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The final frontier

The transition from late Roman to a post Roman Wall
In this step, we’re going to consider the end of Hadrian’s Wall. What is happening, in the early fifth century– when the Roman control– the Roman government of Britain– is coming to a formal end? Now, I’m standing, here, in one of the granaries at Vindolanda. The site of Vindolanda has produced a number of examples– many buildings– that show activity in the later fourth and fifth– and maybe even the sixth– centuries. Now, these buildings– these archaeological remains– help us understand the transition from late Roman to post-Roman.
The granaries, here, at Vindolanda, tell an interesting story. This granary, here, to my left, is a good example of a typical granary of the third century. You can see dwarf walls, with floor tiles– floor slabs– on top of them, for storing goods– foodstuffs and other sort of goods. However, in the fifth century, this one changes. What we see is a raised floor. There’s a dividing wall put across the centre. And we’re not entirely sure that this is even a storage building, in fifth century. So what we’re seeing, really, is the demolition of two granaries– two storage buildings– and changed used, possibly, for something else.
This is the principia– the headquarters building, at the heart of every Roman fort along Hadrian’s Wall. In the late fourth and early fifth centuries, we see further changes, here. For example, we see some rooms being used almost as small granaries, with new raised floors put in. We see the insertion of new walls, breaking up formerly large spaces into smaller, individual units.
This is the cross hall of the principia– an assembly room, where soldiers would assemble to hear orders and other, kind of, official activities– where many soldiers were needed. But we see changes in this part of the building, too. These rooms, at the back, would have been offices. But in the late period, what we see is evidence for occupation. People are living in these small spaces. Here, in the centre, would be the shrine of standards– the sacred heart of the entire fort. But we have a hearth inserted– a hearth so large that you could roast an ox on it.
And what this suggests to us, with this sort of size hearth, is that there’s feasting in the space– that this cross hall is not just about assembly for soldiers, anymore. It’s actually about assembly for feasting– for other social functions. And this building, itself, is no longer just a pristine headquarters building, but actually a beating heart of the social life, as well as the official life, of the fort.
This is the commanding officer’s house, or the praetorium, where the commanding officer, his family, and his household would live. It’s a fairly standard arrangement that we’ll find in any fort along the Wall. We have four wings, arranged around a central courtyard. Again, in the final phases of occupation, we see some very important changes, here. In the north wing, we have a bath suite that’s inserted– probably replacing the baths that are outside the fort walls. We see some changes in other ranges. The high-status domestic occupation continues, but we see some abandonment of rooms, over here.
But most importantly, we see a new room– a new building– built off the corridor– off the hallway– this structure, here, ending with an apse, which we believe to be a church. And this seems to be religious focus for Christian worship, in the late fourth and fifth centuries. It makes a very intriguing possibility of the commanding officer giving up his house and his residence to the Christian community– to the worshiping community.
Now, it’s the changes, here, in this building, along with the principia and the granaries– not only at Vindolanda, but at other forts along the wall– that are very important for how we understand the end of Hadrian’s Wall– and the end of Roman Britain– and make us think about whether or not Roman soldiers were withdrawn, or if some continued occupation– a new type of community– is continuing past the end of Roman Britain.
Hadrian’s Wall ceased to be an official Roman frontier once Britain was no longer part of the Roman Empire.
However, that does not mean that Hadrian’s Wall was simply abandoned, does it?
Looking at evidence from Vindolanda, it becomes clear that there were changes in the archaeology, and therefore the lifestyle of the latest military garrisons in the late 4th and early 5th centuries, with evidence suggesting that Roman forts along the Wall continued to be occupied after the formal end of Roman Britain.
If you are interested in exploring this area further, a more thorough exploration of the end of the Roman frontier can be read in Rob Collins’s book Hadrian’s Wall and the End of Empire New York: Routledge (2012: Hardback; 2014: Softback)
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Hadrian's Wall: Life on the Roman Frontier

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