A Visit to Hadrian’s Wall 3 – Housesteads Fort

465 Housesteads barracks 2

Housesteads Fort (Roman name Vercovicium) is a wonderful place to visit for its location and views alone but it’s also the best preserved of all the forts along the Wall. It’s a World Heritage Site and is owned by the National Trust and managed by English Heritage.

Hadrians Wall 2
Location of Hadrian’s Wall and the Antonine Wall. Author: NormanEinstein. Creative Commons

Housesteads is roughly half way along Hadrian’s Wall and is one of sixteen forts that housed around 10,000 men between them. Archaeologists believe that the original plan for Hadrian’s Wall did not include forts, as several (like Vindolanda) were already garrisoned along the Stanegate Road a mile or so south. The first plan had only manned milecastles and turrets at regular intervals. Once work started, around AD 124, plans changed and a recently built turret was demolished to make way for this fort, the remains of which can still be seen today.

The fort sits high on the escarpment of the Whin Sill ridge on the dip slope to the south of the Wall. At the bottom of the slope is the entrance to the site and where the visitor centre and main car park are located.

502 Map on display at the Visitor Centre (lower down the hill)

The map above is from an information board at the site. It shows the immediate location of the fort, the area to the south of it and the path along which visitors walk up to the fort from the entrance. Disabled visitors can drive further up to the disabled parking area (marked 3 on the map). The other numbered buildings are the little museum (6) activity centre (7) and a holiday cottage (8). The general car park, visitor centre and food and drinks kiosk are a little outside this section of the map. (10) refers to the fort and (9) is the vicus (civilian settlement).

The photo below shows part of the same area, looking south from the fort to part-way down the hill. Some of the ruins of the vicus can be seen in the foreground. 449 View south from Housesteads Fort

Looking north from the fort there are views down to the Knag Burn Gate (just visible in the photo in middle of the stretch of wall after the bend where the people are walking). It is thought that this was inserted in the fourth century, possibly to allow easier passage through the Wall. Gates at either end of the passage suggest that travellers were held inside and searched. Open Northumbrian countryside stretches out beyond the photo and on to the Tyne Valley and Scottish borders.

469 Looking north down to the Knag Burn Ggate

Houseteads has the usual, playing card shape of all Roman forts, its northern side lying along the Wall itself. To the south are the ruins of the vicus. During excavations there in 1932, two skeletons were found beneath a newly laid floor. One, a man, had a sword still embedded in the ribs. The cause of death of the woman with him is unknown. Needless to say, the house has since been called the ‘Murder House’.

450 Housesteads Fort and Vicus

In the centre of the fort are the main buildings. The most central one is the Headquarters, or Principia – the administrative, ceremonial and symbolic heart of the fort.

280 HQ building at Housesteads

It faced the east gate and sat at the junction of the major roads from the gateways.

483 Plan of Housesteads Fort 3

Next to that, on the southern side (right in the diagram immediately above) is the Praetorium or Commanding Officer’s House, with its central courtyard. The Commander lived in style and entertained a lot!

287 Praetorium at Housesteads

At the opposite side of the HQ building are the usual granaries – vital to the feeding of the garrison. The impressive system of underfloor heating/ventilation can still be seen. 475 Housesteads Granary

Hospital at Housesteads
The hospital at Housesteads. Photograph by Mike Peel (www.mikepeel.net). Creative Commons

Another point of interest is that Housesteads had its own hospital with what archaeologists believe to be evidence of an operating theatre. On the above plan, the hospital sits behind (west) of the HQ building.

Either side of this important central area were the soldiers’ barracks, the stables and workshops. My ‘header’ image is an artist’s impression, from an information board at the site, of the outside of a barracks block. This is what they look like today:

Other buildings included stables and workshops – and in the far south-east corner, the lowest point in the fort, is an impressive latrine! For eight years on the trot of going with the school to Housesteads, I seemed to land the roll of ‘Toilet Attendant’! I would stand up there while groups of about fifteen students at a time gathered round to listen to me deliver my spiel.

As archaeological evidence, I must admit, the Housetseads latrine is fascinating. Here are a couple of photos of what can be seen today:

Yes, the latrine was what we would call a communal loo! The men would sit along either side (it could take about a dozen men each side) and do whatever they came to do whilst enjoying friendly banter with their mates. They could have been discussing the ‘son of a bitch’ centurion, or perhaps bemoaning the rigorous daily training expected of them – or even a recent barbarian attack. The question which generally came as one of the first from the students was ‘What did they use for loo roll?”

Well, take a look at these artist’s impressions of what the latrine would have looked like:

For starters, it wasn’t an open-air venue and secondly, the men are not holding lollipops. Those items are simply referred to as ‘a sponges on sticks’ (although I imagine the Romans had other names for them). The drainage channels in front of them are where the sponges were put after use – ready for the next person who needed one. Who needs loo roll, when you can use one of those?

