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.

Hadrian’s Wall (2) – Vindolanda

031 Helmet plume from Vindolanda, how in The Roman Army Museum

Vindolanda is my favourite site to visit when we go up to Hadrian’s Wall. It has everything a history lover could want: ancient ruins to walk around – with an ongoing archaeological ‘dig’ during the summer months – and reconstructions of parts of Hadrian’s Wall. There is also an excellent, award-winning museum housing many of the finds from the dig. The scenery around the site and the landscaped gardens and little stream close to the museum are a delight in themselves.

Vindolanda was the longest occupied fort along the Roman northern frontier, built between AD74 and 85 and continuing through to end of Roman Britain in AD410. It is sited pretty much centrally between the eastern  and western ends of the Wall but is not on Hadrian’s Wall itself, being a mile or so to the south of it. These maps aren’t that clear, but they may give some idea of location:

Route of the Stanegate Road.
Route of the Stanegate Road. Author: Neddysegoon. Creative Commons
Approximate location of Vindolanda
The x marks the approximate location of Vindolanda. The photo is of an information board at Housesteads fort.

The fort, and the settlement that grew up with it, were first constructed four decades before Hadrian decided to build his wall. It formed part of a line of a few forts along the Roman road known as the Stanegate (Stone Gate). By the time the building of Hadrian’s Wall began around AD122 there had already been four forts and towns on the site (wood rots!).

At its height, Vindolanda would have supported a population of 3-4000, of which 1000 would have been largely auxilliary soldiers. The rest was made up of the soldiers’ families, traders and merchants, servant and slaves. People from all over the Roman empire would have lived here: from North Africa, Spain, Syria, France (Gaul/Gallia) and Germany and Italy itself. Hence there would be a great variety of customs, diets, dress and dialects.

395 Map - Roman Empire (2)

While Hadrian’s Wall was under construction, Vindolanda became a sort of ‘base camp’ for the legionaries and many workers involved. Once the Wall was completed, Vindolanda formed part of the Wall garrison, despite being a mile south of the actual Wall.

But the population of Vindolanda was always on the move, shifting from one ‘posting’ to the next, and the majority of the people would have gone with them. At one point, between AD280-304/5, the site was abandoned and lay derelict, and was rebuilt in AD305. Excavations have unearthed remains of a large bonfire on the site. It had been used to destroy all the household goods of the prefect/commanding officer at that time as his household prepared to move on to another site. At he bottom of the huge pile of remains, many letters and other communications had survived: wonderful archaeological evidence of life up on the Wall at that time.

All this construction and rebuilding work meant that in places it has been necessary for archaeologists to dig down as much as 7 metres below the original ground level to reach many of the ‘finds’.  But the constant renewal of the site also helped to create the excellent preservation conditions (anaerobic/anoxic levels) where there is little or no oxygen.

Photo of excavation work at Vindolanda from a display board inside the museum.
Photo of excavation work at Vindolanda from a display board inside the museum.

The ruins need to be viewed in two parts. First there is the fort. Although there is still a lot of it to be excavated, some buildings are clearly identifiable. Most of the outer walls and gates are visible, as well as both the NE and SW corners and a latrine. As all Roman forts, this one had the typical playing-card shape (rectangular with rounded corners). It also had the three central and most important buildings of every fort: the headquarters building; the commanding officer’s/prefect’s house and the granaries. Then there were the other usual buildings such as the soldiers’ barracks, latrines and so on. I don’t intend to describe all these here because my next post is about a single fort (Housesteads) and I’ll be talking about that then.

What I’d like to focus on now is the vicus at Vindolanda  – the settlement that grew up outside the walls of the fort.

066 Model of Fort and Vicus on Entering Vindolanda
Model of the fort and vicus at Vindolanda in the entrance to the site.
Plan of Vicus at Vindolanda
Plan of Vicus at Vindolanda

The present day ruins are quite incredible and give us plenty of insight into everyday life in a Roman settlement at this time.  I couldn’t possibly describe all of the different remains in a single post but they included everything from temples and mausolea, shops of various types, a tavern and workshops to a military bath house, wells and water tanks.

Finds from the dig have produced the most important archaeological discovery of the last 50 years: the writing tablets. They are currently housed in the museum – on loan from the British Museum in London – and displayed in an hermetically sealed case, protected from the decaying effects of oxygen, moisture and humidity.

