet's 1898 excavation noted an apsidal ended building between barrack I and building VII. If it was a chapel, the apse is unusually at the West end. Within a water tank to the North of the `chapel' a stone lined cist was discovered, which is probably early Christian, and , it may be argued, strengthens the interpretation of the apsidal building being a chapel. It may be that this chapel was the garrison's chapel for the late 4th century garrison, and remained in use after the garrison departed. (6)

Housesteads Roman Fort, known to the Romans as VERCOVICIUM, is situated on the prominent crest of the Whin Sill escarpment to the west of Knag Burn with commanding views to the north and south. It accommodated a cohort of 800-1,000 strong before being later reinforced by a cavalry unit. The east-west orientation is unusual among Wall forts but this is due to the constraints imposed by the topography. An extensive vicus (civil settlement) was situated to the south. Scheduled. (7)

The excavated remains of Housesteads fort are visible on air photographs and the main features mapped as part of the Hadrian's Wall National Mapping Project. (8-10)

With regards to the fact that no trace of a viaduct has been found near the fort, it is argued that the known water tanks inside the fort were supplied by water which ran off the individual buildings within the fort, and was transported to the tanks by pipework. (11)

Housesteads conservation plan, drawn up in 2002. (12)

Additional reference looking at Roman military life at Housesteads. (13)

A major work of synthesis on the site was published by English Heritage in 2009, including analysis of the excavations carried out between 1959-1961 by Durham University, those between 1974-1981 by Newcastle University as well as later work on the site. Volume one deals with the structures and history of the site, whilst volume 2 examines the finds assemblages from the site. The volumes deal not only with the 300 year long Roman use of the site, but also the post-Roman history of the site, particularly the transition from Roman to early medieval. Recent thought is that there may be some evidence for late repairs, some late ephemeral stone structures and possible post-Roman occupation. The possible church with an associated cist burial in the north-east of the site has been tentatively dated to around 400AD or later in the 5th century. (14)

Housesteads is marked on the archaeological map of Hadrian's Wall published by English Heritage in 2010. (15)

Several depictions from the James Irwin Coates archive (1877-1896). (16)

Geophysical survey was undertaken in 2003 to the south and west of the fort. (17)

Housesteads is a Roman fort constructed adjacent to Hadrian’s wall and about midway along it for which work began AD 122. It was in use up to the 5th century and then largely abandoned. 16th century it was taken over by a lawless community on the Anglo-Scottish border. It has been the focus of archaeological research since the 19th century. The buildings comprised barracks, administration and support, officer’s house, granaries, bakery, hospital, latrines and headquarters. Constructed inside the fort in the late 4th century is a small bath house. A civilian settlement (vicus) lay to the south of the fort (record 1407196). For further details and a guide and history of the fort see Red guide (18)

Sources :
Source Number : 1
Source : Ordnance Survey Map (Scale / Date)
Source details : OS 6" 1957
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Source Number : 2
Source : VIRTUAL CATALOGUE ENTRY TO SUPPORT NAR MIGRATION
Source details : Housteads Roman Fort 1961 (Ministry of Works)
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Source Number : 9
Source : Oblique aerial photograph reference number
Source details : NMR NY 7968/144 (19857/35) 04-MAY-2000
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Source Number : 10
Source : Oblique aerial photograph reference number
Source details : CUCAP (CLY13) 17-MAY-1980
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Source Number : 11
Source : Britannia : a journal of Romano-British and kindred studies
Source details : Beaumont P
Page(s) : 59-84
Figs. :
Plates :
Vol(s) : 39, 2008
Source Number : 12
Source : Housesteads Roman Fort: Conservation Plan (Volumes 1 & 2)
Source details :
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Source Number : 13
Source : Houseteads: a fort and garrison on Hadrian's Wall
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Source Number : 14
Source : Housesteads Roman Fort: the grandest station. Excavation and Survey at Housesteads, 1954-95 (Volumes 1-2)
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Source Number : 15
Source : An Archaeological Map of Hadrian's Wall, 1:25,000 scale
Source details :
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Source Number : 16
Source : Hadrian's Wall: archaeological research by English Heritage 1976-2000
Source details :
Page(s) : 28-33
Figs. : 88-110
Plates :
Vol(s) :
Source Number : 17
Source : Archaeologia Aeliana : or miscellaneous tracts relating to antiquity
Source details : 'A geophysical survey at Housesteads Roman Fort, April 2003', by J A Biggins and D J A Taylor
Page(s) : 51-60
Figs. :
Plates :
Vol(s) : 33, 2004
Source Number : 18
Source : Housesteads Roman Fort
Source details :
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Source Number : 3
Source : Field Investigators Comments
Source details : F1 RWE 05-MAY-66
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Source Number : 4
Source : Field Investigators Comments
Source details : Keith Blood/09-FEB-1987/RCHME: Housesteads Survey
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Vol(s) :
Source Number : 4a
Source : Research on Hadrian's Wall
Source details :
Page(s) : 178-84
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Source Number : 4b
Source : Handbook to the Roman Wall with the Cumbrian coast and outpost forts
Source details :
Page(s) : 138-55, 334
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Source Number : 5
Source : National Trust Archaeological Survey. Housesteads Roman fort and its environs : survey and analysis of the archaeological deposits
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Source Number : 6
Source : English Heritage book of Housesteads
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Source Number : 7
Source : Scheduled Monument Notification
Source details : 14-Jul-97
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Source Number : 8
Source : Oblique aerial photograph reference number
Source details : NMR NY 7968/146 (17698/26) 13-MAR-2002
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Monument Types:
Monument Period Name : Roman
Display Date : Built from AD 122
Monument End Date : 122
Monument Start Date : 122
Monument Type : Fort, Barracks, Bath House, Granary, Wall
Evidence : Ruined Building, Earthwork, Structure
Monument Period Name : Roman
Display Date : Altered late C3
Monument End Date : 300
Monument Start Date : 275
Monument Type : Fort, Wall, Tower
Evidence : Sub Surface Deposit, Ruined Building
Monument Period Name : Roman
Display Date : Altered C4 AD
Monument End Date : 400
Monument Start Date : 301
Monument Type : Fort
Evidence : Ruined Building, Sub Surface Deposit
Monument Period Name : Roman
Display Date : Possible Church C5
Monument End Date : 410
Monument Start Date : 401
Monument Type : Church, Cist
Evidence : Sub Surface Deposit
Monument Period Name : Early Medieval
Display Date : Possible 5th century ocupation
Monument End Date : 500
Monument Start Date : 410
Monument Type : Fort, Building, Church, Cist
Evidence : Sub Surface Deposit, Conjectural Evidence

