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Chesters Roman Fort

We began a day of Hadrian’s Wall sightseeing by going to Chesters Roman Fort. A highlight of this site is the Roman bathhouse—one of the best preserved Roman buildings in Britain.

Chesters overlooks the North Tyne river, which is located immediately East of the fort. The fort faces North with a main gate in each side. Hadrian’s Wall was carried across the North Tyne river by an impressive bridge. Originally, the Wall ran all the way through the fort because the fort was added a couple of years after the Wall had already been built.

Below is an overhead view of Chesters Roman fort looking South-East towards the curving North Tyne River. The North gate is at the foreground, the barrack blocks are to the left, the Commanding Officer’s house is directly behind the barrack blocks, and the Headquarters building is to the right of the Commanding Officer’s house. On the left side of the photo, down towards the river bank, are the ruins of the Roman bathhouse, located outside the fort.

Reverse the view of the aerial shot above to understand the layout of the fort in the illustration below. (North is the top of the page).

The antiquary John Clayton inherited the Chesters estate in 1843. Clayton played a pivotol role in saving the central section of Hadrian’s Wall. He steadily expanded his holding so that by his death in 1890 he owned five forts. Clayton and his two workmen excavated almost everything that can be seen at the fort between 1843 and 1890. Only a section of the buildings have been uncovered; more are still buried. There has been hardly any digging since the death of Clayton’s nephew in 1895. Only the lowest parts of the fort walls have survived stone-robbing and ploughing in the 1,600 years since the Romans occupied it.

Standing in the main entrance, the North gate. These would be the remains of two flanking towers on either side of the gate.

Below is a reconstruction of what the East gate would have looked like. The North gate would have probably been very similar.

Here is a section of Hadrian’s Wall excavated between the fort and the river. In the aerial photo above, find the East gate. The East gate is located just South of the barrack blocks. Notice the raised mound of earth outside of the East gate, leading down to the riverbank? That’s the Wall. There is a small portion that has been dug up. The image below is that section of the excavated Wall.

Below you can see the remains of the military barracks. A street is laid out between the two barrack blocks.

A closer look at the excavated street & drain below.

Here is a reconstruction of what the barrack blocks would have looked like. Archeological evidence has suggested that the soldiers kept their horses in the front part of their block. The soldiers would have had slaves who tended to their horses. The slaves would have slept in the rafters, the top storey in the illustration below.

Another angle of the barrack blocks.

Layout of the barracks below. (S = stable area, L= living area).

Side note, I found flowers!

Roman baths were essentially steam baths, similar to modern Turkish baths (a direct descendant from the eastern Roman empire). The floors were raised, and heat was directed into the space beneath the floors via a furnace. The heat ran under the floor and was conducted up the walls through hollow bricks and overhead vaults, giving off heat from every surface.

A bather would begin in a changing area where they would disrobe. They would then enter the dry heat of a sweating room, and then, via a tepid room, to a steam room where hot water was sprinkled on the body and the dirt removed from the skin with a metal scraper. Here there was also a heated pool. Finally, the bather returned to an unheated room and took a plunge in a cold pool.

Below is a reconstruction of what the bathhouse at Chesters would have looked like. Bathers would have used the rooms of the facility in a counter-clockwise direction, starting with A.

A = Changing room with niches for clothes
B = Lobby
C= Cold room and cold plunge
D = warm rooms
E= steam room
F= hot water fountain (hard to see because that’s the centre line of the book)
G= hot pool

The furnace (H) is where the heat comes from.

Below are the remains of the bathhouse. The North Tyne river is in the background.

The layout of the bathhouse below.

Below is the stoke hole and furnace. The room above it is the sweating room, and there is a passageway into the ante/waiting room.

Niches in the changing room, possibly for clothes.

Another view of the changing room.

Bathing was a social activity. Bathers gathered to gossip, gamble, and socialize.

And also use the latrine.

Neil in the hot steam room.

More information on the hot steam room below.

An apse contained a hot water fountain.

Cold room.

The last step – the cold bath! Just like being at the Scandinave Spa in Whistler.

Warm rooms.

Looking across the River Tyne to where the bridge would have been. The river has moved westwards, closer to the fort, over the years. The remains of the bridge on the fort side of the river are submerged. The bridge dated from the 160s C.E.

Below, a reconstruction of the bridge, as well as the bathhouse and the fort in the background.

The Commanding Officer’s house.

It also had a raised floor.

The Commanding Officer’s house continued.

The Commanding Officer’s house in the foreground. In the background, a man is standing in the Headquarters Building.

This is the underground strongroom, or treasury, located in the Headquarters building. The soldiers’ pay was kept here and was heavily guarded.

A phallus, allegedly a symbol of good luck, carved on a flagstone near the ceremonial well in the headquarters. (Good luck? I think it’s more like men have always been obsessed with dick pics).

Remains of an aqueduct which fed a tank in the north tower.

The interval tower near the south gate.

The south east angle corner tower.

In the parkland South of the fort remains the buried remains of a large civilian settlement. There has never been any excavation here but, in drought conditions, the grass immediately above buried stone walls is starved of moisture, creating a pattern of “parch marks” that are not visible from ground level, but show up in aerial photographs. These marks reveal the hidden layout of the civilian settlement that flourished in the second and third centuries outside of the fort. The settlement covered an area much more extensive than the fort itself. The grass still contains a rich depth of archaeological discovery, awaiting future researchers. The grey lines in the illustration below indicate the buried ruins.

Looking East towards the river. The underground civilian settlement is to the right of this fenced-in area.

The Chesters Museum exhibits John Clayton’s collection of Roman antiquities. It contains many finds from Chesters and the other four forts on the Wall once owned by the Clayton family. The Museum was opened in 1903.

Below is a view of some of the Roman antiquities on display at the Chesters Museum.

This is a copy of a Roman military diploma discovered by John Clayton at Chesters. He donated the original to the British Museum. Military diplomas are certificates of discharge inscribed on bronze tablets. They were issued to all auxiliary soldiers after 25 years of service. The diplomas granted citizenship to soldiers and their children, and legalized their marriages. Roman soldiers were forbidden to marry in the 1st and 2nd centuries but there was a loophole, so many of them did anyway. More information about the diploma can be found here.

A sign for this little figurine read: “The precise function of this exquisite little figurine is unknown. It could be a religious offering or simply decorative. Its resemblance to a Scottish Terrier makes it seem surprisingly modern but it is possible that similar dogs were kept in the fort as lap dogs or to keep rats away.”

A sign for this read: “Maenads were followers of Bacchus – the god of vines and wine. His devotees wore wreaths of vine leaves and this maenad appears to wear grapes in her hair. The piece shows the intricate detail that a skilled craftsman could achieve.”

All of the information and illustrations used in this post come from the English Heritage guidebook Chesters Roman Fort.

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