The first writing tablet from Vindolanda was unearthed over 30 years ago. It was one of the most important archaeological discoveries in Britain since 1945. The collection of about 2,000 documents is an invaluable source of information about life in the Roman army on the northern frontiers during the years immediately before the building of Hadrian’s Wall. The tablet I always loved is one from Claudia Severa to Sulpicia Lepidina, the wife of the garrison’s commanding officer in AD100, inviting her to her birthday party. But the largest tablet is a four page one from Octavius to Candidus, listing business transactions between Vidolanda and Catterick Roman fort in Yorkshire, roughly 68 miles away. It contains the amusing phrase ‘the roads are awful’!

Other ‘finds’ from the dig include armour, shoes, socks, wigs, wood and leather items, textiles, glass, pottery, ironwork, inscriptions and sculpture. One of the most impressive finds is the hair-moss crest from a helmet, now housed at the Roman Army Museum at Carvoran, where we photographed it. That museum is also run by the Vindolanda Trust (so, unlike some of the other sites along the Wall, these two are not run by English Heritage or National Trust).

031 Helmet plume from Vindolanda, how in The Roman Army Museum

This was made from a type of moss that grows nearby, simply referred to as ‘hair moss’. It is believed these crests would have been in several colours, but the only one I found on Wikipedia was red:

Reconstruction of a centurion helmet with crest made of hair moss. Photographed from a show of Legio XV from Pram, Austria, No details about author. Creative Commons
Reconstruction of a centurion helmet with crest made of hair moss. Photographed from a show of Legio XV from Pram, Austria, No details about author. Creative Commons

Here’s a selection of other finds on display at Vindolanda. Most were displayed behind glass and in bright lights …sorry about the glare:

To finish with here a a few photos of the Temple to the Water Nymphs and a couple of altar stones outside . . .

. . . and some photos from inside the reconstructed house and shop nearby:

Following the Roman period the Vindolanda site was of little importance to anyone other than farmers and those needing stone to build their houses. Odd artefacts turned up occasionally, but the reality of what lay beneath the soil remained a mystery. When more and more finds were made, in 1832, the Reverend Anthony Hedley built his new house on the site and called it Chesterholm. The house is now an integral part of the museum. He also made the first real steps in preserving the site.

Yet it wasn’t until 1929 when young scholar, Eric Birley, bought the property that the amazing potential of Vindolanda came to light. He ran the first series of excavations, but the Second World War put a halt on things for a while. After the war, excavations continued, and the site stayed in the hands of the Birley family until 1970 when Eric’s son, Robin, handed it over to the Vindolanda Trust on behalf of the nation.

I haven’t done credit to the Birley family here as this post is rapidly becoming a book! But if you visit Vindolanda during the summer, you may catch a glimpse of one or the other of this awesome family, still happily digging away.

437 Wooden and stone turrets at Vindolanda

A Visit to Hadrian’s Wall

186 Walltown Crags (2)

Last August, Nick and I spent some time up in the North of England in order to visit one of my all-time favourite sites . . . Hadrian’s Wall. I’m totally smitten by this structure and the wonderful, open scenery around it, but I can well imagine what the Romans felt about manning it, particularly in the cold, wet, or icy winter months. It really is quite desolate up there, with nothing to see for miles other than the odd farm and plenty of sheep.


Sheep around Hadrian's Wall

We took lots of photos of the various forts and museums, as well as several of the Wall itself. I thought I’d do the first post about Hadrian’s Wall in general and follow it with a couple about the forts we visited along its route. To start with, here’s some information about the Roman Invasion and the building of the Wall:

The Romans first invaded Britain in 55 BC under Julius Caesar, but this was not a success, and permanent occupation of the island only began in AD 43 when the Emperor Claudius launched an invasion…

Statue of Claudius in the Vatican Museum. Author: sailko. Creative Commons
Statue of Claudius in the Vatican Museum. Author: sailko. Creative Commons

Even then, the invasion was not as easy as Claudius had hoped. The Celtic tribes were savage  and warlike and most had no intention of succumbing to Roman domination. Some did, of course, including the Brigantes – whose queen, Cartimandua, I mentioned in my Chester post. It was only once the Boudicca uprising of AD 60-61 had been quelled that the Romans were able to move out and establish control over the rest of the country.

The fort of Roman Chester (Deva) was established by AD 70. The great fortress at York, Eboracum – which became the provincial capital of ‘the North’ – was also founded at this time, and shortly after AD 100 the most northerly army forts stretched between the Tyne and the Solway. These were linked by a road now known as the Stanegate, which provided good communications between Corbridge towards the east and Carlisle in the west. It was along this line that, in AD 122, the Emperor Hadrian ordered the construction of the Wall.


Hadrian’s Wall is the most important monument built by the Romans in Britain. For 300 years it was the north-west frontier of the Roman Empire. According to Hadrian’s biographer, it was intended to separate Romans from the barbarians further north. But in many ways, the Wall is the recognition of Rome’s abandonment of its intentions to conquer all of Britain. Having originally intending to conquer further north the Romans had now become more interested in controlling goods in and out of their empire and focused on their frontiers.

