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Ten Top Landmarks of Roman Britain

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The Romans controlled Britain for more than 350 years. Between about AD43 and 410 (the Sack of Rome), they were the civil administrators and law enforcers of a territory that stretched from coast to coast and from the south and west of Britain up to the rather fluid Scottish border in the north.

The Citizens of Britannia

They were not simply an occupying power. Most of the middle classes, the farmers and the merchants within Britannia, had become thoroughly Romanized. They lived in Roman-style villas, attended Roman-style baths, ate foods and traded goods from all over the empire and mingled with nationals from all corners of the Roman world.

So much is known about Roman Britain because of the late date of their departure and from the sheer amount of stuff - buildings, baths, artwork and artefacts - that they left behind: the elaborate and well preserved bathing complex in the UNESCO World Heritage City of Bath, or the Roman basilica foundations you can see in the crypt of York Minster.

Recycling

In fact, Roman building materials are all over the place. The Britons, Anglo Saxons and Danes who came after were great recyclers. Why quarry new dressed stone for your house, the cobbles in your road, the walls separating your fields, when you are surrounded by perfectly good building blocks? Once you learn to recognise the stones of a Roman wall, you will see them everywhere.

But Britain's Roman sites are not all famous international monuments, scattered crumbling ruins or random stones in churchyard walls. These ten sites are among the dozens that continue to reveal surprising details about life in Roman Britain.

Arbeia Roman Fort and Museum

Arbeia
Thunderchild7

Excavations and reconstructions give visitors an idea about life for a Roman Legion on the edge of empire. The fort guarded the mouth of the River Tyne, east of the eastern end of Hadrian's Wall in South Shields. It housed a garrison and was the supply base for 17 forts along the Roman wall. Excavations began in the late 19th century and the impressive entrance gate is a reconstruction, created in the 1980s from archaeological and documentary evidence. Several other reconstructions were later added to the site and there is also a museum of finds. Current excavations have been ongoing for 23 years.

Visitors can see archaeologists at work, watch occasional reenactments and explore a collection that includes a full suit of ringmail and the finest collection of Roman jet objects in Britain.

Essentials

  • Arbeia Roman Fort & Museum, Baring Street, South Shields NE33 2BB
  • Telephone: +44(0)191 456 1369
  • Open: End of March to end of September; weekdays 10am to 5pm, Saturdays 11am to 4pm, Sundays 2pm to 5pm.
  • Admission: Free

Antonine Wall

Antonine Wall
Volantra
Many visitors to Britain have heard of Hadrian's Wall but fewer, perhaps, are familiar with the Antonine Wall in Scotland. It was built by the Roman Army under the Emperor Antoninus Pius sometime after AD142 and marks what was the northwest border of the Roman Empire. About 37 miles long, it crossed the narrowest part of Britain, from Bowness on the Firth of Forth to Old Kilpatrick on the Clyde, with a series of ramparts and ditches protected by small "fortlets". As the Roman Empire contracted, the wall was abandoned in favor of Hadrian's Wall. In 2008, the Antonine Wall, looked after by Historic Scotland, was included in the Frontiers of the Roman Empire World Heritage Site.

An exhibit of finds from the western end of the wall can be seen in a permanent gallery, The Antonine Wall: Rome's Final Frontier, at the Hunterian Museum of the University of Glasgow.

Essentials

  • University of Glasgow, The Hunterian, University Avenue, Glasgow G12 8QQ
  • Telephone: +44(0)141 330 4221
  • Open: Tuesday to Saturday 10am to 5pm., Sunday 11am to 4pm, closed Mondays
  • Admission: Free

Caerwent Roman Town

Caerwent Roman Walls
Ben Salter

This settlement between Newport and Chepstow in southeast Wales was the capital and market town of the Silures, a defeated Roman British tribe. Its Roman name was Venta Silurum. Remains of buildings including dwellings, a forum and a basilica date from the time of Hadrian, around the 2nd century. The town was undefended until the 4th century when its 17-foot walls were built. Excavations in 2008 uncoverd a row of shops and a Roman villa.

The site, which is free to visit, is open every day from 10am to 4pm. To really make sense of this site, try to visit on Tuesdays or Thursdays when a facilitator is available to answer questions and give guided tours.

