Monday 24 October 2016

The Hunters of Banna

Revolving many memories, till the hull
Looked one black dot against the verge of dawn,
And on the mere the wailing died away.

But when that moan had past for evermore,
The stillness of the dead world's winter dawn
Amazed him, and he groaned, "The King is gone."1

The Strife of Camlann
The 9th century Historia Brittonum (History of the Britons) records Arthur's twelve battles in which he was victorious in them all. Yet, Arthur's last and final battle in which he fell is not listed in the Historia Brittonum. The Battle of Camlann, was according to Welsh tradition, internecine strife, Briton fighting Briton, is first found in the 10th century Annals Cambriae (The Welsh Annals) attached to the manuscript Harleian MS 3859. Scholars of Arthurian studies have argued for centuries over the location of this last fateful battle, proposing sites from Cornwall to Scotland and just about anywhere in between.

In his seminal work ‘The Early Evolution of the Legend of Arthur’ Thomas Jones2 argues that the entry recording Arthur’s demise at the Battle of Camlann in the Annals Cambriae should be treated as authentic. However, as the Annals end at Year 954 they were clearly assembled in the 10th-century and we cannot rule out the possibility of a later interpolation by a manuscript copyist.3 The Welsh Annals entry reads:

537 - Gueith camlann in qua Arthur et Medraut corruerunt, et mortalitas in Brittannia et in Hibernia fuit. 

[The battle of Camlann, in which Arthur and Medraut fell: and there was plague in Britain and Ireland].

The entry in the Welsh Annals is the only historical record of Camlann; it has no other source, unlike the second Arthurian entry, the Battle of Badon which appears in the 6th century account of Gildas and the later ecclesiastical history of Bede.

The use of the word 'Gueith' in a Latin chronicle (compare with the entry for the Battle of Badon =  Bellum Badonis) suggests a Welsh source. However, the reference to 'Guieth' is not unique to the Camlann entry, the term occurs five times in the Welsh Annals. Throughout the Annals the author is using two words for battle, ' Gueith' and 'Bellum' reflecting on his source, either vernacular or Latin respectively.4

The Welsh tradition of the Battle of Camlann is quite different from later accounts following Geoffrey of Monmouth who has Arthur fighting Modred who has taken the kingdom while Arthur is on campaign in Europe. In Welsh tradition the strife of Camlann is due to a quarrel between Gwenhwyfar and her sister Gwenhwyfach, and Modred, or Medraut as he is called, is not recorded as Arthur's nemesis.

However, a Welsh source does not necessarily demand a location in Wales they shout. A favoured location for Camlann in the quest for a Northern Arthur is the Roman fort of Camboglanna on Hadrian's Wall since Ekwall first made the suggestion in 1927, followed by OGS Crawford in 1935.4

Favoured no doubt for its location on a spur on the south side of the Roman fort which drops down steeply to the River Irthing winding its way through a very crooked glen indeed. This place certainly seems to qualify as the crooked riverbank implied by the etymology of the name “Camlann” derived from the Brittonic *Cambo-glanna ("crooked bank (of a river)"), as found in the name of the Roman fort of Camboglanna, (“crooked glen”).6

Birdoswald Roman fort - posts marking the site of the Dark Age hall
Attractive as the Camboglanna = Camlann proposition appears, the Romano-British name of “Camboglanna” would have evolved into “Camglann” in Old Welsh,7 whereas the  entry in the Welsh Annals appears as “Camlann” (without the “g”) as it would have appeared in Medieval Welsh. This has been interpreted as indicative of a later, rather than contemporary, insertion into the 10th century Annals.8

However, if it is accepted that Camlann can be derived from the ancient Celtic name of a Roman fort on Hadrian’s Wall named Camboglanna which fort is it?

For many years Camboglanna was identified with the fort at Birdoswald at the Western, Cumbrian sector of the Wall and this is the site still favoured by many Arthurian scholars as the location of Arthur's last battle.9 Yet, today the official English Heritage guidebook for Hadrian's Wall makes no mention at all of Camboglanna.10

Vallum Aelium 
Hadrian's Wall was built on the command of Emperor Hadrian, a demarcation of the end of Empire. Its function to separate Romans from barbarians. Hadrian's Wall is believed to have been abandoned after three hundred years when the Romans left Britain. But recent research has shown that parts of the Wall were occupied after the Roman withdrawal.

