Stretching from coast to coast, Hadrian’s Wall was the north-western frontier of the Roman Empire. 2017 marks an important anniversary in the history of Hadrian’s Wall – 30 years since becoming a UNESCO World Heritage Site. In gaining this status, the landmark is officially acknowledged as a site of ‘outstanding value to humanity’ which will be protected and preserved for future generations to enjoy as we do now.
It remains a site of major importance with a rich and surprising history. We challenged our historians and curators to find 30 things that you might not have known about Hadrian’s Wall. Let us know in the comments how many surprised you.
1. Hadrian’s Wall is not just a wall
Its signature feature was a continuous curtain wall of stone or turf, but in front was a ditch and sometimes other obstacles. Along the line of the Wall were turrets, small fortlets known as milecastles, and forts for larger garrisons. These were all linked by a military road. Running parallel a little further to the south were two large earthworks either side of a ditch called the vallum.
2. It took around 15,000 men about 6 years to build
Hadrian’s Wall was built by legionaries – the citizen-soldiers of the Roman army. The army contained specialists in masonry, engineering and architecture.
It took units from all three of Britain’s legions to construct the Wall: the II Augusta based in Caerleon in South Wales, the VI Victrix from York and the XX Valeria Victrix from Chester – who were also once based around Wroxter Roman City.
3. Soldiers from Syria were stationed there
Hadrian’s Wall was garrisoned by auxiliary soldiers from across the Roman Empire. These were non-citizens who were recruited into the army and often stationed far away from their homeland.
Although generally the soldiers manning Hadrian’s Wall came from northern Europe, there are also examples of units posted there from much further afield. Examples included Asturians (from northern Spain) at Chesters Roman Fort and Dacians (from Romania) at Birdoswald. Perhaps the furthest from home were the Syrians at Housesteads, who lived alongside the Tungrians from modern day Belgium.
4. We know the names of men who built Hadrian’s Wall
The Clayton Collection contains 53 centurial stones. Centurial stones give us the names of centurions who, with their men, built Hadrian’s Wall. Each group would have been given a set length of wall to build, and they often inscribed a stone when they had finished.
5. Cavalry soldiers lived alongside their horses
In Roman cavalry barracks, such as those at Chesters Fort, the soldiers lived in the rear room, while their horses lived in the front separated only by a narrow wall. Covered pits were dug beneath the horses to take away the waste!
6. It wasn’t abandoned after the end of the Roman Empire
People have continued to live along Hadrian’s Wall ever since it was built. Evidence from Birdoswald Roman Fort shows that the buildings were still being adapted and occupied after the Empire had ended in AD 410.
7. We can only see 10% of the original Wall
The Wall that you see today is only a small fraction – estimated at around 10% – of the original. Over the course of the intervening centuries stone has been removed, buried or destroyed.
8. Hadrian’s Wall has never been the border between England and Scotland
These two kingdoms didn’t exist when Hadrian’s Wall was established. And if it was used as the border today, it would place parts of Cumbria and much of Northumberland in Scotland.
The Romans invaded, and held, large parts of modern-day Scotland, even after the construction of Hadrian’s Wall in AD 122. Hadrian’s Wall was abandoned for about twenty years from c.AD 138, when the Romans established a new frontier in Scotland between what are now the Firths of Forth and Clyde (the Antonine Wall), before being reoccupied around AD 160.
9. Hadrian probably designed the Wall himself
Hadrian is noted for his interest in architecture and the number of provinces he visited whilst Emperor. He is likely to have visited Britain in AD 122, after some kind of conflict in the preceding years, and we know that it was in this period that construction of the Wall started.
10. Hadrian’s Wall is 73, 80, 84 and 174 miles long
A Roman unit of distance was the mille passum, which translates to ‘thousand paces.’ A pace was five Roman feet, meaning a Roman mile measured 5,000 feet. This made Hadrian’s Wall 80 miles long, and each mile was marked by a milecastle fort. These were used for controlling the movement of people, goods and livestock along the Wall.
The ‘modern’ mile was standardised in 1593 as eight furlongs, or 5,280 feet. (A furlong was how far a team of oxen could plough in a day – roughly 660 feet.) This means that modern miles are longer than Roman ones, so Hadrian’s Wall is 73 miles.
