Corbridge, Northumberland, evaluation of a Roman bridge and Saxon watermill


An evaluation was carried out on 2 structures beside the River Tyne under threat from erosion. These were the southern abutment of the Roman bridge and a structure on the northern side, which can now be identified as an Anglo-Saxon watermill. The work, which was jointly funded by EH and Northumberland County Council and undertaken by Tyne and Wear Museums, established these as monuments of national importance and assessed the extent of the threat from erosion. The study area lies at the bottom of the escarpment occupied by the Roman site of Corbridge. The present village of Corbridge is c 1km to the east, and was founded in the Anglo-Saxon period; it is assumed that the collapse of the Roman bridge caused the settlement shift to a location where the river could be forded.

The bridge carried Dere Street, which approached from the south-east. The line of the bridge is marked by the remains of 6 stone piers on the river bed, and the drought conditions of 1995 allowed a brief appraisal to be made of these. Although the position of the northern abutment is unknown, it is likely that the bridge crossed the original course of the river at right angles. Subsequent changes in course have been considerable and the remains of the abutment, occupying an area 11.2m by 6.4m and built of large dressed stone blocks, now lie in shallow water. In recent years masonry has also been exposed on the bank, as walkers have eroded the turf.

Downstream from the point where the line of the bridge meets the bank is a level shelf of boulders, cobbles, and gravel, covered by shallow water, extending out from the bank for a distance of 1220m before dropping steeply into the main channel. At the eastern end of the shelf, c 90m downstream, are the remains of the watermill. The edge of the shelf probably represents the waterline in Anglo-Saxon times, with the watermill standing on a low terrace, now flooded. The submerged remains occupy an area 18m by 7m and consist of a platform of large dressed blocks derived from the Roman bridge and large timbers for which radiocarbon dates in the 9th and 10th centuries have previously been obtained.

Survey and limited excavation of the bridge identified the masonry on land as a road ramp, in use with the abutment, although not bonded into it. The core of the ramp was mainly of rubble but included large worked blocks. A retaining wall at the south-east side was stepped up into the bank and ran roughly at right angles to the line of the bridge. Four courses survived, composed of worked blocks, the average size of which was 1m by 0.5m by 0.3m. The base of the revetting had been undermined by scouring, causing the masonry to slide forward; a line of blocks, originally joined by iron bar clamps (since robbed), lay tilted at an angle of 45 degrees. Masonry fallen beyond the edge of this revetment included 2 large moulded blocks with slots in their upper faces, probably to carry a balustrade, and an octagonal moulded plinth, 0.8m across, interpreted as the support for a statue base. These must represent the topmost courses of the ramp, the first to collapse when their metal clamps were robbed. Stone from the lower courses would have been removed by later stone-robbers. Planning of the abutment in the water revealed important structural details not recorded by previous survey in the 1960s, as well as indicating the results of continuing erosion.

The watermill on the northern side of the river was of the horizontal-wheel type, in which the wheel is located in a basement, connected by a shaft to the mill-stone in an upper room. Water from a leat is channelled through a timber chute into the wheel-room, the floor of which must be substantial to withstand scouring. The only other example of this date, at Tamworth in Staffordshire, was entirely timber-built; however, the western end of the Corbridge mill comprises a wheel-house floor of dressed blocks derived from the Roman bridge, each roughly 1m long and 0.6m wide. Bounding the east and west sides were heavy timbers, the largest 7m long and 0.4m in section, others 5.5m in length. There was a well-preserved pattern of slots in the timbers for waterchute emplacements and uprights for the timber superstructure. To the east lay another stone floor, a large concentration of tumbled blocks derived from the Roman bridge and a further area of paving, showing the structure had been complex, possibly of several phases. Limited excavation revealed a line of stakes running under the present river bank, possibly the timber side of a millpool. A timber waterchute was discovered, no longer in situ, but lying on the edge of the shelf of boulders, c 20m from the river bank, one end tilted into deep water. It closely resembles an example from Ireland, but is much larger. Diving carried out in May 1996 identified it as a single massive timber, 10.3m long, with a flared top 0.7m wide, and a hollowed-out channel down its full length. Although both sites have been the subjects of limited study or observation in the past, the new information gathered through this evaluation has emphasised their archaeological importance. The masonry revealed on the south bank belongs to a massive bridge, its elaborate decoration possibly including statuary. Construction techniques of the abutment parallel the 2nd-century stone bridge at Chesters on Hadrian's Wall so closely as to suggest being part of the same building programme. However, the remarkable state of preservation of the remains so far revealed suggests that much more masonry is still in situ than at Chesters.

