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24 September 2014

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You are in: Tyne > History > Local History > Hadrian's Wall Secrets

Rainbow at Hadrian's Wall. Photo: Stuart Elliott

The wall is 74 miles long

Hadrian's Wall Secrets

Almost 2,000 years after it was built, Hadrian's Wall is proving to be an incredible time capsule.

Constructed over a period of six or seven years from AD 122, Hadrian's Wall was an unprecedented monument in its time – and it is still an impressive structure today.

Measuring 74 miles (119km) in length, up to 15ft (5m) high and 10ft (3m) deep, the wall was a huge statement of power from the Emperor Hadrian to his subjects.

Hidden secrets

For 300 years the wall stood as the Roman Empire's most imposing frontier and one of the unsung wonders of the ancient world.

Though much of the land which surrounds the wall is now quiet, at the time of the Roman Empire there would have been a lot of human activity around the wall, and traces of this forgotten world still remain.

Lindsay Allason-Jones

Lindsay works at the Museum of Antiquities

Lindsay Allason-Jones, from the Museum of Antiquities at Newcastle University, took part in a special Timewatch programme in 2007 about the wall.

Something of an expert on the wall, she agreed to answer a few of our questions.

What was the wall for?

According to Hadrian’s biographer, Hadrian was "the first to build a wall, 80 miles long, to separate the Romans from the barbarians".

When Hadrian became emperor he assessed the situation he had inherited and decided the Empire had expanded too quickly and it was time to call a halt, clarify the frontiers of the Empire and rethink strategy. It was, however, always seen to be a temporary measure.

Who built it?

The work was carried out by members of the second, sixth and 20th legions. The "project manager" was the Governor of Britain, Aulus Platorius Nepos.

How many labourers worked on the wall? 

At the time of Hadrian each legion was about 5,000 strong giving a potential work force of 15,000. However, we don't know what proportion of each legion was actively engaged in the building work.

Hadrian's Wall. Image: English Heritage

Local materials were used to build it

Did they work 24/7 all year?

The Roman army didn't have the concept of a weekend off but they did have quite a number of sacred festivals when the soldiers had free time after the religious ceremonies were over. These occurred, on average, ten days apart.

As there was no immediate threat of enemy attack, and the idea of building the wall was more political than military, it is unlikely that the work was carried out non-stop.

How long did it take to complete?

If the army had stuck to the original plan the work would have been completed in three to five years but they kept changing their minds about size and whether or not to have forts.

The last fort, Carrawburgh, was completed between AD 130 and 133 and it is quite likely that work on the wall was still happening when Hadrian died in AD 138.

How was it built?

Evidence from Sewingshields suggests that surveyors first laid out a single line of stones to indicate where the wall should be built. Then the turrets and milecastles were started.

Work may have started at Newcastle and progressed westwards but this is open to debate.

Inscriptions called centurial stones have been found at regular intervals suggesting that each century was allocated a length of wall to build.

The wall was not built exactly the same way for its whole length – local conditions and new ideas had an effect.

The Vallum. Photo: Joan Thirlaway

Sycamore Gap on Hadrian's Wall

The core between the front and back stone facings could be of clay, soil and/or stones.

How high was the wall?

Evidence from Poltross Burn and from sections surviving east of Newcastle in the Middle Ages indicates the wall was between 12 and 15ft high (3.66-5m).

Where did the materials come from?

All the materials were sourced locally by the army. Roman quarries can be found all along the length of the wall. Lime was also found and prepared as close to the wall as possible.

Who lived in the forts?

Once the frontier was completed by the three legions they were withdrawn and auxiliary units brought in to garrison the Wall. These soldiers could come from anywhere in the Roman Empire and we have evidence of Spaniards, Syrians, Gauls, Germans, Hungarians and Africans being on the Wall at various times.

Also within the fort were the families and servants of the Commanding Officer and the families and servants of the centurions.

What was the Northumbrian climate like in AD 122?

No different than it is today. In the first millennium BC the climate had deteriorated but by the time of the building of Hadrian's Wall the climate had adjusted and was back to modern day temperatures and rainfall.

last updated: 06/03/2008 at 15:52
created: 16/01/2007

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