How did the Romans source the stone used for Hadrian’s Wall, and what can we find out about the afterlife of these materials in post-Roman centuries? Since January 2019, the Hadrian’s Wall Community Archaeology Project (WallCAP) has been working to answer these questions, to help local communities and volunteers engage with the frontier fortifications, and to leave the monument in better condition for future visitors.
Hosted by Newcastle University and supported financially by the National Lottery Heritage Fund, WallCAP has two key strands. Our first priority was to address Heritage At Risk (HAR) by investigating various sites on the Wall, assessing the current risks that might have an impact on the archaeology, and undertaking fieldwork and conservation in order to improve understanding of those risks and enable the Wall to be better managed and preserved. The second strand of the project was designed to help illuminate the Wall itself, exploring how its materials had been sourced, and how, when, and where the stones were later dispersed.
Archaeological fieldwork ran at more than 15 sites between 2019 and 2021, and although COVID-19 restrictions reduced the scope of these excavations, we have nonetheless produced exciting results. Two sites in particular have yielded key information on the character of the Wall and the communities that lived along it in the Roman period. At Cam Beck, near the fort of Castlesteads, the Wall crossed a small gorge, but robbing of the structure has left few remains above ground. At the Roman town of Corbridge, meanwhile, the centre of the town has been excavated and is consolidated for visitors, but questions remain about what happened in the outskirts. So, what did we find?
Crossing at Cam Beck
The Wall at Cam Beck, just north of the town of Brampton, has an interesting story to tell. It forms part of the fortifications’ western sector, and at this location had been originally built in turf, and subsequently rebuilt in stone. The Cam Beck itself provided some challenges to the Roman builders: this stream runs through a ‘small’ gorge, carved into soft red sandstone. The side walls are steep – vertical in some places – and where the Wall crosses the beck, the gorge is 30m wide with asymmetric walls: the east bank is about 8m deep and the west 13m.
For the Wall, this constitutes a ‘minor’ river crossing, compared to those across the much larger North Tyne and Irthing rivers. Those waterways had substantial Roman structures erected across them, and excavations have revealed at least three distinct phases of bridging, but nothing is known about the way the Wall negotiated smaller becks or streams. We hoped that our work at Cam Beck would address this imbalance, while also gathering much-needed information on archaeological survival to help with future management of the fast-eroding gorge sides. We were also curious as to whether we could prove that the blocks that had been used to raise the natural weir just upstream of the crossing were repurposed Roman stones.
In the field on the east bank of the Cam Beck where we excavated – as in the wider area – there are no remains of the Wall above ground, but its northern ditch can be traced running downslope to the beck and in the sides of the gorge. Other clues include Wall Turret 56b, which was detected some time ago in small-scale excavations just 140m upslope of the crossing-point, while Castlesteads (Camboglanna) fort lies 400m to the south-south-east, detached from the Wall. The fort was perhaps located there to ensure good views over wilder and boggy ground to the north-west while the Wall kept to a more topographically suitable route. Nothing of the fort survives above ground – it was completely levelled in 1791 when the walled gardens of the minor stately house of Castlesteads were laid out – but geophysical survey to the south of its location has documented the line of the Vallum dipping south, and the civilian settlement largely south of the fort. An account of the destruction of this part of the Wall in 1791 indicates it was the Intermediate Wall, 2.44m wide, with a core of alternating layers of 0.3m-thick rubble and 0.1m-thick mortar. The Intermediate Wall is so named as it is not as wide as the primary Broad Wall curtain (about 3m), but is thicker than the secondary Narrow Wall curtain (about 2m); the Intermediate Wall is typically found where the original Wall built in turf was replaced by stone.
