Old ruins, new world
Lest we remember
Editor Simon Denison
Old ruins, new world
Abandoned Roman sites in Britain were plundered for stone by Anglo-Saxon church builders. Tim Eaton investigates
When Roman troops were withdrawn from Britain at the beginning of the 5th century, in response to insecurity at the heart of the Empire, they left behind a landscape littered with abandoned settlements - small military outposts and large walled forts, humble farmsteads and sumptuous villas, unpretentious towns and monumental regional capitals.
The native population of this period preferred to inhabit timber-framed and sunken-floored buildings, so the stone-built structures of the classical period were abandoned.
However, the decay of these ruins was accelerated by the Church, which from as early as the late 6th century plundered Roman buildings of stone and brick to erect some of the more important ecclesiastical buildings in the land. Not until the late 10th century were quarries reopened for the extraction of fresh, unused building material.
Conventional wisdom dictates that these Roman ruins were important to medieval builders simply as cheap and convenient sources of stone. Why quarry stone afresh, the argument runs, when someone has already done it for you? There is no question that economy was a factor in the recycling of Roman building material (or spolia). But - as is so often the case with historical research - scratching beneath the surface reveals the past to be far more complex than our simplistic models allow.
My own research suggests that in certain contexts the plundering of Roman ruins was a symbolic gesture intended to appropriate for the plunderer some of the grandeur and kudos that was associated with the old Roman Empire.
Support for this theory comes from evidence that medieval builders, or more accurately their patrons, did not always pursue the most pragmatic options available to them.
There is no finer example of the medieval reuse of Roman spolia than in the abbey church at Hexham in Northumberland. Bede records that St Wilfred founded an abbey here about AD 674 on land donated to him by Queen Aethelthryth, the wife of King Ecgfrith of Northumbria. More than 1,300 years after its construction, only the crypt of this 7th century foundation survives, but it remains one of the most evocative Christian monuments in Britain.
It is clear that Wilfred's builders made no effort to quarry fresh stone for this edifice. The walls, ceiling, floors and stairway of the crypt are built from enormous blocks of Roman opus quadratum-style stonework, each one weighing over a ton, and an astonishing volume of carved and inscribed Roman stonework, including seven altars, two imperial dedication stones, seven relief carvings bearing anthropomorphic or bestial designs, a cavalryman's tombstone over 8ft (2.5m) high, and massive sections of Roman architectural mouldings elaborately carved with bead and reel decoration, acanthus leaves, and dentil and cable designs. Stonework of this nature must have originated in Roman public buildings of the highest order.
Is this reuse evidence for a financially astute side to Wilfred's character or was there another reason why he targeted this masonry? Working with monumental blocks over 3ft long was certainly not a pragmatic decision - the small, square facing-stones that are a common feature of Romano-British constructions would have been far easier to handle and transport. Indeed, the stone used in the 7th century church was robbed from the Roman town of Coria (Corbridge), nearly 4 miles east of Hexham, where small facing-stones could be found in abundance.
Furthermore, Wilfred's builders could have plundered stone from the buildings on the periphery of Coria - travellers from Hexham would first have encountered those ruins lying on the western side of the town like the supposed mansio. Ignoring these, the builders targeted the imposing monumental structures that lay at the heart of the Roman town, which included the remains of two granaries, a forum-like storage compound, and several temples. The stone bridge spanning the Tyne at Corbridge was also plundered for some of the largest stones used in the crypt.
Nor would shuttling the stone between the two sites have been easy. The Tyne flows between Corbridge and Hexham, but the shallow riffle sections that riddle this stretch of the river present a serious obstacle to transport. Today, it would take considerable ingenuity to get anything larger than a canoe upstream, so it seems most implausible that 7th century boats laden with several tons of cargo could have made the trip. The only option was to transport the stone by cart, presumably along the old Roman road, the Stanegate, a laborious round trip of more than 7 miles.
Wilfred's actions may, in fact, have been symbolic rather than practical. Over the past few years archaeologists have increasingly warmed to the idea that medieval communities interacted with ancient monuments in more than a functional manner (BA November 1997). Indeed, it seems that medieval people appreciated the antiquity of these monuments - whether prehistoric earthworks or Roman ruins - and regarded them as a means to confer status and authority on individuals or institutions.
This desire to appropriate the past has been used, for instance, to explain why churches were built on the sites of so many Roman forts and small towns in the early medieval period, such as at Reculver in Kent and Bradwell-on-Sea in Essex.
Spirit of Rome
To a great extent, of course, the location of early monasteries in the 7th and 8th centuries was influenced by the distribution of secular power. The major churches built by St Augustine in the early 7th century, for example, were built in and around Canterbury, since this town was the seat of his patron, King Ethelbert of Kent. The clergy would also have been attracted to the fact that walled Roman sites offered ready-made precincts in which to conduct monastic life.
However, the location of religious foundations on Roman sites may also have been inspired by a sense of the benefit to be drawn from this close association of the Roman Church with the Roman imperial past. It may have been perceived as a means of securing and consolidating the position of the Church amongst communities that were less than familiar with its practices.