The Hadrian’s Wall Path – a national walking trail, however, adds an extra eleven (modern) miles and connects Bowness-on-Solway in the west with Wallsend in the east. Hadrian’s Cycleway goes even further. It explores the wider Hadrian’s Wall World Heritage Site in the UK, thereby adding almost 100 miles to the total ‘Hadrian’s Wall’ experience. Signposted as NC72 between Ravenglass and Arbeia in South Shields, it incorporates the forts, milecastles and turrets beyond the western end of the curtain Wall, along the Cumbrian coast.
11. Hadrian’s Wall is one part of a much larger Roman frontier
At its largest, in the 2nd century AD, the frontier of the Roman Empire stretched for over 5000km.
The frontier is still a visible feature across large parts of Europe, the Middle East and North Africa. Today its remains can still be seen in the UK, but also in the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Slovakia, Hungary, Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia, Bulgaria, Turkey, Syria, Jordan, Israel, Iraq, Egypt, Libya, Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco.
The overall ‘Frontiers of the Roman Empire’ group was inscribed as a UNESCO world heritage site in 1987.
12. Part of Hadrian’s Wall was originally built of turf
West of the River Irthing in Cumbria, Hadrian’s Wall was originally constructed in turf, before being replaced in stone. The reason for this is not known, but was probably due to access to stone locally and time restrictions.
13. Forts weren’t part of the original plan
The forts on Hadrian’s Wall were added to the frontier plan after construction had started. The original plan for the Wall included forts to its south, such as Corbridge, from which troops could be brought to meet any threat, but not long after construction started the forts were moved up to the Wall line.
Forts were important points along the wall for more than just military reasons. Recent geophysical survey has shown that outside all of the Hadrian’s Wall forts was a settlement. The people in them were probably civilians, attracted to the money that could be made from providing for the needs of the army.
14. The Romans brought burgers to the North East
Street stalls and ‘fast food’ as we might think of it today came to Britain with the Romans.
The famous cookbook ‘Apicius’ (a compilation of recipes written by lots of different people) includes a recipe – ‘Isicia Omentata’ in the original Latin – which looks a lot like a modern burger. The recipe uses minced pork, which was a popular meat in Roman Britain, flavoured with pepper, wine and garum (a rich fish sauce), and served with a wine sauce.
Although this ‘burger’ is likely to have made it to Hadrian’s Wall, it would have been served as part of an upmarket feast, rather than grilled up for the troops.
15. The Corbridge Collection has over 40,000 records on its database
Much of this is pottery as we have the largest collection of pottery from any site in the Hadrian’s Wall zone. We are currently in the middle of a large project to better sort this material so we can understand more about life on the site.
16. There’s an ancient murder mystery at Housesteads
During an excavation at Housesteads Roman Fort in the 1930s, a group of archaeologists discovered two bodies under the floor of the tavern in the Roman village outside of the fort. In one of these, the tip of a dagger was found between the man’s ribs. Unfortunately, the bones disappeared during the Second World War, so although today the story of the find lives on, we haven’t been able to find out more.
17. Illegal metal detecting is a big problem
Metal detecting is not allowed on Hadrian’s Wall and its surrounding archaeology, in order to protect the information that it contains about our Roman past. Nevertheless every year parts of the Wall are subject to illegal metal detecting where, if caught, those involved face a criminal conviction.
18. Its exact route is a mystery
We don’t know precisely where some parts of the Wall ran. In the busy urban landscape of Carlisle and Newcastle there are areas where the precise route of the Wall remains unclear. Development work in these areas has to be approached very carefully to avoid harm to the Roman remains.
Archaeologically we’ve only really scratched the surface of Hadrian’s Wall. Recent years have revealed things like far more extensive civilian settlements along the Wall, and more construction camps, than had hitherto been suspected, and the implication is that major new discoveries will continue to be made.
19. Our store at Corbridge contains material from three collections
The Clayton Collection (displayed at Chesters), the Housesteads Collection and the Corbridge Collection. Material not on display in the museum is called the reserve collection, but it does not mean it less interesting, we just have a limited number of cases!
20. It was the original east-west highway
In the 18th century Hadrian’s Wall was used as the route of a new road through Northumberland and Cumbria. In 1746, General Wade began construction of a new road from Newcastle to Carlisle, following the line of Hadrian’s Wall, and using its remains as a useful source of materials.
The decision to build a road was prompted by an unsuccessful attempt to intercept the Jacobite Army of Bonnie Prince Charlie the previous year using troops based at Newcastle. It was thwarted by the lack of good roads to travel on.
