It is roughly 270 years since a government in Westminster had Hadrian’s Wall systematically demolished and crushed to make the road that now brings the tourists to see the bits they missed. It helped create a vast fragmentary jigsaw puzzle that which has proved difficult to piece together.
In 2008, I recognised that my colleagues and others had discovered, under the streets of Tyneside, the remains of a temporary timber rampart predating the stone Wall. This observation explained the strategic methodology of Wall construction, shed light on the motivation, while providing a starting point for the process in both time and space; it was a key piece of the jigsaw; a how, why and where for the start of the Wall.
Since then I have been systematically realigning the existing pieces around this new bit of the puzzle, admittedly, I have had to turn several pieces round and reposition them quite significantly, but they now fit together to produce a picture that makes consistent sense. While previous articles over 7 years a give a more nuanced account of this research, and offer an opportunity to view its development, this account discusses this new understanding in a fairly concise form, particularly those ideas that depart significantly from the consensus. For example, I argue that from an engineering point of view and on the balance of probability that The Vallum was intended as trench for a roadbed for frontier road that was never built. However, I can demonstrate the idea of the ”Turf Wall” – a wall made from turf, is demonstrably false in any objective or empirical sense and inconsistent with the evidence; it was another part of an initial timber rampart.
The practicalities of such a project would probably require a temporary fort, perhaps every mile or so, to house the construction teams and garrisons for each section of wall with its milecastle, as well as larger camps for the construction of the main installations. While parts of the frontier in the West were marked by a road and some earlier forts like Vindolanda, most of Wall follows a new defensive line laid out to optimise its effectiveness.
Logically the starting point was the surveying and laying out the route, probably marked by some a construction track which survived as the Military Way. The clearance of all the local tree cover from the area of the Wall and its approaches would have provided timber for the temporary works which could be then be recycled into the permanent structures.
A tapering inner profile would accommodate wooden baulks of differing lengths in its construction, ensuring an efficient use of resources, as well as method for the defenders to mount the rampart. The timber wall can be thought of as the application of fort building technology to creating a frontier, so would have galleries, towers, and gates. Immediately in front of this rampart a ditch was dug, and apart from a small glacis slope covering the base of the wall, the bulk of the spoil is spread to the North, and not incorporated with the [temporary] defences.The presence the now invisible timber rampart explains why the space between the ditch and the stone Wall, the berm, is so wide and variable, as well as why the spoil had to be dumped on the north side. As noted the timber rampart was typical of the limes elsewhere, but I have always assumed that this was only ever intended as temporary solution, since as a general rule the stone wall is upslope from the ditch. The timber piled in the rampart was a effectively a buffer-stock of drying timber, ready to be recycled into the buildings and other infrastructure along the frontier.
However, importantly, the sections of stone wall subsequently built in the west, in front of the temporary Wall, also have a wide berm, indicating that the use of a temporary barrier was standard practice in the field.
It has been universally believed been believed that this section of Wall was constructed from turf, which as I have explained is a mixture of organic material [plants] and mineral-based material in soil, the "peaty" organic archaeological deposit contains only fine grained material, with almost no mineral inclusions, only charcoal and the remains of mosses that grow on burnt or decaying wood; the pollen samples are dominated by trees.
Put simply, unless it was a 16 foot mound of grass clippings, the "Turf" Wall was made of wood as was normally the case, as was presumably structured in a similar way to the Timber Wall the East.
“The first labour was to prepare furrows and mark out the borders of the road, and to hollow out the ground with deep excavation ; then to fill up the dug trench with other material,…..''
Firstly, it is not a “ditch”, there is an example dug by the Roman army a few yards away which typical of every other “V” profile ditch; this is a trench with a flat bottom and sides cut as steeply as the soil will bear, which explains why it is famously cut vertically through the bedrock at limestone corner, whereas the nearby Wall Ditch is unfinished.
