thinking about archaeology

Plinth box 6

Hadrian's Wall near Housesteads fort, looking east (M Pitts)

Hadrian's Wall near Housesteads fort, looking east (M Pitts)

Site: Hadrian’s Wall, Northumberland

Date: AD120s

What it represents: The first and most significant invasion from outside Britain, bringing political and cultural innovations that transformed the lives of people whose ancestors had known the land for millennia

The plinth stone: Part of a squared stone from the outer face of the wall

Provenance: Excavated in 2006 at Byker, Newcastle upon Tyne

Material: Sandstone

Maximum dimension: 170mm

Weight: 1910gm

Loaned by: Tyne and Wear Archives and Museums

Archaeological excavation by TWM Archaeology at Shields Road, Byker, uncovered some dressed blocks of stone that had once been part of Hadrian’s Wall. The piece on the plinth comes from this dig.

The stones had fallen from a length of the wall, in Wall-mile 2 (about 4km from the wall’s eastern terminus at Wallsend). They are from the wall’s rear face, which seems to have partly collapsed in the third century. The sandstone is local and was probably quarried more or less on the spot.

The site had been occupied by 19th century shops, and was excavated before the construction of new shops. The Roman wall foundations are now preserved below ground.

Hadrian came to Britain in AD122. He had decided to build a rampart defining the empire’s most northern boundary, 45km of it in turf (between Bowness-on-Solway and the river Irthing in Cumbria) and then 72km in stone, to the river Tyne in the east. Every Roman mile (1.6km) was a small guard post or castle, and between each of these were two towers; at the west end, the line of towers continued a further 32km down the Cumbrian coast without a rampart.

Before it had been completed, this plan was changed. Forts were built to house troops moved up to the wall. A large earthwork known as the vallum, with fewer breaks than in the wall itself, was constructed to the south. The width of the wall in progress was reduced slightly, and a start was made on converting the turf section into stone. The resulting wall between Bowness on the Solway Firth and Wallsend on the Tyne (its 117km echoing Hadrian’s accession date of AD117!) was a monumental construction, passing through landscapes that are sometimes spectacular and were always long-settled. Though much decayed (leaving questions such as whether or not it had a walkway and crenellations open to debate), it has been a significant and defining feature of the very north of England ever since.

Hadrian’s biographer said the wall was built to separate Romans from “barbarians”, a goal that would have been supported by the regiments stationed in the forts – with soldiers drawn from across the empire, as far as north Africa. As Thorsten Opper has argued, however (in the British Museum exhibition, Hadrian, which he curated in 2008), the wall might have been designed less as a frontier to a would-be civilised land, than as a disruptive force within an alien and uncontrollable population – Opper compared it to the Israeli West Bank barrier.

There is archaeological evidence that the wall ran across older tracks and fields, and it would almost certainly have wiped out, or at best displaced, homes and communities. I stood with Opper last year inside the ruins of the stone fort at Housesteads, listening to him explain his ideas and describe his recent travels around Europe and the near east. I looked out across the bleak, Northumberland moor that sweeps away from Hadrian’s Wall, and thought of the native people who saw this extraordinary, unprecedented structure rise among them. What would they have said?

David Breeze, 2000. Hadrian’s Wall (4th ed). Penguin
Anthony Burton, 2007. Hadrian’s Wall Path (National Trail Guides, 2nd ed). Aurum Press
J McKelvey, forthcoming. Excavations on Hadrian’s Wall at Nos 24–46 Shields Road, Byker, Newcastle upon Tyne. Arbeia Journal 9
Thorsten Opper, 2008. Hadrian: Empire & Conflict. British Museum

The fallen wall facing as excavated in situ (scale 50cm) (Tyne and Wear Archives & Museums)

The fallen wall facing as excavated in situ (scale 50cm) (Tyne and Wear Archives & Museums)

Facing stones cleaned and seen from the front (scale 50cm) (Tyne and Wear Archives & Museums)

Facing stones cleaned and seen from the front (scale 50cm) (Tyne and Wear Archives & Museums)

Part of Segedunum fort layout as revealed by excavation at Wallsend, seen from the viewing gallery at the museum. The white-painted building is a reconstructed Roman bath house, close to the old Swan Hunter shipyard (M Pitts)

Part of Segedunum fort layout as revealed by excavation at Wallsend, seen from the viewing gallery at the museum. The white-painted building is a reconstructed Roman bath house, close to the old Swan Hunter shipyard (M Pitts)

Bronze head of Hadrian from the river Thames, exhibited by the British Museum at Wallsend in 2008 (M Pitts)

Bronze head of Hadrian from the river Thames, exhibited by the British Museum at Wallsend in 2008 (M Pitts)

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