Is Benwell Roman Fort on Hadrian’s Wall Worth a Visit?

by | Nov 8, 2015 | Archaeological Sites, England, English | 2 comments

Benwell Roman Fort, or Condercum as it would have been known by the Romans, was the second of 12 forts constructed along the line of Hadrian’s Wall. The fort was built on a strategic, naturally level hill-top, around 127 metres above sea level. Hence the name Condercum, which translates as a place with a wide view. There is nothing left of the fort today; the northerly portion was destroyed in the early 1860s during the construction of a reservoir, while the rest was destroyed in the 1930s to make way for a private housing estate and the expanding city of Newcastle. Sadly, the archaeology of the fort was not recorded in the 1860s and so our understanding of the full extent of the fort and its internal structure is incomplete. Rescue excavations of the southerly section in the late 1920s and 1930s, however, do reveal this fort to be much like the others. All that remains of the fort and its vicus are two significant features. Both have been preserved and, along with nearby sections of the Wall, are well worth a visit.

The Vallum Crossing

The only surviving, visible vallum crossing at Benwell, Newcastle.

Fenced off area preserving the only surviving, visible vallum crossing on Hadrian’s Wall.

In a locked, fenced off area are the exposed remains of a vallum crossing, or causeway, over a section of the vallum. The vallum is a series of earthen ramparts and ditches (read more here) that runs roughly parallel south of the wall itself. At Benwell the vallum was diverted around the southern end of the fort, and the causeway was about 50 metres directly south of the fort’s southgate. The way in which the gate would have worked shows that it was closed from the north, indicating access was controlled from the fort.

Vallum crossing and three layers of road metalling at Benwell.

Looking over the causeway – the three successive layers of road metalling.

The stonework on the crossing shows that it supported a monumental gateway. Still in place are the stones that would have formed the base of the western arch. John Collingwood Bruce, one of the earliest scholars of the Wall and author of the still definitive handbook of the Wall, suggested that the surviving stonework of this gateway was the best dressed of any Hadrianic work on the Wall. I visited the Benwell Vallum Crossing after spending ten days exploring sites along Hadrian’s Wall, the quality of the stonework was such that I initially thought that these were recent replicas put in place recently. Apparently not! The fact that there were monumental gateways over the vallum suggests that the ditch and ramparts were more than just a military boundary. Archaeologists now think the vallum also indicated a legal or administrative boundary.

On the fort-side of the crossing, excavators have left exposed a section of the road that crossed the causeway. Clearly visible as a series of steps are three successive layers of ‘road metalling’. Metalling comes from the Latin word metallim, which means a mine or quarry. With the use of stone chippings by the Roman on their roads, the process of was called metalling. That the road required resurfacing three times indicates a road that saw heavy use.

Today the vallum is only about half its original depth. And when built the sides of the ditch would have been revetted with squared rubble stones. Excavation of the vallum showed that it was filled with clay, and stone buildings were then erected over the infill on both the east and west sides of the crossing. This must have happened around the end of the second century, as that is the date of pottery remains recovered in the infill.

Temple of Antenociticus

Temple of Artists impression of the interior of the Temple of Antenociticus. at Benwell.

Reconstructed temple at Benwell.

Replica altars in situ at the reconstructed Temple of Antenociticus.

Today replica altars stand in the reconstructed temple at Benwell.

The temple was located in the vicus (civilian settlement next to the fort) which lay east of the fort, between the fort and the vallum. The footprint of this small, single apse temple has been reconstructed for visitors. Replicas of two of the three altars recovered by archaeologists have been placed where they would have been used to make votive offerings to the gods. Temples were not intended for congregational worship, rather they were a place where individuals made personal vows. So it is not that surprising that this temple is small.

Unless inscriptions are found, it is not always possible to determine who a temple was dedicated to. Fortunately the three altars found at Benwell all have dedications, to the same native god. One of these was dedicated to Antenociticus by a prefect of a cohort of the Vangiones from the Rhineland. Another was dedicated to Antenociticus and the deities of the emperors by a centurion of the Twentieth Legion named Aelius Vibius. The inscription on the third altar reveals a man very grateful to Antenociticus, a translation of the dedication reads as follows:

To the god Anociticus, Tineius Longus (set this up) having, while prefect of cavalry, been adorned with the (senatorial) broad stripe and designated quaestor, by decrees of our best and greatest Emperors, under Ulpius Marcellus, consular governor.