The watermill is unique in the northern region and only the second well-preserved example of this period in England; the evidence suggests that a millpool and associated structures such as leats are likely to be well- preserved beneath the present river bank. The waterchute is apparently unique in this country. Such a substantial structure has important implications for the status of Corbridge in the Anglo-Saxon period. Furthermore, with the exception of princely sites such as Yeavering, nothing is known of the secular aspects of settlement sites in the north-east before the 11th century


For further information, please contact:

Jenny Murray

University of Warwick


02476 574255


Posted By: University of Warwick


05 May 2004

Historian Reveals Janet Jackson's 'Accidental' Exposing of Her Breast was the Height of Fashion in the 1600s


New research from the University of Warwick reveals that Queens and prostitutes bared their breasts in the media of the 1600s to titillate the public, and that the exposure of a single breast in portraits and prints was common in portrayals of court ladies. While Janet Jackson's action of baring her right breast at the Super Bowl earlier this year was considered outrageous, such exposure in 17th century media wouldn't have raised so much as an eyebrow.

In expensive portraits and cheaper engraved prints the exposure of both breasts tended to be restricted to court ladies who were known as mistresses. But, the exposure of one breast was a different matter- depictions of court ladies as St Catherine, for example, could involve the exposure of a single breast.

Further, court ladies and 'town misses' actually wore extremely low cut décolleté fashions that revealed breasts and, sometimes, nipples. While royal breasts were not usually depicted in high art, they may well have been shown. A dress designed by Inigo Jones to be worn by Charles I's wife Henrietta Maria would have fully revealed the Queen's breasts, if worn.

The study by Angela McShane Jones reveals fashions of women displaying their breasts were commonplace and breast baring was a style followed by many, from Queens to common prostitutes. High fashion was led by the court, and copied by all classes.

The paper “Revealing Mary” analyses 17th woodcuts used to illustrate over 10,000 ballads. These were the cheapest, most popular and politically charged media of the day.

McShane Jones reveals that breasts - including the breasts of the Queen herself - were commonly depicted on ballad sheets to illustrate the text. Depictions of Queen Mary II of England, wife of William of Orange, frequently show her baring her breasts. In several woodcuts (1689-1694) the ‘modest and virtuous’ Mary is represented as openly baring her breasts.

Woodcuts were deliberately chosen to target buyers and to complement the context of the ballad. Just as today's magazines often depict scantily clad women on their covers, pictures of buxom women displaying their boobs on ballads were a selling point for a male audience, and a female one, if the pictures described the latest fashions.

Diarist Samuel Pepys' collection of nearly 2000 song sheets contains more busty ballads than any other contemporary collection, and it's not hard to imagine that there was a certain preference in his ballad buying.

Images of big-breasted women similar to celebrity tabloid pin-ups have appeared in popular media for centuries. However, the woodcuts could be used to depict innocence as well as immorality. For example the same picture of a fashionably big-breasted woman in the 1650s was used in a number of different ballads to illustrate an innocent, a tempted and a fallen maiden.

Historian Angela McShane Jones from the University of Warwick said: “In the 1600s it was fairly commonplace for women to bare their breasts in public. The fashions were initiated by court members and Queens, then replicated by ordinary women, and common prostitutes. 17th century fashion, rather than demeaning women, could be empowering. The extremely low cut dresses were designed to encourage men to look but not to touch. They empowered some women to use their sexuality.”


Notes for editor

For more information contact: Angela McShane-Jones, Department of History, University of Warwick, Tel: 02476 574691, Mobile: 07748653734 Email: a.j.mcshane-jones@warwick.ac.uk or Jenny Murray, Communications Office, University of Warwick, Tel: 02476 574 255, Mobile: 07876217740


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