Hadrian's Wall
The Wall runs across the north of Britain for 73 miles (about 80 Roman miles), stretching from Bowness-on-Solway in the west to Wallsend on the river Tyne in the east. In the west the defences, without the Wall, extend for a further 25 miles down the Cumbrian coast to Maryport. A huge ditch and bank earthwork, the Vallum, was built immediately south of the Wall providing a militarised zone.

The first plan was for a turf wall in the west, from the crossing of the river Irthing to the Cumbrian coast, and a wall of stone in the east. The decision was probably based on the availability of local stone. Work is thought to have started around 122 AD following Hadrian's visit to Britain and shortly after being built the Wall was temporarily abandoned around 140 AD when the frontier was moved north with the construction of the turf Antonine Wall (Vallum Antonini) stretching from the Clyde to the Forth. Twenty years later this turf wall was abandoned and the Legions fell back to Hadrian's Wall.

Hadrian's Wall was constructed in sections by three legions: II Augusta; VI Victrix; and XX Valeria Victrix as attested by several inscribed stones found along its length. There are also several inscriptions found on the Wall recording activity by the “civitates”, the cities of Britain. The so-called “Civitas Stones” are all undated but dates ranging from Hadrian's time to the late 4th century have been proposed for them. The civitas stones record that the civilians of the cities of the Durotriges, the Dumnonii, and the Brigantes all contributed to the building of the Wall. The two most westerly civitas inscriptions were found in that sector of the turf wall between the crossing of the River Irthing to Bowness-on-Solway, later rebuilt in stone in the 2nd century when the Legions returned from the Antonine Wall. However, the inscriptions may be linked to refortification works in the early 3rd century when the Emperor Septimius Severus was credited with building “a wall from sea to sea.11

In writing “On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain”, c.540 AD, Gildas is often accused of producing a garbled account of the construction of the Walls. Gildas tells us that Britain is stripped of  her soldiery and the flower of her youth when her armies crossed to the continent following the usurper Maximus, never to return. The Britons, “ignorant off the art of war”, then suffered at the hands of the Picts and the Scots and sent letters to Rome. A Legion was immediately despatched which recovered the island from the barbarians. The Britons are then instructed to build a wall across the island from one sea to the other. "But this wall, being made of turf instead of stone, was of no use to that foolish people", groans Gildas. No sooner had the Legion returned home when the old enemy overrun the whole country wreaking havoc and slaughter on the Britons.

Then, he goes on, the Romans with the help of “the miserable natives, built a wall different from the former, by public and private contributions, and of the same structure as walls generally, extending in a straight line from sea to sea, between some cities, which, from fear of their enemies, had there by chance been built.” They then erected towers at intervals on the southern coast [The Saxon Shore forts?] “then left the island never to return.

Gildas chronology is undoubtedly confused, he sees the construction of the stone wall after Maximus left Britain in 383 AD. But he is correct in stating that Hadrian's Wall was originally built of turf, without necessarily referring to the Antonine Wall, and then rebuilt in stone as was the case with the western sector from the crossing of the Irthing. As the civitas stones attest the Wall was built with public and private funds, it is possible a memory of the Durotriges involvement in the construction of the Wall survived to Gildas day in the territory of the Celtic tribe as this area is probably where Gildas lived and wrote.12

Today the remains of the original turf wall can still be seen near Birdoswald running behind the stone wall where the first two miles west of the Irthing were built on a different line, probably at the time when the Legions returned from the Antonine Wall. Nearby, at Lanercost many stones can be seen that were robbed from the Roman Wall during construction of the Priory in the 12th century.

Dark Age Continuity at Birdoswald
There can be little doubt that the Roman garrison in Britain was severely weakened by successive troop withdrawals by Maximus, Stilicho and Constantine III, but the opinion that the wall was deserted after the late 4th century has, in the light of recent archaeological work, been abandoned in favour of continuous use well into the 5th century.