Our investigation of the crossing point began in 2019, when WallCAP volunteers carried out geophysical survey and opened a small evaluation trench across the probable line of the Wall, just upslope. The geophysics indicated the likely course of the Wall itself but little more, and the excavation found disturbed remnants of the Wall’s foundations and associated rubble. A larger trench opened in 2021 was more illuminating, however. This was placed as close to the east bank of the gorge as trees and steep sides allowed, encompassing the Wall-line and a sizeable area to the south. It was the first major excavation after the peak of the pandemic in which volunteers could be involved, and with its beautiful location and balmy weather the mood on-site was almost euphoric. Our discoveries only heightened the cheerful mood: we found the Wall-line, remains of the Turf Wall that preceded the Stone Wall, and evidence for bridging work. Also, more unexpectedly – and unlike at the previously explored larger bridges – there was evidence for small buildings south of the bridge. We will come to these shortly, but they did not obviously conform to known buildings in the repertoire of Wall-related structures.
As for the Wall itself, only the core survived, with all the worked facing stone having been taken away to be used in local farms, field-walls, landscaping, and country-house construction. One of the very few worked stones that survived – apparently having been dropped or discarded in demolition – was an exact match for the stones reused in the nearby weir. These stones, different from those used to face the Wall, probably came from bridging structures. The foundations of the Wall, meanwhile, were constructed from local soft Red Sandstone, with some harder cobbles. There was no evidence for mortar, despite some having been found in the 2019 evaluation trench, and the intact Wall would have been about 2.5m wide – again, suggesting we were looking at part of the Intermediate Wall.
Tower and turf
Built up against the Wall to the south, and close to the gorge-edge, were the foundations of a small tower, presumably marking the beginning of the bridge. The remains of the Turf Wall were detected sealed beneath it, and running east from the tower and again against the Wall we found crushed remains of the foundations of a ramp or perhaps steps. This crossing seems to have been raised on the eastern side to cope with the asymmetry of the gorge, the western side being 5m higher. At present, the surviving width of the base of the ramp or stairs suggests that at Cam Beck the bridge probably only took foot traffic. This was common for the first phase at other bridge sites, such as at Chesters over the North Tyne, and Willowford over the Irthing. It was only in subsequent phases that the original bridge was replaced with a wider one suitable for horses and wagons. There was no evidence for a later widening of the bridge at Cam Beck, but it should be noted that north and south of the Wall there are good fording points, and so wagons and riders may have been more likely to travel towards the fort at Castlesteads, 400m to the south, and cross the beck at a ford near this site.
We are still waiting for radiocarbon dates, and relatively few artefacts (other than nails) were found during our work at Cam Beck, but the diagnostic pottery sherds were dated to the early to mid-2nd century AD: that is, from around the time of the building of the Turf Wall to the period around its replacement in stone. Most of the sherds were everyday Greyware, but there were some from amphorae, and pottery imported from south-west England.
The earliest building, meanwhile, was found in the south-west corner of the trench, and was probably contemporary with the Turf Wall. Like other smaller structures on this incarnation of the fortifications, such as the turrets, the small rectangular structure was stone-built. The corner we discovered had a well-constructed floor of small regular cobbles with a hearth or oven built into it, and the first building had later been levelled and, after a time, a second small, rectangular structure was built just to the east. This had a clay and rubble floor, and its walls were almost certainly wood; it was contemporary with the ramp.
What were these buildings for? We liked the idea of a bridge-end café, but also wondered whether a small detachment of guards or officials of some sort might have been monitoring traffic from this spot. Given that the first structure is associated with the Turf Wall, it is reasonable to ask if this crossed the gorge. Was there a gap in the Wall at this time? Or might there have been a wooden bridge? Alternatively, the earlier building, with its reasonably strong stone walls and a hearth on the ground floor, could have been a small, detached tower, positioned to look down into the gorge, especially if the Turf Wall did not cross it. The later building could be associated with the rebuilding of the Wall in stone, or the construction of the stone bridge. Significantly, the equivalent area where these buildings were found has not been excavated at Willowford or Chesters. Do similar structures exist there?
