Monday, 1 October 2018

Viriconium Cornoviorum - Wroxeter Roman City

English Heritage - Wroxeter Roman City
Wroxeter Roman City - Visiting Shrewsbury Part Two

Our visit back in early August to Viriconium Cornovium, now known as Wroxeter was the culmination of our trip to Deva Victrix now modern day Chester.

The two former Roman settlements were and are closely related and chart the rise and fall of Roman domination of a major part of the British Isles as they sought to expand the frontier and bring more of the island under their dominion.

The map below helps illustrate that gradual growth in Roman controlled territory as the road network grew in the wake of Roman military operations from the initial landings in 43 AD at Richborough near Dover on the south east coast and the relatively quick control of territory south of the Fosse Way, marking phase one.

The invasion then moved on to pushing over the Fosse and staking out fortresses at Isca Siluram and Eboracum but with the initial push into the northern welsh territory focused around the fortress of Viriconium (Wroxeter) before the subjugation of the Welsh tribes allowed for the army to move further north to consolidate their hold from the new base at Deva Victrix, giving better access to the north of Britain and seaborne access via the Irish Sea.

Original map created by Andrei Nacu

Deva Vitrix - Roman Chester Part One
Deva Victrix - Roman Chester Part Two

Thus it can be seen that before Deva Victrix the Roman army established Viriconium as its forward operating base and in its wake following the move to Deva facilitated the establishment of a new town occupied by wealthy members of the local aristocracy and veteran soldiers to help the process of Romanizing the locals out in the neighbouring countryside.

My picture of the Iron Age reconstruction at Butser earlier this year probably gives a good idea of how things were before the Roman army arrived at Wroxeter

Before the Romans came to Britain, the site of Wroxeter had already been settled and turned into farmland under the control of the local tribe, the Cornovi.

The Wrekin, seems to glower over Wroxeter as if remembering ill-deeds from the past

Their main settlement appears to be the hillfort on the Wrekin, the hill to the east that dominates Wroxeter, and it would seem the locals put up a short fight with evidence of the hill being taken by force before everything settled down and the Cornovi got used to their new rulers.

As with most Roman military forts the establishment followed a common theme with its position being close to a river, for water supplies and to enable control of the ford allowing access over and into the Welsh tribal areas to the west.

Alongside the picture of Roman cavalry is one of the tombstone of Tiberius Claudius Trinitius a cavalryman of the Thracian cohort who may have been a member of the garrison.

The fortress was established as a main base of operations in the late 50's AD first for the XIV Gemina Legion but later taken over by the XX Valeria Victrix Legion, being dismantled by the latter in the late 80s AD and handed over to the tribal authorities as they moved north prior to establishing Deva.

The illustration that shows how Viriconium may have looked with the area circled as the only part of it uncovered for public viewing

A wooden tablet found near Hadrian's Wall at Vindolanda confirms that the Roman name for the fortress was Viriconium and the town had the same name with the addition of the tribal name Cornovium, namely 'Viriconium of the Cornovi'.

By the late fourth century it is possible the name for the town had changed to Uriconium, the name by which it is referred to in copies of late Roman documents that survived the Middle Ages.

The area on public view as it may have looked

Today only the remains of the town's public bath and nearby market shops can be seen, but its central position allows the visitor to appreciate the wider town from it, with the remains of the fragment of the south wall of the basilica linking it to the bath house and known as the 'Old Work' giving a vivid impression of the scale of the public buildings that once stood here.

The aerial view to compare with the illustration above - Red gravel marks a walkway, the darker grey shows a Roman street and the beige gravel indicates the inside of a building and the grass areas showing open space among the buildings

The site of the baths and its surrounds have been uncovered since excavations carried out in 1859 by the London based antiquarian Thomas Wright, and sadly the bath house area has suffered damage in the intervening years.

Other excavations carried out in the intervening years in between two world wars has revealed the presence of the original military fort underneath that of the town together with data on other nearby buildings such as the forum, not to mention artifacts discovered in those explorations some of which are held in the English Heritage museum on the site.

The problems associated with the costs of uncovering a large area of archaeology are greatly multiplied when adding in those needed to maintain it once it is uncovered and so in recent years with the advent of chip technology, the trend has been towards remote sensing methods of investigation.