Reconstruction of the Dark Age timber hall at Birdoswald
The Roman fort at Birdoswald is situated on top of an escarpment with the river Irthing deeply cut to the south. The first fort built here was probably a timber and turf construction, and as discussed above, lies in the turf sector of the Wall. This was replaced by a stone construction later in Hadrian's reign. The first Roman troop based here is not known but through the 3rd and 4th centuries the First Aelian Cohort of Dacians (Cohors prima Aelia Dacorum), founded by or named in honour of the Emperor Publius Aelius Hadrianus, was stationed at the fort. This Cohort was originally recruited from what is now Romania and altars have been found at Birdoswald displaying the curved Dacian sword, the falx. This cohort was founded no later than 125 AD and, as no record of its existence in Dacia has been found, it seems to have been permanently deployed on Hadrian's Wall. Its commander, the praefectus, would have reported directly to the Dux Brittanium, the commander of the armies of northern Britannia. Twenty seven stone altars have been found at Birdoswald, of which twenty four are dedicated to Jupiter, “Best and Greatest”. One altar was dedicated to the native British deity, Cocidius (RIB1885)13 and another to the Roman god of the forest Silvanus (RIB 1905) dedicated by a group calling themselves the Venatores Bannienses, or “the Hunters of Banna”.

It comes as no surprise that this altar stone, designated RIB 1905, spent a period of time in the crypt at Lanercost Priory, which used many stones robbed from the Wall that can still be seen among the masonry there today.

After the Roman withdrawal from Britannia c.410 AD occupation of the fort at Birdoswald appears to have continued into the early 6th century by which time the former granaries had been demolished and the northern one replaced with a large timber hall, a construction conjectured by size and type to have been occupied by a local warlord as evidenced at South Cadbury hill fort in Somerset. Today the position of the timber pillars of the hall are marked by modern posts. The hall seems to have survived into the 6th century when the site appears to have gone out of use around 520 AD, although the West Gate was much altered and remodelled into the Medieval period.14

Apart the association of the name Camboglanna and its possible etymological evolution to Camlann in Medieval Welsh, no doubt the attraction to Birdoswald for Arthurians, at least in part, is the Dark Age Continuity at the Roman site, with the construction of the timber hall and then the abandonment of the site in the early 6th century, notably around the date of the Battle of Camlann in the Welsh Annals.

Yet, controversy has raged for years as to whether Camboglanna is Birdoswald or Castlesteads with many reconstructed Arthurian battle lists citing Birdoswald as the site of the infamous last battle of the Dux Bellorum.15

Camboglanna or Banna?
Castlesteads was situated a few miles west, next along the Wall from Birdoswald, although today nothing remains of the fort above ground which was cleared in 1791. The confusion between the name of the two Roman forts seems to have originated from a missing section of text (lacuna) in the Nottita Dignatum.16

The Notitia Dignitatum (Register of Offices) is a document of the late Roman Empire that details the administrative organisation of the Eastern and Western Empires. Known only from an 11th century copy called the Codex Spirensis, from which all known and extant copies of this late Roman document are derived. The Notitia depicts the Roman army at the end of the 4th century, but compiled at two different times: the Eastern section apparently dates from c. 395 AD; the Western from c. 420 AD.

The Notitia Dignitatum Occidentis (‘Register of Offices in the West’) lists several military commands: dux Britanniarum; comes litoris Saxonici per Britannias; comes Britanniarum; the governors of the five British provinces; and the staff of the vicarius in London. It is not only the earliest written evidence for 5th century military command in Britain, but it is the only documented evidence of the term Litoris Saxonici (Saxon Shore).

The command of the dux Britanniarum listed in the Notitia Dignitatum includes the limitaneus (frontier) forts along Hadrian’s Wall (per liniam valli) and the Cumbrian coast. From east to west, this includes at the Western sector of the Wall:

Tribunus cohortis primae Asturum, Aesica
Tribunus cohortis secundae Dalmatarum, Magnis 
Tribunus cohortis primae Aeliae Dacorum, Amboglanna 
Praefectus alae Petrianae, Petrianis 
Praefectus numeri Maurorum Aurelianorum, Aballaba 
Tribunus cohortis secundae Lingonum, Congavata
Tribunus cohortis primae Hispanorum, Axeloduno

During the 7th century an unknown monk in the Monastery at Ravenna in Italy compiled a list of all the towns and road-stations throughout the Roman Empire; this document is known as the Ravenna Cosmography. Listed at the western (Cumbrian) end along the Wall are the following forts:

Esica [Great Chesters]
Magnis [Carvoran]
Banna [?]
Uxelludamo [Stanwix]
Avalana [Burgh by Sands]
Maia [Bowness on Solway]

As can be seen from the two lists of forts at the western (Cumbrian) sector of the Wall the confusion is confounded by the Notitia Dignitatum which lists Amboglanna  between Aesica (Great Chesters) and Vxelodvnvm (Stanwix), whereas the Ravenna Cosmography records this fort as Banna. Owing to the inconsistency of spelling in these times it was once thought that 'Banna' was a misrepresentation of 'Camboglanna'. Therefore, if the Notitia and the Cosmography are referring to the same place then the fort between Great Chesters and Stanwix must be the fort known today as Birdoswald as Ekwall and Crawford claimed.