Testing the fringes of Roman Corbridge
What of Corbridge? The Roman town lies on the north bank of the River Tyne, just west of the modern village of Corbridge and 4km south of Hadrian’s Wall. Roman Corbridge was a strategically important military location even before the building of the Wall around AD 120, and later became a significant supply base and town. Roman activity began on the site in the early AD 80s, with the building of the first of a sequence of four forts. Then, by the later 2nd century, after forts were added to the line of the Wall, Corbridge changed roles to a legionary base and supply depot, supported and surrounded by a rapidly developed, extensive town.
Corbridge’s location underpinned its growth: it was situated by the river at a bridgeable point and straddling the junction of two major Roman roads. Running north–south, Dere Street linked the legionary fortress and subsequent provincial capital at York up to the Antonine Wall. Running east–west, the Stanegate provided a link to the two towns at its termini, Corbridge and Carlisle. This key strategic position sustained the early forts, and then the town behind the Wall, through the fluctuating fortunes that followed changes in imperial policy, troop withdrawals to deal with Continental wars, and local uprisings and attacks. By the 4th century, the Roman town had shrunk from its 3rd-century peak, possibly protected by defensive walls.
What can be seen today? The excavated remains displayed at the English Heritage site of Corbridge capture the heart of the late 2nd- and early 3rd-century town and legionary compounds. The Stanegate itself runs through the town, dividing the consolidated archaeology. The town centre is dominated by a massive courtyard building and huge granaries north of the Stanegate, and two military compounds to the south of the road. Meanwhile, the two sides are linked by a water supply running in a channel from the north into a fountain, and then routed under the Stanegate to tanks supplying the compounds. The full extent of the town and its cemeteries remain hidden below the surrounding fields, however. Although much of the archaeological work carried out on the site to-date has focused on the core of the town, excavations in the early 20th century revealed roads and strip buildings north of the town centre and up to the Corchester Road – roughly along whose route the later town defences were discovered.
That said, extensive geophysical survey indicated that, at least before any walls were raised, the town had spread north beyond the later road, and fields further to the north-east also appeared to contain a cremation cemetery. More recent geophysics undertaken by WallCAP across the playing field north of Corchester Road suggested that the continuation of Dere Street, as rerouted through the town, ran north–south into the field with a spur road lined with buildings running west–east across it. Both earlier maps and the geophysics indicated that any archaeology in the field would have been disturbed by medieval and later ploughing, probable field drains, and landscaping linked to the large house – later school – located to the east of the field. Our excavations in the playing field in July 2021 (carried out by local WallCAP volunteers and open to visitors throughout our time on site) set out to explore how well the archaeology had survived and to investigate the character of the Roman town’s northern sector.
Sampling the archaeology
This was not our first visit to the site, however. In 2019, three small trenches had been opened to sample the archaeology in the playing field, but this work was hampered and ultimately cut short by unusually persistent and heavy rain which flooded the trenches. We were, however, able to establish that Roman structures and features did survive just centimetres below the turf. In 2021, we returned to open two larger trenches over the most promising areas, revealing remains that demonstrated that the Roman town of Corbridge was, from very early in its development, a complex, well-appointed, and considerable settlement.
Trench 4 was positioned over the west–east spur road in an area of geophysical anomalies that suggested kilns or ovens and associated buildings, south of the spur road and east of Dere Street. There we uncovered a road running west–east, the busy yard of a high-status dwelling located – inevitably – just east of the trench and, more unexpectedly, a cremation burial. We are still waiting for radiocarbon-dating results for these features, but recovered pottery and finds suggest that the activity recorded in Trench 4 took place from the later 2nd to the mid- 3rd centuries AD. The northern sector of the town was obviously occupied and busy from early on; the town either grew very rapidly or had been planned from the beginning on a considerable scale.
