#35: UNESCO World Heritage sites – Hadrian’s Wall, the Frontiers of the Roman Empire
Hadrian’s Wall; a 73 mile stretch of rubble and stone striding across the north of England from Carlisle in the west to Newcastle in the east. The Wall and its associated defences such as ditches, watchtowers and forts, in combination with the Antonine Wall in Scotland and the German Limes is UNESCO World Heritage listed as the ‘Frontiers of the Roman Empire’. An impressive name.
Building work on the wall was started around AD 122 and took roughly six years to complete. The western section of the Wall was originally built in turf and timber, but was quickly rebuilt in stone. Hadrian’s Wall was 80 Roman miles long, with a Milecastle (large watchtower) marking every Roman mile and two smaller turrets (defensive towers) between each pair of Milecastles. That’s 80 milecastles and 158 turrets. Additionally, there were also 12 forts along the line of the wall. That’s a lot of building.
This must have been a massive undertaking at the time – cutting and transporting all that stone with just man, ox or horse power and hand tools, digging defensive ditches and building the forts, milecastles and turrets as well as the wall itself all presumably whilst having to defend the territory and maintain normal military training and fitness.
If I’m absolutely honest about it though, on first sight I was slightly underwhelmed by Hadrian’s Wall. Over the centuries, the wall has decayed, been taken over by vegetation or been torn down for the stone to be used in rebuilding, so it’s difficult to get an idea of its original height and how impressive that would have been. The Wall is no longer continuous. Some sections of it have fallen away completely, but what the remaining sections do show is the resilience of the original build. This Wall is now almost 2,000 years old. It is testament to the Roman engineers that it is even partially still standing.
In order to experience the Wall and try to get a handle on why it is considered so important, I spent a busy couple of days visiting various sites along the Wall and also walking some short sections of it. Over two days, I visited:
- Birdoswald Fort ruins and the longest continuous remaining length of the Wall
- The Roman Army Museum
- The Wall at Walltown Crags
- Vindolanda – archaeological site, fort ruins and museum
- The Wall from Steel Rigg to Sycamore Gap
- Housesteads Fort ruins
During these visits I firstly learnt a lot about Roman military life, and secondly as I walked sections of the Wall, I gained a greater appreciation for the work involved in its building.
This is not easy terrain to build on. It’s not flat, in fact it undulates quite dramatically. There are rivers to cross, escarpments to tame, corners to go round, and above all, it’s exposed – and therefore, most of the time, cold. Visiting Walltown Crags (a section of the Wall which goes up, across and down a huge escarpment in what is now the Northumberland National Park) late on in the day when I was practically the only person there, it was easy to get a sense of the isolation of the area in Roman times. Perched up high, surveying the badlands beyond, it felt like I could actually be on the edge of civilisation.
The phenomenal organisation and discipline of Roman military society became evident as I explored. Roman forts were all built on the same plan and to the same size, no matter where in the world there are. So, Vindolanda is not only exactly the same as Birdoswald and Housesteads, but also exactly the same as forts in mainland Europe. This was efficient for building – no need to draw up new plans to suit each site – but also ensured military units could be moved from one location to another without risking a lack of accommodation.
The thing that particularly struck me from seeing the ruined forts at Vindolanda and Housesteads was how the small size of the eight man bunkhouse barracks that the soldiers lived in compared to the space and opulence enjoyed by the ‘prefect’ or commander of the fort and his family. It was also clear that to support the life of the fort, local industries were needed and whole local communities grew up living in the ‘vicus’ – the area immediately outside the walls of the forts – to supply the goods and services needed by the soldiers when they were off duty. The building of the wall and the installation of garrisons at the forts must have had a tremendous impact on the Britons who already called the area home.
Essentially, as I now understand it, the purpose of the Wall was not only defensive but also economic and political. As well as providing a barrier to prevent invasions by the tribes the Romans called Barbarians from the north, the Wall also ensured that no trade or movement of goods could take place along the line of the frontier without them knowing about it; and therefore being able to collect taxes on it, or otherwise profit from the exchanges. So, the wall protected their economic interests, allowing them to maintain their government of England and its people.
Housesteads, as the most complete ruin, was worth seeing to appreciate the sheer scale of a Roman fort. Vindolanda, as it is still being excavated, had the most interesting museum and I learnt more here about the lives of those living on or near the Wall than at any other site. (Vindolanda actually predates the Wall by about 40 years, and is not on the direct line of the Wall, but was certainly used during the times the Wall was being built and defended.) In particular I was fascinated by the Vindolanda tablets – small wooden tablets covered in ink writing. These are basically the personal correspondence of generations of the Forts’ occupants and reveal details of not only the military operations of those living there but also intimate details of their personal lives. It’s like discovering 2,000 year old letters. What is particularly interesting about the tablets is that they tell the stories of ordinary people; they deal with the minutiae of everyday life, whereas historical records often focus on those with the power. It was a privilege to see a small number of these tablets, voted the British Museum’s Top Treasure, at the site where they were discovered.
Overall however, the Wall hasn’t fired my imagination to the same extent as some of the other World Heritage sites I’ve visited as part of this challenge. I guess I must have studied the Romans at school as I have some vague memories of mosaics, bathhouses, togas, coins and straight roads there’s not a lot else coming back to me. This contrasts with my visit to the Derwent Valley Mills and Ironbridge Gorge when I had a lightbulb moment about the impact of the Industrial Revolution and how it totally changed life in Britain forever. Similarly, at the Jurassic Coast, geography lessons about plate tectonics and rock strata suddenly made a lot more sense. But Hadrian’s Wall, so far from my own homeland in the south of England, still means little to me. I’m struggling to connect the Wall with anything I know or indeed to see what impact it had on the country I now live in. Yes, it’s amazing that these structures have survived nearly two millennia. Yes, some sections of the Wall are pleasant and interesting to walk along, with some stunning views. Yes, the ruined forts with their various museums demonstrate a lot about Roman military life and give a sense of what it was like to be living on the Wall. But what is not explained, and which I needed to understand, is why the Wall is of such global importance.