Altar to Apollo from Epiacum Roman Fort

Altar to Apollo from Epiacum, on display in the Great North Museum.
Source: Paul Frodsham.

Altar to Hercules from Epiacum Roman Fort

Altar to Hercules from Epiacum, now in Bedford Museum, showing the front and both sides.
Source: Lindsay Allason-Jones.
Copyright: Lindsay Allason-Jones.

The Tortie Stone
Original Location: Epiacum Roman fort, Alston
Current Location: Great North Museum (Ncl) & Bedford Museum Theme: Ritual
Period: Roman
Date: Probably 2nd century AD

What is it?
Two Roman altars from Epiacum (Whitley Castle) Roman fort, Alston. The taller of the two (140cm high) was found in 1837 and is dedicated to the sun god Apollo (or Mithras), perhaps worshipped here as the local deity Maponus. The inscription on this altar is largely ineligible, but seems to refer to the Second Cohort of Nervians which formed the garrison at Epiacum during the second century. The second altar (height 86cm), found sometime prior to 1812, was dedicated to Hercules by a centurion of the sixth legion named Gaius Vitelius Atticianus. This altar depicts classical Mediterranean themes (on one panel, Hercules fighting the Hydra, and, on another, Hercules as a boy strangling serpents), apparently interpreted by a Celtic sculptor.

What is its relevance to the North Pennines?
These altars are important in demonstrating that classical Roman religions were practiced by soldiers at Epiacum, at the heart of the North Pennines; some may consider the worship of a sun god at Alston particularly appropriate. The find of a ‘celtic’ stone head (the ‘Head of Ayle’) across the South Tyne valley form Epiacum suggests that aspects of local religion were merged with Roman beliefs in some places. Other altars are known from two places in Weardale, while others may await discovery elsewhere throughout the North Pennines. We don’t know much about Roman activity in the North Pennines, but it must be strongly linked to the exploitation of the area’s mineral resources, chiefly lead and silver.

Why is it important?
These altars are important in their own right as evidence of ancient religion at the heart of the North Pennines. They are also important in demonstrating the potential for further such discoveries at Epiacum where, despite much recent survey work, we still know little about the detailed history of the site and the people who lived here during the Roman occupation.

Further Information
    Text References:
  • Went, D. & Ainsworth, S. 2009. Whitley Castle, Tynedale, Northumberland. An archaeological investigation of the Roman fort and its setting. English Heritage Research Dept Report Series No. 89-2009. (Available as an online pdf via Historic England website).
  • Robertson, A. 2007. Whitley Castle. Epiacum. A Roman fort near Alston in Cumbria. Alston; Hundy Publications.

  • External Links:
  • Epiacum Roman Fort

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