Hadrian’s Wall – Rome’s Most Northerly Outpost

In September 2020 I finally made the trip I had been dreaming of for many years – the museums and excavated sites along Hadrian’s Wall in northern England. I started at the most easterly end in South Shields, where the Roman fort of Arbeia once guarded the mouth of the River Tyne.

Replica West Gate of Arbeia Roman fort

The archaeological ruins were first uncovered and laid out in 1875. In more recent times, the local council have adopted the site that occupies an entire block in a residential area. Features include the restored and re-constructed Commanding Officer’s House, with courtyard and shaded portico, and the impressive replica gatehouse (pictured above). It is thought that the visible stone fort was built in the time of Emperor Marcus Aurelius (161-180), replacing an earlier wooden fort that dated from the time of Hadrian (117-138) when major construction of the wall commenced at Wallsend on the north Tyne. Arbeia’s function was expanded to include extensive granaries, and it became the main supply fort for Emperor Septimus Severus’s (193-211) campaign against the Caledonian (Scottish) tribes. The restored Commanding Officer’s house (pictures below) gives an insight into how the commander and his family lived and worked, and the many luxuries they had, including underfloor heating, in the second and third centuries.

Next stop was Wallsend (Segedunum) fort and museum on the north Tyne. In the 1970s the site was recovered from housing that had been built over it, and it is now a museum managed by the council. As the name suggests, Wallsend is literally the eastern end of Hadrian’s Wall, and my picture shows the excavated outcrop of wall that ran down to the riverside, leaving the marshy estuary beyond as a natural barrier to any incursions from the north. In the corner of the site is a replica of the bath house building whose ruins can be visited at Chesters fort in the middle section of Hadrian’s Wall. I am pictured standing in front of the replica building, that was unfortunately closed at the time of my visit. In the site is a reconstructed herb garden (pictured), and inside the museum is an interesting display of the hospital block with description what injuries and ailments would have been treated by legionary surgeons and healers. There is much information on the life and trials of the soldiers – mainly cavalrymen – who were stationed here. For instance, did you know that there is no mess hall or any evidence of communal eating? This is because each soldier was given a weekly ration of food and they had to bake their own bread (in a communal oven) and cook their meals on braziers, most likely in ‘buddy’ groups with those they bunked with in the barracks. Also pictured is a bronze bust of the Emperor Hadrian on display in the museum.

My next stop was eight miles to the west of Newcastle, at Heddon-on-the-Wall, where a lengthy outcrop of the Wall has been partially excavated. The Wall is 3m wide and there were no platforms for soldiers to stand or walk on between strategically-placed observation towers and more substantial mile towers. The forts that could garrison a cohort (480 men with stables for horses) were positioned off the east-west Stanegate road at intervals of roughly 13 miles, as this was the distance a legionary could march in a day with a full backpack weighing approximately 125 pounds or 57 kgs. The forts (often with civilian settlements adjacent) could be on the Wall (as with Chesters) or up to two miles south (as with Vindolanda). The Wall itself (when complete) ran for 73 miles across the narrowest part of the island, from Bowness-on-Solway (east of Carlisle) to Wallsend, and there were most likely seven forts in total – although not all have been excavated.

Heddon-on-the-Wall

Driving west for 10 miles along the A69 road, I arrived at the English Heritage-managed site of Corbridge Roman Town (Coria). This is an extensively excavated site of what was once a walled town and barracks that sits on a bluff above the River Tyne valley, where it once guarded a bridge no longer there. I was fortunate to be given an impromptu guided tour by a knowledgeable volunteer, who explained the layout and functions of a town where civilian tradesmen and women rubbed shoulders with a cavalry unit. It was a supply fort for legions marching north, west and east, and stands on an important crossroads where Dere Street (S-N) and Stanegate (E-W) intersect. The town was occupied throughout the Roman period from the 80s to late 390s, and beyond into the Dark Ages by Romano-British nobility. In the centre of the town lay an impressive fountain at a meeting point surrounded by temples to a wide range of gods from across the Empire, including deities from the far east, that have yielded many interesting stone carvings, some of which are on display in the adjacent museum. There is also evidence of some temples’ conversion to Christian churches from the early fourth century. The bustling town, located two miles south of the Wall, may have been home to as many as 3,000 people at the height of its occupancy. Pride of place in the museum is a sandstone carving of a lion standing over a slain goat (pictured) that is thought to have been a tombstone that was later employed as the centrepiece of a fountain.

In my next post, I’ll be describing my visits to Vindolanda and Chesters Roman forts.

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