In marked contrast to The Ditch, the whole earthwork was meticulous laid out, running from the Bridgehead at Newcastle continuously to the end of the Wall at Bowness, it does not always follow the defensive line of the wall, but rather the optimum course for a road. It was to have comprised two soft lanes for pedestrians and riders, with a central metalled carriageway for wheeled vehicles. It runs from with long straight stretches, gentle gradients, and curves to suit the poor turning circles of Roman military wagons.
Road building and quarrying was the original hard labour usually done by criminals and slaves, so apart from supervision, the only task that required skill is the creation of the paved road surface. After the first dislocation, it appears to have been no longer practical to finish building the curtain wall to its original specification, and in this context of manpower shortage, the project seems to have been completely abandoned or shelved leaving only a massive enigmatic cutting through the landscape.
However, the most puzzling aspect of the structure is that at some point it appears all the presumed crossings required to cross the trench, were removed and the spoil piled along the southern edge of the trench forming an intermittent feature known as the marginal mound. Since it seems completely improbable these were removed to facilitate the initial stage of roadbed construction, then the only reasonable context is that the Romans removed the crossings because they were in imminent danger of attack and wished to protect their rear as best they could to mitigate against any breakthrough.
The military frontier was normally arranged like a traditional order of battle, similar to that used at Mons Graupius, with a light screen of skirmishers, a front line of auxiliaries , cavalry on the wings, and the main legionary force behind this. Similarly, the forward areas of the frontier, the buffer states north of the wall, was lightly garrisoned with small fort on the main routes, the frontier proper was manned mainly by auxiliaries, with cavalry on each flank , and with the main legionary forces concentrated in bases [Chester /York] at rear, giving them the time and space to manoeuvre and counter attack any break through. In deference to the length of the frontier there was also a main cavalry base at Chesters.
There is another glaring obvious problem with the Wall, there is a gate every mile; while it is easy to see the logic behind this, it was clearly a mistake; when the wall was reoccupied most of them were blocked off.
Unusually for the time, Roman forts routinely has four gates, which allowed the defenders the opportunity to counter-attack from any direction in order to trap the attackers against the fortifications, while requiring the latter to consider this eventuality. Translated to the Wall, the gates were not for letting people in, but letting the Romans out to get at the enemy, however, there were usually more solders immediate behind the gates of a fort.
But from the perspective of an attacker, only one gate really needed to be captured and held for a period to get many thousands of mounted troops, probably with carts, chariots and wagons through the wall in good order.
In addition to being stormed, gates can be blocked, so that troops, in particular cavalry, cannot deploy be deployed to counter attack the flanks of the attack.
It is not hard to see that a competently planned attack in force could cause breaches, especially in those areas still under construction, which could leave the Roman forces outflanked, dispersed and surrounded in small garrisons. There is a very important aspect to Legionary losses; during normal campaigning, significant casualties would not be expected from conventional engagements, these tended to occur when forces caught in an ambush or an improperly prepared position.
Where did it all go wrong?
When people see the central sector where the Wall is built along the rocky outcrop formed by the Whin Sill, they might wonder why a wall was necessary. However, if somewhere is perceived as an unlikely point for an attack, perversely, this actually makes it better place to launch one; this form of second guessing is usually to the advantage of the attacker, but there were other reasons to attack in this sector.
While, it is possible, though unlikely, the temporary defences were weaker here, the principle advantage is that a successful attack here would seize the high ground splitting the Roman forces in two, opening the option to head south on either side of the Pennines.
While the losses referred to Fronto could have happened to in the first couple of years of Hadrian’s, these were dealt with successfully [and triumphantly], it seems more likely they refer to the serious legionary losses implied by the effects of the dislocation on the standard and scale of the Wall.
'....... he made for Britain, where he set right many things and - the first to do so - drew a wall along a length of eighty miles to separate barbarians and Romans.'
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- Wilmott,T., TheTurfWall https://www.dur.ac.uk/resources/archaeological.services/research_training/hadrianswall_research_framework/project_documents/TurfWall.pdf [Accessed 25/12/2014],
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Bidwell, P T, 2005 'The system of obstacles on Hadrian's Wall; their extent, date and purpose', Arbeia J, 8, 53-76.
Johnnie Shannon -Hadrian's Wall and path, section near Crag Lough