It’s a long time since I’ve been to a museum or a gallery, what with global pandemics and everything. We didn’t really set out to do so when we went to the English Heritage site Corbridge Roman Town, and to be honest we didn’t realise there was much of a visitor centre alongside the ruins. We were having a week’s break in a converted chapel in Northumberland to celebrate Imbolc (the Celtic festival that marks the beginning of spring), very close to Hadrian’s Wall, so there are a lot of Roman remains to be had in the neighbourhood, but few as significant as at Corbridge. A fort was constructed there soon after the conquest of Britain, and Corbridge remained a primarily military site for nearly a century, until the Romans fell back to Hadrian’s Wall in 163 AD. At this point much of the military infrastructure disappeared, and a large number of civilian buildings were constructed. It was hardly a steaming metropolis, but it was a significant settlement by regional standards, and what’s left of it is on a scale to impress, even though it consists mainly of foundations and footings.
There are some informative text panels scattered among the ruins, but the entrance to the site is about halfway down the visitor centre, and if you’re the sort of person that follows the intended sequence in an exhibition (as I am), it’s about halfway through a thoughtful and well-designed show, built around a variety of original and reconstructed artifacts. With a site whose masonry remains are as spectacular as these it’s unsurprising that quite a lot of other archaeology has been unearthed here, including the Corbridge Hoard. This consists of an iron-bound wooden chest containing a selection of military equipment, which was deliberately buried in the floor of one of the early forts on the site. It was thanks to the study of the lorica segmentata armour in this hoard that Roman laminar armour is as well understood as it is today. There are also a lot of domestic and other civilian artifacts on display, and the way that the show is curated means that the attentive visitor wanders out into the ruins well-armed with contextual knowledge, which is reinforced and expanded by the remainder of the exhibition once they come back in.
The experience overall is exemplary—the show is visually attractive, its text well-written, its layout clear, and the objects on display are well-explained, and well-exploited in terms of presenting a narrative account of the site’s development. This is often not the case, even with exhibitions at national institutions, which seem so prone to mis-steps that I usually expect to look elsewhere for a coherent and comprehensive account of the objects on display (thank heavens for Wikipedia). English Heritage have played an absolute blinder here, not just in terms of spending money on the site, but by getting some really knowledgeable and capable museum professionals to design and implement their displays. And we were also able to buy a couple of bottles of mead for our Imbolc supper, so what’s not to like?