However, there is no evidence that ‘sponges on sticks’ were ever used in Britain. The artist’s impression above is based on evidence from Roman latrines around the Mediterranean. It could be that Romans in Britain used the same ‘toiletries’ as the rest of the ‘barbarians’ – grass, bracken or moss.

Beneath the wooden seats were sewers for the waste, which was flushed away through a conduit to the hillside below. Tanks to collect rainwater stood around the fort, as there was no running water inside. This tank stands outside the latrine, one of several that would have provided water for the sewage system. It can also be seen on the first photo of the latrines above:

286 Water tank at Housesteads

After AD 300 major changes were made to the fort, possibly linked to the way in which the Roman Army was now organised. The old barracks – which housed a century of men (i.e. 80) in ten compartments – were demolished and replaced by chalets for individual soldiers, suggesting that the numbers of men stationed there were declining. The west gate was blocked with stone and in the fourth century, a new bath house was built inside the fort and the isolated, outer one abandoned, suggesting that the security of soldiers may have been a concern.

By AD 410,the Roman Army had been withdrawn from Britain, leaving these islands wide open for attacks from peoples from continental Europe: Angles, Saxons, Jutes, Frisians and a few hundred years later, Danish and Norwegian Vikings. And last but not least were the Normans in 1066.

Some of he many ‘finds’ from Houseteads can be seen in the little museum. Others are housed at the museum at Chesters Roman fort further east, and others at the Museum of Antiquites in Newcastle.

  • All images, other than two from Wikimedia and my own photos are from information boards around the Housesteads site. Information from the same boards and a variety of booklets form the site.

57 thoughts on “A Visit to Hadrian’s Wall 3 – Housesteads Fort

    1. Thanks Meritings. I agree, Housesteads is a wonderful place – on a warm day! I was up there one year with the school I taught at in early April, and it snowed. It was freezing! It brought some excellent creative writing from the children about ‘Soldier on the Wall’. Housesteads and Vindolanda have always been my favourite sites up there. I’m glad to hear you love it, too. 🙂

    1. The latrines are interesting – and hilarious to school children. The use of sponges on sticks always brought a big ‘Ughhh!’ from them – as did the idea of the waste flowing down the slope! Thank you, Shivangi.

    1. Thank Cynthia. I’ve got so many of these kind of posts to write up from visits we made last year, I’m in danger of becoming a ‘Travel Blog’. 🙂

  1. Interesting historical post, Millie. I actually found it fascinating reading about the latrine system. who would have thought!! And the underfloor heating, can you tell me what the floors were made of and what they used for underfloor heating? . ……

    1. The underfloor heating was an early form of central heating using hot air – and quite ingenious. It was used in villas of the rich people, the bath houses and other important buildings. It involved the first floor being raised on pillars, made from layers of tiles and concrete (the latter another Roman invention). The hot air came from a furnace at one side of the underground area where all the pillars were. It travelled up to the rooms above though spaces inside the walls. I imagine the hot walls acted like radiators to heat up the rooms. Smoke escaped through small holes in the outer walls.
      In the granaries, the same idea of the floor being raised up was simply to allow a regular flow of air to stop the gain becoming too moist and rot. I imagine those floors would be wood, so the air could get through to the grain through the floorboards. Concrete floors, as in villas and bath houses etc. wouldn’t be much use for that.

      1. I imagine the smoke holes were only on outside walls. I’ve never seen any diagrams of that, although there must be some about. I’ve never thought to look it up before.

    1. Our next ‘trip’ starts tomorrow (down to Somerset). We’ll be there for a week, vsiting sites in Somerset and Dorset. On Saturday we go to see the reenactment of a battle between Alfren ad Guthrum at Corfe Castle. I can’t wait for that one. It’s a fair drive from Chard, but that’s OK.
      This post is the third and last I intend to do from our visit to Hadrian’s Wall last August. I can’t get enough of the place. I’ve been so many times and never tire of it. Vindolanda and Houseteads are my favourite places up there, but there are lots of other great sites, too. But if I post about any more, I’m sure people will become fed up with it all. Besides, I still have a long list of posts to write up from last year – and already three more from this year.
      Thanks Becky. I hope to visit some blogs later on today.
      Re. archaeological evidence still to be unearthed, there’s still so much of all the sites on HW untouched. I think finance is the main drawback – or lack of it. Only one third of the fort at Vinolanda has been excavated, so who knows what else they’ll find at that amazing site!

  2. Pretty impressive. I doubt much of today’s architecture will still be around in 2000 years time, given that many houses these days are already falling to bits shortly after being built.

