Hadrian’s Wall: Historian reveals why Romans didn’t abandon site
Hadrian’s Wall was built to mark the boundaries of the Roman Empire and to keep the Scots out. It was constructed after the visit of Emperor Hadrian in 122 AD by the Roman army, protected by those who built it, as well as the Roman soldiers who lived in the forts alongside it. The 73-mile wall – stretching from the banks of the River Tyne near the North Sea to the Solway Firth on the Irish Sea – was the furthest frontier of the Roman Empire.
While Hadrian’s Wall is one of the more famous legacies left by the Romans, other, perhaps more significant sites, remain sprinkled around the North of England.
Vindolanda sits fairly landlocked in Northumberland, and was once a Roman auxiliary fort just south of Hadrian’s Wall.
It pre-dated the famous wall and was under Roman occupation from around 85 AD to 370 AD.
Noted for several exciting archaeological finds, the very land around Vindolanda is something which is often overlooked, and is one of the main reasons for it lasting as a pillar of Roman defence over the centuries, as was explained during History Hit’s, ‘Vindolanda: Jewel of the North’.
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Here Dr Andrew Birley, the Director of Excavations at Vindolanda, told of how important the location was for the construction and occupation of Hadrian’s Wall in the following years.
He said: “This (Vindolanda) is a construction fort for Hadrian’s Wall, this is a garrison fort for the wall.
“Eventually, the people who lived here, went and built a new fort about a mile away right on to the wall itself.
“But because Vindolanda is in such a good spot, it just keeps getting renewed again and again – they never abandoned it.”
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This was true even when the Romans ventured further north and briefly left Hadrian’s Wall when Antoninus Pius came to power in 138 AD.
Dr Birley continued: “In fact, when Hadrian’s Wall was mothballed briefly in the 140s, 150s and 160s AD to go and build the Antonine Wall, Vindolanda maintained an active presence.
“We have new forts, new populations, new garrisons, despite the fact most of Hadrian’s Wall was mothballed and the troops were up serving well north of here, a hundred miles further away.
“It’s because it’s in such an important spot and that main road that was put here by the Romans when they first built the site – it’s the point of the main artery, it’s the M1 or M6 of the period, taking troops and supplies east and west right across the heart of the country.”
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Excavations at Vindolanda have proved lucrative over the years.
In 2020, a chalice was found at the site split into 14 fragments, and was soon described as Britain’s first known example of Christian graffiti on an object, believed to be unparalleled in western Europe.
The foundations of a church were also uncovered, thought to hail from the 5th or 6th century AD.
Dr Birley, at the time, told The Observer that finding church foundations inside the Roman stone fort was significant enough.
However, he said to find a vessel “smothered both inside and out with Christian iconography is quite incredible”.
He explained: You’ve got crosses, a whale, fish, ships with lovely rigging and little flags, little angels, a priestly figure seemingly holding a crook with a big smiley face, ears of wheat.
“It’s just remarkable. Nothing in north-western Europe comes close from the period.”
Dr David Petts, a Durham University specialist on the post-Roman period and early Christianity, is now researching the chalice.
He said: “It is genuinely exciting. When we think of graffiti, we tend to think it’s unauthorised vandalism.
“But we know from many medieval churches, that people would put marks and symbols on buildings. What is unique about this is finding them on a vessel.”
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