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Skip to 0 minutes and 10 seconds The timber building was surface-built, with large posts placed on stone post pads, on the surface.

Skip to 0 minutes and 20 seconds It was only discernible with great difficulty. On the other hand, the stone granaries beneath the timber building were up to a meter and a half in surviving height. They had 80 centimetre wide walls, buttressed on the south side. They had flagstone floors, raised on little sleeper walls and on pillars. There was no mistaking them. They were very, very substantial structures, indeed. I think the key to the function of the timber buildings is, actually, seeing them as a sequence from the reuse of the southern granary, with a different function, and seeing the timber buildings as the replacement of that reused granary.

Skip to 1 minute and 5 seconds So the granary building has, at one end of it, a hearth, around which are dropped high-quality objects– silver coin, a gold earring, and a glass ring. It suggests that around the hearth are sitting high-status individuals. And this, sort of, mirrors the situation in Anglo-Saxon– and north of Hadrian’s Wall– Celtic, high-status buildings, which accommodate a leading figure and his war band. Just because this is in a Roman fort doesn’t mean that this is also a valid interpretation. So we see the south granary as being used as a hall building. The very fact that we’re calling them “hall buildings” is giving them– is interpreting the use.

Skip to 1 minute and 58 seconds And we see the timber buildings– successive timber buildings– as the replacements– functional replacements– of that reused stone building, when it becomes invalid or unmaintainable. And I think the implication of this is that, when Roman supply stops coming in, when Roman coinage stops coming in, when, effectively, the army is thrown on its own resources, the military communities within the fort sort of morph into something that we wouldn’t recognise as a Roman unit, but we might recognise more as a war band, like the ones that exist among other communities, in the surrounding area. The supply from the local population would become not so much Roman taxation, but more part of payment, perhaps, for protection.

Skip to 2 minutes and 56 seconds And, as one war band among many, living in the same kind of cultural style, with the hall buildings, as the people at Birdoswald are– the descendants of Roman soldiers, they’re living in a Roman place; the memory of Rome would be strong. They would, perhaps, regard themselves as the literal and metaphorical standard-bearers of Rome, in the area, and might achieve some idea of status in the local population, because of it.

The timber halls of Birdoswald

Tony Wilmott led English Heritage’s excavations at the fort of Birdoswald in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The main focus of these excavations were on the granary buildings that served as the garrison warehouses for foods and other goods.

Tony’s interpretation of the sequence was that the fort of Birdoswald was never abandoned by the Roman frontier soldiers, the limitanei, that were stationed there. Rather, he argued that the frontier soldiers became warbands in the 5th century after it was recognised that Rome no longer ruled Britain.

This hypothesis, commonly referred to as the ‘Warband Model’, has been very influential, particularly as there is evidence for post-Roman activity at a number of other forts along Hadrian’s Wall, for example South Shields, Vindolanda, and Carlisle - refer back to the map from Step 1.1. Research may also suggest that the frontier army became increasingly regionalised in the later 4th century.

Not everyone agrees with this interpretation.

  • Could the 5th century inhabitants of the forts have been an entirely different group of people?

If your interest has been piqued, you can read more of Tony’s extraordinary detective work at Birdoswald. We have put the links in the “See Also” section below.

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Hadrian's Wall: Life on the Roman Frontier

Newcastle University

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