Roman and Mediaeval History, Illlustrated Travel Journals, Mediaeval Literature, Geology


19.7.13
  The Most Popular Post in the Roman Empire - The Signal Station at Scarborough

Aelius Rufus: If you like a desolate place with lots of cold wind, rain and fog, that is.

Gabriele: But, Aelius Rufus, it has a splendid view over the bay of Scarborough and the sea. And with the hot summer we got right now, I would not mind some cold wind.

A. So that's why you haven't been blogging. Spent all the time in the baths, eh?

G. I wish I could have, Aelius Rufus. We could have met there. *grin* I admit I did spend some time on the balcony, but mostly it was work. You know how that is.

View towards the remains of the signal station and the chapel (left)

A. I do. *sigh* But back to the splendid view from the signal station. Hah, there was fog all over. I remember you muttering that it won't be of any use to catch the view with that little picture box since all there would be was a white blob. And that you should have brought your gloves because of that icy blast. Makes you wonder if the signal stations could see each other in the first place. Merlinus told me there had been a chain of signal stations along the Yorkshire coast all the way from Filey, Scarborough, Ravenscar, Goldsborough and Huntcliffe, and maybe one at Whitby as well, to warn of Pictish raids, and another chain down in the south, called the Saxon shore.

G. Yes. The stations down in the south are a bit earlier, late 3rd to early 4th century, while those in the north date to the later 4th century. The one at Scarborough was built AD 360 or 380. And I admit, it's an uncomfortable place on a dreary day. But don't tell me the officers tell you the truth about any post they deploy you to.

Overall layout

A. No, and nor would they have told us that the place had run out of wood to feed the signal fire and the Picts were going to attack again. And that the next Roman fort is in Eboracum.

G. Yeah, that's not exactly close, not even in present times, certainly not with British public transport. But the situation of the signal station is sound from a military point of view. On top of a cliff on a headland stretching out into the sea, with a well, and offering a view to the coast north and south of it, and a harbour basically at its foot.

A. If there ever was one. My time traveling friend Merlinus - whom I asked because that signal station dates past my time - didn't find any proof, and nor did those archaeologists from your time. There are only some arguments that logically, there should have been a harbour.

Another overview, with the gate to the left

G. Too bad that the observations of your time traveling friend won't be accepted by either archaeologists or historians. It would solve a few research hassles. The problem is that part of the cliff crashed down at some point, cutting off the eastern end of the signal station, and we don't know what it may have buried and washed into the sea. The first undisputed traces of a harbour indeed date to the 12th century and coincide with the first establishment of the stone castle on the headland (1157-1164).

A. So your knights liked cold and dreary places, too, eh?

G. As did the AngloSaxons. They built a chapel on the remains of the signal station about AD 1000. Which makes for the mess of foundations you can see today.

A. I guessed someone had tampered with the place. The Romans would never have built anything so asymmetrical, you have to give them that. Only the square of walls - well, mounds rather, nowadays - and ditches still displays a decent Roman pattern.

Closeup of the ditch

G. And the gate; those foundations are Roman, too. So let's show our readers what a 4th century Roman signal station, standard version, looked like. The ditches and earthen walls surrounded a courtyard of about 33 square metres (about 100 feet) which was in turn protected by a wall, usually timber palisades on a stone foundation, with D-shaped watch towers in each corner. Some later ones were built all in stone. Inside this sat the square tower that held the signal fire on its top. You can see the layout better on this aerial photo (from the Roman Britain website).

A. Now there's an interesting picture. How on earth do you get those; don't tell me people in your time can fly around with those picture boxes.

G. Oh yes, we can. But it needs an aviation machine and those are terribly expensive even to hire, so I won't take any aerial photos. But the army uses them to transport soldiers and equipment, for example. You can also hire a seat in one if you want to travel long distances.

A. By Jupiter, that would have saved our legates some headaches organising supply lines.

Remains of the gate house

G. The foundations of the tower proper - 45-50 feet square - were around four and a half feet thick and the tower may have been about 20 to 25 metres high. Later, some towers were strengthened to eight feet thick walls and could be about 100 feet high.

A. Feet and metres, can't those Brits decide for one?

G. Not in their guide books, it seems. And I'm too lazy to do the conversions. There are post holes which points at timber platforms inside the tower, but the garrison didn't live in the tower but in barracks in the yard between tower and outer wall. Some signal stations, like Ravenscar ten miles north of Scarborough, had a fortlet attached - its remains are now hiding under a hotel.

A. Too bad, that way your archaeologists can't get at them. So, what happened after the Romans left Britannia?

The well

G. The signal stations fell into decline if they were not used for different purposes. As I said, there are remains of an AngloSaxon chapel dedicated to St.Mary, dating to about AD 1000. The well on the promontory may have played a role in chosing this place, as well as the Roman stones. The chapel has been altered in later times and was still in use when the castle was inhabited. Other places like Ravenscar were destroyed by Viking raiders, but there's no archaeological proof for such an incident at Scarborough. They may have plundered the chapel, but they did not destroy it.

A. Roman walls will withstand Viking axes, maybe. I suspect it was the endless rain that brought down the place. *wink* And that landslide you mentioned.

G. Yes, coastal erosion is a problem for a lot of sites, not only in Northumbria.

View from the northern corner, with the curtain wall of the castle in the background

A. So you did not visit any more Roman sites this time?

G. Unfortunately not. Aldborough was closed, and there is no Roman presence on Orkney.

A. Can't blame them. Even more wind and more rain.

G. Well, wind there was, but no rain while I was staying there. But I got some Pictish brochs for you.

A. Then better don't wait a month again to what's it called, ...update this blog.
 
Comments:
Nice to see Aelius Rufus back again.
Not a place I would like to be stationed, that's for sure!
 
Enjoyed reading this post:> Can't see anyone queuing up be stationed here!
 
Welcome back, Aelius Rufus :-)

I expect there were worse places to be stationed; if there was a harbour, at least supplies could arrive by ship.

If there was another signal station at Whitby it probably ended up under Whitby Abbey. Bede's name for Whitby, Streonshalch (Bay of the Beacon) would be consistent with that.
 
Constance, Aelius Rufus was pestering me that I never write about the Romans these days.

Anerje, I doubt there was a queue for any post in Britain. ;-)

Carla, or ships full of Picts and Saxons trying to get the provisions.
Yeah, Whitby cathedral may well hide a signal station, and we don't know for sure what fell into the North Sea in places with worse erosion than Scarborough.
 
Curraghs and longships don't need much of a harbour, so they could probably turn up anywhere on a coast or a reasonable river - to avoid them you'd need to be stationed in the middle of the Wall, and then they can arrive by land in even larger numbers, and can probably harry your supply convoys into the bargain.... Not much of a choice, not that Roman soldiers would have had a choice anyway.

Yes, coastal erosion could have swallowed up all sorts of things.
 
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The Lost Fort is a blog based on my travels in Germany, the UK and other places, with essays on Roman and Mediaeval history illustrated with lots of photos of old castles, cathedrals, Roman remains, and beautiful landscapes. You may also find the odd essay about geology or Mediaeval literature.

All texts (except comments by guests) and photos (if no other copyright is noted) on this blog are copyright of Gabriele Campbell.

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I'm a blogger from Germany with a MA in Literature and History which doesn't pay my bills, so I use it to research blogposts instead. I'm interested in everything Roman and Mediaeval, avid reader and sometimes writer, opera enthusiast, traveller with a liking for foreign languages and odd rocks, photographer, and tea aficionado. And an old-fashioned blogger who hasn't yet gotten an Instagram account. :-)


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