[NB. The reader will probably find it easier to understand this page if he or she has already acquainted himself or herself with the contents of Chapters 1 and 2. Chapter 1 concerns the basic building-blocks used in Romano-British place-names and river-names, and Chapter 2 explains how those building blocks were assembled by the Celts to form compound names. In addition, the reader should not worry about any identification made below - all identifications are explained on other pages of this website, more particularly in Chapters 10-16, which concern the Romano-British place-names in different regions of Britain.]



Chapter 5


The river-name Alavna


1     The river-name Alavna is discussed in detail in Chapter 19: The rivers of Roman Britain. It is mentioned here only because the name was adopted by the Romans on several occasions and applied by them to forts which they built on the banks of the rivers concerned, and so the name is mentioned in various places in the chapters which deal with place-names in the various regions of Britain. Alavna is a name which has long puzzled scholars, with Watson taking it to be derived from a hypothetical British root al or alo which he took to mean ‘rock’, and Pokorny assuming it to be derived from a hypothetical root alausa which he took to mean ‘shining’ or ‘brilliant’, both of these examples being quoted in Rivet and Smith 1979. But Alavna is merely a compound river-name in the river-letters l and b, the b being changed to v, this being a very common change in Romano-British names. Note that the river-letter b on its own yielded the river-name Abona, but when preceded by the river-letter l the b switched to v, thus yielding the compound river-name Alavna. 


2     In some cases the Romans simply adopted the name of the river and applied it to a fort which they built on the banks of the river, this being true for Alavna (187) at Alnwick (fort not yet found), Alavna (118), an early fort at Ravenglass, and Alavna (78) at Stratford-on-Avon (again, fort not yet found). The Stratford-on-Avon example is interesting in that it shows that the Romans adopted the entire name for their fort, whereas when Anglo-Saxon settlers arrived in that area they were clearly aware that the initial Al just meant ‘river’ and so they adopted only what they saw as the proper name of the river, Avna, which has come down to us in the form Avon. The same happened with Ptolemy’s Alaunus (= Alavna) in the south of England, which is now the Hampshire Avon. But the Avon at Bristol was always just an Abona, this river-name being adopted by the Romans and applied by them to the fort which they built at Sea Mills. Abona is also concealed within Ravenna’s Punctuobice (47), a later name for Sea Mills. This rather odd-looking Ravenna name is a simplification of Abone Traiectus Vicus (note that Traiectus is the name immediately after Abone in Iter XIV of the Antonine Itinerary). If one rewrites this as [A] bon [etraie] ctusvicus and then deletes the letters in brackets one has Bonctusvicus – it is this form which developed into Ravenna’s Punctuobice.


3     As explained in Chapter 1 the river-letter l was applied to minor rivers by those Celtic settlers who coined place-names in the hill-letter n. These same people used the river-letter m for major rivers. A minor river might be minor in the sense that it is a relatively small river which flows directly into the sea, or in the sense that it is a tributary or headwater of another river. One can see this very clearly in the case of the rivers at Lindum Colonia at Lincoln. Bearing in mind that those Celtic settlers who coined place-names in the hill-letter l used the river-letter t, the major river at Lincoln is the Witham, which includes the river-letters t (changed to th) and m, whereas the tributary which joins the Witham at Lincoln is called the Till, which combines the river-letters t and l. That the river-name Alavna was always applied to minor rivers - because it includes the river-letter l - is seen very clearly in a map on page 243 of Rivet and Smith 1979.





[This page was last modified on 07 March 2021]