Hadrian’s Wall has yet to lose its capacity to surprise. After more than a century of excavation, it might be suspected that the former frontier has surrendered its secrets, but the richness of the archaeological record continues to astound. Fresh discoveries are raising new questions about who could pass through the Wall, and where, and about how the Roman soldiers interacted with the world beyond their ramparts. As well as the vibrant extramural settlements outside Wall forts, which nurtured communities of soldiers’ partners, children, slaves, and wheeler-dealers scheming to part the troops from their cash, there were farmsteads built by communities that had worked the landscape for centuries. Both types of settlement have been under the spotlight over the last decade. One outcome is the relationship between occupiers and occupied starting to look less cosy, with the traditional model of shared prosperity created by a durable pax Romana being edged out by the idea of a barrier that created winners and losers. If so, it casts the Wall as the epicentre for a changing world, intentionally or otherwise, whose aftershocks can still be felt today.
Elsewhere in this special issue, you can read about the ground-breaking work under way at some of the most-celebrated sites along Hadrian’s Wall. These often long-running excavations routinely offer up such a wealth of archaeological information that it is only natural they sometimes overshadow other work on the monument. Our knowledge of Hadrian’s Wall, though, is driven forward by a medley of excavations and surveys, whether large or small, as well as specialist studies and new thoughts on old material. This work has been the product of many hands, ranging from community groups like WallQuest, WallCAP, and Altogether Archaeology to the invaluable contribution made by developer-funded investigations. Sometimes, bringing together the results of so many labours can feel like trying to slot pieces of a mosaic into place, but all these projects have shaped the picture that emerged over the last decade.
Who goes there?
One impressive example of how many parts can come together to create a much larger whole comes from Benwell fort. There, separate projects run by WallQuest, Northern Archaeological Associates (NAA), Pre-Construct Archaeology, the Archaeological Practice, and even a casual garden find have shed light on activity beyond the fort defences. In some cases, it is the scale of individual structures that impresses, with a sizable buttressed warehouse investigated by the Archaeological Practice seemingly founded beside the road linking the fort to the Tyne. As well as emphasising the importance of river supply, the discovery of buildings some 300m from Benwell fort illustrates how these extramural settlements could far outgrow the military bases that spawned them. A real bombshell, though, came from NAA’s work north of the fort – and the Wall. This was once thought to be empty space, but excavations are revealing traces of an Iron Age settlement, Roman-era field systems, possible workshops, and activity lingering into the post-Roman period.
Benwell is not the only place where views of what happened immediately north of the Wall are changing. One fascinating, if enigmatic, site is Great Whittington, which lies about 2.2km beyond the barrier, close to both Halton Chesters fort and the Portgate, where the Roman highway now known as Dere Street crossed the Wall. The site first came to prominence from metal-detector finds, which have now demonstrated that Roman, early medieval, and perhaps pre-Roman artefacts were spread over a huge area. Geophysical survey by Rob Collins and the late Alan Biggins detected possible enclosures, and it is now suspected that the site may have hosted markets where goods could be exchanged in the shadow of the Wall. Intriguingly, excavations near the other major Roman highway north, which crossed the Wall close to Carlisle, have also revealed traces of enigmatic activity beyond the border. Whether this was related to the road or the nearby fort at Stanwix is unclear, but there is a real possibility that regular markets were held beside the highways north.
If the scale of activity immediately beyond the Wall has surprised in some places, a scarcity of features is of interest elsewhere. The gateways in small fortlets positioned at regular intervals along the curtain and known – appropriately enough – as milecastles have been seen as a possible means of regulating cross-border traffic. Geophysical survey at six milecastles by Altogether Archaeology, though, has only detected traces of a possible track north at one, Milecastle 47, supporting a growing feeling that these portals were primarily intended to ease military, rather than civilian, movement. If so, the Wall would have created a significant new obstacle to legitimate movement by the local farming communities living in the region. Any such restrictions would help explain why the Roman planners seemingly took particular care to control pre-existing routes through the landscape (see CA 326).