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

Hadrian’s Wall stretched for 73 miles (80 Roman miles) across country, from Bowness-on-Solway in the west to Wallsend-on-Tyne in the east, and forts were located about every five Roman miles. It followed the natural contours of the Whin Sill Ridge:

0551 Whin Sill

It was built by the soldiers themselves, mostly the legionaries:

Legionaries building The Wall
Legionaries building the Wall. Photo from Housesteads Visitor Centre.

The Wall is thought to have been up to 3.1 meters thick and about 4-5 meters high. At the top was probably a protected walkway for soldiers on patrol. At first, it was built either of stone or, in the western third, of turf and timber and replaced by stone after 30 years.

Milecastles were  gateways, placed at every mile between the forts, as legal crossing points:

The remains of Castle Nick, Milecastle Milecastle 39, between Housestaeds and Onve Brewed Visitor Centre for Northumberland. Author: Adam Cuerden. Public Domain. Wikimedia Commons
The remains of Castle Nick, Milecastle Milecastle 39, between Housestaeds and Once Brewed Visitor Centre for Northumberland. Author: Adam Cuerden. Public Domain. Wikimedia Commons

Turrets, or small watch towers, were built into the wall at intervals of a third of a Roman mile (equivalent to 541 yards) i.e. two turrets between each milecastle. The reconstructions below are from Vindolanda (the site of one of the forts along the Stanegate road, already in existence before the Wall was built.):

087 Wooden milecastle
Wooden turret at Vindolanda
086 Stone turret
Stone turret at Vindolanda

Below is a reconstruction of a Roman soldier on watch over the Wall – probably at one of the milecastles or turrets. It wasn’t the most pleasant of jobs during the cold northern winters – especially for soldiers used to Mediterranean climes.

011 Soldier on the Wall (2)

During the building of the Wall, it was decided to build an additional 12 or 13 forts actually on the wall line. South of the Wall, a great earthwork known as the Vallum was completed. This consisted of a ditch with a mound set back on either side stretching the length of the frontier from the Tyne to the Solway. Crossings through the Vallum were only at the forts. There was also a ditch on the northern side, except in places where the high ridge or the Solway coast made it unnecessary. Material from this ditch was used to make an outer band on the north side.

Cross section of the works. Author: Ujap.de. Creative Commons
Cross section of Hadrian’s Wall. Author: Ujap.de. Creative Commons
Vallum at Hadrian's Wall. Photographer: Optimist on the run. Creative Commons.
Vallum at Hadrian’s Wall. Photographer: Optimist on the run. Creative Commons.

Soldiers from three legions of Britain (Legionaries) came north to build the Wall, with soldiers from the provincial army (Auxilliaries) and even sailors from the fleet to help. In the ‘overbright’ picture below from The Roman Army Museum, the Auxilliary soldier is the one with the oval-shaped shield:

Legionary and Auxilliary

It took them over ten years to complete. But on Hadrian’s death in AD 138, his wall was abandoned on the orders of the new emporer, Antoninus Pius, who ordered the building of a new wall almost 100 miles further north, acoss what is now known as the Central valley of Scotland. It stretched for 37 miles, from the Forth to the Clyde estuaries and, unsurprisingly, became known as the Antonine Wall. After 20 years, it was abandoned in favour of a return to Hadrian’s Wall.

Outside of the forts, civil settlements (vicus) became established, where the soldiers’ families lived. There were also shops and inns in these settlements, seeking to make a living from the soldiers, who were relatively well paid compared to the farmers of the frontier region. l’ll say more about these settlements in my next two posts.

Since the Roman withdrawal from Britain in AD 410, Hadrian’s Wall has gradually reduced in size due to local people plundering the stones, for a variety of purposes. Many churches, farms and field walls, as well as several castles contain stones originally found in the Wall. Plundering continued until the 19th century when archaeological excavations began and interest in the preservation of heritage sites took on an importance. The agricultural revolution of the 18th century also led to further destruction of the Wall as the land was cultivated. Today, although the actual Wall has disappeared in places, it survives in place-names such as Wallsend, Heddon-on-the-Wall and Walton – amongst several others.

I have visited most of the forts along the Wall, as well as The Roman Army Museum at Carvoran. There are several sites I really like, but intend to do posts only about a couple of them. Each site has something different to offer. To finish with, here’s a photo of a Roman Legionary we met at Birdoswald Roman Fort. He was very chatty and friendly and put on his special scowl just ‘for the camera’:

015 Bird Oswald Soldier (1)