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Housesteads Roman Fort, better known as "Vercovicium" the the people who worked and lived here over a period of nearly 300 years, is the most iconic of the many Roman sites along the length of Hadrian's Wall. In part this is due to the considerable amount of excavation that has taken place here and the knowledge that has been built up as a result. But Housesteads' iconic status is mainly down to its location, high on an exposed ridge offering magnificent views to the north (and, for that matter, to the south).
The origin of "Vercovicium" seems to be a rendering of the name by which Housesteads was referred to by the Celts who were native to the area, and means "place of the able fighters". For most of its very long active life, Housesteads was garrisoned by the 1,000 men of the First Cohort of Tungrians, an auxiliary unit raised in the Tonges area of what is now Belgium. These were clearly the men who had earned the respect of the natives for their fighting prowess.
Work began on Hadrian's Wall in AD122. The original plans called for the large units of troops providing the garrison for the wall to be based a little to its rear. In this sector that meant at Vindolanda, two miles to the south west. The plans changed fairly quickly, however, following a decision to base troops in forts along the line of the wall itself, and it would seem that construction of the wall was still under way when alterations had to be made to accommodate the forts. The main sign of this at Housesteads is the presence of foundations of "Turret 36b" and accompanying length of wall actually within the northern wall of the fort.
The fort at Housesteads was unusual in a number of ways. One issue faced by the builders was ensuring a water supply. It was the norm for forts to be built where a ready supply of fresh water was available. At Housesteads the ridge top location meant rain water had to be collected to meet the fort's needs, and it is still possible to see collection tanks around the perimeter of the fort, most notably at its south east corner near the latrines.
Housesteads was also unusual in having its long axis aligned along the axis of the wall rather than, as was more usual, at right angles to it. Another oddity related to its northern gateway. It takes no great intelligence to suspect that the steep drop immediately beyond it made access awkward from the north: yet what other point was there in having a north gate? It is easy to imagine John Cleese in a Centurion's uniform telling his men that "the plans say there's got to be a double arched gate here, so whether it makes sense or not, that's what you'll build". It seems that in the short term the access problem was eased by building a stone ramp up to the more westerly of the twin portals of the north gate, while the east portal was never used. By the 180s or 190s, however, traffic from north of Hadrian's Wall was passing through the wall using the Knag Burn Gate, in the valley to the north east of the fort, before following an easier gradient up to the fort's eastern gateway.
In the 140s the northern boundary of the Roman Empire was moved north to the Antonine Wall, built across what is now central Scotland. The First Cohort of Tungrians appears to have moved with it, possibly leaving Housesteads in the care of a small garrison of legionaries drawn from the Second Augusta Legion. When the Antonine Wall was abandoned in AD162 it seems that the First Cohort of Tungrians simply returned to Housesteads to resume their garrison duties here.
In the early 200s the Tungrians garrison at Housesteads was reinforced by an auxiliary cavalry unit from the Friesian coast of northern Europe, and possibly also by a German unit named after its leader, Hnaudifridus or Notfried (or it may just have been a single unit referred to on memorials in different ways). By the mid 200s troops serving at Housesteads appear from names left on memorials to have been recruited from right across northern Germany and the low countries, though given the tendency for sons to follow fathers into the regiment, many could have been later generations who had been born and brought up locally, who would have served alongside fresh recruits from the cohort's nominal place of origin.
The fort at Housesteads would fairly quickly have attracted a civilian settlement or vicus, and parts of this can still be seen in outline on the hillside south of the fort. Recent archaeological work suggests that the vicus was itself defended by ditches to its east and west, and by the vallum, the defensive ditch and bank which parallels Hadrian's Wall for much of its length, to the south. Excavation of the vicus in 1932 produced what may become Housesteads' most enduring mystery. One of the houses investigated comprised a front room, probably a shop, fronting a road, and a rear room. Under the clay floor of the rear room were found the skeletons of a middle aged man and woman, and the man had a broken sword still embedded in his ribs. The building has since become known as the "murder house".
Many changes were made to the layout and structure of Housesteads during an active life of some 300 years, though very unusually the First Cohort of Tungrians appears to have been a fixture virtually throughout that time. When imperial authority and troops' pay was finally ended in AD410, the society which had lived here for generation after generation no longer had a means of supporting itself. Given the fairly bleak location and absence of obvious alternative sources of income, it seems likely that those living here dispersed fairly quickly.
By the 1500s the Housesteads area had achieved notoriety as a haunt of reivers, bandits and thieves who preyed on travellers and unfortunate neighbours. The last of the area's reivers, the Armstrong family, were forced to sell Housesteads Farm in 1698 for £58. A tangible sign of this era remains in the form of the defensive bastle house erected next to the south gateway of Housesteads Fort. Within a few years of the Armstrongs' departure visitors started to arrive at Housesteads to see what an early tourist described as "The Grandest Station in the whole line". The flow has steadily increased ever since.
Today's visitors park in the large car park beside the B6318 and then progresses on foot for the last quarter of a mile, much of it uphill, to the visitor reception and museum. Here you can view an excellent model of the fort in its heyday, and see the magnificent Winged Statue of Victory. The entrance to the fort itself is via the southern gateway. Because it is built on a convex site formed by a fairly steep sided ridge, views of the elements of the fort are never very extensive when you are within it. From the entrance you can however see fairly large areas of excavated remains to your left and up the hill ahead of you. The three main buildings in this part of the fort are the commandant's house with, uphill from it, the headquarters and the hospital.
Carry on to the summit of the ridge and you find two excavated granaries on display, one with a corn drying kiln inserted in the 1700s. In the north east corner of the fort, three ranges of buildings have been excavated. At least two of these provided barrack accommodation for troops based here: men who must have found the landscape and climate very alien compared with their native Belgium.
Also well preserved are the four main gates of the fort, as is the Knags Burn Gate in the stretch of wall to the north east. But perhaps the best known building to have been excavated at Housesteads can be found in the south east corner of the fort. Here you can see a remarkably preserved communal latrine block. To today's visitors the latrines look very sophisticated, and this one building is now probably the best known on Hadrian's Wall if not in Roman Britain. But it is worth remembering that this relatively modestly scaled facility did have to serve the needs of the 1,000 troops based here.