On the line of Hadrian's Wall 
The issue of Camboglanna or Banna being the fort at Birdoswald seems to have resolved by the inscriptions on the souvenir bowls (paterae) from the Wall.17 A patera is a shallow ceramic or metal libation bowl often with a handle, perhaps best described as a small ladle, for pouring a liquid in offering to deity. For example, peterae have been found at the Roman Baths in the city of Bath, inscribed with the letters 'DSM' or the words 'Deae Sulis Minerva' indicating they were dedicated to the goddess Sulis Minerva.

The Rudge Cup was discovered in the well of a Roman villa in Froxfield six miles east of Marlborough in Wiltshire in 1723 and bears the following inscription:


These names present an itinerary of the Wall from west to east, listing the forts as Mais (Bowness), Aballava (Burgh-by-Sands), Uxelodunum (Stanwix), Camboglanna (Castlesteads) and Banna (Birdoswald). Significantly the Rudge Cup lists two forts after Stanwix.

In 1949 another patera was found, on this occasion at Amiens in France, an important halt for Roman Legionaries. Known as the Amiens Skillet  this patera bears the following inscription:


The Amiens Skillet includes the five forts on the Rudge Cup, with the addition of Aesica (Great Chesters). The list differs from the Notitia Dignitatum and the Ravenna Cosmography in that it omits Magnis (Carvoran), which should come between Banna (Birdoswald) and Aesica (Great Chesters), but probably left out because Magnis was not actually on the Wall but was south of the Vallum, having been originally built to guard the Stanegate.

In 2003 another Roman patera was discovered in Staffordshire. Known as the Ilam Pan, or Staffordshire Moorlands Patera, this latest discovery is probably the earliest. An enamelled Roman bronze vessel of 90 mm diameter with Celtic triskele design, The Ilam Pan bears the following inscription:


The Ilam Pan lists the names of four Roman forts on the western sector of the Wall written as the ancient form of the name as 'Val[l]i Aeli' (the 'Aelian frontier'), using part of Hadrian's name which was in full Publius Aelius Hadrianus.

Notably the four forts listed on the Ilam Pan do not match the first four forts listed on the Rudge Cup and Amiens Skillet. The second fort on the Staffordshire Bowl is Coggabata (Drumburgh), whereas the other two bowls have Aballava (Burgh-by-Sands) as the second fort. The reason for this discrepancy is unclear, but the omission of Coggabata from the Rudge Cup and Amiens Skillet may be due to its small size and may have been considered an insignificant fort. The words 'Rigorevali Aeli' have been interpreted as 'On the line of Hadrian's Wall', as Aelius is the family name of Hadrian. 'Draconis' is thought to refer to either the manufacturer of the bowl or the person it was made for, a man named Draco.

These three paterae from the Wall have been described as military souvenirs and their combined inscriptions confirm the sequence of western forts; Aballava (Burgh-by-Sands), Uxelodunum (Stanwix), Camboglanna (Castlesteads) Banna (Birdoswald), and Aesica (Great Chesters).18

reductio ad absurdum
These souvenirs from the Wall have recently been identified as 'Grails' and said to be Arthurian artefacts; the Ilam Pan is called the “Dragon Cup of Camlann” because it is inscribed with the name Draco and the site of Camboglanna. It is suggested that Draco could have been a rank used by the commander (Dux) of the troops on the Wall near Camboglanna, thus we have “Arthur Draco....the Arthur Pendragon of legend”. The Rudge Cup is described as the “Cup of Avalon” because it names Camlann (Camboglanna) and Avalon (Aballava) on the inscription.19

The Hunters of Banna
When the evidence of the paterae is considered with the altarstone set up by the Hunters of Banna discovered at Birdoswald  in 1821 the case for Banna is conclusive:


The inscription has been translated as “To the holy god Silvanus the hunters of Banna (set this up)” (RIB1905).

