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Skip to 0 minutes and 8 seconds We know a great deal about the actual construction of the Wall. Archaeologists have pored over the details now for over a century. So we understand the broad order of construction. Although much work remains to be done. Initially, the Wall was built of both stone and turf. The stone section ran from the Tyne to the river, Irthing, and the turf, the section from the Irthing through to the Solway. Eventually, the entire length of the Wall was replaced in stone. So it should not surprise us to find evidence for tools as used by the original wall builders from various sites along the length of the Wall. We can see tools for turf cutting, for stone splitting.

Skip to 0 minutes and 53 seconds But we can also see the areas where those tools have been applied– quarry sites, for example. Or here, as at Limestone Corner, areas where the Roman engineers have tried to break open stone. But that’s not our only evidence for the process of wall construction. We also have the written testimonies of the builders themselves, a whole range of inscriptions left by working parties as they made their way along the Wall. We tend to call these centurial stones, because they are actually the testimony to working groups of centuries that have actually been divided up to complete the work. And overwhelmingly, they recall the work of legionary soldiers. But there are some interesting exceptions to this.

Skip to 1 minute and 36 seconds Some of the stones we found along the Wall actually refer to the names of British tribal groups, suggesting working levies that were brought up to perhaps patch the Wall at a later stage. And one very interesting inscription found not very far from where I’m standing now actually records an auxiliary unit working on ditch-cutting. Why did it make so much of that achievement? Because it was working through an area of fiercely resilient volcanic rock. It wasn’t until much later on that auxiliary units started to appear repeatedly on building inscriptions. And this was once the Wall was already established, and for the most part, the auxiliaries were involved in repairs to their own forts.

Who built the Wall?

It was one thing for an emperor to conceive of a Wall, quite another for it to be built. The construction of Hadrian’s Wall was a colossal undertaking. Who undertook it?

Fortunately for us Roman culture placed no premium on modesty. Achievements in the Roman World, whether in public office, or in construction, were to be acclaimed and commemorated publicly. And there is a lot of evidence for the individuals who built the Wall. As you might expect, most of those attested are soldiers. We will discuss Rome’s army in Britain extensively next week, but for the moment, note that there is a striking pattern to the evidence. Inscriptions where a unit can be identified refer to units that consisted only of citizen soldiers – the legions. Three legions are known to have helped build the Wall, Legio VI Victrix (which arrived in Britain c. AD 122, just in time to start work on the Wall), Legio XX Valeria Victrix and Legio II Augusta.

By contrast the non-citizen units of the army, the auxiliaries, are very rarely recorded explicitly on inscriptions recording the initial building of the Wall. Indeed, the only inscription we have recording the work of an auxiliary unit at this time records not the building of the Wall, but the cutting of a ditch. Why? It is often assumed that this is because the legions were the only units with engineering specialists in their ranks, but other factors were probably at work. During later rebuilding work even labourers sent from southern towns are documented building stretches of Wall. Later we do in fact see auxiliaries undertaking building projects on the Wall, including the internal buildings of far greater structural complexity than the curtain walls and turrets the legionaries had once so proudly built.

In this video we see something of the challenges of Wall building and some of the inscriptions that record the builders themselves.

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Hadrian's Wall: Life on the Roman Frontier

Newcastle University

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