The first site we visited was Chesters Roman Fort and Museum. But before going on I feel it’s immediately worth noting an unfortunate truth. In that no matter how much extra planning I could have put into arranging all my site visits during this trip; in hindsight experiencing Chesters first was like a boxer facing a knockout in the first round. Whilst all the Roman sites I went to along this densely occupied section of Hadrian’s wall were near enough equal in their general existence as impressive Roman forts; nothing could have quite prepared me for the eccentric magnificence of the on-site Edwardian Museum at Chesters, and the collection it housed (the details of which I will go into). If you’re thinking that what I will write in my third and fourth blog posts couldn’t possibly live up to the high praise I have placed upon Chesters I find great pleasure in telling you you’re wrong. Corbridge Roman town and Museum boasts a fine array of special artifacts and sheds an eye-opening amount of archaeological insight into Roman town life. Stick around.
In contrast to the other Roman sites in the area, Chesters is situated in a low-lying valley within a much greener part of the Northumberland landscape, in position next to the North Tyne river. The ground plan of the site conforms to that of a typical fort found throughout the Empire; a rectagonal plan with a central headquarters and commanding officer’s house, surrounded by barracks. Outside the fort to the south, just outside the gates will have been a vicus. This is a settlement where relatives and friends of the auxiliaries will have lived and where men could freely spend their wages at inns and shops. However, the importance of it being situated along a river cannot be understated in relation to my research because in addition to this otherwise normal example of a Roman fort, Chesters boasts an impressive bath house complex, from which religious sculptures have been found. A sculpted river God, perhaps a symbolic embodiment of the river Tyne, found at the baths here suggests religious activity on the site and it’s value to the men stationed here.
Since it’s beginning a couple of years after the creation of Hadrian’s Wall in 122 AD the fort at Chesters is significant in that throughout it’s history of Roman control it served as the base for an ala (an ala being a prestigious unit in the auxiliary army) of Spanish cavalry. Inscriptions on objects in the museum suggest a long association between Chesters and the Asturians; a people originating from Northern Spain. Although evidence also exists to suggest that throughout its years of operation the auxiliary army was ‘irregular’ in it’s ethnicity.
What begun as a leisurely amble through the fields where once stood the large fort, gradually started to lose its charm as the rain came down. This was when I decided to head into the museum with little knowledge of what I was about to take in.
A picture can best convey the essence of this museum, as shown above. The tiers of sculpted objects, artifact and stone around the edges of the main room and the almost antique glass display cases give this space it’s Edwardian air. What may seem eccentric and hectic to us now was normal in the Edwardian period, and the museum has been left in the way it was set up when it opened in 1903. Its founder John Clayton, conducted archaeological excavations at various points along a 20 mile section of the wall from 1843 onwards and it is from Chesters and other sites of Roman historic interest, such as Coventina’s Well, that we can see the artifacts of. I found it extraordinary and I can’t help but feel excited by seeing so many fascinating objects positioned ‘shoulder-to-shoulder’ in a small room. From a museological perspective it could easily be criticized as a curatorial nightmare, or praised for retaining it’s originality and offering the visitor a unique museum experience. The debate could go on, but I came away from it pretty content with what I had seen.
One sculpture I had intended to see at Chesters museum in direct relation to my dissertation was a trio of water nymths from a small site not far from Chesters called Coventina’s Well. The artifact is one of the most detailed sculptures in the collection from what I saw, and is no doubt one of the most well preserved examples of its kind. The trio formation appears repeatedly in the surviving body of religious art from this area during this period. The sculpture of the three hooded spirits, the genii cucullati, from Housesteads Roman fort conforms to this triad forumla as well. Itself being another particularly fine example of religious or spiritual depiction, and one which I will go into in a future blog post. At this stage it’s the figurative construction and iconography of such an artwork as the trio of water nymphs that I intent to research in relation to other examples of its kind found along the wall, or perhaps further afield. Those of other cultures and native British art. Of which there were example of here at Chesters museum.
To bring this post to an end I’ll wrap it up by sharing something I learnt at the museum: Many Roman forts have ‘chester’ or ‘chesters’ in their name across Northern England. This is from the Latin ‘castra’ which the Saxons used to refer to a Roman fortification. I think there is more to this fact but I can’t remember what the rest was. I’m disappointed in you, Robert.