Seasonal Archaeology: Hardknott Roman Fort in Summer

Hardknott Roman fort (centre) looking down Eskdale, July 2021

On a dazzling summer’s day in mid-July, the heather buzzing with activity, the sun bathing anyone brave enough to be outside in sweat, and light so bright that it hurt the eyes, I finally reached one of the most spectacular and remote Roman sites in northern England: Hardknott Roman fort. The fort was built on a rocky spur at the top of the Eskdale valley, beneath the Hardknott Pass. As that late and greatly missed Roman historian Professor David Shotter observed (in his classic book Romans in the North West) ’this almost-square fort is superbly sited with excellent visibility down Eskdale to the sea’. On the clear summer’s day I arrived at the site the misty shimmering hills of the Isle of Man could be seen on the distant horizon.

At an altitude of c. 254m Mediobogdum as the Roman’s called the site is one of the highest Romans forts in Britain. The fort was founded in the early second century and may have been occupied as late as the 4th century in some form. The parade-ground, where the garrison exercised and practised drill manoeuvres, lies on a plateau roughly 200 metres to the east and a well-preserved stone bathhouse can found outside the southern fort gate. Inside the fort’s walls, which still stand above head height (with a little help from the Ministry of Works in the 20th century) can be seen the ruins of three stone buildings: the headquarters, commander’s house, and a double-sized granary. A fragmentary inscription dating from the reign of the Emperor Hadrian (117–38), found in the south gateway, records the, probably first, garrison as the Fourth Cohort of Dalmatians, from the Balkans. The initial phase of occupation ended in the 140s, when the Roman army annexed southern Scotland, but the site was re-occupied when the Romans withdrew to Northern England in the 160s. The site was largely abandoned in the early 3rd century, although a scatter of later finds and lack of extensive excavation make it possible that later re-occupation was more significant than the occasional patrol camping within the fort walls.

In the 1950s my dad took my mum and a rickety Austin Seven car to Cumbria on holiday. Attempting to drive up the long, winding, narrow, and uneven road that climbed the Hardknott pass from the Ambleside end, the car staggered to a halt, refusing to go any further. Turning round on the single track road with a sheer drop on one side must have been traumatic since my mother refused to go back ever again, despite later Lakeland day trips and holidays in my childhood. This is one of many stories of holiday car failures current in my family, making Hardknott Roman Fort an almost mythical place, tricky enough to get to even in the-20th century, let alone during the second century.

The bathhouse at Hardknott

The site has fascinated antiquarians, historians, and archaeologists since the 19th century. The Cumberland and Westmorland Antiquarian and Archaeological Society (CWAAS) has taken the research lead ever since members of their council began exploring the site in 1889. The first detailed plan of the fort was published in the society’s journal in 1893 (C W Dymond, ‘The Roman Fort on Hardknott, Known as Hardknott Castle’, in TCWAAS, Vol 12, 375-438). An edited volume covering the mid-20th century excavations at the fort was published by CWAAS in 1999 (P Bidwell, M Snape & A Croom, Hardknott Roman Fort, Cumbria). As recently as 2020, the CWAAS published an article on the first geophysical survey of the fort’s interior (J Hunt, ‘A Geophysical Survey of Hardknott Roman Fort, Cumbria’ in TCWAAs CW3, vol 20, 65-86). This latest survey revealed evidence for a strange square structure, 17m by 19m, in the north-western angle of the fort which might be associated with later Roman activity – a guard tower perhaps?

Understandably, discussion of the fort’s history and location focus on its overtly military aspects: the construction date, garrisons, and strategically how it fitted within the 300-year Roman military occupation of Cumbria. Its position mid-way on the Roman road from the fort at Ambleside to the fort at Ravenglass is striking, as is the double-sized granary which it has been suggested stored grain being transported between these two forts. However, there is a wider story of Roman resource exploitation in the Eskdale valley that has still to be explored. The location of Hardknott high in the Cumbrian hills close to a series of iron ore deposits is suggestive. Was it the base for metal mining or quarrying?

The eastern fort gateway with the hills above the Hardknott pass behind.

Excavations within the Roman vicus at Ravenglass in 2013 and 2014 uncovered extensive remains of iron working and smithing, as well as evidence for charcoal from coppiced woodland that would have fired the furnaces and hearths. Several small-scale late medieval bloomeries are known in Eskdale (noted by CWAAS), whilst in the 19th century the area around the delightfully-named Boot, mid-way up the Eskdale Valley, was the location for a number of iron ore mines (see the excellent www.cumbria-ibndustries.org.uk website for more details). During the 1870s and 1880s the raw materials from these hematite iron ore mines were transported 11.3km down the valley to the sea along the Ravenglass and Eskdale Railway, now a tourist draw. Yet it was the Romans who were the first to start the industrial exploitation of this harsh, sharp, and breath-catching landscape. It seems highly likely that the fort at Hardknott had a key role to play in this first Cumbrian industrialisation.

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