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How learners are helping shape our courses about Hadrian’s Wall

Ian Haynes, Professor of Archaeology at Newcastle University, is lead educator on the free online course, “Hadrian’s Wall: Life on the Roman Frontier”. In this post, he reflects on the rewards and challenges of working on a FutureLearn course, and updating the content for new runs as exciting discoveries are made. 

Hadrian's Wall free online course image
Hadrian’s Wall (Copyright Newcastle University)

With so much work going on at Hadrian’s Wall, running a FutureLearn course quickly becomes an enjoyable challenge. What evolving themes should we focus on? How do we adapt and transform earlier runs of the course? In addressing these questions I have become acutely conscious of the enthusiasm of our participants for certain key themes.  We had always hoped, for example, that our forensic challenges (case studies in forensic archaeology) in “Hadrian’s Wall: Life on the Roman Frontier” would fascinate  – but I never anticipated that their reception would help push new research forward.

Yet this is exactly what has happened.

Forensic challenges lead to astonishing results

Our sharp-eyed learners pointed out how to apply some of the new methodologies we featured in our forensic challenges, to one of the most macabre discoveries unearthed on the Wall: the remains of two individuals hacked to death. In week 6 of the previous run of this free online course we looked at these remains found at Arbeia Roman Fort in South Shields, which were buried in the courtyard of what had been the finest dwelling in the settlement.

So we dusted off that particular case. Working with our friends at Tyne & Wear Archives and Museums and the excellent Dr Eleanor Graham of Northumbria University’s Centre for Forensic Science, we returned to the scene. We launched a programme of DNA analysis to see what we could learn of the identities of the two individuals buried in the Roman Fort. We will have the results through just in time for our new run of the course (starting 2 November).

One thing led to another, and in a related exchange with Eleanor she revealed that new DNA results from another sinister Hadrian’s Wall burial have come up with what for me were astonishing results.  I cannot write more here now, these results need to be reviewed alongside other findings – but I have to confess my jaw dropped when I read them.

New discoveries at a Roman temple complex

The forensic challenges are just one of a number of areas where work has been pushed forward ever since the previous run of “Hadrian’s Wall” ended a few weeks ago. My colleagues and I have been active in the field and there is much to report.  To give but one example, our five-year excavations at the Roman temple complex at Maryport in Cumbria in the north west of the UK, have now come to an end. (Very many thanks to all FutureLearn veterans who took the time to come and introduce themselves during this summer’s season.)

As is always the way, the site saved some of its most dramatic revelations until the very last days. We will present a full update during the next run of the course, so sign up now to find out more. We will explain why our work at Maryport may force us to look again at some of our most cherished preconceptions of how the Romans worshipped the most powerful of their gods, Jupiter.

So there is a lot to look forward to this November, but more than anything, I am really eagerly anticipating another stimulating opportunity to exchange ideas with our fantastic community of online students.

If you’d like to explore the archaeology of the most heavily fortified frontier in the Roman Empire, and fascinating new finds, join the online course “Hadrian’s Wall: Life on the Roman Frontier” now. 

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