Components and Objects:
Related Records from other datasets:
External Cross Reference Source : Scheduled Monument Legacy (County No.)
External Cross Reference Number : ND 28
External Cross Reference Notes :
External Cross Reference Source : Hadrian's Wall Project Number
External Cross Reference Number : NY 7868/4
External Cross Reference Notes :
External Cross Reference Source : Hadrian's Wall Project Number
External Cross Reference Number : NY 7968/3
External Cross Reference Notes :
External Cross Reference Source : Scheduled Monument Legacy (National No.)
External Cross Reference Number : 26059
External Cross Reference Notes :
External Cross Reference Source : ViewFinder
External Cross Reference Number : NMR 4546/21
External Cross Reference Notes :
External Cross Reference Source : EH Property Number
External Cross Reference Number : 77
External Cross Reference Notes :
External Cross Reference Source : SMR Number (Northumberland)
External Cross Reference Number : 6564
External Cross Reference Notes :
External Cross Reference Source : National Monuments Record Number
External Cross Reference Number : NY 76 NE 14
External Cross Reference Notes :

Related Warden Records :
Associated Monuments : 15176
Relationship type : General association
Associated Monuments : 15219
Relationship type : General association
Associated Monuments : 1007856
Relationship type : General association
Associated Monuments : 1007857
Relationship type : General association
Associated Monuments : 1012554
Relationship type : General association
Associated Monuments : 1012563
Relationship type : General association
Associated Monuments : 1012552
Relationship type : General association
Associated Monuments : 1012544
Relationship type : General association
Associated Monuments : 1012560
Relationship type : General association
Associated Monuments : 15146
Relationship type : General association
Associated Monuments : 1012543
Relationship type : General association
Associated Monuments : 15249
Relationship type : General association
Associated Monuments : 15143
Relationship type : General association
Associated Monuments : 1407196
Relationship type : General association
Associated Monuments : 1012548
Relationship type : General association
Associated Monuments : 1408379
Relationship type : General association
Associated Monuments : 1012553
Relationship type : General association
Associated Monuments : 1012546
Relationship type :
Associated Monuments : 1012549
Relationship type :
Associated Monuments : 1012551
Relationship type :
Associated Monuments : 1012552
Relationship type :
Associated Monuments : 1012543
Relationship type :
Associated Monuments : 1407196
Relationship type :
Associated Monuments : 1012553
Relationship type :