For more information about this site, telephone Cadw, the Welsh Government’s historic environment service on +44 (0)1443 336000.

Chedworth Roman Villa

Chedworth Roman Villa
Matt Cardy/Getty Images

Chedworth Roman Villa is a large, National Trust site centered on the private home of a wealthy Roman Briton. It's known for its well preserved mosaic floors and for the many artefacts discovered there. The site, near Cheltenham in Gloucestershire is encircled by over a miles of Roman walls. Within the walls, there are bath houses, underfloor heating systems (yes the Romans had central heating) and a water Shrine. There's also a recently renovated Victorian museum where you can examine many of the artifacts.

The National Trust are very good at making their sites come to life, so expect to be fascinated by what you see here. Since March 2012, the mosaics have been protected by an environmentally-controlled conservation shelter. The multi-million pound has walkways suspended just above the 1600-year-old Roman floors. Some of the recently excavated mosaics on display had not been seen for for 150 years.

Essentials

  • Chedworth Roman Villa, Yanworth, near Cheltenham, GL54 3LJ
  • Telephone: +44(0)1242 890256
  • Open: Every day from early February to the end of November. Seasonal hours so telephone or check the website first.
  • Admission: Adult, child, family and group ticket prices available.

Corinium Museum

The Seasons, Corinium Museum
John Shortland

Cirencester, in the Cotswolds, was once the bustling Roman city of Corinium. In Britain's Roman era, the city had about the same population as it has today and, outside of London, was the country's second largest city. It was from here that the Romans administered southwest Britain.

The area around Cirencester has long produced rich pickings for archaeologists and most of what they find ends up in Corinium Museum. The museum has one of the largest and most important collections of Romano-British finds in the UK. Most of the museum's treasures (which also include early Anglo Saxon finds) are well displayed and exhibited.

Corinium is family friendly and features a number of interactive and hands on exhibits for children. But the real show-stopper is The Seasons, a 2nd century mosaic floor relaid in a recreation of a Roman villa. Just, try not to be put off by the corny mannequins of a middle-class Roman couple relaxing on their wicker and upholstered furniture, arranged on the mosaic.

Essentials

  • Corinium Museum,Park Street,Cirencester,Gloucestershire GL7 2BX
  • Telephone: +44(0)1285 655611
  • Open: Year round - April to October Monday to Saturday 10am to 5pm, Sunday 2pm to 5pm; November to March to 4pm.
  • Admission: Adult, child, family, seniors, students and unemployed prices available.

Dolaucothi Gold Mines

Roman mine entrance at Dolaucothi
Glen Bowman

The Romans appear to be the first people to search the British landscape for gold and the Dolaucothi Mines in Wales are the only known Roman gold mines in the UK. The Romans diverted a stream to wash away the lighter soils, leaving the heavier gold behind. The Welsh gold they found was sent to the Imperial Mint in Lyon to be struck into coins.

Dolaucothi was mined right into the 1930s. At this National Trust managed property just northwest of the Brecon Beacons National Park, you can explore the Roman mine, the Victorian mine and the 20th century works. Expect to get kitted up in miners gear to go underground for this one.

Essentials

  • Dolaucothi Mines, Pumsaint, Llanwrda, Wales SA19 8US
  • Telephone: +44(0)1558 650177
  • Open: The mines are open from late March to the end of October. The grounds and farmland are open year round. Check the website for seasonal hours.
  • Admission: Adult, child, family and group ticket prices available.

Fishbourne Roman Palace

Cupid on a Dolphin
David Spender
The largest Roman home in Britain, this lavish residence is yet another place to see fabulous Roman mosaics. Maintained by the Sussex Archaeological Society, the palace near Chichester, is set in re-created Roman gardens - the oldest gardens discovered anywhere in the UK. Fishbourne also has the largest collection of in situ mosaics in the UK. The mosaic of cupid on a dolphin even has the artists signature. Thousands of items, including coins, pottery and jewelry were all found at the site. There's also a temporary exhibition area for recent finds and a film that enables visitors to image life at Fishbourne 2000 years ago.

