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  A Brief History of Research at Epiacum  

Download the 1959
excavation report.

Reproduced by courtesy of the Society of Antiquaries of
Newcastle upon Tyne.

PDF document 14.5mb >

Roman altar to Hercules discovered at Epiacum in 1803

Altar to Hercules, discovered just outside Epiacum Fort in 1803.

Roman sandal discovered in the Bath House at Epiacum in 1825.


Photo of the fort ramparts taken during the excavations of 1958.

Lidar image by English Heritage

LIDAR image of Epiacum.
Click on image for full screen.

Altar to Apollo found in 1837

Altar to Apollo, discovered at Epiacum Fort in 1837.







Until recently, very little archaeological research had taken place at Epiacum. So if you want to get right up to date with past work here, it won’t take very long!

The earliest historic record of the site dates from the late 16th century. The headmaster of Appleby School, Reginald Bainbrigg, visited in 1601 and described the fort as:

‘…a mightie, stronge and large fortress, defenced with a double ditch and walls, made by the Romaines.

Bainbrigg followed the route of the Maiden Way along its entire route from Kirby Thore (on today’s A66, not far from Appleby) to Carvoran on Hadrian’s Wall. A little over 400 years after Bainbrigg, local volunteers are planning to follow in his footsteps, recording all that remains of the Roman road.

18th and 19th century research..

Occasional references are made to Epiacum by antiquarian writers during the 18th and 19th centuries, usually following discoveries (during digging for agricultural improvements) of finds such as altars or inscribed stones. For example, in 1803 an altar depicting Hercules was found outside the north-east corner of the fort, and in 1837 an altar depicting Apollo, the sun god, was found in the same area. The former is now in Bedford Museum, the latter in the Great North Museum, Newcastle upon Tyne.

The year 1809 saw the first antiquarian excavation at Epiacum. The remains of the bath house were partially uncovered, and well-preserved remnants of its underfloor heating system were noted. Despite this, no further excavations would take place here for a century and a half.

In 1825 it was recorded that the farmer had dug up much ‘manure’ from the vicinity of the bath house, and spread it on his fields to great effect. This ‘manure’ was actually Roman rubbish, and was found to include a large number of leather shoes (mens and womens) as well as other Roman objects including a huge battle axe, several metal objects and much pottery.

20th century research..

Despite the huge potential demonstrated by the 1825 discoveries, no further digging seems to have taken place until 1957-58, when a small excavation was undertaken by Durham University. This uncovered a section across the fort’s northern ramparts and the main fort wall, extending inside the fort over the remains of a granary. Pottery from primary deposits within the fort suggests it was built in the early second century, probably at about the same time as work began on Hadrian’s Wall.

For a full copy of the 1959 Archaeologia Aeliana report on the excavations at Whitley Castle by Noel Shaw, please download the PDF document > (14.5 MB). Reproduced by courtesy of the Society of Antiquaries of Newcastle upon Tyne.

Between 2007 and 2012, the site of the fort and the surrounding landscape has been recorded in great detail, using a range of modern survey techniques, by a project led by Stewart Ainsworth and Dave Went of English Heritage. The results of this work are extraordinary, demonstrating not only that the fort survives in an extraordinarily good state of preservation, but that other contemporary sites also survive in the surrounding landscape.

The results of the English Heritage survey are too complex to summarise here. Anyone wishing to find out more is encouraged to consult English Heritage Research Report 89-2009, Whitley Castle, Tynedale, Northumberland. An Archaeological Investigation of the Roman Fort and its Setting.  This can be downloaded free of charge from the English Heritage website >.

LIDAR Survey - see image (right) for details..
Lidar (Light Detection And Ranging) is an optical remote sensing technology that can record earthworks from the air using pulses from a laser.  Archaeological surveyors at English Heritage used specially commissioned high-resolution LIDAR imagery during their survey of Alston Moor, undertaken as part of the Miner-Farmer project.  On this image, the fort of Epiacum is clearly visible, as are many other features in the surrounding landscape. A native settlement with roundhouses can be seen towards the bottom right-hand corner, and the Maiden Way can be seen passing to the east of the fort, clearly overlain by remnants of medieval 'ridge-and-furrow' field systems.  The modern road (A689) cuts across the top-right (north-east) angle of the image.

The most recent research has been the molehill survey undertaken by local volunteers, supervised by Paul Frodsham (see Events for more detail). This has recovered a range of artefacts that are awaiting expert analysis. The results will be posted here in due course.

Future research..

While the Roman fort will always be the main attraction here, the pre-Roman and post-Roman history of the landscape around Epiacum, although in many ways unexceptional, is nevertheless fascinating, and offers much potential for further research. Ideally, a local research agenda should be drawn up and maintained by Epiacum Heritage Ltd, and resources sought for programmes of work that will involve local people in the quest to find out more about this fascinating place and the people who have lived here over the past 10,000 years. If you have any suggestions for future research you would like to see done at Epiacum, please contact us to discuss them.

Further information..

A more detailed description of Epiacum is provided in a booklet written by local historian, Alastair Robertson, entitled Whitley Castle Roman Fort.

Alastair Robertson has also written a booklet about the general archaeology and history of the Whitley Castle area, entitled Whitlow and Castle Nook Through the Ages.

To obtain these booklets, please send a cheque made out to ‘A. F. Robertson’ as follows:

Whitley Castle Roman Fort. £4.70 inc p&p.
Whitlow and Castle Nook Through the Ages. £3.70 inc p&p.
Both booklets ordered together. £7.20 inc p&p.

Orders should be sent to Mr. A Robertson, Ashleigh House, Nenthead Road, Alston, Cumbria, CA9 3SN.

  Many individuals and organisations are involved with the management of Epiacum. We would particularly like to thank the following:
Heritage Lottery Fund, North Pennines Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty Partnership, English Heritage, Natural England
  © Epiacum Heritage Ltd 2012 | All Rights Reserved |Tel: 01434 382 080 | Email: info@epiacumheritage.org | Design by Johnstone Interactive  
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