The metalled west–east road was in place from the outset and, like the Stanegate in the centre of town, its stone cobbling had been relaid at least twice. In the east of the trench, the road was flanked by open ditches, but, in the west, these became a stone-lined and covered water channel very similar to those in the centre of the town. The channel in Trench 4 ran south – towards, and presumably beside, Dere Street. It seems likely that the public water supply, laid out in the early 3rd century, provided for the entire town and was fed from the stream north of the excavation site.
As for the high-status structure to the east of the trench, this was suggested by traces of large stone walls and substantial flagging, as well as window glass and roof tiles, hinting at a well-constructed building. In its service yard, between the back wall of the house and the spur road, were the remnants of yard surfaces and small stone-founded buildings, possibly workshops and storage sheds. There was plentiful evidence for a blacksmith having worked in the area, as well as the detritus of domestic life: animal bone, pottery (including many fragments of amphorae), glass vessels, and lost items of jewellery such as a colourful glass bangle and enamelled brooch.
The yard buildings had subsequently been demolished, and the area levelled with the debris and partially recobbled. Around this time, pits were dug into the yard, with one in the west of the trench containing a cremation burial. Analysis of this is still under way, but the burial – which, according to Roman custom, we would have expected to be located outside the area of settlement – must have taken place at a time when the town had shrunk southwards and perhaps after the walls were raised. The cremated bones were contained in a very large Greyware storage jar, the lower half of which survived complete – much of the crushed upper half was also retrieved. Stacked around the cremation jar were around a dozen other vessels, many of which were complete or near-complete, including several decorated Samian bowls and dishes. The cremation pit’s fill produced animal bones, too, including those of roe deer, perhaps part of a funeral feast. At this stage, though, we cannot be sure if this was an outlier burial – and quite a lavish one – or part of a larger cemetery.
Trench 5, which we opened to the east of Trench 4, confirmed the emerging picture of a busy urban sector. There, excavation uncovered the stone foundations of a rectangular building whose short end abutted the northern side of the spur road. Within the building were the foundations of a large oven and the remains of water troughs and drainage, which, along with the many sherds of serving vessels discovered, suggests this may have been a roadside commercial establishment, perhaps selling food. The main building had an annex to the east, a small part of which fell within Trench 5, and this produced pottery and in particular finds – such as glass beads and jewellery – that lead us to interpret it as a domestic space. The building in Trench 5 may have survived a bit longer than the yard of Trench 4 but the pottery-derived dating suggests a similar start date in the later 2nd- to early 3rd century. Above all, the range of finds and the quality of building material and construction that we have uncovered in these trenches suggest an urban area with either or both military and higher-status inhabitants. These buildings were not part of the lesser fringes of a vibrant centre but clearly an integral part – down to the water supply – of a substantial town.
Community archaeology and the Wall
WallCAP is the most recent of a number of projects along Hadrian’s Wall that have had community archaeology at their heart. Whenever and wherever possible, WallCAP has incorporated volunteers into the work, from survey and excavation, to finds-washing and data entry. Their contribution has been invaluable, and significantly increased our ability to investigate, understand, and protect the heritage of the Hadrian’s Wall World Heritage Site.
The excavations at Corbridge and Cam Beck provided opportunities to excavate at locations that have not been explored by archaeologists for many decades. Both excavations have also underscored the truth that there is so much more to learn about Hadrian’s Wall. At Corbridge, although the buildings discovered were positioned at the edges of the town, the evidence clearly demonstrates that those living and working there were not part of a ‘fringe’ society, but engaged with activities fundamental to the urban experience. At Cam Beck, the challenges of understanding how Hadrian’s Wall crossed a ‘minor’ river, and what this means for the the transformation of the early Turf Wall into the subsequent Stone Wall have been teased out. WallCAP’s funding ends in September 2022, but full publication of all its fieldwork is under way and expected to appear in print through Oxbow Books in 2023; watch this space for more insights from the Roman frontier.
All images: Newcastle University.