21. We still don’t know how big Corbridge Roman town was
Corbridge was the most northerly Roman Town in Britain, and has been excavated for almost 50 years – but we still haven’t found its edges!
We are lucky to be working with Newcastle University who are using geophysical survey to better understand the fields surrounding the site so watch this space.
22. Until 1929 one family owned nearly 20 miles of Wall and 5 forts
John Clayton purchased farms which had sections of Hadrian’s Wall on their land. When he died in 1890 he owned Chesters Fort, Carrawburgh Fort, Housesteads Fort, Vindolanda Fort and Carvoran Fort, as well as much of the Wall in between. His family cared for this estate until 1929 when it was split up.
Most of Hadrian’s Wall is still in private ownership. Although several well-known sections of the Wall are owned by organisations like English Heritage and the National Trust, the majority is owned and cared for by (several hundred) private owners.
23. It could be a relatively luxurious posting
Although Hadrian’s Wall is often depicted as being a difficult place to live, Roman technology meant that the elite lived in relative comfort. The Commanding Officer’s House at Chesters Roman Fort, for example, had a ‘hypocaust’ – an under floor heating system.
24. When John Clayton excavated the bath-house at Chesters he found human skeletons
The discovery of the bath-house itself was accidental. Clayton’s workmen were putting in drains to improve the drainage of the fort when they discovered it. A very unexpected find were the 33 human skeletons. It is likely they were not Roman in date but unfortunately they are no longer in the collection so we know very little about them.
25. Housesteads Fort didn’t make its auction price in 1929
Despite Housesteads being the most famous fort on Hadrian’s Wall, and receiving 100,000 visitors a year, it was withdrawn from the auction in 1929 as it was not seen as a viable farming estate! The fort was gifted to the National Trust along with the sections of the Wall on either side by J.M. Clayton. Today the National Trust owns the fort but the museum and fort are managed by English Heritage.
26. We only began to understand segmented Roman armour in the 1960s
The Corbridge Hoard discovery in 1964 changed our understanding of lorica segmentata, segmented armour. This was the first find of large enough pieces to be able to reconstruct how these suits were worn, made and repaired.
27. Sir Walter Scott and George R. R Martin have something in common
They were both inspired by Hadrian’s Wall. Sir Walter Scott wrote the poem ‘To a Lady- with flowers from a Roman Wall’ in 1813. Indeed Scott met his future wife whilst staying in Gilsland, the village near to Birdoswald.
George R. R Martin, author of Game of Thrones (the ‘Song of Ice and Fire series’) took inspiration for The Wall (which keeps wildlings out of the Seven Kingdoms) from a visit to Hadrian’s Wall in 1981.
28. Lions were popular at Corbridge
Parts of seven lion sculptures have been found at Corbridge. Our famous lion sculpture is just the best preserved example, but he is not alone. One sculpture was actually found in-situ, next to a mausoleum to the west of the site. The other statues are fragmentary but nonetheless tell us that the lion motif was popular amongst the residents of Corbridge.
29. There were flushing toilets
We take them for granted today, but the sanitary arrangements on Hadrian’s Wall were quite advanced. Roman bathhouses are famous, but did you know they also had flushing latrines? The best preserved Roman loos in Britain are at Housesteads Roman Fort, which was garrisoned by 800 men.
Today when it rains heavily you can see how the latrines were flushed out, as they would have done 1,800 years ago.
30. Romans on Hadrian’s Wall wore leggings and sheepskin boots
Although we associate the Romans with armour and tunics which exposed their arms and legs, Northumbrian winters are no joke – and the Romans were no fools. During the winter they added woolly cloaks, trousers and sheepskin boots (not unlike the ones we wear today) to their uniform to keep warm.
Celebrate the 30th Anniversary
Throughout 2017 we’ll be marking the 30th anniversary in a number of ways including the highly anticipated Hadrian’s Cavalry exhibition starting in the spring, and an action-packed programme of events. Follow what’s happening online by searching #HW1987 and #WHS30 and use the hashtags to join in the conversations.
In the meantime you can discover more interesting facts and uncover more about the Wall’s surprising history on a visit to our museums and visitor centres:
- Housesteads Roman Fort – Open Daily
- Birdoswald Roman Fort
- Chesters Roman Fort and Museum
- Corbridge Roman Town
Please note that during the winter season, Birdoswald, Chesters and Corbridge are open at the weekends only. Full details of opening hours are available on the English Heritage website.