Geophysical survey has also been filling gaps in our knowledge of the measures taken to ward off unwanted incursions. The recognition on Tyneside in 2001 that the army installed wooden obstacles – probably sharpened or thorny, to create Roman barbed wire – between the curtain and the ditch added a new element to the Wall (see also p.30). Ever since, it has been wondered whether these entanglements were a special measure around Newcastle, or a standard feature. In 2018, geophysical survey by AD Archaeology at Heddon-on-the-Wall demonstrated the technique could detect the pits that once held these obstacles. Follow-up survey led by Paul Bidwell much further to the west, either side of the River Irthing, produced further possible traces of pits. Proving that this additional anti-personnel element was a common component would be a breakthrough in knowledge.
Such efforts to make the Wall as impregnable as practically possible invite suspicions that authorised crossings of the barrier may not have been straightforward for everyone. That the frontier effected the development of local communities settled nearby is suggested by three farmsteads excavated by Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums. These settlements lay about 7-12km north of the Wall on the Northumberland coastal plain, and were abandoned around the time the barrier became operational (see CA 277). Pre-Construct Archaeology investigated a fourth settlement in the same region at Pegswood Moor, this time 23km north of the frontier, which seems to disappear in the same period. To
the south of the Wall, by contrast, there are growing signs in the west that farmsteads could survive into the 3rd or 4th century AD. Although our picture is far from complete, it seems ever more likely that the Wall disrupted longstanding lifestyles. The possibility that some of the losers from this new reality responded with violence seems to be gaining traction.
While excavation and survey are revealing flourishing extramural settlements around the Wall forts, the screen of outpost forts established to the north appears to have been a less enticing prospect for entrepreneurial types and soldiers’ families alike. Geophysical surveys by Alan Biggins and David Taylor at Bewcastle and Risingham forts showed little in the way of settlement beyond the embrace of the defences. At Bewcastle, even the Hadrianic fort baths were tucked inside the ramparts, which took the unusual step of adopting a hexagonal layout to fit the local topography. Such a defensive refinement could point to a tangible air of unease. As the Roman army usually emerged victorious from set-piece battles against British foes, the possibility that some form of guerrilla warfare was at the root of their concern deserves to be taken seriously.
Back on the Wall itself, the garrison of Stanwix fort had no qualms about siting their baths beyond the rampart. This military base was ultimately occupied by the most prestigious auxiliary unit in Britain – the ala Petriana – who took measures to ensure that they could luxuriate in a bathing experience equalling their lofty status. A 3rd-century bathhouse was discovered under Carlisle Cricket Club by Wardell Armstrong archaeologists, who noted that the size of the facility surpasses all others known in the frontier zone. Indeed, the last decade has been good to bath enthusiasts, bringing the rediscovery of those at Wallsend (see p.32), and publication of a study by Margaret Snape and Graeme Stobbs on the magnificently preserved suite at Chesters. One coup there is the inclusion of previously unpublished 19th-century excavation photographs, which seem to clarify that a late- or post-Roman cemetery encountered during the digging lay just outside the building.
Evidence for life, as well as death, on the Wall in the post-Roman period is also growing. Although the formal end of Roman Britain is traditionally dated to AD 410, there are signs that numerous forts remained occupied into the 5th century, including South Shields, Newcastle, Housesteads, Vindolanda, Birdoswald, and Carlisle. As there is no obvious break in occupation, it seems increasingly likely that ‘Roman’ soldiers continued to occupy these strongpoints, with former military units gradually mutating into early medieval warbands after Britain was divorced from the wider empire. A study by Rob Collins concluded that increased local procurement of goods by late-Roman garrisons left them well placed to weather the disruption caused by the withdrawal of imperial control. Archaeologists such as Richard Hingley and Rob Witcher have also been exploring the continuing influence of Hadrian’s Wall down to modern times. In that regard, this special issue of CA simply marks the most recent manifestation of the Wall’s rich, if bogglingly convoluted, legacy.
Dr Matthew Symonds is the editor of our sister magazine, Current World Archaeology, and has published widely on Hadrian’s Wall.
Further reading A special 250-page review of work over the last decade has been compiled to accompany the Pilgrimage: R Collins and M F A Symonds (eds) (2019) Hadrian’s Wall: 2009-2019, ISBN 978-1873124826. Copies can be obtained from Ian Caruana, at 10 Peter Street, Carlisle, Cumbria, CA3 8QP, for £15 (including p&p). Hadrian’s Wall: Creating Division, Matthew Symonds, Bloomsbury, £17.99, ISBN 978-1350105348.