To date the aerial surveys and other geophysical work has revealed a town double the size of that first thought with over two-hundred and fifty buildings and an area that was intensively occupied. That work now presents some tantalising questions about those discoveries which may well require physical examination going forward.

Carolyn still walking with crutches on our visit enters the English Heritage reception close to the car park

We arrived at Wroxeter late morning and in great sunny weather to enjoy looking at the site.

The first part of the uncovered remains that greets the visitor on leaving the English Heritage reception is the vast expanse of the Basilica leading to the entrance of the city bath house indicated by the 'Old work'.

On exiting the reception building one is immediately struck by the size of the basilica 
The basilica is a massively impressive statement building that would have towered over neighbouring buildings and inspired awe in the visitor.

The basilica was the northern European answer to the Mediterranean style open air exercise yard which would have been less popular in these parts given the much cooler and less clement weather conditions.

An impression of the great basilica at Viriconium as it might of looked 

The Old Work on the southern wall gives a good appreciation of the original building, standing twenty-three feet high and together with the series of revealed round pink discs where the columns once stood enables an impression of the exercise hall to be created, as seen above.

The columns are thought to have been as high as the Old Work and supported an array of timber beams in turn supporting a sloping roof.

Directly above the columns was another wall as thick as the Old Work that was pierced in the upper level with round-headed windows to create a light airy interior to the great hall similar in effect as that obtained in the great cathedrals which are of a similar design.

The pitched roof is estimated to have stood another fifty-nine feet at its apex above the level of the Old Work.

The pillar bases and the Old Work south wall allow an appreciation of this massive exercise hall adjoining the public baths

At the far eastern end of the basilica are two rooms identified as 'apodyterium' or changing rooms to us barbarians.

It is not entirely clear why and how the Old Work survived in situ whilst the rest of the building clearly did not.

Evidence suggests that a rectangular room on its south side was used as a chapel and later as a granary, with evidence of a number of burials discovered in the nearby hypocaust system together with later deposits of burnt grain discovered when it was first excavated.

This re-use of old Roman bath houses has been uncovered on other sites so seems to be a plausible explanation.

Just to the left of the Old Work can be seen the two (apodyterium) changing rooms

One of the most prominent and obvious features of this section of wall are the double bands of orange-red tiles separating the carefully placed stonework which are thought to have been placed to add great strength to the wall.

In addition to the stonework a series of regularly placed 'putlog' holes are also immediately visible and reveal the building method used to create these high standing walls using wooden scaffolding affixed in the two outer skins of facing stone and in the infilled rubble between.

The orange red tiles also indicate the presence and height of the vaulted ceiling within the bathhouse as seen in the pattern arch above the main door

The drawing below shows how more scaffolding was affixed via the putlog holes as the height of the wall grew and then was later taken down, with the holes filled in with a pink plaster, and covered over with the interior plaster layer.

Should repairs be required at a later date the putlog holes could then be reused and covered over again when the work was finished.

A close look at the picture above shows remains of the original interior plaster layer still covering parts of the red tiling layers.

The strength of the build process is amply demonstrated by the width of the doorway leading into the baths which would have originally housed two pairs of wooden doors, with the gap being too large for a simple lintel to support.

The wide doorway leads into the bathhouse complex with a series of rooms designed to take the bather from cold to very hot and back again as the individual sought to clean themselves in a process of bathing and sweating ending their journey in the sluice room before possibly taking a bracing plunge into the outdoor pool.

The first room entered is the frigidarium or cold room, flanked on either side with rooms holding cold plunge pools.

The bathers would then progress into the anointing room where oil was applied to their bodies before progressing into the warm room or tepidarium and from there into the steamy hotter caldarium.

Both the tepidarium and caldarium are easily identifiable by the serried ranks of hypocaust tile stacks that would have originally been out of sight to the Roman bathers as they were covered with a layer of richly decorated flooring, a portion of which can be seen in the nearby museum of finds.

Bathing was an important part of Roman social life and normally separate bathing times were set up for men and women with men having the use of the facilities in the afternoon and evening and women in the morning.

The vaulted ceiling of the baths as depicted below put enormous strain on the walls carrying the load and it appears that there was some settlement that required the building of a buttress wall around the lower outside of the building as seen.

