With a fraction of the Wall has been

With reference to the sites and
museums visited on the fieldtrips and wider reading related to the lectures,
discuss how archaeologists have interpreted the role of Hadrian’s Wall.



Wall was constructed around AD 122 and marked the northern boundary of the
Roman Empire in Britain (Hingley, 2012: 1). Only a fraction of the Wall has
been excavated, yet the material found has made a substantial contribution to
the understanding of the role of the Wall. The role of the Wall must be
interpreted in the context of its environment and surroundings, including the
Stanegate, forts and civilian settlements (vici), and the features associated
with the wall itself, such as the Vallum and watchtowers. No account of an
exact explanation for the construction of the wall survives, although several
theories of its role have been suggested, including to keep native people north
of the wall at bay, limiting immigration and regulating trade, or simply as an
expression of Hadrian’s imperial power (Everrit, 2009; Breeze, 2006).  Over time, the views of archaeologists have changed
as more evidence has been uncovered and with the development of new techniques
such as aerial photography and geophysical survey (Huntley, Gates &
Stallibrass, 2009: 111). As highlighted by Symonds and Mason (2009: xiv), evidence
has been collected over a “long period, under varying circumstances, using
various methodologies, and by individuals with differing priorities and
preconceptions, the nature and quality of the evidence is inconsistent but all
of it is of value”.


Collingwood Bruce (1863: page) gave one of the first modern statements
regarding the function of Hadrian’s Wall, describing it as “a great
fortification intended to act not only as a fence against a northern enemy, but
to be used as the basis of military operations against a foe on either side of
it”. It is possible that the Wall was used as a defensive barrier, although
its military effectiveness has been questioned (Hingley, 2012: 29-30). After
the Roman conquest under Emperor Claudius in AD 43, uprisings were common
across Britain, such as the revolt of Boudicca in AD 60/61 and the Battle of
Mons Graupius (Creighton, 2000). Consequently, the Wall may have been
constructed to defend the Roman province, mainly from the Caledonians to the
north (Collingwood, 1923: 30-2). Structural analysis has shown that the Wall
fortifications were strong enough to withstand a small attack (Everitt, 2009).
Cavalry was also attested to many forts along the Wall. Excavations at Chesters
have uncovered stables and barracks, estimated to have been home to five-hundred
men and their horses (Graham, 1979). Additionally, Collingwood suggested that the
Wall acted as “an elevated sentry-walk” allowing soldiers to patrol the top of
the Wall (Collingwood, 1921: 6). Everitt (2009: 223) notes that the Stanegate
could have “enabled the rapid arrival of enforcements”, allowing the Wall to
act as a base from which to attack if needed. The Vallum may have provided
additional defence, although no definite conclusion of its role has been
reached. A diagram of the structure of the Vallum and other features of the
Wall are shown in Figure 1. The Vallum is a steep, flat-bottomed ditch to the
south of the Wall, approximately 6 metres wide and 3 metres deep, with two
mounds on each side (Wilmott, 2009: 51). Although this deep ditch could have
hindered an attack, Wilmott (2009: 53) notes that the course and layout of the
Vallum ignores “useful natural defensive features” such as marshes. Moreover,
aerial photography has been used to analyse the Wall’s location within the
landscape, showing it may not have been placed in the optimal position for
defence and it is unlikely that it would have been able to defend against a
large-scale attack (Everitt, 2009). Furthermore, Everitt (2009) questions the
economic benefit of the Wall, suggesting that it was unlikely to have been
“economically viable to construct and guard a wall” stretching for 120
kilometres along a “sparsely populated border”. Therefore, the Wall may have strengthened the defences of the
northern Roman Empire and this may have been a motive for its construction, but
military defence is unlikely to have been its principal role.