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Whitley Castle is a large and uniquely shaped Roman fort (Castra) near Alston, Cumbria, England which the Romans called Epiacum. Whereas Roman forts are normally "playing card shaped" (rectangular with rounded corners) Whitley Castle is lozenge-shaped to fit the available site. In addition, it has the most complex defensive earthworks of any known Roman fort, with multiple banks and ditches outside the usual stone ramparts. The fort may have been sited to control and protect lead mining in the area as well as to support the border defences of Hadrian's Wall.
Whitley Castle is situated about 1,000 feet (300 metres) above sea level in the Pennine hills on the border of Cumbria and Northumberland. It lies to the west of the modern A689 road beside the Pennine Way long-distance footpath. It is one of the most isolated Roman sites in Britain, which may help to explain both why it remains largely unexcavated (in 2012), and why so much of it has survived. The site is a lozenge-shaped spur of high ground on Castle Nook hill farm under permanent pasture. The remains lie under the grass, and are most clearly seen in aerial photographs. The Roman fort itself covers about 4 acres; outside it is a system of concentric defensive ditches.
Whitley Castle is about 15 miles (24 kilometres) south of Hadrian's Wall, and 20 miles (32 kilometres) north of the main Roman road which ran between Carlisle (to the northwest) and York (to the southeast).
Epiacum was built early in the 2nd century AD. It was at least partly demolished and rebuilt around 200 AD. The fort was modified or wholly rebuilt about 300 AD. It appears to have been preceded by an Iron Age fort, followed by a Roman camp before the permanent fort was constructed. In the 3rd century the fort was manned by the 2nd Cohort of Nervians, auxiliary soldiers from the lower Rhine, named after the Roman Emperor Nerva.
Inscriptions on some of the altars found at Epiacum provide evidence of the Roman army units garrisoning the fort. The first, "DEO HERCVLI C VITELLIVS ATTICIANVS > LEG VI V P F" ("To the god Hercules, Gaius Vitellius Atticanus, Centurion of the Sixth Legion, Victorious, Loyal and Faithful, (erected this).") names a regular army legion, which was based at York and would not have permanently manned a fort. Most likely Atticanus was seconded to Epiacum to train the fort's auxiliary soldiers. The second, "DEO APOLLINI G...IVS ... ...COH II NER ..." ("To the god Apollo, Gaius Julius Marcius, [commander] of the Second Cohort of Nervians, [fulfilled his vow]."), names an auxiliary cohort that manned the fort early in the 3rd century; it and two other inscriptions also naming the 2nd Nervians date to 213-221 AD.
Epiacum is in some ways a typical Roman fort: inside the wall are straight roads which cross, a headquarters building, the commandant's house, a set of barrack blocks for the cohort of auxiliary soldiers, and granaries to store food. Also as usual, there is a bath house and a temple (dedicated by the auxiliary soldiers to the Emperor Caracalla) outside the wall. There is an altar dedicated by the 6th Legion to Hercules, and an altar to Mithras.
But Epiacum has two unique features. Firstly, the fort's military engineers modified the usual rectangular plan to suit the available site: it is distorted into a lozenge or parallelogram; the internal features of the fort are similarly distorted. Secondly, the wall is surrounded by four steep defensive ditches and banks around the hill spur, and seven such ramparts across the uphill side of the spur.
A survey in 2009 showed a Roman village or "Vicus" to the north and west of the fort. Artefacts found include coins, pottery, glass and objects made of jet, as well as stone altars (dedicated to Hercules, Apollo, Minerva and the emperor Septimius Severus) and inscribed stones.
In the absence of a full excavation, archaeologists have exploited the diggings of moles to uncover Roman artefacts by sifting earth thrown up by the animals in their molehills. Finds include fragments of Samian ware (Roman table pottery); rim fragments of serving bowls and earthenware pots; a bead made of jet; some iron nails; and a tap head made of bronze, shaped like a dolphin.
The Roman name for the fort, Epiacum, is given in Ptolemy's Geography as the first town in the area of the Brigantes tribe of northeastern England. It may perhaps be a form of "epi acumen" meaning "surrounding the point", which could describe the lozenge-shaped spur on which the fort lies.