The buttress wall is all that remains today as the inner wall was robbed out for its stone.

Smoke emitting from the bathhouse flue vents as hot air from the furnaces is passed into the building and out. Other bathers can be seen 'enjoying' the outdoor plunge pool, centre left.

At the furthest end of the bathhouse is the main furnace room where the hot air generated would pass under the floor and through wall flue tiles and the level of it gives a good impression of the height of the interior floor.

The main furnace room heating the caldarium and tepidarium

As can be seen from the illustration above the bathhouse was finished with an exterior of plaster covering the stonework and evidence of it is still visible on some parts of the exterior walls.

Exterior plastering still visible on the outside buttress wall of the bathhouse complex

The outdoor plunge pool or natatio can be seen close by and is an unusual feature in Roman Britain.

One can only admire Roman stoicism for thinking that diving into an open air pool in this part of the world would be a good idea!

However it turns out that the Romans were not daft and the outdoor pool soon fell out of use and it was soon filled in

In the latter part of the 2nd century the bathhouse was extended to form an exclusive, independent bathing suite complete with its own heating furnace as depicted in the illustration below.

The precise reason for this addition to the main building is unknown, but guesses range from a bathhouse for a merchants guild to added facilities to enable separate male and female bathing.

The extension to the original bath suite 

Across from the bathhouse on the western side of this complex of buildings can be found the macellum or market hall together with latrine block and two large shops facing out on to Watling Street.

The latrines are clearly identified by the long trench that carried the waste to the town drains and was regularly flushed through by waste water from the bathhouse opposite.

The latrine block was built at the same time as the baths and could be accessed directly from the basilica.

The latrines with the entrance doorway visible bottom left and a row of two shops to the far right facing out on to Watling Street

This range of buildings were built right alongside Watling Street that ran through the city and the picture below gives a vivid impression of a busy bustling town in this area right opposite the forum.

Watling Street today is still the metalled road leading down to the River Severn at modern day Wroxeter village

The Macellum is thought to have performed an important role in the baths complex in that it provided somewhere for bathers to purchase food for the evening meal and the shop rents would have helped pay for the running of the baths.

The main entrance to the hall was via a portico on Watling Street and was not accessible directly from the baths.

The regularly sized open fronted shops opened out onto an internal courtyard surrounded on three sides and in one corner is a square room that is thought to have housed a staircase leading to private rooms above the shops and in an opposite corner appears to be another latrine.

The shops are thought to have been quite exclusive outlets selling fish and game, with animal bones found indicating high quality cuts of meat on sale.

Recent excavations have revealed life in the city following the Romans departure in the 5th century.

It seems the basilica fell into disrepair and had to be dismantled and by the 6th century was a half ruined shell with shanty houses occupying part of its space.

It seems that Romano-British people maintained themselves in the city after the Roman departure living in timber framed buildings, but that by the mid seventh century the town was abandoned and stone was robbed for nearby buildings such as the church in Wroxeter village.

Across the road from the basilica lies the forum or civic centre of the city which is thought to date from 121 AD and the visit of Emperor Hadrian on one of his many trips around the empire.

The area of the forum is also home to a modern recreated town house or villa urbana similar to those found in the town and built in 2010 by the TV show 'Rome Wasn't Built in a Day'.

Using materials and techniques familiar to Roman builders the house was built on a raft of compacted rubble thus avoiding any foundations likely to damage the underlying archaeology.

The pictures below give a good impression of the scale of public buildings that lie beneath the ground on this side of Watling Street with the forum and temple blocks taking pride of place in this, the centre of town.

The forum and temple area are seen to the right of Watling Street opposite the bathhouse

The magnificent forum with its ornate portico and inscription stone dedicating the building to Emperor Hadrian

The only part of Viriconium's forum still visible today is the colonnade that fronted the building along Watling Street with its prominent entrance indicated by a gap.

The depth in the ground that this colonnade can be seen at is the second century ground level giving a good idea as to how much top soil has accumulated in the last two millennia.

The entrance to the Viriconium Cornoviorum Forum

The reconstructed town house is based on the floor plan of a similar building unearthed in the town between 1913-14 by JP Bushe-Fox, named Wroxeter site VI and is typical in its design with a wooden-wattle upper structure built on top of a stone base and using tree trunks to produce the colonnade at the front.

