By Norman Redhead
County Archaeologist, Greater Manchester
Artist's impression of Roman Mamucium
The Roman fort of Mamucium, which stood on the site of modern Castlefield, was the birthplace of modern Manchester.
It was established by 78 AD at a site overlooking the confluence of the rivers Irwell and Medlock.
This was a timber fort with earthen ramparts for an auxiliary cohort of infantry of around 500 men.
The fort went through several phase of rebuilding and around 160 AD was extended on one side to incorporate granaries.
In around 200 AD it was refaced in stone when the Emperor Severus came to the north of England to subdue a revolt.
The fort was eventually abandoned around the end of the 4th century AD. Following excavations by the Greater Manchester Archaeological Unit in 1980, the north gate was reconstructed in 1984. This incorporates some of the original plinth stones from the Roman gate.
Although the fort was sliced through by the Rochdale canal and a succession of railway viaducts, the north quarter of the fort survived relatively intact. Visitors can view the rebuilt north gate, associated ramparts faced with stone walls, and granary foundations.
A civilian settlement called a vicus grew up around the north and east sides of the fort. Some representative building foundations, for a booth, mansio (hotel) and house have been reconstructed alongside the north gate road in the Roman Gardens, based on Prof Jones' excavation here in 1972.
In recent years a number of archaeological excavations have been undertaken in the east side of the vicus, ahead of the construction of apartment blocks and offices.
Part of the reconstructed Roman fort in Castlefield
The Greater Manchester Archaeological Unit act as archaeological advisers to the city whenever a new development is proposed. All this work has transformed our understanding of early Manchester.
We now know there was a Roman temple behind the White Lion on Liverpool Rd, a mansio on Deansgate opposite the Hilton Hotel, and Roman buildings on the east side of Deansgate on the actual site of the Hilton Hotel.
The Roman settlement at Manchester would have been very cosmopolitan, with merchants and soldiers drawn from all corners of the Roman Empire. The military units attested at Manchester included a cohort from Spain, the Bracaraugustanorium, and troops from Austrian and Hungary, the Raetia and Noricor vexillation.
The size of the garrison and civilian population will have fluctuated according to the state of campaigns further north into Scotland, but interestingly the civilian settlement in Manchester appears to go out of use by the mid-3rd century AD, indicating a dramatic decline in the local economy.
A bird's eye view
An artist's impression by Graham Sumner was commissioned for the new interpretation boards in the Roman Gardens. This gives you a bird's eye view of how the Roman fort and settlement may have looked in around 200 AD when Emperor Severus visited.
Look at the far side of the river Medlock at the top of the picture and you will see how little information archaeologists have on this area. All that is shown is a possible Mithraic Temple. This is based on stone fragments discovered by workmen in 1821 somewhere along Chester Road.
Mithras was a very popular god with Roman soldiers and merchants. An altar stone was found in 1612 beside the Medlock which was dedicated by Lucius Senicianius Martius to Fortune the Preserver.
He was a legionary commander detached to Manchester from the VIth Legion in York and may have been responsible for rebuilding the fort defences in 200 AD.