Newcastle University dig which discovered incredible Roman altars in line for award

Excavations were made of a fort and temple discovered in the 1880s by local bank manager Joseph Robinson

Rachel Newman, Tony Wilmott, Professor Ian Haynes and Nigel Mills
Rachel Newman, Tony Wilmott, Professor Ian Haynes and Nigel Mills

An archaeological dig investigating a site with the largest batch of Roman altars to be found in Britain has been nominated for an award.

The Senhouse Museum Trust and archaeologists from Newcastle University, supported by volunteers, have been working on the Roman fort site in Maryport in Cumbria for four years, courtesy of the landowner the Hadrian’s Wall Trust. The team is now planning its final season next summer.

The project is one of six across the country to be nominated for one of the prestigious Current Archaeology magazine awards.

The award is made to the project which wins the most public votes.

George Carrick One of the excavated altars
One of the excavated altars

David Breeze, chairman of the Senhouse Museum Trust and a former president of the Society of Antiquaries of Newcastle upon Tyne, said: “We know how special this site is.

“People have been investigating it in various ways for hundreds of years and much of what they have found is now on display in the Senhouse Roman Museum next to the site.

“With modern surveying and excavation techniques we’re able to gain a much more detailed picture of how the site developed over time, the relationship between the fort and the civilian settlement, and how people lived here.

“It would be fantastic to win the award for Maryport and indeed for the Roman frontier.”

The project is led by Professor Ian Haynes of Newcastle University and Tony Wilmott, site director and winner of the Current Archaeology Archaeologist of the Year title in 2012.

Archaeologists Tony Wilmott, (left) and Ian Haynes at the site
Archaeologists Tony Wilmott, (left) and Ian Haynes at the site

Prof Haynes said: “Maryport is a fabulous site on which to work and is part of the Roman frontier that includes Hadrian’s Wall.

“Even the most optimistic of us have been thrilled by the results that have come from the project.

“Not only have we been able to totally overturn the long-established explanation of why the largest ever cache of Roman altars to be discovered in Britain was buried here, we have discovered colossal and hitherto entirely unsuspected timber buildings from the twilight of the Roman Empire.

“These mystery monuments were built on foundations packed with stone – and that is why the altars came to be in the pits – they were reused as ballast.

“The pits themselves had been disturbed by antiquarians in 1870, and as we now know, even earlier explorers, but we were able to find several that they never spotted, and this was the key to reinterpreting the mystery.

Oxford Archaeology Ltd An artist's impression of the Roman temple
An artist's impression of the Roman temple

“Few on the team will forget the moment when we lifted a particularly fine altar from one of the pits where it had lain hidden for centuries.

“Combining these wonderful discoveries with the excavation of the temples nearby, the buildings for which the altars were probably originally intended, has been a fantastic opportunity and given us a glimpse of one of the finest sacred landscapes to be excavated on the Roman frontier to date.”

From a section of fallen wall and roof of one of the temples the team was able to estimate its height to allow a reconstruction drawing to be made by Oxford Archaeology North, commissioned by the Hadrian’s Wall Trust. The temple was built from local materials with red sandstone walls and a slate roof, and was originally located in the 1880s by local bank manager and amateur archaeologist Joseph Robinson.

To vote go to

Voting closes on February 6.


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