RIB 1905 proves the fort at Birdoswald was indeed Banna
Further, the confusion between the Notitia and the Cosmography is resolved by Hassall's suggestion that the omission of the name 'Banna' from the list of forts “along the line of the wall” combined with the omission of the otherwise well-attested name of the unit at Camboglanna (cohors II Tungrorum) results from a lacuna by later copyists of the Notitia. A reconstructed text (shown in bold) would read as such:

Tribunus cohortis secundae Dalmatarum, Magnis
Tribunus cohortis primae Aeliae Dacorum, [Banna 
Tribunus cohortis secundae Tungrorum, C]Amboglanna 
Praefectus alae Petrianae, Petrianis 
Praefectus numeri Maurorum Aurelianorum, Aballaba 20

This affirms the names of the forts on the line of the Wall: Magnis [Carvoran]; Banna [Birdoswald]; Camboglanna [Castlesteads]; Petrianis [Stanwix]; Aballaba [Burgh-by-Sands].
With some certainty then we conclude that the Romano-British name Camboglanna was the Roman fort at Castlesteads situated above the river known as the Cam Beck, which may provide a better explanation for the name. Archaeologists and historians are now agreed that Birdoswald was actually the fort bearing the Romano-British name 'Banna' derived from the pre-Indo-European word for peak.21

On the line of Hadrian's Wall
However, despite the best efforts of authors of Arthurian pseudo-historical reconstructions favouring a northern setting for the final battle at Camlann, apart from a similarity of name, there is very little else at Camboglanna (Castlesteads) to suggest any sort of connection with King Arthur.

And yet for all the evidence that has been available for at least forty years, Arthurian works published as recently as this year continue to identify Camboglanna as the Roman fort at Birdoswald.22

Copyright © 2016 Edward Watson

Notes & References
1. Alfred Lord Tennyson, The Passing of Arthur, from Idylls of the King, 1859-1885
2. Thomas Jones, The Early Evolution of the Legend of Arthur, Nottingham Medieval Studies 8, 1964, pp. 3-21.
3. See Thomas Charles-Edwards, in ‘The Arthur of History’, in R. Bromwich, et al,  Arthur of the Welsh, UWP, 1991, pp.25-27, 28; Geoffrey Ashe, entry for ‘Camlann’, in N.J. Lacy (ed.) The Arthurian Encyclopedia, Garland, 1986, pp. 76-78.
4. N. J. Higham, King Arthur: Myth-Making and History, Routledge, 2005.
5. Eilert Ekwall, English River Names, Oxford University Press, 1927 (Reprint edition, 1968); OGS Crawford, Arthur's Battles, Antiquity 9, 1935.
6. Rachel Bromwich, Trioedd Ynys Prydein, University of Wales Press, 1961, p. 160;
7. Leslie Alcock, Arthur's Britain, Penguin, 1979, p.67. Geoffrey Ashe, op.cit.
8. John T Koch, Celtic Culture, ABC-CLIO, 2006.
9. Simon Keegan, The Lost Book of Arthur, Newhaven Publishing, 2016.
10. David Breeze, Hadrian's Wall, English Heritage Guidebooks, 2006.
11. David Breeze, The Civitas Stones and the Building of Hadrian’s Wall, Transactions C&WAAS CW3, xii, 2012, pp.69-80.
12. Ken Dark, Civitas to Kingdom: British Political Continuity 300-800, Leicester University Press, 1999, Appendix.
13. The First Aelian Cohort of Dacians was stationed at Bewcastle before Birdoswald, the forts connected by the Maiden Way. The fort at Bewcastle was named Fanum Cocidi; the “Shrine of Cocidius”.
14. Tony Wilmott, Birdoswald Roman Fort, EH, 2005, p.12-13.
15. Keegan, op.cit. pp.136-7.
16. M Hassall, Aspects of the Notitia Dignitatum, Oxford, 1976.
17. David Breeze, editor, The First Souvenirs: Enamelled Vessels from Hadrian's Wall, C&WM AAS, 2012.
18. Ibid.
19. Keegan, op.cit. pp.30-33.
20. M Hassall, Aspects of the Notitia Dignitatum, Oxford, 1976; quoted in  Rivet & Smith, Place-Names of Roman Britain, Batsford, 1979, and Breeze & Dobson, Hadrian's Wall, Penguin, 4th Edition, 2000, pp.294-295.
21. Rivet & Smith, Place-Names of Roman Britain, Batsford, 1979, pp.261–2, 293–4.
22. Keegan, op.cit. pp.136-7.

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