The site of Corbridge Roman Town stands about half a mile north-west of the centre of modern Corbridge and is reached from a minor road which winds its way along the north bank of the River Tyne to Hexham. It has often in the past been called "Corbridge Roman Site", and still is in the edition of the guidebook on sale when we visited, but the change of description to "town" has the dual benefit of being more accurate, and of giving prospective visitors a sense of the sheer scale of what they are coming to see.
Which is worth knowing, because what you find here is a very extensive area of excavation which allows visitors to wander through part of the settlement that once stood here and which, in all probability, later simply morphed into the Corbridge whose church tower you can see a short distance to the south-east. An added reason to visit can be found in the superb museum which stands at the west end of the excavations, and which offers the opportunity to view an outstanding collection of Roman objects.
Roman Corbridge, possibly known as Coriosopitum to its residents, stands only 2.3 miles behind the line of Hadrian's Wall, but has origins that predate its better known neighbour. Traces of a circular hut reveal that people were living on at least part of the site for some time before the Romans arrived in these islands. When the Romans did arrive it took them a little time to work their way up the country, and they arrived in the area of what is now Corbridge in AD79, as Julius Agricola made his way north to invade Caledonia. Their first fort in the area was half a mile west of the site you can see today, and has been called the Red House Fort after the name of the farm on whose land it stood.
Corbridge stands close to the modern A68. This roughly follows the line of the old Roman road, Dere Street, into Scotland and this in turn formed an important junction with the Stanegate running east to west between the Tyne and the Solway. In the late AD80s a new fort was built on the site of the later town, presumably to provide security for this strategically important junction and the nearby crossing of the River Tyne. It is thought that the fort here was garrisoned by a unit of 500 auxiliary cavalrymen. It was built of wood, and this doubtless contributed to its destruction by fire in AD105.
A second fort was built on the same site and to a similar plan to its predecessor. This formed part of the defensive curtain of forts strung out along the Stanegate. When Hadrian's Wall was built in the years from AD122 the initial plan was to garrison its troops in forts placed a short distance to its south. With this in mind the fort at Corbridge was rebuilt again, this time in order to allow it to accommodate a cohort of 1,000 infantry. Within two years the decision had been taken to garrison troops in forts built along the line of the wall itself, and it seems likely that at this point the fort at Corbridge fell out of use.
Things changed yet again when the Romans moved their northern frontier forwards to the Antonine Wall in Scotland in AD142. As Corbridge stood on the main road north it became an important focus of military activity once more, and once again the fort was rebuilt, though this time stone was extensively used for the first time. When the Antonine Wall was abandoned in AD162 and Hadrian's Wall once more became the northern border of the empire, the need for a fort at Corbridge disappeared altogether.
It is probable that the succession of forts that stood here had spawned an accompanying civilian settlement, and with the final demise of the fort at Corbridge the civilian settlement essentially took over. A major setback occurred in about AD180, when a serious incursion by tribes from north of the wall led to the loss of a Roman general and many of his troops. Extensive signs of burning in Roman Corbridge suggest that the town suffered badly before the might of Rome was able to reassert itself.
Many of the stone buildings that can be seen at Corbridge postdate this episode, and it seems clear that the town went on to become a major regional centre for the Romans in northern Britain. It is easy to imagine it taking full advantage of the many nearby troops stationed along Hadrian's Wall looking for opportunities to spend money on all too brief spells of rest and relaxation. This would explain the temples and shops that have been unearthed, and this might not have been the most peaceful of places on a Friday night.
Although the area that has been excavated at Corbridge is large, it is worth remembering that what is on view today represents only a small proportion of what is known of Roman Corbridge. It is thought that the total area covered by the town at its fullest extent was some 27 acres or 11 hectares. The main road running through the centre of the excavated area, the Stanegate, is known to have extended for some distance under what are now fields to the east and to the west of the site.
What became of Roman Corbridge after the removal of central Roman authority in AD410 can only be a matter of speculation. However, you have to ask where the residents would go and what they would do if they were to move elsewhere. The Romans had been in Corbridge in one guise or another for over three centuries - say a dozen or more generations - and given the wider problems in the Roman empire even those residents who were Roman citizens must have felt torn between seeking the possibility of greater stability elsewhere or staying in the only place they and their families had ever known.
The cessation of the pay to the troops stationed along the wall, and the possible removal of those troops, would certainly have had a huge negative impact on the local economy, not to mention its security, but it does seem reasonable to assume that, as suggested at the beginning of this feature, Roman Corbridge simply morphed into Saxon Corbridge, which morphed into medieval Corbridge, which eventually became modern Corbridge.
As you wander around the excavated parts of Roman Corbridge, it does help considerably to have the guidebook map available to you (or to take the audio tour). The site can be divided into three main areas. South of the Stanegate you find a tremendous confusion of urban development. This has been interpreted as signs of two military compounds within the town, plus a series of temples lining the main road itself. Near the museum end of the street on its south side is what has become known as the "pottery shop" because of the large quantity of broken pottery found here during excavation. This is a fascinating area with a huge amount of fine detail to be enjoyed: and the drains are particularly impressive...
The area to the north of Stanegate at first looks more sparse. Much of it is covered by what is unfortunately called "Site 11". This was the name given to it by the archaeologists who first excavated it. It comprises four ranges of buildings surrounding a largely open space that contained what may be a high status house and a military headquarters. The problem with the name "Site 11" is that it sucks any excitement or romance out of this area of the excavation. It would be far better to simply call it "the market" or "the forum" and at least attach some interest to it, even if the description later turns out to be wrong.
The uses of the buildings nearer to the museum on the north side of Stanegate are much more obvious. Here you find a parallel pair of granaries, complete with raised floors and air vents to keep the grain in the best possible condition, and columns that supported porticos to keep the rain off when loading and unloading from carts. Nearby is the most unexpected and most enchanting of the buildings at Roman Corbridge. The fountain house was the main distribution point for water in the town. An aqueduct brought water in from the higher ground to the north. At the fountain house it was pushed through an ornamental spout intended to aerate the water to help keep it fresh. This filled up an aeration tank, which in turn filled up a trough from which citizens could collect their water.
The museum at Corbridge Roman Town is quite superb and amply repays a visit in is own right. It is usually possible to have a debate about the real star attraction of such a place, but not here. Without doubt the highlight is The Corbridge Lion. This is a large sandstone sculpture of a lion on the back of an animal it is clearly about to eat. Whether the unfortunate creature about to die is a deer or a sheep seems debateable, but the impressive carving of the lion is beyond question. It probably started life as a grave ornament before later serving as fountain head.