Sarcophagus Fragment, Roman, ca. 240-250 CE, The Art Institute of Chicago

Thursday, August 20, 2009

A New Theory Regarding Hadrian's Wall

A recent study claims that the ditch on the north side of Hadrian's Wall originally served as the foundation for a temporary wooden. British archaeologist Geoff Carter believes that the ditch was not used as a defensive barrier but instead is the remains of the wooden wall that preceded the famous stone wall. In Carter's hypothesis, the wall's milecastles were built first (of stone) with a wooden wall spanning the distances between them. After the mile castles were completed, the wooden wall served as a temporary defensive barrier while the stone wall was being constructed. It was previously believed that the ditch and corresponding post holes were part of a defensive barrier in front of the stone wall, a view that is being challenged by Carter. Hadrian's Wall was not constructed as a massive defensive barrier but as a permanent, permeable border, though it is still believed to have had considerable defensive barriers in the form of ditches in front of the wall. Only further studies will determine how Carter's theory is compatible with current views on the wall's defenses.

The emperor Hadrian acted in marked contrast to his predecessors by halting imperial expansion. Upon his succession, he quickly abandoned Trajan's territorial gains in the east, correctly determining them to be unsustainable. During his reign, Hadrian was faced with military troubles from many regions in the empire and it was decided that Scotland was a prize not worth fighting over. Starting in 122 CE, a temporary wooden wall was constructed from coast to coast in northern Britain, to be followed by the stone wall that is a well know landmark today. The wall was just over 73 miles long and is thought to have been around 20 feet tall. Forts were incorporated into the wall every Roman mile (called milecastles) and there were also forts located north and south of the wall.
Though a monumental building project, the fate of Hadrian's Wall was in jeopardy not long after his death. In 138 CE the emperor Antoninus moved the border 100 miles north of Hadrian's Wall, building a new turf wall known to history as the Antonine Wall. This wall was short lived though, being abandoned forever in 164 CE in favor of Hadrian's Wall. The garrisons along the wall faced several attacks in the late 2nd century CE and much of the wall was restored under the emperor Septimius Severus. The wall continued to be used as the border between Roman Britain and the unconquered north until the Romans withdrew from Britain in 410 CE.