Camulodunum

Camulodunum was Britain's first capital, the base of king Cunobelinus and then a Roman colonia.  All the main ancient sources supply the name, but with a wild variety of spellings, among which CAMVLODVNO on coins seems pretty definitive.  The location at modern Colchester is beyond doubt, thanks to copious archaeological remains.  So there ought to be no mystery about the name.

Unfortunately, the meaning of Camulus has never been settled, despite much discussion.  See particularly Evans (1967).  Camulus is commonly claimed as a Celtic war god, but that idea rests mainly on a small number of inscriptions referring to Mars Camulus associated with a region in Belgica, particular around the Montagne de Reims.  Olmsted (1994:334-5) argued for Camulus as a free-standing deity name of equal status to Mars but in a different language.  It may be better to see Camulus (as with some other deity names) as more of an adjective-like attribute.

It makes best sense to translate camulus as ‘small hill’, a meaning that may previously have been missed because East Anglia is so archetypally flat.  Actually the land drops away by ten to twenty metres all around the historic walls of Colchester, which a pedestrian there really notices.  The Latin diminutive ending –ulus shows up on several Latin words referring to types of hill (tumulus, colliculus, monticulus) and in ancient personal names such as Andecamulus that were analogous to modern names such as Hill.

The root *cam shows up in Latin camera ‘vault’ and in the northern English word kame or kaim ‘ridge, hillock’.  However, words for curves in place names are controversial.  See, for example, the discussion of camb ‘comb’ and of cumb and cwm ‘valley’ by Gelling and Cole (2003).  Celticists tend to see an element cam- in at least eight ancient place names in Britain and on the Continent, as referring to curves in a horizontal plane (like bends in a river), whereas in most cases the landscape suggests vertical curves (small hills).

About -dunum see here.  An element camulus also shows up in Camulossesa.

Another place with a similar name is Ptolemy's Καμουλοδουνον, a πολις of the Brigantes.  The name suggests some kind of hillfort, or oppidum on a low hill, while Ptolemy's coordinates point somewhere in the general area of Huddersfield.  Candidate places that can probably be ruled out include: Slack, suggested by R&S, where the Roman fort was Camboduno; various viewpoints without obvious fortifications; and hillforts at Birstall and Barwick-in-Elmet.  The best candidate is Castle Hill, at Almondbury, SE153141, which is notably large and high.  Its role as the central place for a substantial population was later filled by Huddersfield as a market town.  Another candidate east of there is South Kirby Camp, at SE435105, possibly more of a defended settlement than a hillfort, probably an indigenous power centre for a lot of good farmland.  It was shadowed by Burghwallis Roman fort, 8 km away at SE519120, where the modern A1 main road (= the Roman road from Doncaster to Tadcaster, number 28b of Margary, 1973) crosses the river Skell.

A third place with a similar name occurs in RC's sequence of names Mautio (Manchester) - Alicuna - Camulodono - Calunio (probably Lancaster), which appears to be heading generally north out of Manchester, not towards the second place just discussed.  On that road towards Lancaster the first good candidate is the promontory fort at Castle Steads, but that probably belongs to Alicuna.  So Camulodono was most likely the Hawksclough hillfort at SD57402405, near Clayton-le-Woods, Lancashire, which is just 4 km from the Roman site (possibly a supply depot rather than a fort) at Walton-le-Dale, at SD55132812, on the river Ribble.

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Last Edited: 27 February 2017