I have mixed opinions about TV companies building entertainment shows around archaeology, be that traditional or experimental and I often find the time constraint imposed by the need to squeeze as much material into a given program slot tiresome and mildly annoying.

That said I suppose some of these stunts, at worst, and additional work carried out at the TV company or licence payers expense, at best, may have helped add to the greater understanding of important sites. One can only hope so.

From a personal perspective I found the reconstructed house interesting from a modellers perspective with ideas garnered on paint schemes and decor for some further additions to my MDF real estate.

I thought the views from the rear garden area out over the Welsh borders gave a vivid impression of what the view might have been from similar such properties out here on the edge of empire.

I was somewhat surprised to find that a very good friend of mine and regular contributor to the blog who visited Wroxeter only a few months previously missed the fact that the English Heritage Visitor Centre, as well as being the place where you pay your entrance fee to the site, also houses a very interesting museum of artifacts discovered in the Roman city over the years.

I mention this to stress to any readers thinking of visiting themselves not to make the same disastrous error as my friend as you will be missing out on a lot of the extra stuff this very interesting site has to offer.

As mentioned in the preamble the town was known by two names based on its mention on a tablet from Vindolanda referring to Viriconium and to later medieval references from late Roman sources to its later name of Uriconium.

The name of the city was confirmed with the discovery of the forum inscription stone dedicating the building to Hadrian and declaring that the taxes of the tribes-people paid for the building.

As mentioned in previous posts looking at Roman finds I never tire of seeing fine pottery and particularly glass objects that have survived in an amazing state considering their time in the ground and the likely ravages they were subject to.

The glass bowl seen below is a simply stunning piece of craftsmanship considering its age.

The simple addition of imitation fruit makes these household objects come alive and seem very contemporary.

The housewares are generally a mix of fine high quality containers together with cheaper, probably locally sourced, earthen ware.

Once you have locks you don't need to have guards and the Romans obviously kept their most important valuables under lock and key.

A variety of locks, from padlocks, tumbler locks and complicated lever locks have been discovered in Viriconium, together with various types of keys with one being incorporated into a finger ring for added security.

It would appear from the the many finds that Viriconium was a centre for bone and antler working that was a byproduct of the meat processing that was done in the city.

Everything from spoons, needles, hair pieces and other intricate pieces have been discovered along with the piles of unprocessed bones.

The city also hosted craftsmen working in jet and shale imported from Yorkshire and Dorset and worked into the ornaments and jewelry seen here.

For many years the local people would find Roman coins in and around the fields covering the city and named the old money dindars which is a probable corruption of the the Latin word denarius, the name of the principle Roman silver coin.

As well as legal Roman coins discovered in the city these molds and associated forgeries were also in use.

The city's inhabitants had to wrap up well to withstand the local climate and a selection of pins and brooches have been discovered that would have been used to secure cloaks and mantles. In addition Roman women used a lot of pins to create the hairstyles fashionable at the time.

Viriconium started life as a Roman fort and it is likely that it continued to have a military importance and role after its establishment as a city lying on Watling Street and the principle road to Deva and the north-west frontier region of Britain.

Not surprisingly then, you might expect to find evidence of the Roman army and you would not be disappointed.

The caltrops or tribulus are the ancient version of the landmine useful for dealing with bear-footed tribesmen or heavily armoured horsemen and it was a tactic for a cohort to fill one man's, from an eight man contuburnium, helmet with urine and splash the offending liquid in front of the line, getting the cohort to step into the wet ground and stomp around quickly creating a slippery muddy quagmire in front of the line.

Finally a good sprinkling of these evil little contraptions could be liberally sprinkled in the prepared ground and the line could drop back ready to launch a volley of javelins or pila into any unfortunate enemy formation trying to get across the prepared zone.

You knew you had upset your centurion when it was you that was selected to pass your helmet around to your mess-mates

Roman soldiers carried a lot of kit needed to entrench or simply to feed themselves and the military writer Vegetius records that Roman soldiers regularly trained carrying up to sixty pounds of kit whilst marching at military pace.

The Roman army had a presence in the later city as these examples of plumbatae or darts illustrate.

