The remains of the bath house at Ravenglass are the most substantial visible evidence of the Roman fort that once stood on this site. They are located beside a metalled track off the modern road just before Ravenglass village.
Recent clearance of under-growth has revealed the site of the fort itself, bounded by at least one defensive ditch, on the other side of the track.
The bath house was situated just outside the north-east corner of the fort.
History and Excavations
The fort at Ravenglass guarded what was probably a very serviceable harbour.
Excavations in the 1970s on the surviving fort platform (between the railway and the sea) indicated that the fort had probably been founded during the reign of the Emperor Hadrian (AD 117–38). However, beneath it, and on a different alignment, was an earlier fort, presumably dating from the first century AD.
The excavations showed that the Hadrianic fort was initially defended by a wall of stacked turfs, but that this had later been strengthened by the addition of a fronting stone wall. Inside the fort, the only buildings excavated were a succession of timber barracks.
The most significant find in these was a collection of bone counters, which evidently belonged to some kind of ‘war-game’.
The barracks appeared to have been in continuous use until the later fourth century when, after destruction by fire (whether deliberate or accidental is unknown), they were rebuilt, using a different method of construction. This suggests that in this period and beyond the fort became the base for a local warlord and his militia after the departure of the Roman army.
One infantry unit of the Roman army is associated with Ravenglass, the First Cohort Aelia Classica. ‘Aelius’ was Hadrian’s family name, while ‘Classica’ is derived from the Latin classis, meaning ‘fleet’, suggesting that the soldiers were recruited from the fleet in Hadrian’s time.
The most significant evidence for the presence of this unit at Ravenglass was an inscribed bronze certificate of demobilisation belonging to one of the soldiers. That archaeological research is a fortuitous business is shown by the fact that this object was recovered by a dog.
This impressive site comprises some of the tallest Roman structures surviving in northern Britain: doorways and windows, as well as an elegant niche for a bust, can still be made out in the walls.
Domestic use of the building in the Middle Ages is the reason why so much has survived.
The Bath House
Excavations in the late nineteenth century and survey work in the 1980s indicated that the bath house was a substantial structure extending beyond the present field boundary, as well as to either side of the existing structures.
At least two rooms contained under-floor hypocausts (heating systems).
The bath house provided relaxation for the Roman soldiers and for civilians who lived in the settlement outside the fort, which extended here over much of the present field beyond the fence.
The building offered facilities for exercise and sport, as well as for swimming and bathing; it was also the obvious place in a Romanised community for people to meet socially.
Birley, E B 1958. 'The Roman Fort at Ravenglass', Transactions of the Cumberland and Westmorland Archaeological and Antiquarian Society, 58, 14–30
Brann, M L 1985. 'A Survey of Walls Castle, Ravenglass, Cumbria', Transaction of the Cumberland and Westmoreland Archaeological and Antiquitarian Society, 85, 81–5
Collingwood, R G 1928. 'Roman Ravenglass', Transactions of the Cumberland and Westmoreland Archaeological and Antiquitarian Society, 28, 353–66
Holder, P A 1997. 'A Roman Military Diploma from Ravenglass, Cumbria', Bulletin of the John Rylands Library, 79, 3–41
Shotter, D C A 1998. 'Three Roman Forts in the Lake District', Archaeological Journal, 155, 338–51
The text and pictures on this page are derived from the 'Heritage Unlocked' series of guidebooks published in 2004. We intend to review, update and enhance the content in the near future as part of the Portico project, whose objective is to provide information on the history, significance, research background and sources for all English Heritage properties.