From Tineius Longus’s dedication we know that the temple must have been built by sometime between 178 and 180 AD.

Also recovered from the apse were fragments of a statue of Antenociticus: a carved head, an arm and part of a leg. Because of the size of these fragments we know a near life-size statue of the god stood in the apse.

Artists impression of the interior of the Temple of Antenociticus at Benwell.

An artist’s impression of the interior of the Temple of Antenociticus.

Why Visit the site of Benwell Roman Fort?

Given some of the spectacular Roman forts along Hadrian’s Wall, Housesteads is definitely my favourite, Benwell is not likely to ever feature in anyone’s top ten list of sites to see. Given we accepts that no two lists would be the same, whether you should visit Benwell really would depend on the circumstances of your visit to the area, and what it is you want to see.

If you find yourself in Newcastle for only a short period of time and are looking for parts of the Wall that are within walking distance or a quick bus journey, then the vallum crossing and the temple at Benwell, together with the nearby remnants of the Wall and turret at Denton (red markers on the map below), will not disappoint you. They are easy to get to, and you will see something special.

Obviously the vallum crossing at Benwell, was not the only one along the Wall. Archaeological evidence of causeways has also been found at Housesteads, Great Chesters and Birdoswald. The Benwell crossing is the only surviving crossing still visible. So, if you are interested in seeing different features of the Wall, Benwell is a must as you will not see anything like this anywhere else.

Similarly, the Benwell temple itself is not at all unique; there are many similar, single apsidal temples throughout the Roman Empire. But the interest in this temple is the god to whcih it was dedicated. Antenociticus is not known from any other Roman site – no other identifiable sculptures of Antenociticus have been found and he is not mentioned in inscriptions or dedications anywhere else in the Roman Empire. During summer excavations in 2013 at the nearby Binchester Roman Fort a carved stone was found that bears a striking resemblance to this Benwell head (read the report in the Guardian).

Celtic gods were less specialised and differed by territory, whereas their Roman or Greek counterparts were known for a specific set of activities. This may explain why we do not find signs of Antenociticus anywhere else. The visual clue to his non-Roman identity is the Celtic neck torque he is depicted wearing. Antenociticus was a local, native god.

Visiting Benwell

The Benwell Vallum Crossing (green marker in the map above, on Denhill Park) and the Benwell Temple (yellow marker, on Broomridge Avenue) are both managed by English Heritage. They are both in separate fenced off, gated areas. Visitors are free to walk into the area with the temple, but the area with the crossing is locked.

Benwell in the Great North Museum in Newcastle

The Benwell altars in the Great North Museum in Newcastle.

Altars from Benwell (the two large ones on either side of the glass image of the man) in a display about ‘Worshipping on the Wall’.

Having seen the site of a temple to a unique Celtic god, Antenociticus, you just have to head to the Great North Museum in Newcastle city centre. Not surprisingly, the museum has a spectacular, permanent exhibition on Hadrian’s Wall, which justifiably boasts something from every major site along the wall Wall. From Benwell, included in the section of the exhibit called ‘Worshipping on the Wall’ is the beautifully carved head of Antenociticus and two of the three altars found in the temple.

What I like about the Hadrian’s Wall exhibition at the Great North Museum is the way in which they have taken inscriptions and made them more accessible to us today. The inscription of Tineius Longus’s altar reproduced in translation above is formal and in the third person. Whereas in the exhibition they have been written in the first person, elaborated (judiciously, within reason) and placed below a life-size image of a human who could represent that person. In the photograph above we see someone who the curators feels fits Tineius Longus image, flanked by the altars from the temple at Benwell, with his words, his transformed inscription, explaining the significance of his presence and his dedication in the text below him. That text reads as follows:

Praise indeed to the gods! They’ve helped me, Tineius Longus, a cavalry prefect, to achieve my lifelong ambition. I am back on track to become a senator. I’ve always dreamed of a political career in Rome, but I’d almost given up hope of promotion. Obviously, my worship of Antenociticus has paid off. He’s only a local deity, but my ambition must have impressed him. It just goes to show that these local gods are more powerful than you think.

Sculpture of the native god Antenociticus, in the Great North Museum - Hancock, Newcastle.

Head of the native god Antenociticus, Great North Museum – Hancock, Newcastle.

The Great North Museum and Benwell Roman Temple and Vallum Crossing would be a good choice for something to do while on a weekend break in Newcastle.