Notes: Located on the B6318 (Military Road) the site is open all year round. Extensive (pay) car parking facilities are available at the fort and it is well signposted from the A69.
WHAT IS THERE TO SEE?
The most complete remains of a Roman Fort in Britain with extensive remains of Barracks, Granaries, the perimeter wall/gatehouses, the Commanding Officers house, administrative centre and associated village remains. Housesteads is the highlight of the central sector of Hadrian’s Wall.
1. Two skeletons dating from the third century AD were discovered under one of the civilian buildings outside the south gate of Housesteads fort. The presence of these bodies is difficult to explain as Roman law prohibited burials within the settlement. It is possible they were murdered and secretly buried.
A large infantry fort set in the remote but picturesque Northumberland hills, Housesteads formed part of the Hadrianic frontier. Today it is the most complete of any Roman Fort in Britain and offers a unique insight into Roman military operations.
HISTORY OF HOUSESTEADS ROMAN FORT
One of the seventeen forts built on the line of Hadrian's Wall, Housesteads (known in Latin as Vercovicium - 'place of the effective fighters') was built due to an early change in the configuration of the frontier. When Emperor Hadrian decided to build the Wall, formerly starting a period of retrenchment for the Roman Empire, the frontier had already been established on the on the Tyne/Solway isthmus for many decades. The Stanegate military road, which marked this frontier, had been built in the AD 80s connecting Carlisle with Corbridge, the two major Roman settlements in northern England. Forts had been established along the length - including Vindolanda and Carvoran. Hadrian had decided to use the natural crags of the Whin Sill as the site for his Wall and the original plan was to continue to use the nearby Stanegate forts to house the garrisons. But early in the construction process this decision was reviewed - it was felt it restricted movement too much for any army that was at its best when mobile. Accordingly the garrisons were moved to new forts on the line of the Wall itself - Housesteads was one of these new installations.
Construction of the Wall had already started when the decision was made to build Housesteads. This can be seen from the fact the outpost was built over a turret (number 36B) that was now superfluous and accordingly demolished. Likewise a nearby Milecastle (37) was left unfinished as it was no longer needed given the proximity of the fort.
Housesteads was built to the normal 'playing card' shape with a Headquarters in the centre surrounded by barracks, the Commanding Officer's house, granaries and a hospital. The fort housed an Auxiliary infantry garrison of around 800 men and was configured with just one exit to the north of the Wall. These soldiers weren’t Legionaries - they were warriors recruited from tribes throughout the Roman Empire who, after 25 years service, would be awarded with Roman citizenship. The first unit to be garrisoned there seems to have been the First Cohort of Tungrians (cohors I Tungrorum milliaria peditata) who were recruited from the area occupied by modern day Belgium. In AD 138, when the Romans abandoned Hadrian’s Wall and advanced the frontier north to the Antonine Wall in central Scotland, the Tungrians were re-assigned to Castlecary whilst a detachment of soldiers from the Second Augustan Legion (Legio II Augusta) were stationed at Housesteads. By AD 160 the Tungrians were back at Housesteads and the frontier restored to Hadrian's Wall.
Little is known of how and when the Romans abandoned Housesteads. Once connections with Rome were severed early in the fifth century it is likely the population withered quickly its remote location making it unsuitable for supporting large settlements. By the Tudor period the area and the fort were being used as a secure compound against raids from Border Reivers; thieves that plagued the remote areas of Cumbria, Northumberland and the Scottish Borders. It remained isolated until the military commenced a road construction programme in the eighteenth century following the Jacobite rebellions.