A new Research Framework and Conservation Plan for Epiacum

As part of the Epiacum POP (Planning Our Partnerships) project, the Directors of Epiacum Heritage Ltd have commissioned an Heritage Conservation Plan and Research Framework. It will:

  • cover the entirety of Castle Nook Farm, also making reference to places outside the farm boundary where relevant.
  • cover all periods from prehistory to present
  • consult a range of experts who have completed work here, and potential partners who may wish to be involved in future.
  • assimilate all previous archaeological and historical work in the local landscape, for example antiquarian references to Roman discoveries, 19th century excavations, antiquarian accounts of local history, more recent fieldwork including the English Heritage survey of the Roman fort and its landscape context, and recent fieldwork undertaken by the North Pennines AONB Partnership’s Altogether Archaeology project.
  • include possibilities for documentary research, including analysis of the extraordinary cache of documents relating to castle Nook Farm dating back to the mid 17th century currently stored at the Northumberland Record office.
  • be structured in accordance with current guidance regarding best practice for research frameworks.
  • refer to other current research frameworks, in particular the NE and NW regional research frameworks, and the Research Framework for Hadrian’s Wall.

The finished Research Framework and Conservation Plan will be published here early in 2018.

Active research

Extensive non-invasive surveys (see below) have identified possible features of interest from all time periods across the farm. The next stage is to analyse some of features judged to be possibly significant by sampling using an organised programme of test pits. These excavations will be supervised by a consultant archaeologist, and will be open to the public. They are expected to take place in the late summer of 2017, and will be advertised through our events pages.

A Brief History of Research at Epiacum

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 1601 when the headmaster of Appleby School, Reginald Bainbrigg, visited 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 two altars were found during the nineteenth century. 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, and you can see the latter in the Hadrian’s Wall gallery of Great North Museum: Hancock, in 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 (men’s and women’s) 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.

Watercolour of 1957 Epiacum excavations Ink drawing of 1957 Epiacum excavations

In May 2017 we held our Diamond Conference, celebrating 60 years since these first excavations. We were lucky enough to have Jean Lunn as our special guest, who took part in these excavations.  Here is the recording of her retelling her experiences and the subsequent analysis of some of the items they found.

Jean Lunn’s Story from Simon Danby on Vimeo.


21st century research

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 Professor 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. You can download the English Heritage report here: ‘An Archaeological Investigation of the Whitley Castle Roman Fort and its Setting’.

LIDAR Survey

Click here to download the LIDAR image of Epiacum and its setting.

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 North Pennine Miner-Farmer Landscapes 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. This has recovered a range of artefacts that are awaiting expert analysis. The results will be posted here in due course.

Altogether Archaeology

The North Pennines AONB Altogether Archaeology Project (2010-2015) involved local volunteers in a full archaeological excavation of a Celtic Settlement, previously identified on the farm, through LIDAR imaging and Geophysical surveys. The excavation involved exploring the impact of modern farming practice on the archaeological preservation, as well as identifying the size and structure of the types of Roundhouses that were part of the historical profile of the local landscape.

More video diaries of the excavations can be seen here

Altogether Archaeology are now a freestanding group of amateur archaeologists working across the North Pennines.

Molehill surveys

Epiacum became famous for its furry little diggers – because the site is scheduled, moles were the only creatures allowed to excavate on the site. Volunteers ploted each molehill within a grid, and sifted through the soil to find any treasures that had been disturbed. As well as slag and pottery from a variety of eras (don’t forget that Bastle houses and the original farmhouse were built on top of the fort), glass and jet beads and a beautiful bronze dolphin were found.

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, Historic England, and Natural England

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