This week: Hadrian’s Wall

When construction began in AD 122, Hadrian’s Wall marked the furthermost limit of the Roman Empire. Stretching 73 miles from the North Sea to the Solway Firth, it divided conquered territory to the south from that occupied by unbeaten tribes to the north. According to the earliest available account, compiled long after Hadrian’s death in AD 138, it was built to ‘separate the barbarians from the Romans’.

Almost 2,000 years on, the Wall remains a potent symbol of the north-south divide between England and Scotland, referenced frequently in the ongoing and often-heated debate over Scottish independence. Most recently, it was namechecked as politicians from both sides tried to press their case with Scottish voters ahead of this week’s crucial local elections.

Hadrian’s Wall, looking east, with milecastle 39 in the dip in the foreground and the tarn known as Crag Lough beyond.

Beyond creating an enduring sense of a border, however, many questions remain: what was this extraordinary edifice, the largest Roman artefact anywhere in the world, actually for? What was it designed to do? How did its construction impact the indigenous communities which lived in its shadow? And how did those local people react in response? This week on The Past and on latest edition of The PastCast, our unmissable podcast, Matthew Symonds, the author of a new book on the subject, explains how recent analysis might hold the key to a more nuanced understanding of the Wall’s purpose.

Also on The Past this week, we’ve been scouring the archives of our sister magazines Current Archaeology and Minerva to highlight our coverage of the Pilgrimage of Hadrian’s Wall, a unique archaeological event which has been running every decade since 1849 and is still going strong: in CA 353, the noted historian David Breeze traced the origins of the Pilgrimage and explained how it came to be Britain’s longest-running archaeological tour; in CA 240, we celebrated the 2009 Pilgrimage, travelling the entire length of the Wall from Bowness to Wallsend; while in Minerva 182, we caught up with the most recent Pilgrimage and discovered that debate over the Wall’s remaining mysteries remains as lively as ever.

Finally, if you think you know your Vindolanda from your Vercovicium, do please remember to click on the link to our fiendish Friday quiz (from 7 May), which this week is also designed to test your knowledge of Hadrian’s Wall. Good luck, and we hope you enjoy The Past!

The Past is powered by Current Publishing’s unique stable of accessible specialist magazines, each of which is a leader in its field, and by our global network of writers and editors.

Our aim is simple: to create a new essential destination for anyone interested in any aspect of the past – authoritative, easy to read and navigate, beautifully designed and illustrated, and with no annoying adverts, pop-ups and clickbait.

Whether you’re an armchair historian, a budding archaeologist or a heritage enthusiast, we hope that you like what you find on The Past – and if you do, we hope very much that you might also consider taking out a subscription. Subscriptions cost £7.99 per month, or £79.99 for the whole year. But early visitors to the website can save £30 – subscribe by the end of May 2021 and pay just £49.99 by entering code MAY21 at the checkout.