Hadrian’s Wall: Construction of Roman fortification explained
The Roman conquest of Britain began almost 2,000 years ago. With it came the first written records of England’s history. Julius Caesar had visited Britain before, in 55 and 54 BC, although these had only been part of propaganda missions to appease his subjects at home.
Emperor Claudius resumed Caesar’s work almost a century later by ordering the invasion of Britain under the command of Aulus Plautius.
For the next 400 years the native Celts would either be wiped out or pushed out of their homes.
While it was quickly established that they stood no match for the Romans, evidence suggests that the Celts put up a considerable fight.
When Emperor Hadrian ordered a 73-mile wall spanning the banks of the River Tyne near the North Sea, to the Solway Firth near the Irish Sea to be built, the colonists faced the challenge of mobilising against the multiple tribes.
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The Romans built 81 castles along the wall – later called Hadrian’s Wall – in order to manage the flow of traffic of tribes while keeping an eye on any warring factions.
Between every mile castle on the wall there was initially to be two smaller buildings called turrets or watch towers.
At Vindolanda, which is around 11 miles south of the wall, two reconstructions of such buildings stand.
One is a stone turret which would have sat east of the River Irthing along with the stone wall, while next to it sits a wooden turret, something that would have been built to the west of the river.
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For years archaeologists have questioned why the Romans built turrets of timber on the western side, yet had used stone on the east.
The peculiarity was explored during History Hit’s, ‘Edges of Empire: ‘Building the Wall’, in which researcher Tristan Hughes presented a theory that potentially solved the age-old mystery.
While he said the short answer was that “we’re not exactly sure,” he added that “it might be because, in the early 2nd Century AD, this part of the wall was more of a danger zone”.
He continued: “Perhaps the tribes a bit further north were more hostile, and so the Romans, rather than spending more time creating a stone turret, they wanted to get something up quicker, and so they used timber.
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Stone turret: The Romans used stone to build turrets on the east side of the Irthing
Timber turret: While on the west side of the Irthing, the watch towers were made of wood
“But it’s also possible because that part of the wall was made out of turf and timber at the start – so perhaps it was to go in line with that.
“So, maybe it was because the tribes were more ferocious, more dangerous, more hostile to the Romans.
“But eventually, even these wooden towers did transform into stone.”
Researchers believe that a handful of auxiliary soldiers would have manned each turret.
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Their job would be to keep watch beyond the wall, looking for small war bands and brigades of tribes.
They also managed the traffic coming to and from the wall, and would raise the alarm to nearby Roman forts if they saw potential enemy activity to the north.
It might also be that the turrets acted as a siege engine.
Vindolanda: The fort sits 11 miles south of Hadrian’s Wall and actually predates the structure
One of the most famous Roman siege engines was called a ‘scorpion’.
A deadly device, the Romans had created large, mechanical crossbows that were highly accurate and shot bolts of metal long distances.
Roman presence at Vindolanda is generally viewed as having faded from 370 AD, while the Romans more generally started to leave Britain between 388 and 400 AD.
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