As with other civilian settlements established close to the military bases built by the legions they were popular retirement centres for veterans; and those few soldiers lucky enough to survive their twenty-five years of service and collect their accumulated back pay would often settle down in the area where they had served becoming significant people in the area as relatively wealthy citizens.

Of course retired auxiliary soldiers were less well off than their comrades from the legions but retired as citizens exempt from taxes, but would need to keep a copy of their discharge diploma ready to confirm their acquired status.

These are copies of one such diploma.

As mentioned in the look at the Roman bathhouse, I mentioned that the floor above the hypocaust would have been richly decorated and this is a piece of that flooring that gives a good idea of the interior decor.

As well as decorated flooring, the higher status buildings have also revealed examples of the decorated wall plaster you would have expected to see.

And of course, no self respecting high status Roman building would be complete without the odd mosaic or two.

Roman religious tastes are always interesting to see and the various local deities that are reflected in the artwork can vary quite a bit from site to site.

The hare carved into a column capital seen below, together with grapes on the vine, is reflecting the cult of Bacchus the Roman god of wine and having a good time.

Jupiter is always a popular deity and the statue below is a bronze representation of one of the Discouri or sons of Jupiter.

Finally my favourite of the three pieces, a beautiful bronze rendition of the goddess Diana.

The religious aspect of Viriconium would continue on to its final demise with the establishment of the bishops house built on the ruins of the old basilica in the fifth or sixth century as depicted below.

Viriconium is a rather enigmatic place to visit as the small parts that have been looked at closely barely scratch the surface of the secrets that the city most likely retains.

There are very interesting aspects about it that make it stand out for me, most noticeably the fact that the city didn't get a stone wall built around it as other such settlements in Roman Britain and Viriconium's defences rested on an earthen bank atop a ditch with a wooden stockade on its rampart.

It is the only Roman city in Britain that did not get built over by a later modern development and thus it is unique as a place for further study, likely to have much more undisturbed archaeology than other similar contemporary sites.

Finally Viriconium did not reveal all that can be seen as I didn't get time to visit St Andrew's Church in the village of Wroxeter that incorporates Roman stonework in to the building's fabric as well as early Saxon stonework dating from the time of the Mercian King Penda.

I guess I will have to call in again next time I am passing.

This post concludes my series of posts on our trip to Chester this year which I hope you have enjoyed reading as much as I have enjoyed putting them together.

I should also mention that as this was Carolyn's and my thirtieth wedding anniversary I was allowed to treat myself to the odd anniversary present and I concluded our stay in Chester by picking up my own piece of Roman history in the form of these three copper alloy coins dating to the 4th century.

The top two are from the reign of Contantinius II 330AD to 336AD, the one below I haven't identified yet.

So its onwards and upwards with me trying out some new painting ideas, our trip to London in August, updates on progress with the Romano-Dacians and Mr Steve and my visit to the Welsh Marches in pursuit of Owain Glyndwr and more Roman stuff.

Kickstarter - Oer the Hills Early Peninsula War Scenarios 1808-1809

Oh and by the way there is a Kickstarter running, that all of those of you who wanted to know about the series of Peninsular War scenarios Steve M and I put together earlier this year might want to check out and hopefully support, see above.


  1. Hi JJ A great read and very informative, thank you for posting.

    Regards . Peter

    1. Hi Peter, thank you and glad you enjoyed the read

  2. Interesting post,I don't have a problem with TV doing reality stuff to do with archeology or reconstruction,I figure it reaches out to a wider public and generates more interest which can only be a good thing, the building doesn't seem too dumbed down to me, it's always useful to try and put something up and see what you can get! Oh and congratulations!
    Best Iain

    1. Thanks Iain.
      Yes I would stress I only said 'mildly annoying' as the worst case, in that I agree with you, that there is always a benefit from engaging more people into the history than would otherwise possibly do so.

      However, I sometimes feel that some of these programs and the program makers treat the viewer with a slight contempt and feel it necessary to do a bit of reality TV dumbing down or competition against the clock stuff to be able to engage a public that has more of them as university graduates than ever before and I feel surely they don't need to keep doing that kind of stuff.

      Perhaps its me, just turning into a grumpy old git, as my wife would say!