Fort's Last Hold on History

The Journal (Newcastle, England), November 7, 2005 | Go to article overview

Fort's Last Hold on History


Byline: By Tony Henderson

Environment Editor Tony Henderson visits a fort with a touch of Troy.

There are views in the North of England which royally repay every ounce of effort expended to reach them and, once seen, stay in the mind's eye.

One such is the vista from the Cumbrian side of the River Irthing, which separates the county from Northumberland.

It is from a high spur on the south west corner of Birdoswald Roman fort.

The land plunges sharply into the partly-wooded gorge of the meandering river.

It is a giddying aspect, and one which was described by a 19th Century Earl of Carlisle as being akin to the view from Troy.

It has long been a special place, for a prehistoric stone-lined burial chamber was discovered there.

You don't exactly have to hurry to appreciate the view before it is gone, but the expert consensus is that go it will.

Excavations at Birdoswald have shown that the drop was once many feet further away and that eventually the spur will erode and the fort will plunge into the river.

For 300 years, Birdoswald, on the edge of the village of Gilsland, was one of the forts which were part of the Hadrian's Wall frontier system.

It has a long history of occupation, from the Roman to the Dark Ages of the Fifth and Sixth Centuries, and from the medieval to modern times.

In fact, Birdoswald was farmed until only 21 years ago by the Baxter family, who moved there in 1956.

There was no mains water and supplies were drawn from the River Irthing, while the farm was not connected to the electricity grid until 40 years ago.

That chimes in with the feeling that the modern world has, until recently, passed Birdoswald by and that the echoes of the past are still loud and clear.

In this rugged country, it paid to make use of any resources to hand and all the farm buildings were constructed with stone taken from the fort.

Built into one wall is part of an altar dedicated to the troops who manned the fort in the Third and Fourth Centuries.

They represent the region's unlikely link with Romania.

In the First and early Second Centuries, the Dacians, from what is now Romania, were the tough enemies of Rome under their king Decebalus.

Eventually, the Emperor Trajan triumphed over the Dacians whose fighting qualities impressed the Romans so much that they were recruited as auxiliary soldiers.

A cohort of Dacians worked on the building of Hadrian's Wall and Birdoswald became the home of what was known as the First Cohort of Dacians, Hadrian's Own, consisting of 1,000 infantry.

Although they were at Birdoswald for 200 years, they never forgot their roots, with the Dacian curved sword being carved on building inscriptions.

A gravestone from Birdoswald is to a child called Decebalus, after the Dacian king.

The cemetery at the fort was discovered 44 years ago when ploughing turned up pots containing cremated bone.

One gravestone is that of Aurelius Concordius, the infant son of the commander of the Dacian garrison, Aurelius Julianus, whose name appears on tablets marking the building of granaries at the fort. …

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