    1. That’s very true! Most of these along Hadrian’s Wall – and the Wall itself – would be even more impressive if local people hadn’t pilfered the stone for centuries. Thanks, Ali. 🙂

      1. Being too busy hits us all at times, Andy. I’m still not on my blog too often at the moment. I’m having a break this week down in Somerset. We went to see the Cheddar Gorge today and the day before we popped into Wiltshire to see Stonehenge. They’re both places I’ve been dying to visit for years! Both totally awesome, too. (More ‘posts to do’ to add to my enormous list. Anyway, I’m glad you’re all well. 🙂

      2. Thanks, Andy. We got back on Tuesday and I can now say that we loved Cheddar. As you say, it’s pretty impressive. I’ll do a post about it at some stage. I’m still not posting much on my blog until I finish my book, so my list of ‘posts to do’ is getting very long!

      3. I know what you mean about the list of posts building up, my list is getting pretty long, and I’m not writing a book!! Glad to hear that the latest book sounds like it’s progressing quite well 🙂

    1. There is a lot to see, and lots of places to visit. But if you’re planning on covering the miles, I’m not sure you’ll have time to spend at individual sites. The walk along the Wall is fabulous, so I’m sure you’ll enjoy that. You can always go up there another time to do justice to the forts and so on.
      As for the walk, it’s very up and down in places – which I’m sure you’ll already know – so it isn’t all easy going. Great views, though. 🙂

    1. Thanks, Jack. This is another place I know you’d love. Housesteads and Vindolanda are my favourite sites along the Wall, although all of them are worth a visit, for different reasons. Chesters Fort, for example, has a really great bath house down by the river. 🙂

    1. Thank you! I’m down in Somerset this week (visiting more historical sites to post about – even though I still have a stack from last year to do!) but am trying to visit a few blogs in the evenings. I’ll pop over to say ‘hello’ as soon as I can. 🙂

      1. I can well imagine you feel exactly the same. In the world of science, the opportunities for blog posts are endless. You certainly do an excellent job of presenting such a variety of great topics.

      2. The world is totally amazing, I couldn’t agree more with you. I just wanted to add how happy I was to see how much you’d enjoyed your trip to the Galapagos (and that I’m green with envy). What a wonderful experience all round – and not just educationally.

    1. Thank you for that! It really is worth a visit. Housesteads and Vindolanda are my favourite sites up there, but there are many others to see. The excavated bath house at Chesters Fort is wonderful, too – and just walking along the Wall itself is bliss. 🙂

  3. I’m still catching up on my April reading, and what a treat this post was! It’s amazing how much the archeologists can learn from looking at what little is left. How on earth did they determine there was evidence of an operating theater? That hospital seems awfully large to me, though, so I guess it makes sense. I love looking at the models and floor plans – which I can do online just as well — but there’s something so compelling about being able to then go out and walk the actual space, imagining what it was like then.

    And the Roman ruins always strike me as so modern. Such advanced designs for heating and water and waste! It’s especially impressive after having my head in the Middle Ages for a while, because so much was lost in the meantime (including how to make concrete).

    The latrines are always fascinating, aren’t they? Not just to school kids! I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time researching various ways people dealt with “unmentionable” body fluids in the past. And boy, I’m glad to live now. Communal toilets? Ugh! But then, that’s because I do live now. If I lived back then, these practices would seem totally normal.

    Another great post, Millie!

    1. Hi Joy! Good to see you’ve survived Camp NaNo. I hope you had a productive month and are happy with what you’ve achieved. I haven’t been on my blog a great deal lately, but I’ll be visiting other people’s this week.
      I never cease to be amazed by the ingenuity of the Romans. Unfortunately, much of their great architecture and inventions (like concrete, underfloor heating and sewage systems) were abandoned and forgotten once the Anglo Saxons arrived in Britain. They preferred the wooden buildings of their homelands, for a start – and would have no need at all for concrete. As for communal toilets, the Romans seemed to do everything communally – like bathing and even orgies! Lol. I can understand how you’d need to research ‘toilet’ habits for your book. I did, too, to a degree, for the Vikings and Anglo Saxons I write about. Thanks again for reading – and liking – my post.

      1. I don’t even need this particular novel as an excuse to research toilet habits, ha ha! It’s part of my broader research for world building, as I work out cultural norms and practices about certain things. Although I will confess that I spent an insane amount of time designing the building that features in Corwallen Manor, including yet more research on sewage and garderobes, as well as a fair amount on how many fireplaces they’re likely to have and where, spiral staircase construction, and technology-appropriate window coverings. Yes, all things that either won’t come up at all or will be mentioned briefly and go totally unnoticed by 99% of readers. 😉

      2. I did wonder what your work involves. It sounds fascinating. As for technical details in your book, it’s vital to get it right. 🙂

      3. Oh, and yes, I beat my word count goal for Camp NaNo (20,000) and am now 31,000 words closer to being done. So that was about as productive as I could have hoped, except I was hoping to be done. Well, maybe another 20,000!

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