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Mike Vouri: Lambs and Lions: A Day with the Romans in Corbridge

  • Written by Mike Vouri

What a day!

The two smaller ones became separated from mama and let me know it beneath my window at 3 am

And it all began at 3 a.m., when a contingent of woolly fugitives escaped the fields surrounding the bed and breakfast where I was staying to feed on the garden…directly below my window. Talk about counting sheep. But in the end these were poor little lambs who lost their way; that is they couldn’t figure out how to return to the gate they’d slipped and return to mama, who was calling for them off in the distance. A pitiful bleating ensued that went on for more than hour until they finally figured out how to get home. When I got up and looked outside they had solved the puzzle and were galloping home. By then it was quiet, but any thoughts of sleeping were, well, out the window. The BNB owner, Owen, a retired vice principal, confessed to having heard the commotion and I suspect he helped them find their way.

“Sheep are dumb, but they can sniff out a broken gate,” he said.

Following a Northumbrian breakfast of eggs, sausage, ham, toast, tomato and beans (the big German shepherd got the sausage and English bacon I left behind), Owen took me into Corbridge, as with my still swollen ankle I was in no condition to hike the path along the B6318 with its tall grass and hidden rocks. I would have pulled into Corbridge at midnight otherwise.

This  St. Andrews Church was built during the Anglo Saxon period with stones from the Roman Wall.

Corbridge is a village hugging the bank of the River Tyne. It was once known as Coria, a Roman fort and town that pre-dated the wall. In fact, as many other areas in the wall country, many of the buildings around the market square, including St. Andrew’s Anglo Saxon church, were assembled from squared stone harvested from the wall, as well as the Roman town, the ruins of which are located about mile west of town. I missed seeing this, one of the first Roman archaeological sites in northeast England, the excavations beginning in 1906, when archaeologists dug several feet down to find not the remain of three eras of fortification, but a sophisticated town with some of the markedly preserved ruins in all of England.

It began life as a turf and wooden fort erected on the north bank of the Tyne to guard the bridge the army built to transport legions and attendant materiel north to conquer the Picts and occupy today’s Scotland. The Romans won a great victory under Agricola at Mons Graupius in the far north of the island, but were less successful at dealing with Caledonian ambush and hit and run tactics, and eventually pulled back to a line of forts on what later became known as the Stanegate Road running from Coria west to Luguvalium, known today as Carlisle. It is a familiar story that governments and the militaries that serve them have never seemed to learn across the millennia.

The remains of a granary in Coria, dating to 160 CE.

In fact, a remarkably preserved Stanegate bisects the archaeological site with two distinct Roman forts on the south side and the town (or vicus) on the north. The town side is dominated by two masonry granaries, raised on stone piers and ventilated along the sides to guard against mildew. There is also the distinct remains of a temple fountain, replete with a rectangular lower pool that probably served as a trough, and a channel fashioned from stone that fed the fountain from a reservoir. I was particularly excited that the easternmost fort features an intact rounded corner on its west side and the other fort possesses a readily identifiable principia, or headquarters building, with a basement strong room for the pay chest and a semicircular apse at the rear of the building, where the standards were displayed.

You have to be a real Roman fort freak to enthuse about this, I know, but it is an exercise in time travel. These were people just like us, who happened to have lived 2,000 years ago. One woman who lived here, a certain Claudia Servela, on one occasion invited her best friend, Sepulcia Lepidina of Vindolanda, another Stanegate fort to the west, to her birthday party. We know this from the wooden writing tablets unearthed at that site.

The Corbridge Lion, meant for a mausoleum, then gracing a fountain.

You’ll find much of what was excavated at Coria on-site in the museum run by English Heritage, a non-profit group that preserves and protects monuments throughout the country. Standing out from the usual funerary stones and transactional altar (“If I sacrifice this, you grant me my request”), are the Corbridge lion and the “Hoard.” The lion was designed to top a mausoleum, but was repurposed by a wealthy Roman to serve as a fountain. Lions represented grace and power, and this animated piece is no exception. In fact, when I saw it I thought of the sheep who deprived me of sleep. Where’s a lion when you need one?

These Roman artifacts were discovered in 1964 buried in the remains of a wooden chest. The segmented armor was of special interest to historians.

The hoard was found in 1964 in the remains of what had been an iron-strapped wooden box that a soldier (or soldiers) buried perhaps anticipating that they might return someday. The cache included segmented armor that at long last reveal to archaeologists how it was assembled and repaired, as well as a variety of tools and weapons, including a pick ax, bone saw, pulley block, a hanging lamp, gaming pieces, an assortment of spearheads, a scabbard for a spatha, a long cavalry sword, and fragments from the chest itself.

After a couple of hours I ran out of gas and hiked back to my hotel, the Angel Inn. I have been assigned a dark and nearly windowless room (looks directly into the roof) on the far end of the second floor, flanked by rooms whose occupants cannot speak without shouting. That’s how I deduced they were debating “The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind” on one side and Plato’s “Republic” on the other. There’s also the mystery of movement. Why is it people can’t sit still in hotel rooms? Is it because we’re living out of suitcases, out of our comfort zones and feel the need to organize excessively? If so, why does it sound like there’s a bowling alley next door?

It’s only one night. And there was a silver lining to the day. Four years ago I took a cab from Hexham to St. Oswald’s Church and the Heavenfield, where the Oswald defeated the Celts and established a united Northumbria. The driver, Michael, gave me a running account of the whole thing, then shared with me stories of his family, pets and local lore. I was wondering how I was going to find him this trip,

My cab driver Michael and I first met when I walked the wall in 2019. We encountered one another quite by accident at the Roman town.

Wouldn’t you know it: As I walked up to the Roman fort, there was Michael waiting for a fare!!! I couldn’t believe it and neither could he. It took him awhile to figure me out, as when he left with his fare he was fairly sober and I was afraid he thought me a nutball. But then I needed a ride to Hexham this afternoon and called his company, and who should be waiting for me? Yep. He’d thought about it and remembered my passion for the Heavenfield. After that we had a lot of laughs.

Sometimes the good things in life have to conk you on the head.


Last modified onSunday, 09 July 2023 23:58

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