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The ultimate barrier? Hadrian’s famous curtain wall

The different elements of the Wall explained;curtain Wall, Milecastle, Turrets, Forts, Vallum
So here we are at the east end of the wall at Wallsend And it’s a rather different place to what most people imagine when they think of a visit to the Wall. But it’s in fact here that some of the most exciting discoveries about how the wall system worked have been made in recent years. Now, when we talk about Hadrian’s Wall, people tend to use the term in two ways. One of them is to talk about a complex system, an essential part of a deeper Roman frontier, full of towers, turrets, and forts, and the other is more specifically of the curtain wall, a rare feature, in fact, of Roman frontier defences.
As I mentioned earlier, some of the most important recent discoveries have actually come from the eastern end of the Wall. And the reason for this is because this area is much more built-up So there are a lot more instances where it’s actually necessary for archaeologists to investigate in advance of modern development work, whether it’s laying a new cable or work on a new housing area. And as a result, we’ve had an opportunity to look afresh at the Wall. Now early explorers of the Wall tended to follow the Wall itself. And relatively little work was done actually immediately to the north of it.
But in the eastern part of Hadrian’s Wall, there have been opportunities to look to the north of the curtain wall line. And they’ve revealed some quite unexpected features. Because beyond the Wall, there was a ditch. That was known about for a long time. But between the two there was a berm, a level area of even ground. And it’s here these startling discoveries have been made, a series of post pits. The posts, long since rotting away, what did they look like? Well, to help visitors understand the important relationship between the Wall and these pits. Here at Wallsend you can see there are a series of timber posts, placed to give you a sense of the location and configuration of these.
What role did they serve? The excavators and most specialists are in agreement that this provides another form of obstacle– a wall, a series of timber obstructions, and a ditch beyond. Other observers have suggested perhaps a different interpretation. Are these some kind of temporary obstacle established while the Wall was being constructed? In the future, we hope that further investigations north of the curtain wall will allow us to better understand the mysterious post holes that actually lie on the berm. But for the moment, what we can say is they certainly enhance the Wall’s reputation as the empire’s most heavily defended frontier line.
The curtain wall, the most famous and instantly recognisable part of Hadrian’s frontier system, has fascinated visitors to northern England for generations.
It certainly looks as though it could present a formidable obstacle, but recent excavations have raised important questions as to just what its purpose really was. Large and imposing it may have been, but could such a wall really have stopped a determined army, or even a small group of fast moving raiders? Excavations at the eastern end of Hadrian’s Wall, at the aptly named Wallsend, have revealed more of the original wall, but also mysterious features on the berm, the strip of ground that lies between the wall and the ditch that ran along its northern side. How should these be interpreted? In this evidence we look at the Wall at Wallsend as it appears in both its surviving state and as a full scale model.
Any attempt to understand the role of the curtain wall must, of course, take into account the structures attached to it -the turrets, milecastles and forts which we will discuss in our next steps- but the question of linear barriers also touches on another unique feature of Hadrian’s Wall, the remarkable earthwork that runs immediately to its south known as the Vallum.
We encountered this distinctive feature in Step 1.6 ‘What was the Wall?’. With its deep ditch, paralleled to the north and south by earthen banks, the Vallum must have been a major barrier in its own right. It was built within a few years of the Wall, blocking almost all access to the Wall from the south, and then slighted (cut through) when the army moved into Scotland. What does its shape, location and history suggest about Roman thinking on movement and control on the Tyne-Solway line?
For a magnificent technical guide to the Wall we recommend Breeze, D. J., 2006 (ed.) J. Collingwood Bruce’s Handbook to the Roman Wall, now out of print but some copies still available directly from the Society of Antiquaries of Newcastle Upon Tyne: Newcastle Upon Tyne
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Hadrian's Wall: Life on the Roman Frontier

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