Wilfred was denied the opportunity to associate his fledgling church directly with a Roman monument in this manner, for the land he was donated at Hexham by his royal benefactor was not the site of an abandoned fort. So Wilfred compromised. If the prestige of his foundation could not be enhanced by constructing the abbey amongst the impressive imperial remains at Coria, the bishop was determined that this prestige would be brought to him.
He thus set about salvaging masonry from the most monumental imperial buildings he could find. He was, in essence, building a monument to honour the new authority in Britain using the most opulent remains of the old authority. Such symbolism would not have been lost on the people of Britain.
Wilfrid's intention may also have been to remind the better-travelled visitors to Hexham of monuments closer to the heart of Christendom. As the church archaeologist Richard Morris has pointed out, both Wilfred's crypt at Hexham and the crypt which he built at Ripon in Yorkshire are - in plan and construction - reminiscent of the ancient Christian catacombs of Rome.
These ideas are supported by the few scraps of documentary evidence we have on early medieval building practices. From the late 6th to the early 11th centuries, churches were the only structures in the landscape apart from Roman ruins that were fabricated from stone, and it is clear that an association was made between this method of construction and Rome.
Bede remarked that when Benedict Biscop built the famous church of St Paul at Jarrow in County Durham, he sent for masons from Gaul who could build more Romanum, 'in the Roman style'. Similarly, following his conversion to Christianity, Nechtan, the king of the Picts, asked Ceolfrith of Jarrow how to build a church 'in the Roman style'.
It may also be significant that the anonymous author of The Ruin, an elegy composed perhaps at some point in the 8th or 9th century, referred to the Roman buildings he encountered as 'the work of giants'. This is little to go on but arguably it implies that early medieval observers were impressed more than anything by the scale of the ruins they encountered, or perhaps the sheer size of blocks the Romans were able to handle.
By demonstrating his ability to work with the same massive blocks that had been employed in the bridge at Coria, a structure which could easily have appeared a work of giants to many English people living in their timber palaces and sunken-floored huts, Wilfred was advertising a direct link between himself and the Romans that preceded him, thus promoting the idea that the Church was the natural successor to the power and authority of ancient Rome.
Distance no object
Moreover, it would appear that St Andrew's at Hexham was not the only church that Wilfred constructed in imperial splendour. A second Wilfredian foundation - the abbey at Ripon - was also built from massive blocks of Roman stone robbed from the town of Aldborough.
After Hexham, the most convincing illustration of how significant the reuse of Roman stone could be in Anglo-Saxon England comes from the 8th or 9th century church of All Saints at Brixworth in Northamptonshire. There is no question that the stone and brick used in this magnificent structure were robbed from a Roman building or complex of buildings. However, a petrological survey of the stone carried out in the mid-1980s produced a staggering result: the spolia had been carried to Brixworth from the Roman town at Leicester, almost 25 miles away.
Given that Brixworth and Leicester are not linked by a navigable waterway, and that the builders of All Saints would have been forced to undertake overland journeys of about 50 miles to obtain the stone they used, it is inconceivable that this represented an economic solution to the need for building material.
Not only the fabric but the style of construction used at Brixworth is pertinent. The use in the church of lofty brick arches supported by large sandstone blocks is so strikingly similar to Roman walling recovered from Leicester that the builders must have been replicating Roman styles, as well as using their construction materials. Like Wilfred, the patron of All Saints used every means at his disposal to evoke the grandeur of his imperial predecessors.
At Peterborough Cathedral in Cambridgeshire, this interpretation of recycling is supported not merely by the archaeology but also by documentary evidence. In 1884 and 1888, workmen excavated two objects of Roman manufacture at the cathedral. One was part of a monumental dedication stone with letters four and a half inches high, which by then was so damaged that little of the inscription could be distinguished; the other was a Roman engaged column.
Despite both of these Roman remains residing in the cathedral's rubble foundations, the fragmentary dedication had been carefully squared, which would imply that this and the rest of the Roman masonry had originally been robbed for the construction of an earlier building, presumably Sexulf's original monastic foundation at Peter borough of about AD 675 to which Bede refers.
Bigger is better
The source of this masonry was almost certainly the Roman town of Durobrivae (Water Newton) four miles west of Peterborough on the river Nene, for the ruins were owned by the monastery in the Middle Ages.
The character of the masonry found in the Victorian excavations therefore implies that a monumental building was robbed for the construction of the 7th century church. The same conclusion can be drawn from the words of the 12th century chronicler of Peterborough Abbey, Hugh Candidus, who records that when work commenced on the minster, Sexulf 'laid as its foundation some great stones, so mighty that eight yoke of oxen could scarcely draw any of them', a practice which is reminiscent of Wilfred's actions at Hexham.
It may be that the chronicler also preserves something of Sexulf's original ambitions. The monks of Peterborough, he wrote, were 'striving to build no commonplace structure, but a second Rome, or a daughter of Rome in England'. The remark surely says it all.
Roman masonry represented far more than its simple utility as building material. It symbolised the continuing legitimacy of the greatest power that Europe had ever known.
Tim Eaton received a PhD in archaeology from the University of Reading. His book, 'Plundering the Past: Roman Stonework in Medieval Britain' was published by Tempus earlier this year at £15.99.
CBA web:Jan/Feb 2005