Ritual burial theory overturned in Maryport

Archaeologists and Roman experts may have to re-write history due to finds in Cumbria during a recent excavation.

The excavation, on land adjacent to the Senhouse Roman Museum in Maryport,  has yielded results which overturn the theory of the annual ritual burial of Roman altars at Maryport.

Tony Wilmott holding the altar fragment. Pic Hadrian's Wall Heritage

Tony Wilmott holding the altar fragment. Pic Hadrian's Wall Heritage

If the new theories are correct, experts will need to to re-evaluate similar theories at other Roman sites.

Led by Professor Ian Haynes and field archaeologist Tony Wilmott, the excavation of the remains of the Roman fort and civilian settlement was commissioned by the Senhouse Museum Trust.

These new excavations used documentation and physical evidence found during work undertaken on the site in 1870, which found Britain’s largest ever cache of Roman altars.

Camp Farm – Maryport

During the excavation work on Camp Farm, adjacent to the Senhouse Museum, a number of Roman pits have been excavated.

In the antiquarian fill of one of these pits a fragment of the corner of an altar was found. It featured a six-petalled rosette on one face and a circle on the other.

Members of the team compared the fragment with the altars in the nearby museum, and realised that it was from one of the stones dedicated by Marcus Maenius Agrippa, tribune of the first cohort of Spaniards, during the reign of Hadrian (RIB 823).

This altar stone was first recorded by John Horsley in the garden of Netherhall, where it was being used as the base of an ornamental sundial in 1725.

The presence of the fragment in the pit makes experts believe that the  altar was originally found in Maryport,  transported to Netherhall, without the small fragment, and then back to Maryport.

Senhouse Roman Museum overlooks  Camp Farm

Senhouse Roman Museum overlooks Camp Farm

Changing context

Given the position of latest find, within the depth of the pit excavations, leads experts to think that the altar had been reused as packing around a wooden post.

Although the archaeologists have not discovered the original context in which the altars stood when in use, they have shown the circumstances of their burial.

If this theory is proven, it raises some interesting new questions regarding the site, including what was a large timber structure doing on the top of this very prominent hill?

Peter Greggains, chairman of the Senhouse Museum Trust said: “The excavation has really brought the site to life.  The altars excavated in 1870 are an internationally important find because of the information they provide about the lives of commanding officers in the Roman empire.  Now we are beginning to see how the site here at Maryport developed too.”

Other discoveries

Fragments of two more altars not currently part of the collection in the museum, pottery from the late second to early third centuries AD and a few coins have also been found.

The team began work on site at the end of May, and will be excavating until Wednesday, 20 July, 2011.

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