Skip to 0 minutes and 13 seconds This is milecastle 37. The milecastles along Hadrian’s Wall are numbered from 1 to 80, east to west. So that means we’re now approximately 37 miles from the Wall’s start point at Wallsend Now a milecastle is a carefully adapted form of a Roman military fortification known as a fortlet. And these were installations where small groups of soldiers could be outposted in areas where there were concerns about security. As its name suggests, milecastles were positioned at approximately mile intervals along the curtain. But this attempt to impose a regular cordon on irregular terrain produced a number of absurdities. And it’s long been known that some milecastles were shifted from their measured location to avoid rivers or being built on split levels.
Skip to 1 minute and 2 seconds Milecastle 37 is a great example of that approach, because it lies 46 metres from its measured location to the east. And the reason for that is that the crags there are particularly precipitous. And it would be very difficult for the soldiers to move north of the milecastle. Here, passage to the north is possible on foot. But it does raise the question of why the milecastle wasn’t shifted just slightly further to the west where there is a pass on level ground. And David Woolliscroft has argued that the reason for this is because the milecastle needs to retain a signalling link to the south.
Skip to 1 minute and 39 seconds In this case, that would be to a relay station on Barcombe Hill, which would allow signals from here to be transmitted back to the fort at Vindolanda Now all of this talk about access raises a second of the important points about milecastles. They have north-south gateways in them. This is a point at which people could pass through the frontier line. And this is the point where whatever Hadrian’s Wall was for, the controls would be being imposed. For example, if it was intended to oversee civilian transit, this is where security checks would be undertaken. And it would be undertaken by a small group of soldiers garrisoned in this location.
Skip to 2 minutes and 18 seconds Now milecastles are also unusual, because they only have small amounts of its internal space used for barracks. And this is possibly because, once the decision was taken to add forts to the line of Hadrian’s Wall, the numbers of troops originally intended to be garrisoned here were dropped. Equally, if Hadrian’s Wall was a military barrier, then you would only expect military personnel to be coming through here. So these are key for understanding whatever controls were put in place on north-south’s transit and who can pass through Hadrian’s Wall.
Fortlets, gateways or signalling stations: what were 'milecastles'?
Why build fortlets?
As noted, the original plans for Hadrian’s frontier had milecastles every mile along the curtain wall and also, we believe, every mile along the Cumbrian coastal defences. Straddling the frontier line and equipped with opposing gates, it is very tempting to think of these structures as fortified gateways, controlling movement across the frontier – but what does close analysis of these buildings actually tell us? Was this really their role?
In this video, we join Dr Matthew Symonds, Visiting Lecturer at Newcastle University, as he takes us on a tour of the fortlet that specialists know as ‘Milecastle 37’ - one of the milecastles on Hadrian’s Wall. It is immediately west of the Housesteads Roman Fort (see the map from Step 1.1 - Look to the west between Housesteads and Vindolanda).
What Matthew tells us has considerable significance for our understanding not only of the Wall, but also of the degree of movement that the Romans permitted between the north and the south.
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