Set at the edge of the Whin Sill on Hadrian's Wall, this Roman fort holds untold historical information in the depths of its soils. Although the site itself reveals very little due to later damage and destruction underneath the grass layers of archaeology remain to be explored. Here we give a brief overview of the history of the site of Roman Magna.

Reconstruction illustration of Magna in its prime as a bustling fort and town.

Carvoran or Magna? You might have heard both of these names for this site, Magna is the name of the fort given by the Romans and roughly translates as 'the fort on the rock'. This is because it sits on the very end of the Whin Sill ridge. There is no mention yet of Magna in the Vindolanda writing tablets so perhaps it went by another name in its early period. Carvoran is the modern name for Magna - Anthony Hedley, an antiquarian who started excavations at Vindolanda, suggests its meaning as ‘the fort at the end of the Maiden Way’.

Hadrian’s Wall began being built in AD 122 but there was a fort here before that, as part of the earlier Stanegate Road frontier, operational between AD85 and AD122. Sitting in quite an exposed position but with this comes amazing views to the north, south and west. Giving plenty of advance warning of incoming storms or unwelcome visitors so a great strategic position for the Roman army.

The site guards the road junction between two major Roman roads, the Maiden Way and the Stanegate. The extramural settlement or town outside the fort must have done great trade in accommodation and meals of travellers from both well populated routes. This settlement was likely to have been larger than we would usually find at a normal fort due to this large amount of traffic. few traces remain on the surface of this vast town but we begin to see a clearer picture when we look at the geophysicial surveys that have been done.

Although no proper excavations have been carried out at Magna, it has yielded many stone inscriptions – more than any other Wall fort. Building inscriptions and altars record the presence at one time or another of: First Cohort of Syrian Archers, Second Cohort of Dalmatians (infantry), First Cohort of Batavians (probably part-mounted), and legionaries from the Second Augusta and the Twentieth Valeria Victrix, these were probably involved with the Wall building, rather than the garrison of the fort.

The site of the fort, and its civilian settlement, is now little more than a series of fields with pronounced humps and bumps, the remnants of the rampart behind the fort walls together with the remains of an exposed angle turret. The final fort at the site was subjected to a huge amount of archaeological harm, damage from farmers trying to improve the land and road builders looking for stone for the military way. Some of the artefacts found during this time were rescued by antiquarians and therefore survive to this day others are lost to us forever. Now under the care of the Vindolanda Trust it is being preserved for future excavation and research that will reveal the sequence of earlier forts preserved in the same anaerobic conditions as at nearby Vindolanda.

These conditions are under threat due to climate change if you would like to find out more about what’s changing and how we can monitor the effects on the archaeology you can read more on Monitoring Environmental changes at Roman Magna.

Aerial image of Hadrian

To the north of the site is the vallum which is the ditch and mound system that runs to the south of Hadrian’s Wall. During construction Magna caused problems for the builders especially when considering the route of the vallum. The fort was only a couple of hundred yards from the line of the Wall and so normal procedure would have been to have the vallum run below and incorporate the fort into the frontier zone. However, this would have couldn't be done because of the two major roads that run past beneath it. It was decided to push the value to the north between the fort and Hadrian's Wall and presumably a large causeway would have allowed access.

You can see the route it would have taken around the fort on aerial images and importantly you can see that it skirts around something much further north than the fort. This diversion is still a conundrum to today’s archaeologists, it is such an extraordinary diversion to the north and there doesn’t appear to be a reason for it. The vallum must have been diverted because something in its path had to be avoided. Recent research suggests that it might be a lake and therefore a water source for the community at Magna, this possibility is still being explored by archaeologists and scientists.

Now Magna is also the site of the Roman Army Museum that opened in 1981, a perfect companion to this fort as it explores the life of a Roman soldier on the edge of the Empire. During the summer our volunteer guides gives tours around the fort site and explore the story of how this fort has went from bustling town to hidden ruin and what role we as humans have played in that.

Use the link below to continue exploring the Roman Army Museum and Magna by visiting it dedicated website

Visit the Roman Army Museum Website