Essentials

  • Fishbourne Roman Palace, Roman Way, Fishbourne, West Sussex, PO19 3QR
  • Telephone: +44(0)1243 785859
  • Open: March to October every day 10am to 5 pm; November to 16 December every day 10am to 4pm; January - weekends only 10am to 4pm; February every day 10am to 4pm
  • Admission: Adult, child, family, concessions and group ticket prices available.

Hadrian's Wall

Hadrian's Wall path sign
Visit Britain Images

Built in the first century, Hadrian's Wall stretched, uninterrupted for 80 miles, from the Cumbrian Coast on the west to Wallsend, near Newcastle-upon-Tyne in the Northeast. It was about 20 feet high and took three years to build. Except for a few years, when the Roman frontier stretched to the Antonine Wall across Scotland, Hadrian's wall was the edge of the Roman Empire. From about AD 122, when it was built, to 410 when the Roman's left Britain, it was a patrolled border with forts and garrisons arranged along its entire length.

Over the years, stones from the wall were used in road building, farm fences and local houses. It much of it was saved by a private landowner in the 1830s. More recently, the National Trust has aquired most of the land through which Hadrian's Wall runs. A remarkable amount of it remains, running over hills, through ditches and across streams. Walking stretches of the wall is popular with hikers and ramblers. There are also several interesting sites along the wall, maintained by English Heritage and well worth visiting. Admission is charged at all of these sites. Access to some of them involves crossing private land so opening hours can be seasonal or limited. For the most up-to-date information of prices and opening hours, click on the links below:

Essentials

  • Arbeia Roman Fort & Museum, Baring Street, South Shields NE33 2BB
  • Telephone: +44(0)191 456 1369
  • Open: End of March to end of September; weekdays 10am to 5pm, Saturdays 11am to 4pm, Sundays 2pm to 5pm.
  • Admission: Free

Vindolanda

Vindolanda
Visit Britain Images

The UK public recently voted the Vindolanda Tablets the Britain's greatest treasure. The tablets, wafer thin slices of wood which carry correspondence and messages written in ink, are the earliest known examples of handwriting ever found in the country. The letters are about beer bills, pleas for justice, disputes among soldiers, even requests for warm socks from home. They provide a remarkable glimpse of life at Vindolanda, a Roman garrison and town just south of Hadrian's Wall, and can be seen at the museum there.

The enormous Vindolanda excavations at Chesterholm in northeast England,comprise one of the most important Roman archaeological sites in Europe. More than 500 metric tons of pottery alone have been excavated there.

Visitors can sometimes witness working archaeologists still excavating the site. Even better, those who are willing to devote two consecutive weeks to the task can volunteer to take part in excavations. In addition to Vindolanda's archaeological museum, there is a nearby Roman Army Museum.

Essentials

  • Vindolanda Trust, Chesterholm Museum, Bardon Mill, Hexham, Northumberland NE47 7JN
  • Telephone: +44(0)1434 344 277
  • Open: Mid February to the end of October from 10am to 5pm in autumn and winter and to 6pm from April to the end of September.
  • Admission: Adult, child, family, concessions and group ticket prices are available. A ticket for both Vindolanda and the Roman Army Museum is very good value. Alternatively, separate tickets are available for each of the two attractions.
  • Visit the Vindolanda website.

Wroxeter Roman City

Watling Street
© Ferne Arfin

They've only started the excavations at Viroconium (Wroxeter), near Shrewsbury in Shropshire and already you can imagine a day at the gym and the spa Roman-style, a lively debate in the civic center or a stroll among the shops.

This English Heritage site has a very good museum of local finds, a reconstructed Roman villa you can take a walk through and excellent information scattered around the site. An impressive wall of what was an enormous basilica remains as well as the hypocaust - where air and water were heated for baths that ranged from tepid to hot and steamy. The columns of a forum and marketplace are partially excavated but much of the site is still to be uncovered. What has been revealed so far makes for several hours of pleasant exploration.

Essentials

  • Wroxeter Roman City, Wroxeter, near Shrewsbury, Shropshire SY5 6PH
  • Telephone: +44 (0)1743 761330
  • Open: Open 10am to 5pm Monday to Friday, April 1 to November 4, and to 4pm Saturday and Sunday; From November 5 to March 28, 10am to 4pm. Closed Christmas, Boxing Day and New Year's Day
  • Admission: Adult, child, family and concession tickets available
  • Visit their website for more.

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