20 July, 2011

Burgh Castle Roman Fort

Burgh Castle Roman Fort is an exceptionally well preserved Roman shore fort. The west wall has long since collapsed into the adjacent estuary and marsh, as you can see on the satellite image on Google Maps.

Satellite image of Burgh Castle on Google Maps

The east wall and much of the north and south walls are still standing to most of their original height, with massive solid projecting bastions at the north-east and south-east corners and on the walls (two on the east wall, either side of the gate, and one on each of the north and south walls).

East wall of Burgh Castle, showing the gap marking the position of the original east gate and one of the projecting bastions

Looking north along the east wall of Burgh Castle from outside the east gate, showing the projecting bastion with the north-east corner tower in the background

One of the bastions

The walls now stand about 15 feet above modern ground level, massively built with a core of mortar and rubble. They were originally faced with neatly cut square flint blocks interleaved with courses of red tile, although a lot of the facing has now gone.

Wall near east gate

End-on view of wall at the east gate, looking north with the interior of the fort on the left

Close-up of well preserved facing


Burgh Castle is located on the east bank of Breydon Water in south Norfolk.

Topographical map link here

If you scroll west on the topographical map link, you’ll see that there is a vast area of marsh criss-crossed by drainage dykes and dotted with windmills, extending west from the current course of Breydon Water for several kilometres. In Roman times this was a major tidal estuary open to the sea and stretching inland towards the site of modern Norwich. Even now, there are only three crossing places, at Norwich, via the chain ferry at Reedham Ferry, and at Great Yarmouth.

View west across the marshes from the interior of Burgh Castle; in Roman times this would have looked out across a large tidal estuary

Burgh Castle fort was occupied in the third and fourth centuries, and a hoard of high-quality early fifth-century glassware (pictured on the information board by the east gate) suggests occupation into the fifth century.

Information board at Burgh Castle by the east gate, showing the fifth-century glassware hoard and a reconstruction of the fort as it might have looked in 340 AD

Roman name

The Roman name of Burgh Castle fort may have been Gariannonum or something similar. A commander of a cavalry unit based at a site called Gariannonor is mentioned in the Late Roman list of military offices, Notitia Dignitatum, under the command of the Count of the Saxon Shore:

Sub dispositione viri spectabilis comitis litoris Saxonici per
Praepositus equitum Dalmatarum Branodunensium, Branoduno.
Praepositus equitum stablesianorum Gariannonensium, Gariannonor.
Tribunus cohortis primae Baetasiorum, Regulbio
--Notitia Dignitatum, Latin text, available online

Branoduno is Brancaster in north Norfolk, Regulbio is Reculver in Kent, so it would be logical for Gariannonor to be situated somewhere between them, which is consistent with the location of Burgh Castle. It is also consistent with the river name mentioned in Ptolemy’s second-century Geography, “Ost Gariennus Fl.” or “the estuary of the River Gariennus”, listed between the Wash and the Thames estuary.

If Burgh Castle Roman fort was called Gariannonum, no trace of the Roman name remains in the modern name, which is derived from the Old English ‘burh’, meaning a fort or fortified town.

Burgh Castle may be the site of Cnobheresburg, mentioned by Bede. More on this in another post.

Notitia Dignitatum, Latin text, available online
Ptolemy, Geography, translation available online


Gabriele Campbell said...

Ohh, pretty Roman walls. :)
There's indeed quite a lot left. Obviously, the fort escaped the usual fate as Mediaeval quarry.

Carla said...

That may be where the rest of the nicely cut facing blocks went :-) I have a suspicion that some of the bricks in the nearby church tower may have come from the fort, and possibly some of the flint facing blocks found their way there as well (photos of the church to come later). But most of the walls do seem to have been left alone, except by the sea, which is an ever-present hazard on the east coast. Perhaps because Roman rubble-and-concrete infill is tough stuff; say what you like about the Romans, they could do engineering when it suited them.

Anonymous said...

Gosh, those remains are impressive. It's a shame we don't have anything that size up here (oh, well apart from Hadrian's Wall, I guess!). Roman concrete is amazing.

Carla said...

Hadrian's Wall isn't to be sneezed at :-) Although the best preserved bits are in the middle section, which is quite a way from Cumbria.

Hardknott Roman Fort above Eskdale is jolly impressive, and has a fabulous location into the bargain. (The fictional fort of Eagle Crag in Ingeld's Daughter is based on Hardknott). Some day I'm going to use the actual site of Hardknott Fort as a location :-)

Gabriele Campbell said...

Oh definitely, a lot of what remains in Mainz is the concrete and rubble fillings of Roman buildings (like the aquaeduct pillars) as well.

Carla said...

Gabriele - same with the Roman theatres in Lyons. Roman concrete seems to be impervious to pretty much anything short of dynamite :-)

Constance Brewer said...

Wow, when Romans build a wall, they really build a wall. :) Gotta love those ancient engineers.

Rick said...

The Romans were conservative that way - they did not stint on massive engineering.

Carla said...

Constance, Rick - indeed, you have to hand it to engineers who can build something that's still standing after one and a half millenia.