Related Activities :
Associated Activities : Primary, HOUSESTEADS (VERCOVICIUM)
Activity type : EXCAVATION
Start Date : 1724-01-01
End Date : 1724-12-31
Associated Activities : Primary, HOUSESTEADS
Activity type : EXCAVATION
Start Date : 1800-01-01
End Date : 1899-12-31
Associated Activities : Primary, HOUSESTEADS, (VERCOVICIUM)
Activity type : EXCAVATION
Start Date : 1830-01-01
End Date : 1833-12-31
Associated Activities : Primary, HOUSESTEADS FORT (VERCOVICIUM)
Activity type : EXCAVATION
Start Date : 1850-01-01
End Date : 1858-12-31
Associated Activities : Primary, HOUSESTEADS
Activity type : EXCAVATION
Start Date : 1883-01-01
End Date : 1884-12-31
Associated Activities : Primary, HOUSESTEADS, (VERCOVICIUM)
Activity type : EXCAVATION
Start Date : 1898-01-01
End Date : 1898-12-31
Associated Activities : Primary, HOUSESTEADS (VERCOVICIUM)
Activity type : EXCAVATION
Start Date : 1898-01-01
End Date : 1898-12-31
Associated Activities : Primary, HOUSESTEADS (VERCOVICIVM)
Activity type : EXCAVATION
Start Date : 1907-01-01
End Date : 1907-12-31
Associated Activities : Primary, HOUSESTEADS (VERCOVICIUM)
Activity type : EXCAVATION
Start Date : 1909-01-01
End Date : 1909-12-31
Associated Activities : Primary, HOUSESTEADS,KNAG BURN
Activity type : EXCAVATION
Start Date : 1909-01-01
End Date : 1909-12-31
Associated Activities : Primary, HOUSESTEADS FORT (VERCOVICIUM)
Activity type : EXCAVATION
Start Date : 1954-01-01
End Date : 1954-12-31
Associated Activities : Primary, HOUSESTEADS (VERCOVICIVM)
Activity type : EXCAVATION
Start Date : 1959-01-01
End Date : 1961-12-31
Associated Activities : Primary, HOUSESTEADS, (VERCOVICIVM)
Activity type : EXCAVATION
Start Date : 1962-01-01
End Date : 1962-12-31
Associated Activities : Primary, HOUSESTEADS
Activity type : EXCAVATION
Start Date : 1967-01-01
End Date : 1973-12-31
Associated Activities : Primary, HOUSESTEADS FORT (VERCOVICIUM)
Activity type : EVALUATION
Start Date : 1968-01-01
End Date : 1968-12-31
Associated Activities : Primary, HOUSESTEADS FORT (VERCOVICIUM)
Activity type : EXCAVATION
Start Date : 1968-01-01
End Date : 1968-12-31
Associated Activities : Primary, HOUSESTEADS, (VERCOVICIUM)
Activity type : EXCAVATION
Start Date : 1974-01-01
End Date : 1977-12-31
Associated Activities : Primary, HOUSESTEADS
Activity type : GEOPHYSICAL SURVEY
Start Date : 1975-01-01
End Date : 1975-12-31
Associated Activities : Primary, HOUSESTEADS, (VERCOVICIVM)
Activity type : EXCAVATION
Start Date : 1977-01-01
End Date : 1981-12-31
Associated Activities : Primary, HOUSESTEADS, (VERCOVICIUM)
Activity type : EXCAVATION
Start Date : 1984-01-01
End Date : 1984-12-31
Associated Activities : Primary, RCHME: HOUSESTEADS SURVEY
Activity type : MEASURED SURVEY
Start Date : 1985-01-01
End Date : 1987-12-31
Associated Activities : Primary, HOUSESTEADS
Activity type : EXCAVATION
Start Date : 1987-01-01
End Date : 1987-12-31
Associated Activities : Primary, RCHME: HADRIAN'S WALL PROJECT
Activity type : MEASURED SURVEY
Start Date : 1988-01-01
End Date : 1993-08-01
Associated Activities : Primary, HOUSESTEADS FORT
Activity type : WATCHING BRIEF
Start Date : 1999-01-01
End Date : 1999-12-31
Associated Activities : Primary, ENGLISH HERITAGE: HADRIAN'S WALL WHS MAPPING PROJECT, NMP
Activity type : AERIAL PHOTOGRAPH INTERPRETATION
Start Date : 2002-01-01
End Date : 2008-12-31
Associated Activities : Primary, HOUSESTEADS ROMAN FORT
Activity type : MANAGEMENT SURVEY
Start Date : 2002-01-01
End Date : 2002-12-31
Associated Activities : Primary, HOUSESTEADS ROMAN FORT
Activity type : WATCHING BRIEF
Start Date : 2011-01-01
End Date : 2012-12-31
Associated Activities : Primary, HOUSESTEADS ROMAN FORT
Activity type : WATCHING BRIEF
Start Date : 2012-01-01
End Date : 2012-12-31
Associated Activities : Primary, LAND WEST OF HOUSESTEADS FORT
Activity type : GEOPHYSICAL SURVEY
Start Date : 2014-01-01
End Date : 2014-12-31
Associated Activities : Primary, LAND SOUTH-WEST OF HOUSESTEADS ROMAN FORT
Activity type : WATCHING BRIEF
Start Date : 2015-01-01
End Date : 2015-12-31
Associated Activities : Primary, LAND SOUTH-WEST OF HOUSESTEADS FORT
Activity type : WATCHING BRIEF
Start Date : 2015-01-01
End Date : 2016-12-31
Associated Activities : Primary, LAND AT HOUSESTEADS FORT
Activity type : WATCHING BRIEF
Start Date : 2016-01-01
End Date : 2016-12-31